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A Parks Timeline

Marking 100 Years

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This 1936 image shows visitors playing on a slide at Chadron State Park. Arthur Rothstein, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-fsa-8b27683

By Eric Fowler

When Nebraska became a state in 1867, parks — let alone state parks — weren’t needed. Nebraskans of the day, and for years to come, were building homes, farms, businesses and towns, and with all of that work to be done, there was little time for leisure.

But the conservation movement had begun, heightening the nation’s awareness of its pristine natural resources and prompting the launch of efforts to preserve them for future generations. The movement led to the creation of the nation’s first National Park — Yellowstone — in 1872.

The notion that nature was to be enjoyed resonated with Nebraskans. Soon after they planted their roots, they found time to play and relax outdoors. They would fish, swim or take a leisurely boat ride at natural lakes, lazy rivers and the oxbows along them, and, as early as the 1880s, lakes built specifically for recreation. Camping, once primarily done in conjunction with hunting or fishing, had become a stand-alone activity.

Judge Charles Mathews, seated, claimed his homestead next to spring-fed Victoria Creek. He built two log buildings in 1873, one for his home, which would later become Custer County’s first post office, and the other a store, which bottled and sold the spring water. With Mathews are O.A. Smith (left) and James Forsyth (center). In 1923, Victoria Springs was added to the state park system, and the buildings still stand today at the state recreation area near Merna. History Nebraska, RG2608-0713a

In 1921, the movement to preserve wild places for enjoyment by the masses gained enough of a foothold that the Nebraska Legislature formed the State Park Board, and Nebraska became the 20th to create a state park when the board designated a section of school land in the scenic Pine Ridge south of Chadron as such.

In the years since, the Commission has added 77 parks and trails for their historic, aesthetic and recreational value. Some were donated, some purchased and some leased, including facilities developed around numerous irrigation and flood-control reservoirs built by irrigation districts and state and federal agencies.

The result is what is widely recognized as one of the finest park systems in the nation. Within a short drive of all Nebraskans, is a state park, historical park or recreation area where people can explore some of the state’s most scenic landscapes, stay, learn, play or just relax. These are your parks.  

J.W. Dears Trading Post at the Red Cloud Agency in the area of Fort Robinson, 1876. History Nebraska, #1392-75

1921 – Chadron State Park was created.

1923 – Victoria Springs, described as an oasis in the Sandhills for the mineral springs found there, became the state’s first state recreation area. The park, near Anselmo, includes the log home and store of Judge Charles Mathews.

1923 – Arbor Lodge, the mansion and grounds of J. Sterling Morton, founder of Arbor Day, in Nebraska City, became the state’s first state historical park.

1925 – Walgren Lake State Recreation Area was established in Sheridan County.

1925 – The Bureau of Game and Fish began to establish a statewide system of recreation grounds to supplement the state parks “to provide fishing and hunting for the thousands of Nebraska citizens who desire such outdoor recreation.” It acquired Walgren Lake in Sheridan County that year.

1929 – Fort Kearny State Historical Park was established on the site of a frontier fort that operated from 1848 to 1871 on the Oregon-California Trail. It was maintained as a picnic and recreation site until the 1960s, when reconstruction of historic structures began. A visitor center opened in 1968. Land was acquired nearby in the 1960s to create Fort Kearny State Recreation Area, which also opened in 1968.

Camping at Two Rivers State Recreation Area in Douglas County, 1960s. NGPC Photo Library

1929 – The State Park Board was dissolved and merged with the Bureau of Game and Fish to create the Game, Forestation and Parks Commission.

1930 – The Commission purchased land near Gering to create a “big game reserve” today known as the Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area.

1933 – By the end of 1933, the Game, Forestation and Parks Commission had established 26 state recreation areas.

1935 – Rock Creek Lake State Recreation Area opened in Dundy County a few miles downstream from the Rock Creek Fish Hatchery, which opened in 1926.

1935 – Niobrara State Park at the mouth of the Niobrara River opened to the public after work by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934 and 1935.

