This is a history of the Saratoga neighborhood in North Omaha. Centered at North 24th Street and Ames Avenue, it is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Omaha. It is also has one of the most abandoned historic legacies of any neighborhood in the city.
A century after the town was founded, almost any memory of Saratoga town was gone as the neighborhood flourished and was swallowed whole by Omaha. Streetcars shuttled shoppers around its shopping district, and its homes were packed with middle class families reaching up. However, by the 1970s the neighborhood was suffering the effects of white flight and divestment. It still hasn’t recovered.
This is a history of the Saratoga neighborhood, also known as the Town of Saratoga, also known as Sulphur Springs, including West Saratoga, also known as Cherry Hill also known as Central Park.
Wild West Roots (Pre-1856)
Although Native Americans once saw it as prime hunting land, the high prairies and savannah land that once comprised North Omaha between the cliffs and North 33rd Street was seen by whites as a wide swatch of territory ripe for development. In 1856, town founded Erastus Beadle launched that process in earnest.
Saratoga was originally a large township that actually filled from the river west to about North 56th Street, from present-day Locust Street on the south to at least Kansas Avenue in the north. The oldest part of the town was around 24th and Ames Avenue, where the Grand Hotel (aka Brownell Hall) was located. Several houses stood there through the pioneer era into the 1920s, and maybe to present times.
The town’s school became present-day Saratoga Elementary School, and operated continuously from the 1860s through 2018. Of course, Brownell Hall became Brownell-Talbot Academy, which is the other lasting vestige of the town.
Some of the other original fixtures in the town of Saratoga included a post office by North 24th and Grand; businesses including a blacksmith and a general store; and at least one church. There were at least 50 houses there within a year of its settlement. There was a road that ran west from town about two miles west to a village called West Saratoga, and today that road is Grand Avenue.
Founding A Town
It’s the summer of 1856, and you crossed your Prairie Schooner wagon at the Lone Tree Ferry from old Kanesville. You decided to head north to find land near the fertile Missouri River Valley basin. You trot along the savannah-like prairie north of Omaha, originally thinking you’d stay at the grimy former Mormon town of Florence.
Foot prints along the old Indian trail you’re traveling get you anxious about stopping for the night, when in the distance you see a little town emerge from the grasses and trees around you. Before you know it you’re engulfed in a dusty frontier town called Saratoga.
Founded in 1857, the town of Saratoga, including Sulphur Springs and West Saratoga, was a boom town in the Nebraska Territory that was born, boomed, and died on the vine within a year.
Erastus Beadle, the representative of a company of men from Saratoga Springs, New York, came to the area first in August, 1856, just after the opening of the Nebraska Territory to settlers. Beadle found a fat bend in the Missouri River and staked a claim. Then he went back to New York and secured funding from a group of investors.
In May 1857, Erastus came back, staying in Omaha and founding the Sulphur Springs Town Company. He secured 320 acres for the town, extending from the river to 36th Street, Fort to Locust Street. He then quickly built a dock on that bend in the river, and called it “Saratoga Bend”.
Soon after Erastus arrived, between April and August of 1857, fifty-four houses were built in Saratoga, compared to neighboring Omaha City, which took two years to accumulate that many houses. The dock brought dozens of wagons daily across the Missouri, landing settlers heading west in the newly-opened Nebraska Territory.
Beadle built a warehouse on the river to outfit settler’s wagons. A lot happened that year, as settlers came through and businesses developed. A few churches were built, and businesses grew up in the area. A group formed to build a grand hotel at the springs called the Saratoga Springs Hotel, and the First Nebraska Territorial Legislature granted a charter to a group in order to build the University of Nebraska in Saratoga. The first church in town was Congregational, and opened in the 1860s.
Sulphur Springs & West Saratoga
Sulphur Springs was one of the earliest legal docks operating on the Missouri River; there were a lot of illegal docks. Established by Erastus Beadle to serve the town of Saratoga on the Saratoga Bend of the river, it was named for an artesian spring with sulphur water. The springs flowed from the hillside at the base of Wirt Street where present-day North 13th Street would be if it existed. Sulphur Springs was located within the Saratoga township and was paid for by the same company under Beadle’s leadership.
