October 29, 2022 | Last updated May 30, 2023

Flashback Friday: Highway Archeology Program Investigates one of Nebraska’s Earliest Water-Powered Mills

The site of one of Nebraska’s earliest water-powered mills was largely lost to history, but a recent excavation by the NSHS Highway Archeology Program will help document and preserve the site.

Built in the mid-1850s by Henry Cowles of upstate New York, the operation was located along Walnut Creek about 2.5 miles northwest of Nebraska City. Ownership changed and technology improved through the years, but the mill remained in operation until 1926.

In 2012 when Otoe County and the Nebraska Department of Roads began planning to replace two aging bridges over Walnut Creek, they asked the NSHS to evaluate the potential impact on any nearby historic or archeological sites. Local landowners and historians showed NSHS archeologists where they thought the ruins of the mill might be located.

Last fall the archeologists began preliminary test excavations, mapping, and archival research. They located the mill and identified the primary building as well as other ruins associated with the mill pond and a tunnel probably used to transport water from the pond to the mill. The most interesting feature is a large complex of limestone-walled rooms eroding from the banks of Walnut Creek.

These initial investigations suggest that the mill ruins and associated features hold great promise to retain important data that will sharpen our understanding of how mills were built and used during Nebraska’s territorial and early statehood periods.

Society archeologists and transportation planners will be working together to minimize harm to this important site. Additional, more intensive investigations may be required in 2014 as a mitigation measure.

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