Tucked away in a sandstone outcropping in Jefferson County is an oddity that will amaze anyone who visits: a rock-cut tomb carved by hand a century ago.
Nelson McDowell was reportedly a colorful character. And if you visit the “mausoleum” he carved out of a sandstone cliff overlooking Rose Creek in Jefferson County, and later learn that it may have simply been a hobby to keep him busy and in good health rather than a place he intended to be buried, that is easy to believe.
The mausoleum, by definition, isn’t actually a mausoleum. Also known as McDowell’s Tomb, it is located on Rose Creek Wildlife Management Area, a few miles southwest of Fairbury. McDowell started his project in 1915, and over the next 10 years, cut his way nearly 30 feet into the bluff. In the decades since, people have come from near and far, with the oddity even gaining mention in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in 1971. Nowadays, visitors see the dark, musty and dusty tomb only occupied by moths, spiders and millipedes, and the occasional snake or bat.
McDowell, born in 1856, is the son of J.B. McDowell, who helped found the village of Avoca, Illinois, before coming to Nebraska in 1868 with his brother, Woodford. J.B. bought land near Beatrice, built the first hotel in the town and moved his family to Nebraska in 1869. He was elected to the state legislature in 1872, and again in 1874, and worked for the Federal Land Office in Lincoln before settling in 1880 in Fairbury. Woodford homesteaded a quarter section of ground farther west, and in 1869 he had half of that land platted, as did a neighbor, to help found the town of Fairbury, named for the town in which he had resided in Illinois.
Nelson McDowell began working as a clerk in the Secretary of State’s office at the age of 17 while his father was serving in the legislature. He reportedly spent 17 years working in the statehouse, residing in Lincoln at the time, and a few years as a banker in Fairbury. But it is believed that his main occupation later in life was as a farmer.
McDowell had health issues and escaped to the Pacific Coast for a time to address them. His return in January of 1914 was noteworthy enough to take up one sentence in the community news section of the local newspaper. The following year, at age 58 and looking to improve his health, he picked up his tools and began to hammer, chisel and carve away at the base of a rounded, stone outcropping on a north-facing hill above Rose Creek on one of his farms.
By the time he was done 10 years later, he had removed roughly 45 cubic yards of sandstone to create his two-room masterpiece. The outer room, an antechamber, has an intricately carved domed ceiling. The inner room, the burial chamber, has benches carved on either side to hold the caskets of McDowell and his neighbor, Cliff Hunter, who reportedly provided McDowell with some assistance in the project.
For the finishing touches, McDowell hired a tombstone carver from Fairbury to engrave some inscriptions on the rocks around the tomb. These include “Mausoleum” above the door, as well as “Lookout Mountain,” “Lover’s Lane,” “Puplit Rock” and “Devil’s Slide.”
As word of McDowell’s creation spread, it drew visitors and became a picnic ground. Some chose to leave their own mark, engraving names or initials and dates in the stone, both inside the tomb and on the rocks around it, a tradition that continues to this day. McDowell didn’t appreciate this and fashioned a gate over the entrance to protect the inside of the tomb; he may have even closed it to visitors at one point.
On Sept. 27, 1937, at the age of 80, McDowell was killed when a car he was riding in was struck by a Union Pacific train at a crossing in Fairbury. The engineer of the train reported that the car came to a complete stop and then suddenly darted forward into his path. The driver, Charles Hansen, also was injured, but could not remember details of the crash. Witnesses speculate the car was still in gear when he stopped and, when he released the clutch, it moved onto the tracks.
McDowell would not be buried in the tomb he created: Some reports say it was discovered state law didn’t allow it. Instead, he lies in his family’s plot in the Fairbury cemetery. That was the plan all along, according to other accounts. The tomb “was never intended to be a tomb but simply a hobby,” W.F. Cramb, editor of the Fairbury Journal, wrote in a postscript to McDowell’s obituary a week after his death. “It was all in accord with the waggish nature of Nels McDowell. Its real purpose was to keep him in good health as he had been threatened, in the early days of manhood, with TB and realized that an outdoor life was what he needed.”