Beadle had a straight road cut up the hill called Locust Street. It intersected with the Omaha-Florence Road, which was later made into Florence Boulevard. Saunders Road was a mile away from the intersection, and was later renamed North 24th Street. Then he gave away lots to people who committed to building on the site by July 1857.
Sulphur Springs had a blacksmith and brickmaker, a lumberyard and a sawmill, too, as well as loading docks and a warehouse for Missouri River traffic. There were also houses on the spot.
The final part of Saratoga was another village in the township originally called West Saratoga, then Cherry Hill, and now Central Park. It was about two miles west, at N. 42nd and Grand Avenue. West Saratoga was a country village that had a schoolhouse and a general store. The school served as the Congregational church, too.
The Founder Left (1858)
Something happened along the road to success, both for the Sulphur Springs Town Company and Erastus Beadle. In June, he was offered the job of postmaster for Saratoga, and declined. 34-year-old Erastus’ fiscal backers were losing money, and Erastus became anxious about getting home to New York and his wife and three kids.
On July 20, 1857, he resigned from the company, and soon after left town. He bought a farm he called “Rock Brook” at the present-day location of the Happy Hollow Country Club, and then he was gone.
Then, in August of 1857, a panic rocked financial markets around the world. Wildcat bankers throughout eastern Nebraska were going under, including one led by the same men who ran the Sulphur Springs Town Company.
In October 1857, Saratoga went broke, and within a month the town was abandoned. In 1858, Beadle sold the deed to his farm and moved back to his family in New York. He became a successful publisher whose legacy is recognized today for his contributions to publishing in America.
Existing in a Early Town
Saratoga didn’t stop existing after Beadle left. With his departure and the company’s formal abandonment of the town, all formal elements of its existence ceased. However, there were homes and businesses, a church and stores, light industry and other institutions that stayed there.
A one-room schoolhouse was built on the northeast corner of 24th and Ames in 1866 to serve as the Saratoga School. As early as 1869, there was a school at 42nd and Grand in District 42 in West Saratoga. The Brownell Hall moved to Omaha in 1866, and that building at 24th and Grand became the Grand Hotel, which eventually became the Saratoga Hotel. Rebuilt at 24th and Ames in the 1890s, the Saratoga Hotel eventually housed a longtime drugstore that became Lane’s Rexall, as well as the neighboring storefronts for Johnson’s Hardware, a liquor store, and a dry cleaner.
The Saratoga post office closed when the town folded in 1858. A man important to Nebraska state history, Alexander McCandlass, bought a quarter of Section 20 in Saratoga in 1859. McCandlass actually had to take the Nebraska Territory to court in order to enforce the claim he’d made on the land, but reportedly he eventually sold it for a healthy profit.
The Brownell Hall School opened in the old hotel in 1861, led by the ambitious Episcopalian Bishop William Wentworth. In 1866, he moved the school to South 10th Street near his mansion in Omaha’s original Gold Coast neighborhood. The Douglas County Agricultural Society was organized in 1868 in Saratoga, and held it’s first fair on land at Laird and Boyd Streets, and 16th and 20th Streets, that year.
The Saratoga Brewery opened at 16th and Commercial Avenue in 1862, and eventually became the Storz Brewery, one of Omaha’s powerhouses through the 1960s. It moved to Sherman Avenue aka North 16th Street in the 1880s. Founded in the 1860s, the Congregational church was eventually known as Fourth Congregational Church, and then Plymouth Congregational.
In 1866, much of the area was platted into the posh Kountze Place subdivison, and in 1877 it was annexed into Omaha. The Sulphur Springs addition was added into the City of Omaha around the same time, and featured much of the land that was valuable to the town of Saratoga.
The fairgrounds stayed there for the next 30 years, eventually becoming part of the grand Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition. While Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was located in Saratoga, and the hotel was packed with visitors while streetcars plied in and out of the neighborhood’s streetcar barn, all vestiges of this being a pioneer town disappeared. Streets were paved in bricks before the crowds came for the Expo, and all the olden days appeared gone forever.
