Deuel County, in the southwestern part of the Nebraska panhandle, has its beginnings centered around the Union Pacific Railroad. The name Deuel comes from a Union Pacific Railroad official by the name of Harry Porter Deuel. Deuel County’s borders have changed dramatically over the years, it was originally part of Cheyenne County, but an election in 1889 formed Deuel County. During another election, this time in 1909, the northern three-fourths of the county became what is today Garden County.
On June 29, 1867 the Union Pacific Railroad began operation through Big Springs, which is named for the natural springs in the area that played a major component in the pioneering of the Union Pacific Railroad. The natural springs were used for the steam engines, but over time as the engines got larger the springs could not keep up. In 1907 a well was dug and water tank was erected in what is now Railroad Park.
The railroad also went through Chappell in these days. Charles Henry Chappell, an Illinois railroad man, was responsible for building the train depot in present day Chappell. When lumber, rails, and other supplies were sent from Omaha to this area, the instructions would simply read, “Send this to Chappell.” This is how Chappell acquired its name.
Deuel County wasn’t completely free from trouble in these days. The Sam Bass Gang robbed the Union Pacific Express Train No. 4 at Big Springs on September 18, 1877. $60,000 in gold coin was taken. They then robbed the coach passengers of their money and jewelry. After this they held up the depot agent, John Barnhart, who was forced to destroy his telegraph instruments so he was unable to send a message for help. The robbers finally extinguished the fire in the train’s engine, and headed off. The next morning word of the robbery was received in Omaha and the gang was chased by law officials. Three of the outlaws were killed and two others were never captured. Sam Bass remained free until a new gang member set him up in Texas where he was killed.
In Deuel County’s first official election on January 15, 1889, R. Lisco was named Sheriff and B.G. Hoover was named County Commissioner. The next big decision was to determine which town would serve as the county seat. The January 15 election named Big Springs as the county seat, but it only served as county seat for one day. The towns of Big Springs, Chappell, and Froid each wanted to serve as county seat and a fierce battle began. A special election was held on February 12, 1889. Amazingly after the ballots were counted Big Springs had received 5608 votes, Chappell received 3288 votes, and Froid received 292 votes. Many charges and allegations arose as Big Springs had only 200 legal voters and Chappell had only 275 legal voters. What is believed to have happened is that Chappell voters heard big Springs had a vote of 3000, so they decided that they would surpass that number and stop. Big Springs, however, didn’t stop. The register charged election officials in Big Springs with inserting 1300 Ballots printed in Ogallala after the polls had closed.
The controversy went to the courts and a judge ordered county offices to remain in Chappell for the time being. In April of 1894 the battle continued in court with documented bitter and physical fights breaking out in the court room. On May 7, 1894 Judge Silas Holcombe ruled that, “…The Board of County Commissioners of Deuel County Nebraska are hereby authorized and directed to call a new and special election for the permanent location of the County Seat in and for Deuel County Nebraska as required by law in all respects as though the paid special election on said 12 day of February 1889, had never occurred or taken place.”
It took two elections that year before a majority vote was cast. On June 23, 1894 Chappell was declared the winner with 437 votes as Big Springs only received 344 votes. On August 11, 1894 the Board of Commissioners officially declared Chappell as the County Seat of Deuel County.
In 1915 the present-day courthouse was built. The 60x70 foot building has two floors in addition to the basement. The basement houses the Sheriff’s office, jail, surveyor’s office, maintenance rooms, as well as two storage vaults. The first floor is occupied by the County Commissioners, Clerk, Assessor, Treasurer, and vaults for those offices. The second floor is mainly used for the District Court.
The first county fairs were held in Big Springs from 1889 up until 1932. After that year the county fair was moved to Chappell, where it is still held every August.
Big Springs and Chappell both have their own high schools. Big Springs is consolidated with Brule to from South Platte, a class D-2 school, and Chappell is a D-1 school. The schools are highly successful in both academics and sports. There is always a strong competition going on for the “Deuel County Championship” in sports.
The county has grown over the years; Chappell now has a population of 983, Big Springs has 418, and there are approximately 500 more people living outside the city limits. 37 of these people are county employees. In November of 2002 the largest flag in the state of Nebraska was officially dedicated. The large flag was painted on the side of Farmer’s Elevator and can be seen from Interstate-80, and is something that all residents of Deuel County are proud of. Deuel County continues to be a prosperous farming area. Crops such as wheat, corm, millet, sunflowers, milo, and oats are grown throughout the county. The larger ranches also grow alfalfa for their animals. Deuel County has rightfully taken on the motto: Deuel County, Where Wheat is King.
Written by Jason Kepler, Class of 2003
Deuel County is named for Harry Porter Deuel, an Omaha pioneer who figured prominently in its steamboat and railroad development. Born in Clarkson New York, in 1836, Deuel came to Nebraska Territory in 1859 and immediately secured positions as agent for the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad, the nearest railroad to Omaha, and as agent for the Hannibal & St. Joseph Packet company, which operated a line of boats between St. Louis and Omaha.
When railroads finally superseded steamboats, Deuel became the agent for the Burlington Railroad, a job he held until 1888. He then became the city passenger agent in Omaha for the Union Pacific Railroad, but in 1896 returned to the Burlington as the superintendent of the company’s new station in Omaha. In 1899 Deuel left to seek public office and held the posts of Douglas County Auditor and Register of Deeds. He died in 1914.
On November 6, 1888, Cheyenne County voters authorized a division of the county to create Banner, Deuel, Kimball and Scottsbluff counties. Governor John Thayer set January 15, 1889 as the date of Deuel County’s organization. In 1909 it s northern part became Garden County.