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Grand Island History

Named for an Island on the River

Grand Island came from the French La Grande Ile, referring to a large island in the Platte River. The island was formed by a narrow channel branching off the Platte River approximately 28 miles upstream from the present city of Grand Island and rejoining the main river about 12 miles downstream from the city.

Fur traders probably discovered the island in the late 1700s. The island appears on a French map published in 1821 and on American maps published in 1822 and 1825. Both the Long and Fremont expeditions of 1820 and 1842 took note of the size of the Island, which ranged from 40 to 70 miles in length and 1 1/2 to 3 miles wide. Westbound travelers of the 1820s often mentioned the island as the most conspicuous feature of the Central Platte Valley. Pioneers heading West on the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails also note the Platte River and its Grand Island in their journals. A marker located in Stolley Park commemorates La Grande Ile.

The first settlers to Hall County arrived in 1857 when three Iowa-based businessmen saw the economic potential of a town near the Platte River's Grand Island. They speculated the railroad would soon follow. The venture went bankrupt, but the 37 German settlers hired to start Grand Island City stayed. The majority of these original settlers were from the area of the German-Danish border, Schleswig-Holstein. Today Grand Island is a Sister-City to Bad Segeberg located in this same area of Northern Germany.

The first schools, churches and newspapers were in German. The German language was still spoken in many homes until WWII. To this day two clubs survive; one which was originally for the High Germans – the Liederkranz and one for Low Germans – the Platt Duetsche.

Word of gold in the mountains of Colorado spread in 1858, and the would-be city of Grand Island prospered as it met the needs of those heading west.

Early streets of downtown developed south of the Union Pacific roundhouses on North Front and Locust Streets. In 1872, Grand Island was incorporated, and La Grande Ile was lost when the north channel of the Platte River was dammed to prevent the yearly flooding of crops.

The city boomed in the 1880s and survived the devastating recession of the 1890s. At the turn of the century, Grand Island had carved out its place in Nebraska and the nation. The arrival of the Lincoln Highway (first transcontinental highway) through Grand Island in 1916 furthered tourism, commerce, and development.

During World War II the city was the home of the Grand Island Army Air Base where thousands of soldiers and airmen trained. Two German POW camps were located in the city and many of the prisoners worked for local farmers during the day. A large Army installation at the Cornhusker Army Ammunitions Plant employed over 4,000 people during WWII, and was reactivated for the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.

The city was hit by seven tornadoes in a three-hour span on June 3, 1980, devastating 25% of the community and causing nearly $300 million in damages. President Carter came to survey the damage and offer words of encouragement as well as economic assistance for rebuilding. A 1984 book, Night of the Twisters, by Ivy Ruckman, is a fictionalized account of this natural disaster from the human perspective. In 1996, a made for television movie, Night of the Twisters was shown on the Family Channel. Following the tornadoes was the severe agricultural recession of the 1980s.

Grand Island is Nebraska’s fourth largest city, birthplace of actor Henry Fonda, three time All- American City (1955, 1967 and 1981), 1997 Outstanding Nebraska Community, World Trade Magazine ranked Grand Island 9th in the Top 10 List of Smaller Communities with an excellent quality of life.


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