McDowell’s prescription apparently worked. “At the time of the accident which resulted in the instant death, he was apparently in perfect health, erect, ruddy and cheerful looking, more like a man of 50 than past 80,” Cramb wrote.
Newspaper accounts of McDowell’s life say he was an honest, generous, hard-working man. While he owned one of the first automobiles in Fairbury, he lived in small apartments above businesses in downtown Fairbury. “He lived simply and saved his money and left a modest fortune, 875 [acres] of land and considerable property,” Cramb wrote.
His generosity was revealed upon his death. Nine years before he died, he signed the deeds to two quarter sections of land to brothers Paul and Arthur Zimmerman, who for years had rented them. He told no one about the move, however. Just 18 months before his death, he left envelopes for each brother with another man with instructions to deliver them if he met his demise. A week after his death, the Zimmermans were speechless when they learned of his generous gift.
Notes McDowell left behind also stated he wished the farm on which he built his mausoleum go to the State of Nebraska and become a park and game reserve, something that made headlines in both the local papers and the Lincoln Star. No reports can be found as to why that wish didn’t become a reality. It can only be assumed that with no will and no official documents supporting the idea, McDowell’s four surviving siblings, who inherited the remainder of his property, chose to do otherwise with the farm.
People continued to visit the mausoleum throughout the years with, and likely some without, permission of subsequent landowners.
So it is somewhat ironic that in 1995, 58 years after his death, McDowell’s wish came true when the property was purchased by Game and Parks. Now anyone willing to take a short hike can be amazed at what one man can do with his hands and a few tools. ■
Rose Creek WMA
McDowell’s Tomb is on Rose Creek Wildlife Management Area on 566th Avenue, 11⁄2 miles south of Highway 8 southwest of Fairbury.
The 384-acre area includes a mix of oak woodlands and savannahs, native tallgrass prairie and former farm ground now maintained as food plots. It is popular among deer, turkey and quail hunters. Trees and brush growing along two abandoned railroad lines add to its diversity. So does its namesake, Rose Creek, which winds for 1.3 miles through the area and is “a great catfishing creek,” said Brad Seitz, who manages the area for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Seitz initially thought the historical value of the mausoleum might preclude the land being acquired by Game and Parks when the agency was considering its purchase. “Another way I thought was it would be great if the state got it,” Seitz said. “Maybe we aren’t going to do anything special, but at least we’ve got it in public domain and people can come see it.”
The Nebraska State Historical Society determined the tomb, while unique, did not meet the National Park Service’s requirements to be included on the National Register of Historic Places, and the acquisition was completed.
Seitz said he’s sometimes surprised at the number of people who visit the mausoleum, including a few that camp in it. Generally, they leave it alone and clean up after themselves. But vandals continue to carve their names in the rock. Graffiti covers nearly every inch of the tomb and the rocks around it as high as a person can reach, and even higher, suggesting some folks must have hauled ladders to reach a clean slate. Some of the oldest etchings have certainly been covered by new ones. The oldest legible date I could find is 1933. The newest: 2021.
Scofflaws have also used inscriptions created by a Fairbury tombstone carver as target practice. The Mausoleum inscription above the door remains intact. Lookout Mountain is riddled with bullet holes. Another carving is illegible. Three others known to have existed cannot be found.
The bigger threat to the tomb is erosion from Rose Creek, which continues to carve away at the bank below it, and the trail leading to it, taking a large swath of soil and toppling several trees during flooding in 2019.
No trails are maintained on the wildlife area, but there are two primitive paths that lead to it. From the parking lot, follow a two-track maintenance road for a quarter mile and take another right on a less-traveled road. From this junction, it is just 250 yards to the tomb, but the last 80 yards require traversing a steep slope and climbing several eroded banks. The second option is to follow the road 650 yards south of the parking lot and head west before you reach the pond. A faint trail will lead you up a hill, across the ridgetop prairie and back down through the woodland, winding back east to the tomb.