Have you ever heard the weird tale of McKissick Island? If you’re like most people in Nebraska, the name won’t ring a bell – and there’s probably a good reason for that. You see, McKissick Island isn’t physically in Nebraska. It’s not even an island. In fact, you have to go through Iowa and Missouri to get to it by land, even though it’s legally part of Nemaha County.
After learning about this bizarre little piece of Nebraska history, I had to go see it for myself. So I packed up the family and we headed down to take a look at this Nebraska island that isn’t in Nebraska and isn’t really an island.
This mess of state lines right here is where McKissick Island makes its home. Inside that 5,000 acre apostrophe-shaped outline is an "island" of Nebraska. It all started in the 1840s, before the state lines for Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri were clearly defined. A family named McKissick bought the land, which at that point actually was an island outlined by a little eastern extension of the Missouri river. In 1867, just four months after the borders were officially drawn and Nebraska entered the union, a flood rerouted the Missouri. Some people say a Kansas earthquake around the same time had something to do with the river's movement. The little apostrophe-shaped island was no longer hugged around its perimeter by the Missouri River; it was now wholly connected to Missouri.
Missouri tried to claim McKissick Island as its own in 1904 in a Supreme Court suit. Nebraska argued that the boundary lines had already been decided, and McKissick Island was still part of the state, river or no river. The court sided with Nebraska, saying that a landowner should not expect to lose a chunk of his land through no fault of his own when a river changes course. The judge told the states that they could either deal with the boundaries as they were determined in 1895 (which placed the island in Nemaha County) or ask for a new land survey. A swift 95 years later, the states did just that.
In 1999, a surveying company again placed the island firmly, if not physically, within Nebraska's boundary. The survey led to the Missouri-Nebraska Compact which was signed into law by then-President Clinton.
Throughout the years, residents of McKissick's Island found creative ways to deal with their unique geographical situation. After the island's only school closed in 1956, an agreement with the Hamburg, Iowa school district meant that McKissick kids could attend classes there. Nemaha County sometimes sends machinery over to perform maintenance tasks on the five miles of roads, but they also rely on the services of a local farmer who they've hired to do some things.
The island was, at one time, home to around 30 families. The numbers continued to dwindle until there was only one house left in 2011. That's the year a catastrophic flood put the entire island under several feet of water.
The flood wiped out the last remaining house. It tore down buildings and toppled trees. What had once been a tiny, quirky home to a handful of farming families was now just fields with a few damaged farm buildings.
The last family moved out of McKissick's Island when the flood destroyed their home. Several families still farm here, but they live in nearby towns like Hamburg, Iowa.
These pictures show what the island looks like today. It's mostly fields with some irrigation equipment, farm machinery, and a few very torn-up old sheds. We didn't get up close to all of the buildings, but we did approach two of the old torn-up storage buildings.
When exploring, we were careful not to touch or take anything. There were no "No Trespassing" signs and there were no other people in sight. No cars passed on the roads. We seemed to be the only people on the island.
In fact, the only other living things we encountered on the trip were the flocks of birds that took off as we drove and walked around.
And although we didn't see another soul while there, there was evidence of critters all around. Deer tracks in the soil and badger dens (I'm pretty sure they were badger dens, anyway) indicated that plenty of wildlife still inhabits McKissick Island.
The farm buildings that we explored were full of evidence of the 2011 flood. It was as if someone had picked up the sheds, still full of stored items, and given them a good shake.
Chunks of dead grass, field debris, and dirt were scattered across the concrete floor, sitting right where the flood left them when the water receded.
Much of the exterior metal had been ripped away by the forceful flood waters and the items inside were smashed, rusted, and in disarray.
A few antique implements were sitting out, looking like they had seen some interesting things in their day.
These abandoned items - covered in rust, dirt, and years of solitude - close out a fascinating part of Nebraska's history. Nemaha County doesn't foresee handing over the land to Missouri anytime soon, thanks to the considerable tax revenue they earn from the little island.
Will the island ever be inhabited again? Only time will tell if the families who grew up here decide to return, or if a new crop of McKissick Islanders will eventually move in. The land is said to be very fertile, and it sure is beautiful out there.