Early Nebraskans were a contentious lot! Fist fights in the legislature were a common occurrence. The biggest bone of contention was the location of the Nebraska State Capital. When Nebraska was named a Territory in 1854, the capital was located in Omaha, north of the Platte River, where Republicans ruled. But when Nebraska became a state in 1867, Democrats from south of the Platte elected one of their own as governor and they held a majority in both houses. Their day had finally come. They wanted the capital located south of the Platte; and, by damn, they weren’t above indulging in some subterfuge and danger to get it there.
At midnight on a Sunday night in December, 1868, J.T. Beach of Lincoln sneaked into Omaha with a covered wagon and a two-horse team. Mr. Carr with a four-horse team accompanied him. They’d been secretly hired by John Gillespie, the State Auditor, to steal the Nebraska State Law Library, with its furniture, desks, and books, and take it all south of the Platte. For where the Law Library was located, there the capital was. The two men loaded their wagons in the dead of night. By 4:00 a.m., they were on the road, and snow began to fall. “Miles of ground had been covered before the people of Omaha awoke.”
That Monday morning, they had to cross the river on the Kimble Brothers Ferry just above Plattsmouth, but the pulley was broken! Beach later swore that the Kimball brothers were in sympathy with the northern faction — that they broke the pulley on purpose to delay the movers and hike the fare. But help arrived! A local “desperado,” Tom Keller, chanced on the scene. He may have been a ne’er-do-well, but he was sympathetic to the South Platters and helped repair the pulley.
The intrepid travelers crossed the river in a blinding snowstorm “with much inconvenience and considerable danger.” The river was two feet deep and filled with ice. A huge chunk of ice drove the ferry onto a sandbar, but somehow, it struggled across.
Once on land again, the thieves continued until nightfall, when they approached Stove Creek near Greenwood. The only shelter they could see was a settler’s dugout on the open prairie. When they knocked on the door, the ornery settler wouldn’t let them in, so they decided to pass the freezing night in his haystack. This, of course, didn’t work; so they later knocked again and begged to come inside. They were finally allowed to sleep on the floor of the dugout.
The next day, the duo carried on. By Wednesday night, they finally reached Lincoln. However, it was three days before the Omahans discovered that the library had been removed. The Lincoln Journal Star tells how John R. Meredith, a prominent Omaha churchman, wandered into Gillespie’s office in Omaha and asked innocently, “Hmmm, where has the library gone?”
“To Lincoln,” replied Gillespie.
“Who sent it?” demanded Meredith.
“I sent it,” Gillespie calmly replied.
Meredith stormed out and returned with Gen. S.A. Strickland, who shouted, “By the eternals, that library is coming back here and it’s coming right away!”
The blustering didn’t work. The deed was done. The Nebraska State Library had been effectively removed, and Nebraska’s capital was now located in Lincoln.