Although its name has changed, the county that encompasses Big Springs went from being one of the state’s largest counties to one of its smallest and today is home to an almost visibly unchanged hotel, built 135 years ago and operated by one family for 80 of those years.
In the 1850s a spot near the intersection of the Oregon and California trails became a popular stopping point eponymously named Lone Tree. When the Union Pacific Railroad arrived in 1867, also the year of Nebraska’s statehood, they discovered a spring in the area which furnished a source of water for their steam engines. This water was delivered through wooden pipes to their siding and depot which they descriptively named Big Springs.
As settlers began to arrive in Nebraska’s panhandle, Cheyenne County, then one of the state’s largest counties, was organized and included Big Springs. The village became known nationwide when the infamous Sam Bass gang stopped Union Pacific express No. 4 on September 18, 1877. The passengers were relieved of $1,300 in cash and valuables while the depot’s safe was robbed of over $60,000 in San Francisco-minted U.S. $20 gold pieces.
Edwin A. Phelps, who was born in Milford, Michigan, in 1842 where his father was a farmer, miller and distiller, moved to Chicago in 1853, where his family operated a hotel. At the age of 18 Edwin began working for the railroad, first as a brakeman, then worked his way up becoming a bridge foreman. In that job he moved to Big Springs in 1883 when the entire village consisted of one adobe house and a small depot/section house. Three years later Phelps left the railroad and filed a homestead but returned and built the third structure in Big Springs, a house which was interestingly constructed of bridge timber.
No sooner was the house completed than he realized railroad employees needed short term housing and began renting rooms. To expand and fill this demand he built the two-story, frame, 26 by 50-foot Phelps Hotel in 1885. The second floor had 10 hotel rooms while the offices, kitchen and dining room were on the first floor. Sometimes called the “House of Seven Chimneys,” the hotel opened Christmas Eve with a banquet and dance for nearly 100 guests. Phelps himself returned to work for the railroad while his wife Sarah operated the hotel which, as the major building in the area, also housed the first services for the Methodist Church.
Big Springs, still in Cheyenne County, was platted by the Union Pacific Railroad in November of 1884 and was situated on the north side of the railroad and the Platte River. A further division of Cheyenne County was broached in 1887 and the following year Deuel County, named for Harry Porter Deuel, an agent in Omaha for the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad, was calved from Cheyenne County. A committee, which included E. M .Phelps, formed to raise funds to build and pay for a county courthouse hopefully to attract the county seat to Big Springs.
An election to determine the county seat was held in January of 1889, ending with 391 votes for Chappell, 203 for Big Springs and 203 for Froid. With a runoff in February all ballot boxes were stuffed to overflowing with Chappell, for example, which had 275 eligible voters, receiving 3,288 votes!
In 1890 Big Springs, with two hotels, two newspapers, a bank, general store and population of 125, was still energetically seeking the county seat. A new election in 1894 still didn’t result in a sufficient majority but a few months later yet another vote gave the capital to Chappell. In the meantime, E. A. Phelps was elected as Deuel County’s first assessor, the Deuel County fair and the first school in the county were established at Big Springs.
Deuel County itself was divided in two in 1909 creating Garden County, making Deuel one of the smallest counties in Nebraska. Big Springs was finally incorporated as a village by the county in 1917 and reached its peak population of 595 in 1930.
Two more bank robberies in the 20th century gave Big Springs unwanted publicity. A break-in at the Farmer’s State Bank in 1960 yielded robbers about $17,000. Then in June of 1965 college student Duane Earl Pope robbed the Farmer’s State Bank of $160,000, killed three employees and permanently injured a fourth.
The Phelps Hotel, whose register included three rooms let to three of the Dalton brothers gang, continued to be operated by Sarah Phelps until her death in 1968 with locals beginning plans to develop it as a local museum and in 1970 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.