As you top the hill leading down to the bridge, you won’t want to miss the panoramic view spread out before you of the Niobrara River and, in the distance, the town of Valentine, “Heart City” of Nebraska, with its scenic backdrop of cliffs and pine trees along the Minnechaduza.
Take a moment and when you see the sign “Historical Bridge” make the turn and you will see another picturesque view of the Niobrara River as it wends its way under the historic cantilevered Bryan Bridge. Look to your right and you will see one of the highest railroad bridges in the nation.
Continue on and you will see a town that is a far cry from the one room log house sitting on the tableland between the Niobrara and the Minnechaduza in the late 1880’s. Beginning as an “end of track” town on the Sioux City and Pacific railroad line in 1883, it was incorporated as a village in 1884.
Due to the erroneous reports of Stephen Long and Zebulon Pike, among others, who described the area as uninhabitable due to the lack of trees and vegetation, the area known as the Sandhills was very sparse in population until the coming of the railroad.
Intrepid ranchers such as Newman, McCann and Creighton, who supplied beef for the Government issue to the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations, lived in the area during the 1870’s. Outlaws also roamed the countryside. Doc Middleton, being the most well-known, had a hide-out called the Rustler’s Roost southwest of present day Valentine.
Native Americans from the Sioux and Pawnee tribes knew the value of the Sandhills and often left the Reservation to hunt antelope, deer, and the few remaining buffalo. They also summered their horse herds on the lush grasses of the valleys. This resulted in clashes with the ranchers and cowboys. On May 5, 1879, one James Williamson was shot and killed while rounding up horses on the McCann ranch.
One of the ranchers traveled to Fort Hartsuff on the North Loup River and petitioned the commander of the Fort for protection from the Indian raids.
Eventually, Washington, after seeing the necessity of protecting the Indians from white settlers encroaching on their reservation and trying to get to the Black Hills to mine for gold, and to protect the white man from the Indians, decided a Fort was needed on the Niobrara River.
A spot was chosen about four miles east of present day Valentine, across the river on a high plateau. The site selected by General George Crook met the approval of General William Sherman and funds were approved in the amount of $50,000 for the construction of the new post.
Construction was begun in 1880 and was garrisoned by troops of the Calvary and Infantry. Many civilian workers were also required, and they along with the soldiers lived in tents until some of the buildings were completed.
When the Sioux City and Pacific Railway Line reached the military reservation in 1883, after having to cut through a big sand hill to reach the Niobrara and then building a bridge, people who were attracted by the advertisements of the railroad for settlers soon began to come in and take up land, building most of their homes of sod.
A land office, the Valentine Reporter Newspaper, boarding houses, grocery and dry goods stores and, of course, saloons, soon sprang up. Ft. Niobrara was a source of revenue for the town with a payroll of $170,000 annually. Also, the settlers found a ready market for their produce, meat, grain, and dairy products.
The town continued to grow, although some of the settlers gave up their claims and returned home or traveled on further west, due to not being able to raise crops in the sandy soil. It was known even in the 1870’s that the land was good only for grazing cattle. But the newspaper and the railroad continued advertising for settlers to come and take up this “land of plenty”, a virtual “garden of Eden”. (Valentine Reporter, January 17, 1884)
The first church was built on the corner of 4th and Main and was used by all denominations. It later became St. John’s Episcopal. A noted chaplain from the Fort, Rev. John Vaughan Lewis, D. D. was one of the first instigators in getting the church started along with the businessmen of Valentine, one of whom, C. H. Cornell, donated the land for the church.
Reverend Lewis had been the minister for several years in Washington, D. C. at the “Church of the Presidents” and in New York at the “Little Church Around the Corner”. He traveled to the Rosebud Reservation and received donations from influential Dakota families, also to Omaha, Washington, D. C., and New York and received substantial donations every place he went. His sojourn in Nebraska was a sad one because of losing a daughter to illness, and then his son who was a teacher on the Pine Ridge Reservation lost his life during the Ghost Dance hysteria.
A. G. Shaw built the church from native stone quarried from the canyons of the Minnechaduza. A. G. was a very colorful character who came to Valentine and opened first a store and then a photography studio. (Many of his pictures of early Valentine are stored at the Cherry County Historical Society Museum, and can be seen on the Internet.) (see bibliography). He was a Calvary officer who saw service in the Civil War. He then became a frontiersman and had many experiences during the settling of the Sioux tribe on the reservation. He also was a sharpshooter in the Pawnee Bill Wild West Show.
Many names are associated with the building of Valentine, C. H. Cornell who had a building shipped in for the first courthouse and his son H. C. Cornell built a hydroelectric plant. The Sparks Bros. had a store and built a bank. The Stetter’s, one of the first families, to take up a claim, later became involved in the running of a butcher shop and a saloon. John Stetter’s daughter Leta Stetter Hollingsworth became a nationally known child psychologist.
Dr. Alfred Lewis was the town’s first doctor and was also a mover and shaker trying to help the progress of the town. Davenport and Thatcher were merchants, Thatcher having been a sutler at the Fort and also owned a store at the town about seven miles southeast of Valentine which carried his name. The town since has disappeared, but it had many stories of shootings, etc., the same as all frontier towns.
School was held at first in whatever building someone would lend for the purpose until the first brick building was erected at 3rd and Macomb, for a high school. Later it became a grade school when another school was erected to the north on the same block. The building now houses a museum called Centennial Hall.
Roads for the most part were well rutted wagon tracks, settlers had to maintain them as there was very little money in the treasury for the huge Sioux Territory which is what this part of Nebraska was known as when Valentine came into being. Later, when the county was divided up into smaller portions it was decided to name the new county ‘Cherry’ for Lieutenant Samuel Cherry, a well liked young soldier from the Fort. Cherry was murdered by a drunken soldier while out chasing renegades who had held up a notorious saloon located near the Fort.