In the 1880s and 1890s, the neighborhood was served with citywide passenger service by the Belt Line Railway. This railroad sliced through the southern part of the neighborhood by Taylor Avenue. There was a local depot south of Ames on North 22nd Street called the Oak Chatham Station, and passengers from the Saratoga neighborhood could ride the rails to Walnut Hill, Lake Street, Druid Hill, or downtown to the Webster Street Station.
2,000 people gathered to celebrate when the YMCA Athletic Park opened on the northeast corner of N. 24th and Ames in 1899. The park included a quarter-mile bicycle and running track, a baseball diamond, trap shooting, handball, quoits and cricket, as well as tennis courts. There were showers, baths, rubbing tables and dressing rooms, too. It was gone by the 1930s.
Another area in the Saratoga township emerged in the 1870s called West Saratoga. With a schoolhouse and mercantile store, there were several of houses in the immediate area on small lots by 1879. In 1885, the West Saratoga School was built, and the town began to be called Cherry Hill instead. The school, originally located on the southwest corner of North 42nd and Grand Avenue, was rebuilt later and called Central Park School, and the neighborhood was called Central Park around 1900. Its disassociation with Saratoga was complete by then.
Saratoga in the 20th Century
The Saratoga neighborhood infilled by the 1920s, hitting its stride into the 1960s. From the 1890s through the 1960s, the intersection of N. 24th and Ames Avenue was a bustling, busy commercial district. With street cars running straight through the area and a major street car barn located near the intersection, there was a lot of traffic.
After a Saratoga School being built and then going into non-usage in the 1890s, a new school was built for the neighborhood at N. 25th and Meredith Ave in 1927. This was a modern building built in dark brown bricks, and was an exceptional building for its time. The building is still in use today, with major interior and minor exterior renovations through the years.
Across the street from the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer at North 24th and Larimore, Bickell’s Meat Market was a long-standing and popular store. In addition to the A and P Supermarket, other businesses after the turn of the century included another supermarket, a Rexal drug store, a dinner, and other stores. Star Liquor Store and LaRue Barbershop were also at the intersection. The A&P building is still standing today, with the front windows boarded over. The building where the Rexal, liquor store and barbershop was demolished in the 1990s. In the theatre building on the southeast corner of North 25th and Ames were a series of businesses, including a Safeway that was at 2421 Ames Avenue from 1916 to 1950.
Borden’s Ice Cream Shop was located at 2415 Ames, serving malted milk, ice cream flavors, and sundaes. It was open from at least the 1910s through the 1950s. This building was demolished in the 1980s. The Third Church Christ Scientist was built next door to the Stroud Mansion in 1950. The Stroud home was built in 1905, and demolished in the late 1960s to make room for the Florence Tower, which stands there today. In the early 1960s, Plymouth Congregational Church merged with Irvington Congregational and moved to northwest Omaha.
While the earliest road to the town of Saratoga was Saunders Street, once called Main Street in Saratoga, perhaps the most distinguishing road in the town at the turn of the century was Florence Boulevard. Traveling north from the city of Omaha, it was a finely cared for roadway, and was among the first major paved roadways in Omaha. Because of its importance, there were early gas stations, hotels and a variety of other services along the way, including in Saratoga.
Druid Hall was built for the local Woodmen of the World chapter in 1917. The storefronts pictured above include a millinery (hat maker) and a hardware store. In addition to those, there was a bowling alley and gambling room in the basement of this building. The upper floor had a large ballroom and women’s room, as well as a full kitchen. The first floor also had a meeting room. After scrounging up funds for construction, the Woodmen operated the hall through the 1940s. From then through the 1970s, an American Legion Post operated the building. In the 1970s, the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Nebraska took control of the building and continue to operate there. These Prince Hall Masons provide very important social and cultural activities for North Omaha.
The intersection of 24th and Ames was completely vibrant during this era. It had mundane, day-to-day businesses as well as entertainments for people from the broader community beyond. The streetcars would bring in commuters, cars would zip around corners, a bank, a couple of grocery stores and a movie theatre, as well as the Druid Hall, were happening centers where friends would see each other and the neighborhood would buzz.