1936 – Ponca State Park opened along the Missouri River in Dixon County. It was created with the donation of 200 acres from area residents in 1934 and developed almost entirely with federal funds through the Civilian Conservation Corps. Additions to the park in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and 2000s grew the park to more than 2,000 acres.

1937 – State parks began receiving an appropriation from the state general tax fund.

1945 – The Commission was granted a 99-year lease by Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District to manage recreation grounds on portions of the newly created Lake McConaughy and other reservoirs in the system, including Lake Ogallala, Johnson Lake and Gallagher Canyon.

Launching a boat at Bluestem State Recreation Area, 1960s. NGPC Photo Library

1945 – Box Butte Dam was completed. The Commission later would lease the property from the U.S. Bureau or Reclamation as a state recreation area.

1950 – The Dingell-Johnson Act created the Sport Fish Restoration Program by establishing an excise tax on fishing equipment. The tax helps fund rehabilitation of lakes and, more recently, the construction of boat ramps, docks and other access projects, at parks.

1952 – Enders and Medicine Creek reservoirs opened to the public, the first of four large flood-control and irrigation reservoirs built in southwestern Nebraska by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

1954 – Swanson Reservoir opened to the public as the third large U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reservoir in the region.

1957 – The Commission opened Fort Robinson State Park on the site of what had been an active military fort from 1874 to 1948.

1958 – The Commission began requiring a $1 State Recreation Areas stamp for vehicles entering the parks, its first foray into a user-pay system similar to that required of hunters and anglers.

Park superintendent Roye Lindsay in period dress on the veranda at Fort Hartsuff State Historical Park in Valley County in 1974. NGPC Photo Library

1958 – Lewis and Clark Lake, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir on the Missouri River, opened. It became a Nebraska Game and Parks State Recreation Area in 1971.

1959 – The Legislature approved a bill that created the Division of State Parks within the Commission. The bill also established the State Park Fund and a special mill levy that would collect 1.3 cents for every $100 in assessed taxable property value from 1959 through 1968 to fund the development and maintenance of the park system, replacing the SRA sticker and the general fund appropriation. It spurred major projects in the parks. The Commission was assigned tourism responsibilities for the state.

1959 – Assigned boating safety responsibilities by the Legislature, the Commission began issuing licenses for motorized boats.

1960s – Throughout the 1960s, a chain of lakes in central Nebraska, created by construction of Interstate 80, were developed as hunting, fishing and recreation areas, including Mormon Island, Union Pacific, War Axe and Windmill state recreation areas.

1960 – Two Rivers State Recreation Area opened, featuring camping, swimming, fishing and 28 duck blinds for rent.

1962 – Red Willow Reservoir, the fourth and final large U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reservoir in the region, opened.

1964 – The Commission began managing Lake Minatare, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reservoir that was completed in 1915. Its landmark, 55-foot lighthouse was built entirely of native stone between 1937 and 1939 by the Veterans Conservation Corps Camp BR-1.

1964 – Bluestem and Wagon Train lakes opened to public use. These were the first of eight flood-control reservoirs built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that would be managed by the Commission as state recreation areas. Known as the Salt Valley Lakes, others would include: Branched Oak, Conestoga, Olive Creek, Pawnee, Stagecoach, and Twin Lakes. Two other Salt Valley Lakes, Hedgefield and Yankee Hill, are managed by the Commission as wildlife management areas.

1964 – Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, a U.S. Bureau of Recreation reservoir on the Snake River, opened.

Backpacking on snowshoes at Indian Cave State Park in February of 1971. Jon Farrar, Nebraskaland

1965 – Buffalo Bill Ranch was dedicated as a State Historical Park. The dedication followed extensive restoration work on the home and barn of famed showman scout William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, which was acquired in 1961. The Commission acquired 233 acres nearby on the North Platte River in 1989 to create Buffalo Bill State Recreation Area and provide a campground, which opened in 1999.

