"James Comly Mitchell"
James Comly Mitchell was born on the east coast in Pangborn,* Pennsylvania in 1809/10.* At age 15, he ran away from home to become a seaman. At 18 years of age he became a sea captain sailing the ships Lyden and Lady Washington between New York and Liverpool, England. He met his future wife Eliza Krosnic-Vandenberg, the widow of Rev. John Vandenberg, an Episcopalian Minister for the British Naval Department during these travels. In 1836, the couple was married in Liverpool.* Mr. Mitchell continued as a sea captain for a couple years more before he moved his bride back to the states (1838).
Iowa was a popular state where the possibilities of success were greatest. In 1840, James and Eliza settled in Bellevue, Iowa along with Eliza's daughter Hannah from her previous marriage. Bellevue is on the Mississippi River's edge on the Iowa side near the community of Dubuque. At the time, Bellevue was on the very edge of European settlement in this country. Having experience as a sea captain, Mr. Mitchell understood the value of the Mississippi River as a means of access to the entire world and the advantage of living in a city right on a major waterway. Working as the Indian Commissioner, James was ever fascinated by the new territories of the west. Always a man of adventure, it was understandable that he would be one to travel to the extremes of the United States western borders, then ending at the Missouri River. Even though Iowa bordered the Missouri River, the only settled part beyond the western edge of the Mississippi was at Council Bluffs and small communities leading there that were first settled by the Mormons during their trek west in the 1846-48 time frame.
In September of 1850, Mr. Mitchell was still living in Bellevue,* although he himself had not stayed there permanently. When the Gold Rush started, Mr. Mitchell had "gold fever" and a great starting off point to the gold fields of California was Council Bluffs, Iowa on the western edge of the state. Across the Missouri River was "Indian Country" and was ruled by the natives. Pioneer settlers had been passing through Indian country for decades by now. The Gold Rush accelerated the numbers. Mr. Mitchell himself tried his hand in California but found the conditions too primitive for his taste. Mr. Mitchell learned that it wasn't the gold diggers getting rich; it was the merchants that supplied them the tools and goods. Having left his Eliza behind, Mr. Mitchell soon returned to Iowa. Knowing that Council Bluffs was where the travels started, he moved his family to Council Bluffs to open a merchandise store and pondered the fate of the lands just across the river. That new land on the other side of the Missouri offered another form of riches. The 20 year treaty signed in 1834 would be expiring soon. It seemed like the whole country was anxious to settle on the other side of the river. There was even talk of building a transcontinental railroad. Some proposed a route across the southern states because it had fewer hills. Many, like Mr. Mitchell were aware that the Platte River was a slow moving river, and that was due to the slow and gentle incline that leads to the Rockies. A lot of supporters wanted it to cross in the northern states. A railroad that followed the Platte River seems like an obvious solution. The question was, "where should it cross the Missouri River?"
The Mitchell couple wanted a family of their own and soon adopted a daughter. It is often thought that the name for the town of Florence inspired by Mr. Mitchell's adopted daughter, but her name was J. Ann Floyd, not Florence. Sadly, she died in an accident by falling from a horse while riding with the Mitchells in Council Bluffs, Iowa when she was only 21.*
Eliza's daughter Hannah from her marriage to Mr. Vandenberg had married Nathaniel Kilborn of Bellevue, Iowa. They named their daughter Florence. Florence's life was also cut short, making it to her fourteenth year.*
When the Kansas-Nebraska Act* made land west of the Missouri available for settlement, James Mitchell was already one step ahead of the game. Mr. Mitchell was soon the secretary of the Nebraska Winter Quarters Company, a company that started in Council Bluffs, dedicated to resurrecting the community where the Mormons had made home as Winter Quarters less than a decade before. Having done his homework, he was aware of the unique qualities the area possessed such as the rock bottom where a suitable bridge could be built. The area was even referred to as Rock Bottom.
Just 45 years of age, Mr. Mitchell had a natural leadership quality, which allowed him to take control and plot out the new community overlapping the same area as the Mormons had built their town on. The new town needed a name. Rock Bottom was certainly considered, however his wife's influence and love for her new granddaughter Florence Vandenberg Kilborn won out.
Mr. Mitchell recognized and endeared the town's nickname of Rock Bottom and used it often to refer to the city he was so proud of.
Mr. Mitchell started the town of Florence with hopes of winning the prestigious honor of having the Mississippi-Missouri Railroad cross the river at Florence. He chose the location knowing that the Missouri had a rock bottom at a narrow point (where the current Mormon Bridge is located). His competition was Omaha and other cities to the south, none of which possessed this unique quality.