Men worked in the factories and warehouses along the Belt Line, and there was a sense of industriousness. By this point, all the churches were well-established and growing, including the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Holy Family Catholic Church, Pearl Memorial Methodist to the north, and the Presbyterian churches to the south. Saratoga was happening in the 1950s.
From the early 20th century through the 1960s, lots of businesses made their homes throughout Saratoga. There were large city-wide service laundries that brought their wares in from around town on the Belt Line, as well as light manufacturing places making new goods. There was also a large lumberyard, coal store, and milling operation in Saratoga.
After passenger service mostly ended in the early 1900s, the Belt Line’s owners at the Missouri Pacific Railroad kept it’s relevance by promoting its usage as an industrial line. Suddenly, factories sprang up throughout North Omaha along the Belt Line. In the Saratoga neighborhood, a monument maker, a few major industrial laundries, a tractor manufacturer, and other industries sprang up along the line. Although the line was ripped out of the neighborhood in the 1990s, it’s legacy is still obvious with all the industrial operations in Saratoga today.
The North Star Theatre was a beacon of the Saratoga neighborhood, and is among the 20 movie theaters located in North Omaha over the last century. Built it 1926, the theater sat 500 when it opened. Just like most neighborhood theaters at the time, North Star had one screen. The building was laid out in an L-shape, with a lobby around the corner from the screen. The building was renovated in 1946, with the front looking like the picture above. The theater was closed by the 1960s, and has been used as a warehouse since then. After the Safeway mentioned earlier, the Roh Food Mart was in the theatre building at 2421 Ames Avenue from 1950 to 1957.
As this article shows, Saratoga wasn’t always a sedate, secluded neighborhood in North Omaha. When it was a leafy suburb just after WWII, the Spot Bar opened at 2305 Ames Avenue. In 1954, that bar was heavily damaged by a bomb made mostly from gunpowder. A 29-year-old man was charged with the incident after refusing a lie-detector test. The owner of the bar, Clarence Ziegler, reported more than $1,000 damage to the building. The suspect had been kicked out of the bar the previous April after a domestic dispute there. Apparently, the bar never opened again.
Beverly Blackburn was a youth worker in North Omaha for more than a decade before she started the John F. Kennedy Recreation Center in 1965. During the following five years, youth at the center enjoyed recreational, educational and empowerment activities. There were classes, programs, drop-in times and field trips throughout Omaha and beyond. In 1966, the City of Omaha took control of the JFK Center. In 1968, Blackburn died young, and in 1970 the City of Omaha shut down the JFK Center permanently. At the same time, the City of Omaha fought against the great work in this neighborhood by Beverly Blackburn and others in the neighborhood. Blackburn’s memory lives on though, with the nearby Blackburn Alternative School named in memorial to her.
The zenith of the Saratoga neighborhood came in 1966. That year, riots struck 24th Street south of the neighborhood. A few years earlier in 1963, African Americans began moving into the neighborhood when the Fair Housing Act was passed. With both of those events, white flight struck the neighborhood and white people moved from Saratoga en masse. Systematic divestment by the City of Omaha set in and the streets, sidewalks, empty lots and overall lack of investment by city planners and the Omaha City Council continue to prove as testimony for their strategy of benign neglect in North Omaha even today.
Since the 1960s, most of the commercial core of Saratoga has been demolished. The streetcar barn on the southeast corner, the commercial buildings on the northeast corner, the commercial buildings on the southwest corner and many of the buildings along the old Belt Line are all gone. The Belt Line was ripped out in the 1980s, and that corridor has been left to rot since then.
Recently, the Prince Hall Masons succeeded in having their century-old headquarters building placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and today the Druid Hall stands as a testimony of the past grandeur and significance of Saratoga. Omaha Public Schools has substantially redeveloped Saratoga Elementary School over the last decade. The A&P Supermarket building at 4515 North 24th Street still stands, and is currently used for storage, while the North Star Theater still stands across from the Druid Hall.
