Kearney’s prosperous way of life today was shaped by its early pioneers and 49ers as they united at Fort Kearny while going after their dreams along the Mormon, Oregon and California trails. The future would bring the Pony Express, Overland Stage, Union Pacific Railroad and Lincoln Highway through Kearney as they linked the east and west, developing a continental nation. Although many of those traversing the early trails were headed for areas farther west, some ambitious travelers identified the vast possibilities along the “Great Platte River Road,” choosing to settle in the area.
Fort Kearny, earning its name from Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny, was constructed in 1848 to protect those journeying west along the Oregon Trail. During an 18-month period around the Gold Rush, more than 30,000 pioneers heading west trekked through Fort Kearny, ultimately establishing the site as an early crossroads and stopping place.
The community ultimately derived its name from Fort Kearny, though the spelling is clearly different. The additional “e” in Kearney is attributed to a spelling error made by the post office. By the time it became apparent that an extra “e” was added to the community name, residents did not feel it was necessary to change the name back to its intended spelling.
In the summer of 1871, Anselmo B. Smith surveyed the town site, with the plot of land filed with the county clerk shortly after on October 27, 1871. The city was incorporated soon after, in 1881.
Despite a series of setbacks just before the turn of the century, the town began to bounce back to life. By 1904, the foundation was put in place for the current-day University of Nebraska at Kearney, with classes commencing in the same year—the initial class was comprised of merely 96 students.
The first half of the new century experienced steady growth and development, and by 1930 its population reached 8,575.
With the completion of Interstate 80 in 1964, Kearney was faced with an upsurge of tourist trade, which, in turn, facilitated the development of modern lodging options and dining establishments.
Kearney was recognized as one of Nebraska’s fastest-growing cities of 20,000 or more during the 1990s and is currently home to more than 30,000 residents, as of 2010. Workforce numbers increased simultaneously, providing the growing number of area businesses with a continually expanding supply of potential employees.
The treasured heritage of Kearney is still seen through many facets of community life. Annual events, monuments and museums all portray the community’s significant history, ensuring the memories of its past lives on for generations to come.