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Flood damage, lack of funds mean Nebraska City tourist stop John Brown's Cave may never reopen

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NEBRASKA CITY — For eight decades, a musty underground tunnel called John Brown’s Cave and the rough-hewn Mayhew Cabin have drawn tourists and school kids to this Missouri River town.

The site’s exhibits have focused on the story of slavery and the abolition movement, though there’s been a long-running debate over whether the site was ever a stop for escaping slaves on the famed Underground Railroad or whether Brown, the famed abolitionist, ever visited it.

But now, there’s a bigger question facing the popular attraction — will it ever reopen?


Mayhew Cabin, John Brown's Cave and the museum on the property have all been closed since flooding in 2019. 

The site, along a main entryway into Nebraska City, has been closed for more than a year after a trio of heavy rains flooded the “cave” and eroded a walkway exit from it. The shuttered museum that houses exhibits on things like plantation work and origins of slavery now smells moldy and of sulfur gas. The unmowed grass on the property, and a dead mouse near the museum entrance, attest to a lack of maintenance.

The flood damage, for which the property was not insured, has been estimated at between $911,000 and more than $4 million by the foundation that owns the property.

The volunteer president of that group said there’s less than $1,000 in the foundation’s bank account. The lack of money and the failure, so far, of lawsuits against the City of Nebraska City to repair the damage leaves doubts as to whether the attraction will reopen, she said.


Flooding in 2019 damaged the tunnel that led from the Mayhew Cabin to a nearby ravine.

“If we don’t get help, this is going to be lost forever,” said Cathleen Van Winkle, a Lincoln real estate appraiser and amateur historian. “And this is vital history, especially now with the racial strife we’re having in our country.”

Most of those interviewed in Nebraska City acknowledge that the cave and cabin are an important tourism asset for Nebraska City, which boasts 10 museums devoted to the history of one of the state’s oldest communities. But there’s a disagreement over who is responsible for fixing up the site, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and just how the place can ever reopen.

Amy Allgood, executive director of the Nebraska City Tourism and Commerce office, said visitors to the city frequently ask about visiting the attraction and when it will be open. But Allgood said she has no answers.

“We would like to know more,” she said.

Some background: The Mayhew Cabin was built in 1854, before Nebraska was a state, using cottonwood hewn on the site.


A bird's nest in shown in a window sill of the Mayhew Cabin. It's unknown whether the site will reopen; the foundation that owns the property doesn't have the funds to do the work, and attempts to sue the city for damages have been unsuccessful. 

In the 1930s, the cabin was moved northward a few yards to facilitate the construction of Nebraska Highway 2 through town. That’s when the history-minded owner of the cabin launched it as a tourist destination. He built an underground tunnel from the cabin to a nearby ravine to replicate an underground hiding place that, according to legend, used to house escaping slaves at the cabin’s original location. “John Brown’s Cave” was born.

But historians have differed over whether the cabin was ever a stop on the Underground Railroad and whether John Brown ever visited.

The late Jim Potter, a researcher for the Nebraska State Historical Society, concluded in a 2002 article that while Brown had traveled several times between Kansas and Nebraska, there was no proof he ever visited the cabin.

But his research, and a book written by Van Winkle, do say that a group of black slaves most likely did pass through Nebraska City in early 1859; the group had been freed during a raid led by Brown in Missouri. The slaves were accompanied by an associate of Brown, John Kagi, whose sister, Barbara Mayhew, lived in the cabin with her husband, Allen.

Years later, a son of the Mayhews wrote that he once saw Kagi and a group of 11 or 12 slaves eat breakfast at the Mayhew Cabin, as they hurriedly fled northward from Missouri, having passed through Kansas. That same son said there was never an underground tunnel at the cabin that sheltered such runaways.

In recent years, the name of the attraction has emphasized the Mayhew Cabin over John Brown, recognizing the historic importance of the 12-by-18-foot structure and the role of Kagi, who was killed in John Brown’s ill-fated attempt to start a slave uprising by raiding a weapons arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859.


Cathleen Van Winkle, the president of the Mayhew Cabin Foundation, walks through the museum building in Nebraska City on Wednesday.

But then the rains came, flooding a ravine that dead-ends just north of the cabin at least three times during spring 2019. The flooding filled the tunnel, rendering it dangerous and unfit for visitors, according to Van Winkle, as well as ruining a walkway in the ravine used by visitors leaving the tunnel.

Three lawsuits have been filed by the Mayhew Cabin and Historical Village foundation. They maintain that the City of Nebraska City was at fault for diverting storm runoff from a housing area through the cabin and cave site. Van Winkle said the city also failed to maintain a culvert that drains runoff from the ravine through a pipe that runs underneath the Mayhew Cabin museum.

She said that she suspects that the drainage culvert has collapsed underneath the museum and is causing the structure, which has a noticeable tilt in its floor, to sink.

The acting city administrator for Nebraska City, Marty Stovall, declined to comment about the lawsuits. But the city, in a legal answer filed to the most recent lawsuit, said that the damage was caused by “an extraordinary force of nature” and that the drainage culvert is the property of the Mayhew foundation, which failed to maintain it. In addition, the city claims it has sovereign immunity from such claims.


This exhibit is in the museum building for the Mayhew Cabin and John Brown's Cave, which have been closed since flooding in 2019. 

The first two lawsuits filed by the Mayhew foundation, both in 2019, were tossed out after Van Winkle, who doesn’t have a law license, was denied authority to represent the foundation. A third lawsuit was filed this year, but the local attorney who volunteered to represent the Mayhew foundation without pay filed a motion recently to withdraw from the case.

That leaves the future of that lawsuit uncertain. Van Winkle said she hopes to convince the volunteer lawyer to stay on the case or to find another attorney to take up the cause. A hearing to allow the current lawyer to withdraw is scheduled Oct. 5.

Allgood, the local tourism director, said her organization is willing to help write grants and line up funds to help fix up the cave and museum but hasn’t been contacted by the Mayhew foundation.

Van Winkle, though, said she doubts whether local tourism officials can line up enough grant funds to do the repairs that are necessary. She said she first wants to see if the lawsuit is successful before pursuing any emergency fundraising drive.

“It’s going to take a small miracle,” Van Winkle said.

Our best staff images of September 2020, 402-473-9584


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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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