The westward push of the railroad as the Civil War ended gave birth to many Nebraska communities, among them Kearney Junction. The name Kearney Junction was selected for several reasons. The “Junction” stemmed from the fact that the town was where the Burlington and Missouri made its junction with the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad. The word “Kearney” was taken from Fort Kearny. The fort was named after Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny. Established in 1848, Fort Kearny offered protection to thousands of pioneers, Pony Express riders, and prospectors traveling west on the Oregon Trail. According to an 1849 War Department report, over 30,000 people bound for California, Oregon, and Utah passed through Fort Kearny during an 18-month period following the Gold Rush of 1849. Originally built near Nebraska City, the fort was later relocated to its present site to increase military strength in Central Nebraska. Fort Kearny was the first U.S. Army Post on the Oregon Trail and was never attacked by Indians.
Observant readers are quick to point out the spelling differences between the fort and the town. The extra “e” in Kearney is not difficult to explain. Someone in the post office simply made a spelling error and by the time it was realized, no one felt a change was necessary. The town site was surveyed in the summer of 1871 by Anselmo B. Smith, and the plat was filed with the county clerk on October 27, 1871.
Settlement began in the summer of 1871 when Reverend and Mrs. Collins entered a homestead claim. The couple lived in a dwelling called Junction House. This house was the place of the first post office, the first school district, the first marriage ceremony, and the first church service. Following construction of Junction House in 1871, Kearney Junction began to grow rapidly. Kearney was incorporated on December 3, 1873. By 1873 a census report showed 245 residents, and reports indicate there were more than 20 buildings. In the 1880’s the community was riding the crest of a boom, which swelled the population past 10,000. Optimistic residents of Kearney sought to have the nation’s capital located here; others raised a quarter million dollars to finance a huge cotton mill. The county courthouse was moved from Gibbon to Kearney in 1874.
In the 1880’s Kearney’s bubble burst. The mill closed, real estate values collapsed and the population drifted away. In 1890 only 5,634 residents remained in the city. In 1902 the state legislature approved $50,000 to start a college. Kearney was successful in acquiring the college, and in 1904 the cornerstone was laid for what is now the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Classes also began in 1904 with 96 students forming the first class.
In the new century, Kearney’s growth was steady but was less dramatic than before. By 1930 the population was 8,575. In 1964 Kearney was linked with Interstate 80, which created a boom in tourist trade causing construction of motels and restaurants to increase. A striking feature about Kearney is that it is located halfway between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Kearney is often referred to as the “Midway City”.