1966 – The first facilities at Ash Hollow State Historical Park opened. Land acquisition began in 1962 and was completed in 1968 for this park, an important stop on the Oregon Trail that also featured a cave with evidence of human inhabitants in the valley dating back 7,000 to 10,000 years. A visitor center with exhibits highlighting the history of the area opened in 1978.

1966 – Acquisition of the 10,300-acre James Ranch expanded Fort Robinson State Park.

1967 – The legislature removed the responsibility for forestation from the Commission, which was renamed the Game and Parks Commission.

1967 – Land was purchased in Jefferson County for what would be the core of Rock Creek Station State Historical Park, an important point on the Oregon Trail and a Pony Express station. In 1984, a visitors center, donated by the Burlington Northern Foundation, opened and work began to reconstruct historic buildings.

1968 – Fort Hartsuff State Historical Park opened to the public following restoration of a few of the buildings that remained from the military fort that served the area from 1874-1881. Acquired in 1960, the park was formally dedicated in 1973.

1970 – Indian Cave State Park, located in the bluffs along the Missouri River, opened to day use and primitive camping. Initial acquisition of land for the park began in 1963. In 2000, 347 acres of bottomland was added to the park.

1973 – Sixteen bison were moved from the Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area to start a herd at Fort Robinson State Park.

1973 – The Gretna fish hatchery, the state’s first when it was acquired in 1881, was closed and became part of Schramm Park State Recreation Area. The hatchery is now a museum.

A sod house, water pump and bucket at Bowring Ranch State Historical Park in Merriman. Bob Grier, Nebraskaland

1978 – A park-entry permit program, authorized by the legislature in 1976, was initiated to raise funds for improvement and maintenance of state parks. Additionally, the Nebraska Outdoor Recreation and Development Act, funded by a one-cent tax on cigarettes, began to fund new park construction.

1979 – The Ak-Sar-Ben Aquarium opened in Schramm Park.

1981 – The Commission released six bighorn sheep in an enclosure on the buttes at Fort Robinson State Park to establish a resident herd. In 2020, the state had about 290 sheep in the Pine Ridge and the Wildcat Hills.

1982 – Platte River State Park officially opened in the bluffs above the river for which it was named.

1986 – Calamus Reservoir, a Bureau of Reclamation irrigation reservoir completed on the Calamus River near Burwell in 1984, opened.

1986 – Ten cabooses, donated by the Union Pacific Railroad and converted into cabins, opened to the public at Two Rivers State Recreation Area.

1987 – The new Niobrara State Park opened, featuring 20 cabins, a campground and more. The old park site, acquired in 1930, was abandoned because of rising water levels in the Missouri River following the construction of Lewis and Clark Lake.

1987 – Arthur Bowring Ranch State Historical Park, a working Sandhills cattle ranch near Merriman, opened. Former U.S. Senator Eve Bowring left the 7,202 acre Bar 99 ranch to the Commission in memory of her husband when she died in 1985.

1989 – Lightning sparked a wildfire July 8, later named the Fort Robinson Fire after it burned nearly 50,000 acres of the Pine Ridge, the largest fire in recorded history at the time. Rains that fell and the following spring washed tons of ash into the White River, Soldier Creek and Carter P. Johnson Lake, killing nearly all of the trout.

The Niobrara River Bridge on the Cowboy Trail in Cherry County, 1997. Mike Forsberg, Nebraskaland

1990 – A new RV campground opened at Chadron State Park.

1991 – Eugene T. Mahoney State Park opened along the Platte River between Lincoln and Omaha. Land acquisition and development, funded in large part by donations, had begun in 1986.

1991 – Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park opened. Land for the park was acquired in 1987. A partnership between the Commission and the University of Nebraska State Museum, it features ongoing excavation of fossils left nearly 12 million years ago.

1992 -Smith Falls State Park, the site of the state’s highest waterfall, was established on the Niobrara River near Valentine.

1994 – A gift from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy of 321 miles of abandoned Chicago & North Western rail line across northern Nebraska led to the creation of the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail. When completed, it will be the longest rails-to-trails conversion in the country.