A lost pioneer legacy in Saratoga means the city has to work that much harder to secure the legacy of the neighborhood.
Saratoga Historical Tour
Today, there are few traces of the old frontier boom town and growth throughout the years…
- Site of the Erastus Beadle residence – Built in New York and shipped to Saratoga in pieces, the house was located immediately east of the fair grounds near N. 16th and Sprague Streets.
- Saratoga School – Originally built in 1866, the school was located at 2504 Meredith Avenue, on the corner of 24th and Ames, and at its current location, which was built in 1923.
- Site of the Saratoga Brewery – Opened by Richard Siemon in 1854, it was located at the present-day junction of North 16th Street and Commercial Avenue. It was bought by a few other people, eventually including Gottlieb Storz who eventually transformed it into the Storz Brewery.
- Site of the Central House Hotel aka Saratoga Springs Hotel – Later serving as the first home for the Brownell Hall, it was located at North 24th and Grand Streets.
- Site of the Saratoga Bend – This section of the Missouri River was cut-off in a large flood, forming present-day Carter Lake.
- Site of Sulphur Springs – This was a shipping area created along the river meant to house the town’s industry.
- Main Street – Located at 24th and Grand Streets.
- Oldest House – 2527 Ames Avenue may be the only direct evidence of the town of Saratoga today. The brick facade is designed in the vernacular style that was popular throughout the Nebraska frontier towns of that era. Staring at that building from every angle, its easy to see its older than the Douglas County Assessor’s records indicate.
- Site of the Omaha Driving Park – From approximately 1875 through the 1910s, Saratoga was home to a race track that also served as the Nebraska State Fairgrounds and the Douglas County Fairgrounds. During the 1898 Trans Mississippi Exposition, it was home to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
- Druid Hall, 2412 Ames Avenue. Opened in 1915, this was one of the preeminent social halls in North Omaha for 50 years. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.
- North Star Theatre, 2413 Ames Avenue. Opened in 1926, it was renamed the Ames Theater in the late 1950s and closed in 1967. It offered new movies for almost 50 years, andwas one of more than 20 theatres in North Omaha history.
- Site of Borden Ice Cream, 4414 North 24th Street.
- A & P Supermarket, 4515 North 24th Street. It was once a Hinky Dinky. This building has been repurposed, but is still standing.
- La Rue Scalp Specialist, 2300 Ames Ave.
- Omaha and Council Bluffs Streetcar Company Barn, N. 24th and Ames Ave.
- Suburban Theatre, 4414 North 24th St. – Opened by 1914.
- Former Omaha Fire Department Station 15, 2202 Ames Ave.
- Star Liquor Store, 2414 Ames Ave.
- Saratoga Stables, 2501 Taylor Ave.
- La Rue Restaurant, 2251 Ames Ave.
- Spot Bar, 2305 Ames Ave.
- Saratoga Stables, 2501 Taylor Ave. Built in 1871, these stables are among the oldest remnants of the former Town of Saratoga.
- Saratoga Laundry, 4322 North 24th St. A Lozier Corporation warehouse sits here now.
- Johnson’s Hardware, 24th and Ames Ave.
- Oak Chatham Station, 22nd and Belt Line Railway from the 1880s to 1904.
- Pearl Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church,2377 Larimore Ave. Originally built as Pearl in 1905, this church became home to the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in 1915. Today its home to Iglesia Pentecostes Roca de Salvacion.
- Third Church Christ Scientist, 2118 Browne St. Built in 1950, today its home to Bethlehem Baptist Church.
- Stroud Company, Florence Blvd and the Belt Line Railway. Stroud built a wagon-making-company turned road machine manufacturing factory here in the early 1900s, where it remained through the 1940s.
- Stroud Mansion, 5100 Florence Blvd. Stroud built his grand mansion on the corner of Browne and Florence Blvd in 1909. A four-story tall Neo-Classical behemoth, it was engulfed by oak trees on its two-acre setting, and was referred to as the White House or The Plantation. It was demolished in the late 1960s and replaced with the Florence Towers.