Not only were there riches to be found by having the railroad pass through Florence, but there was also the distinct possibility that the state capitol would be built in the largest town. When Mr. Mitchell platted out the town of Florence, he even reserved a parcel of land to build the state capitol building on.
Mr. Mitchell served as a territorial representative to the legislative meetings. His goal was to have Florence be the state's capitol. Part of the determination where that would be was greatly influenced by population. The state was divided into eight sub-divisions, acting as "counties" do now. Four were on the north side of the Platte River, and four South. On the north side of the Platte, three communities were vying for the territorial capitol vote, Omaha, Florence, and Fontanelle. The population on the south of the Platte had grown to the one that it appeared to have a larger percentage of the vote, so much in fact that it was clear that if the people on the north did not pool their votes, the south would win. The residents of Florence trusted that Mr. Mitchell would secure Florence's future by getting the capitol but Mr. Mitchell also realized that if the south won, that Florence could all but dry up totally. Casting the deciding ballot at the last minute, Mr. Mitchell voted for Omaha. Many of the people in Florence were upset; some gave up and moved south to Omaha.
Having lost the territorial capitol possibility, Florence's future started to look bleak. More and more of the Florence community moved south to be in Omaha. Florence was disappearing fast. The remaining residents knew they could count on Mr. Mitchell to resurrect the town, especially if the railroad could still pass through Florence. He traveled extensively to Washington and parts back east seeking support for this idea of having the bridge cross the Missouri at Florence.
Mr. Mitchell applied to Washington for a bridge franchise but was turned down. It was speculated that Omaha opposed since it wanted a bridge itself. Mr. Mitchell took note of several disappointments in which Omaha was involved. Omaha already had a reputation for underhanded operations in political matters.
Mr. Mitchell invested his money wisely. He dabbled in other ventures such as saloon owner, ferry owner, and served as editor of the Florence Courier newspaper. Due to his successes and wealth, he could afford to build a large home on the northwest corner of 31st and Mormon Streets.* Many of the parts were ordered from St. Louis, and shipped in on the Missouri River. The foundation was made of brick fired locally at the brick works by the river. The house was the first brick house built in Nebraska. The house has been torn down but many of the bricks were saved. Miraculously, several of the bricks were in such great shape that the original clay handler's fingerprints were clearly visible.
In addition to having special building materials shipped in, Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell made an additional trip to St. Louis to purchase furnishings. The house had the finest amenities in the land.
The original house had a small porch in the middle but was replaced by a "widow's walk", although Mr. Mitchell's sea captain days were over. A small tree had been planted below the porch when the house was built. When the widow's walk was added, the growth of the tree was not considered. Rather than cut the tree, a hole was cut in the porch roof allowing the tree to grow through.
Beside the main house were two smaller buildings, northwest and southeast. The southeast building was used as the servant's quarters and the other was the summer kitchen where meals were prepared to keep the heat of the wood stove out of the main house, and it also helped isolate any fires, which usually occurred in the kitchen area. The summer kitchen also had a laundry room. The "cook's quarters" was two floors, downstairs for cooking, upstairs for the cook to have a place to live. It was the first in the state to have a bathtub. Water was supplied from a cistern built 150 feet up on the hill west of the house. Just above the building was a cave used for produce storage.*
Eventually the Florence Presbyterian Church acquired the Mitchell house and property. A church was built on the north part of the property and the house was used as the minister's house. The wooden portions of the house suffered the ravages of termites and so the house was torn down for an addition to the church.
Florence is where Mr. Mitchell planned to live out the rest of his life and see many of his dreams come true. His commitment to Florence was sincere and dedicated. He served on the town council and was a representative to the territorial legislature. Sadly, Mr. Mitchell's hopes of a railroad crossing the Missouri and other dreams were not to come true within his lifetime.
Barely six years after arriving in Florence, Mr. Mitchell died sometime between April and August 6, 1860* at only 49* years of age. His wife Eliza, having already lost one husband to the grave was so distraught that she had him embalmed, and his casket covered in glass. She had the casket placed in the cave behind the house so she could visit it daily. After a period of time,* she allowed the body to be buried in the local cemetery, also known as the Pioneer Mormon Cemetery.*
Were Mr. Mitchell to realize that Omaha got the railroad, he surely would be disappointed. To realize his fine town was annexed by the same would set him spinning in his grave.