Editors Note:
This is the fifth in a periodic series on energy events in Nebraska.

State's Oldest Hydropower Plant Was A Manufacturing Magnet

An 1892 brochure with 100 pictures heralded the advantages of businesses relocating to "the midway city of the continent, the electric city of the West."

Residents of the town envisioned their city becoming the Minneapolis of the Plains. In just ten years from 1880 to 1890 the town's population had grown from 1,800 to more than 8,000. Twenty-five different manufacturing industries had already put down roots flour and oat mills, cracker factory, packinghouse, cannery, brick works, machine shops, foundry, iron works and others. But the crowning jewel was the cotton mill, the second largest industrial structure in the state.

A cotton mill in Nebraska?

Yes, Kearney residents worked hard to make their industrial empire a reality. The key to attracting the manufacturing firms was waterpower and hydroelectric power made possible by the Kearney Canal, a 24-mile channel of water diverted from the Platte River. An estimated 400 home weatherization professionals are expected to attend a regional training conference in Omaha August 24-27.

Decades of Dreams

As early as 1873, locals dreamed of providing irrigation to farms in the Platte Valley. W. W. Patterson took that idea and improved on it. Patterson hoped to construct a canal from the Platte River to a reservoir above the city. The canal would provide irrigation and the reservoir would generate waterpower.

In 1882, Kearney Canal and Water Supply began construction of the canal, but work was halted by lack of funds. George Frank of Corning, Iowa, bought the company and completed the project in 1886.

Around 1887, using waterpower to produce electricity was considered. By April 1888, the Canal Company completed construction of the power plant and electricity began flowing to the city and its vibrant industries.

Cotton Comes, But It's Not Cheap

It was the Canal Company's next owner, H. D. Watson of Greenfield, Massachusetts, who began luring eastern manufacturers to Kearney. Among the manufacturers were the five Cumnock brothers, known as the "Cotton Kings."

Erecting a cotton mill came at a steep price for the city. The Cumnocks wanted a subsidy of $250,000, exemption from city taxes for ten years and free waterpower for five years, with a guaranteed waterpower rate thereafter. It was illegal for the city to grant the tax exemption, but the other conditions were met. While the cotton mill reportedly cost $400,000 to build, it probably was closer to $250,000. In essence, the Cumnocks got a new mill free-of-charge, although, obsolete machinery from an eastern mill was put in the Nebraska mill.

By September 1892, the mill was in operation and its first shipment of 76,000 yards of sheeting was shortly on its way to Iowa, Kansas and Missouri. With a daily capacity of 26,000 yards of unbleached muslin, annual output was valued at $3.4 million.

Kearney's electric plant grew to the point that it generated 2,725 horsepower from a collection of turbines and engines. Electricity use was gradually moving beyond just powering industry. Sixty-eight miles of electric lines spread through the city and more than 3,000 lights were in use. The Kearney Street Railway cars were converted to electricity and operated over a 5.5 mile route.

Boom to Bust

Almost as soon as the cotton mill began operations, Kearney's economic boom lost its steam and the nationwide depression of 1893 put an end to the city's manufacturing dreams. All the fledgling industries, except the cotton mill, vanished as rapidly as they had sprung up. By 1900, Kearney's population shrank as well, losing 2,400 people.

The cotton mill operated until 1901, but it sustained tremendous economic losses. A number of factors made it unprofitable the cotton was imported from Texas, coal was needed most of the year because the canal and reservoir froze, and sales of cotton goods were less than robust because of the lack of population. But these factors did not cause the mill's demise. Much like the Nebraska of today, it was a shortage of labor. Because few Nebraskans wanted to work in confining manufacturing plants, the mill imported all of its laborers.

By 1902, Kearney's industries were gone, but electricity had become part of the lives of the residents.

From 1898 to 1919, the canal and power company was sold four times with owners stretching from Kearney to Missouri. The advent of public power brought stabilization and continuity of ownership. In the 1930s, Consumers Public Power District bought the canal company. Today, we know the former Consumers as Nebraska Public Power District.

Frozen in Time

Kearney's hydropower facility is believed to be the oldest in the state. Today, it has just one generator - dating from 1920 - with a capacity of 1,490 kilowatts of electricity. In 1987, citizens, and civic, university and utility concerns began efforts to preserve the Kearney hydropower plant. Renamed the Spillway Park and Museum, preservation was planned in three phases. The first phase, restoration fo the hydro plant and planting trees and shrubs was completed in 1997. The second phase calls for construction of two new bridges to enhance the scenic walkways of the grounds. The final phase includes restoring of the power plant building and converting it to a museum.