- Trinity Lutheran Church, N. 25th Street and Ames Ave. Opened in the 1880s, this congregation moved to N. 30th and Redick Ave. The North Branch of the Omaha Public Library opened there in 1921, and stayed there until 1938 when it moved to N. 29th and Ames.
- John F. Kennedy Recreation Center, 4514 N. 24th. Founded by Beverly Blackburn in 1964, the City of Omaha took control of this space the following year. However, they closed it down in 1969 after declaring the space dangerous. They bulldozed the building in the 1970s.
- Metropolitan Loan and Building Association, 4508 N. 24th. Starting in 1922, the MBLA was led by the Brown family for almost a century. Only in 2016 were they consumed by another bank.
- YMCA Athletic Park, northeast corner of N. 24th and Ames Avenue. Opened in 1899, the park included a quarter-mile bicycle and running track, a baseball diamond, trap shooting, handball, quoits and cricket, as well as tennis courts. There were showers, baths, rubbing tables and dressing rooms, too.
- Covenant Presbyterian Church, N. 27th and Pratt Streets. Founded in 1898, the church moved in 1950. During their 50-year reign in the neighborhood, Covenant was a popular and prolific place to be. The church building was likely demolished in the early 1980s to make way for the North Freeway.
- Prairie Park Club, 2605 Taylor Street. Open from 1908 to 1920, it was an exclusive hotspot for social, cultural, recreational, athletic and educational activities in the Saratoga neighborhood until it closed.
I pieced together this history from Beadle’s diary, along with other materials from when I was writing the Wikipedia article about Saratoga, and other sources. I also learned that a lot of the land in Saratoga was bought by William Bennett and Sulphur Springs Land Company in 1857, who eventually sold off a lot more property.
Finding Lost Saratoga
During the Will Brown lynching and riots of 1919, there were fires set throughout the Douglas County Courthouse. They burnt the county assessor’s office and many of the records. Both when the assessor’s staff were recovering records and when owners went to sell their buildings next, they were asked to approximate the original construction dates. Several sellers took it upon themselves to report the construction dates to be newer than they actually were; otherwise, the assessor and his staff put the year they recovered the records – 1920. So there are a spate of buildings across all of the older buildings that were constructed in 1920 or thereabouts. That year, the census does not reflect significant population growth necessitating a construction boom, ergo there are many buildings that are older than the Douglas County Assessor’s Office records.
That said, I have tracked more than a dozen buildings in Saratoga that were built around 1920. Their construction styles reflect older vernacular trends that could extend far back, perhaps during the initial building phase from 1856 through 1856, or the second phase from ’68 through ’80.
If a person was severely committed to uncovering more about the history of this community, they’d go to the Douglas County Historical Society – Nebraska at the General Crook House and research their information about Saratoga. We need an original plat map from the Town of Saratoga or one from the next 40 years to cover the difference.
Also, its important to keep in mind the differences and connectedness of Saratoga and Sulphur Springs. Sulphur Springs was essential the docks for Saratoga. However, it was supposedly entirely wiped out by an 1877 flood, so there shouldn’t be much on paper after that point.
I have studied the original diary of the town founder, Erastus Beadle, for his mentions of buildings built in the first year. We’d need to collaborate on anything built after that. As a note, that rule about the age of buildings is true across ALL of North, South and downtown Omaha. I have seen the Nebraska State Historical Society duped by the county records, as well as several other historians.
You Might Like…
- A History of North 24th Street
- A History of Florence Boulevard
- A History of the John F. Kennedy Recreation Center
- A History of the Omaha Driving Park
- A History of J. F. Bloom and Company
- A History of the Stroud Company
- A History of Stroud Mansion
- Show #9: The Town of Saratoga, North Omaha History Podcast
- “A Thousand and One Little Delays: Training the Missouri River at Omaha, 1877-1883” by Lawerence Carroll Allin for the Nebraska State Historical Society
- Ham, Eggs and Corn Cake: A Nebraska Territory diary by E. F. Beadle
|Another picture of the A and P Super Market at North 24th and Ames Avenue. This building still stands today.|