Traveling along the Yellowstone National Park Highway, HWY 26, in western Nebraska travelers pass through many small plains towns that are very rich in history. Some of which has been instrumental in the formation of the country as well as the state. Unfortunately over the years much of this history has been lost or forgotten.
One of these small towns is Lewellen in Garden County. Encompassing a total area of 0.37 square miles of land and as of 2011 the population was 226 residents. This small village that lies in the valley of the North Platte River was a popular resting spot for settles along both the Oregon and Mormon Trails and for gold prospectors heading to California. Early settlers were attracted to the Lewellen area because of the lush grasslands, the open ranges and the abundance of water.
The first settler to the area was Samuel P. Delatour who arrived in 1884 and established a ranch on Blue Creek. Soon after, others began to follow and in 1886 Frank Lewellen built a small store and a post office using lumber from a raft that was used to carry immigrants across the river. Shortly thereafter the post office in Ogallala began shipping mail and supplies. Soon, more settlers began arriving so a bridge was built in 1891 that gave settlers easier access to the nearest railroad in Big Springs.
J.C. McCoy heard rumors that Union Pacific Railroad was coming to Lewellen so he purchased a bunch of land and platted the actual town, making a wide main street from north to south that intersected the old trail and ended at the station platform. When the first train arrived in 1907, McCoy’s Hotel was ready and easily accessible to weary travelers.
Today the Village of Lewellen is still a stop for travelers descending into the North Platte Valley. With restaurants, convenience stores, the Gander Inn Motel-Bed and Breakfast, a winery, art gallery and many other thriving businesses it is possible to stop to refuel both your vehicle and yourself. A slow drive up and down the combination of gravel and paved roads, it is easy to imagine this inviting and quiet village in the past.
Take a walk along Main Street and imagine the dusty gravel roads busy with travelers, settlers, wagons and livestock. Close your eyes for a moment and inhale the smell of thousands of cattle, sheep and hogs that were shipped out from the livestock market every year. Listen to the sounds; hear the whistle and rumble of a train pulling out of the station. See the thousands of grain wagons lined up along Main Street waiting their turn to unload wheat and corn at the elevator. This village with its low population is still very much alive with the many footsteps that have passed through searching for a better life.
Heading about two and a half miles west along HWY 26 you will come to Ash Hollow State Historical Park. Pioneers heading northwest from the Lower California Crossing of the South Platte River faced a steep descent into the North Platte Valley. The hollow entering Windlass Hill was named for the growth of ash trees and was a good place to rest because of the abundance of water, wood and grass. Today the route still bears deep rut scars from the countless wagons that made the descent creating a ravine. At the bottom of the hill sits a reconstruction of an old trappers sod house that served as an unofficial post office where letters were left for travelers heading east to carry. Visitors can follow a paved walking path to the top of the hill and gaze down into the hollow.
Ash Hollow State Historical Park is 1,000 plus acres featuring camping, hiking trails, picnicking and a century old stone schoolhouse. A trail leads from the modern visitors’ center to a cave that was once inhabited by American Indians and many fossils and relics of prehistoric tribes were discovered. The visitor’s center showcases the geologic and paleontological finds and explains the prehistoric history of the area, the military battle that occurred with the Lakota Sioux Indians in 1855, the fur trappers and the pioneers. More than 30 million years of geologic history can be examined at the park.
The park grounds are open year round to visitors from 8 a.m. to sunset and the visitors center is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day. A state park entry fee of $2.00 (13 and up) and $1.00 (3-13) is required to access the visitor center (308) 778-5651. Every Friday and Saturday of Father’s Day weekend each year the park hosts the Ash Hollow Pageant, an outdoor performance using historical diaries and music giving visitors the chance to experience what life was like for the settlers traveling along the Oregon Trail.
Between Lewellen and Ash Hollow State Historical Park along HWY 26 sits Ash Hollow Cemetery. One of the very few marked graves of those who died along the trail belongs to 18-year-old Rachel Pattison who died of cholera in 1849. Just a short drive north of here is the Clear Creek Wildlife Refuge. An 889 acre habitat home to many species of deer, turkey, squirrel, grouse and dove.
Within approximately the five miles from the eastern side of Lewellen to the farthest western side of Ash Hollow State Historical Park along HWY 26 one literally travels back centuries in time. All we have to do is stop along the way to learn and experience the history.
An affordable camping stop just 13 miles west of Lewellen on HWY 26 is the Oregon Trail Campsite RV Park and Camping located at 402 West Avenue “A”., Oshkosh, NE 69154. They offer both RV and tent sites and have water, electric and some spaces with phone service. They can be reached at (308) 778-7395.