Downtown Grand Island Reborn Along the Rails

Hall County Courthouse anchors the southeast corner of Railside.

AJ Dahm

Grand Island was less than a decade old when Union Pacific Railroad arrived in 1866. Trains brought businessmen, investors, residents and criminals. While opera houses, cathedrals and storefronts glistened in the light, gambling and prostitution raged in the shadows.

Illicit business was so good that it put Grand Island on the map. Citizens used to turning a blind eye to the debauchery were horrified when a 1952 issue of Look magazine placed Grand Island on a national map of 25 “sin cities.” Residents demanded change.

Police chief Joe Bosler padlocked the brothels, and his men raided every gambling club in Grand Island. Bosler, who was born in the community in 1906, told The Grand Island Independent in 1992 that he remembered “prostitutes being pulled in horse-drawn hacks” when he was a boy, and wives complaining of husbands gambling away all their money.

The crackdown allowed residents to trade shame for community pride when Grand Island was declared an All-American City in 1955.

Grand Island continues to grow and improve. Downtown, developers are renovating buildings, and entrepreneurs are creating new businesses within sight of the tracks. With an eye toward preserving architecture and downtown’s railroad history, they are reviving the district rebranded in 2015 as Railside.

Nearly 52,000 residents live in Grand Island today. The Platte River flows south of town near Interstate 80, and Union Pacific’s rails run northeast to southwest through the heart of downtown, where they form Railside’s northern border. The district stretches for 10 blocks along the tracks, and narrows to a point where Walnut and Charles streets meet southwest of the Hall County courthouse.

Third Street parallels the rails, and with a variety of restaurants, trendy bars, coffee shops, clothing boutiques and antique stores, the thoroughfare is the hub of Railside’s activity.

Those businesses join longtime landmark attractions to make the area an entertainment destination where parking spots are at a premium and shoppers stroll from shop to shop. Those wishing to be closer to the energy can dine in sidewalk cafes, attend outdoor concerts at Railside Plaza, and live in spacious luxury apartments inside historic Railside buildings.

Old-timers say that the building at Third and Sycamore was a notorious den of debauchery during World War II. Well, the upstairs, anyway. Michelle Setlik, not an old-timer, researches downtown’s sordid past. “There were long rows of small rooms up there barely big enough for a bed. Definitely a brothel,” Setlik said. “Being by the railroad, there was lots of action.”

Apartments fill that space today, and the ground floor is The Chicken Coop restaurant. The brothel’s many doors form the restaurant’s wooden booths.

Sin was tolerated as a necessary evil. Prostitutes were rounded up monthly, and the fines they paid went to the city school fund. “We tax booze and cigarettes today,” Setlik said. “Prostitution was Grand Island’s earliest sin tax.” 

Some of downtown’s notorious activity persisted into more recent times. With many of the players still living, residents are hesitant to talk. Only with promises of anonymity were we led into the dark basement of a building on Pine Street, past coal tunnels once doubling as escape routes for working girls. A painting was unscrewed from the wall to reveal a small door leading from one room to another. Even as late as the 1990s, gamblers would come down the back steps from the alley, hand their cash through the door and wager without ever seeing the bookie on the other side of the wall.

Steps away, downtown dining is never a gamble for fans of Coney Island Lunch Room at 104 E. Third St. George Katrouzos runs the diner his grandfather bought for $600 during the Great Depression. The 1933 menu hangs on the wall: T-bone steaks, 35 cents each; ham sandwiches, a dime. Prices have changed, but the restaurant’s look hasn’t. “We paint, repair, upgrade the kitchen, but always leave Coney Island looking the same,” Katrouzos said. “People tell us not to change.”

Where lines to the nearby brothel once stretched past Coney Island’s front door, customers line up for the Katrouzos family’s famous Coney dogs slathered with their special chili. The recipe and restaurant have remained unchanged through good times and bad. 

For the rest of the story see the May/June 2019 issue of Nebraska Life.

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