Nebraska got a jumpstart on the federal government when it came to adopting rural electrification legislation, and the first beneficiaries were farm families in Platte County in the eastern part of the state.
The Enabling Act, passed in April 1933, established not-for-profit public power districts across the state. The first to organize was Loup River PPD in Columbus.
Three years later, on May 6, 1936, the federal Rural Electrification Administration, then only a year old, approved a loan for $391,000 so the PPD could build 355 miles of line to serve 815 rural homes, churches, schools and businesses.
But to get the big picture of what public power did for Platte County, you have to go back to at least 1903, when H. E. Babcock, owner of the Nebraska Central Irrigation Company, proposed building a 100-mile canal running eastward from the Loup River west of Columbus to the Platte River at Ames. Three power plants were also planned.
In 1911, another mover and shaker said he’d take the canal all the way to Omaha, another 30 miles and build even more power plants. But these projects fizzled in the face of financing and supply chain problems caused by World War I.
The idea of building a canal was revived in 1932 by Phillip Hockenberger, Jr., a real estate broker, and Harold Kramer, a coal dealer, who invited 36 other area business leaders to a meeting in Columbus. Other meetings followed, and Loup River PPD was incorporated on June 2, 1933. Hockenberger was elected to the board of directors, and Kramer was named the utility’s general manager.
Job one for the PPD was to build a 35-mile canal for irrigation and power generation that would extend from a point on the Loup River five miles west of Genoa to a point on the Platte River six miles southeast of Columbus. The board applied for a $7.3 million loan and grant from the federal Public Works Administration, which came through on November 15, 1933.
The Columbus Daily Telegram shouted it out with a giant eight-column headline: “LOUP PROJECT APPROVED.” The first words under it were: “Happy days are here again.”
Happy days, indeed, for farmers pushed down by drought and the Depression. Land purchased for the canal’s right of way saved some farmers from foreclosure. Others joined the1,000-man construction workforce. Restaurants, gas stations, rooming houses, grocery stores, clothing stores and banks all benefitted from the influx of federal dollars.
Twenty train cars hauled the Monighan Crane – one of the biggest draglines in the world at the time – from Memphis to near Genoa to begin the excavation. The first drag took place in October 1934, and the project was completed two years later.
“The unique crane walked like a duck and sounded like a freight train. It had a 12-yard bucket and moved dirt at a rate of 1 million cubic yards per month,” says a Loup River PPD history. “The crane fascinated people from around the state, and the operators became local celebrities.”
Work on two hydroelectric powerhouses, one in Columbus and the other in nearby Monroe began in 1936 and was completed two years later.
Loup River PPD (now called Loup Power District) continues to operate the plants today, as well as providing retail electricity to some19,500 consumers in five counties: Platte, Colfax, Boone, Nance and Madison.