1995 – The Wildcat Hills Nature Center opened at the state recreation area south of Gering. A cooperative effort between the Commission and local civic leaders and groups, the center serves as an educational facility, museum and interpretive center. An expansion completed in 2017 nearly doubled the size of the center.

2000 – Five cabins, the first of 10, open on the shore of Lewis and Clark Lake.

2001 – The Lake McConaughy Visitor and Water Interpretive Center opened. The facility includes the Ethel S. Abbot Theater, aquariums and interactive exhibits depicting the story of water in Nebraska, and the history, hydrology and geology of the North Platte River Valley and Lake McConaughy.

Kids play in the touch tank at the Schramm Education Center. Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley, Nebraskaland

2001 – A forest-thinning project began at Chadron State Park to improve forest health and reduce wildfire risk. The work helped stop the West Ash Fire, which burned 58,000 acres in 2012.

2002 – The Lied Platte River Bridge, abandoned by the Rock Island Railroad, opened as a trail across the river near South Bend.

2003 – The $7.9 million Missouri National Recreational River Resource and Education Center, a cooperative effort with the National Park Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Better Ponca Foundation, opens at Ponca State Park.

2003 – The Family Aquatic Center opened at Mahoney State Park, adding a wave pool, drop slide, aquatic playground and sun turf to the existing pool and water slides.

2003 – The reconstructed Buffalo Soldiers Barracks were completed at Fort Robinson. The barracks were home to Black soldiers in the Ninth Cavalry.

2005 – The first Missouri River Outdoor Expo was held at Ponca State Park, offering hands-on activities featuring outdoor education, sports and recreation. The free event still draws more than 50,000 people annually. It spawned similar expos at Fort Kearny and Wildcat Hills state recreation areas and Platte River State Park.

2008 – The first two mini lodges opened at Ponca State Park. The park now offers 15 mini lodges, 10 two-bedroom cottages and two green cabins. The park also maintains four of the rustic cabins built in the 1960s for summer use.

2011 – Roger G. Sykes Outdoor Heritage Complex, the Commission’s first shooting range, opened at Platte River State Park.

2015 – The Commission, in conjunction with the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation, launched the Venture Parks initiative. Through the Foundation, donations would cover $28 million of the $35 million project. Construction began in 2016 and is ongoing.

At Louisville State Recreation Area, people participate on the floating playground built in in 2018. Jeff Kurrus, Nebraskaland

2015 – Danish Alps State Recreation Area, part of a new reservoir near Hubbard, opened in May 2015.

2016 – The Wildcat Hills Shooting Sports Complex opened.

2017 – Crawdad Creek at Platte River State Park opened to become the first completed Venture Park addition.

2018 – Five new Venture Parks features opened at three parks: Treetop Adventure and the tallest climbing wall in the region at Mahoney State Park; a spray park and glamping cabins at Platte River State Park; and a floating playground at Louisville State Recreation Area.

2019 – The Schramm Education Center, a fully renovated and greatly expanded iteration of the former Ak-Sar-Ben Aquarium, opened as part of the Venture Parks.

2020 – The Treetop Journey course and Monkey Drop free fall activity were added to the Treetop Adventure at the Mahoney State Park.

2021 – Game and Parks continues to manage 76 areas and two state trails in its state park system, encompassing more than 70,000 acres across the entire state. Nebraska state parks and recreation areas account for about 20 of the top 25 tourist destinations in the state.

About eric fowler

Nebraskaland Regional Editor Eric Fowler was born in Hastings, graduated from Ogallala High School in 1988 and completed his Bachelor’s at Chadron State College in 1993. After six years as a writer and photographer with newspapers in Chadron and Scottsbluff, he joined the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in 1998 as Publications Editor and has been a member of the NEBRASKAland staff since 2001. Fowler spends as much time as he can in Outdoor Nebraska. When he’s not photographing wildlife, landscapes or people enjoying the state’s outdoor resources for the magazine, he’s enjoying them himself while hunting, fishing, boating, kayaking, hiking or camping with family, including his wife and son, and friends.