A History of the Florence Water Works and Minne Lusa Station in North Omaha

Florence Water Works Minne Lusa Pumping Station in North Omaha, Nebraska

The Florence Water Works was once home to one of the most magnificent buildings in the entire city of Omaha. After being nearly-obliterated in 1970, MUD has rebuilt the structure to honor its 130-year history, and today the water there keeps wetting the whistle…

Historical integrity includes the original facade and interiors of old buildings. It includes some semblance of sustained commitment to the well-being of structures. The story of the Minne Lusa Station at the MUD Florence Water Treatment Plant, aka the Florence Water Works, shows just how challenging it can be.

Throughout its whole history, the city of Omaha has renovated or demolished many historical buildings. In the 1950s, the city government wrecked the Old Post Office and the Old City Hall; in the 1970s, they razed housing throughout the city, especially ripping through North Omaha. During that decade, MUD nearly demolished the gigantic beauty of the Minne Lusa Pumping Station which had once graced the city’s northern fringes. Following is a history of the Florence Water Works including the Minne Lusa Pumping Station.

Early Water in Omaha

Original Omaha Water Works, N. 6th and Burt Streets, Omaha, NE
This is a circa 1910s pic of the original Omaha water works, which were located at North 6th and Burt Streets. Here, the building is a derelict of a bygone age, and had been unused for at least 20 years.

Omaha needed water. Originally pulling water from the Missouri River in downtown Omaha or pumping water from wells in their backyards, residents wanted cleaner, more consistent water for drinking, cleaning, and plumbing. Entrepreneurs stepped in.

A postcard of the Florence Water Works, North Omaha, Nebraska
This 1900s postcard shows a view of water cascading in the settling pools at the Florence Water Works.

The City Water Works Company was a private local company established in the late 1870s in Omaha. Their original water works was located on the Missouri River near North 6th and California Streets near the Winspear Triangle. However, with all of the cows and horses and ox and people to water throughout the growing burg, that facility quickly grew inadequate. Additionally, there was a booming population north of Dodge Street that was only going to grow more along with prospects for expansion to the west and south of downtown. The City Water Works Company was formed to make money from these new residents.

A postcard of the Florence Water Works in North Omaha, Nebraska
An 1890s postcard shows cascading water and a utility building at the Florence Water Works.

Land south of the city was quickly ruled out for a new waterworks because it was downstream from downtown, where industries of all kinds regularly polluted the Missouri River. Additionally, the cliffs separating useful land from the water were too restrictive. Land near downtown in Winspear and the North Omaha Bottoms was too susceptible to flooding and was proving less-than-useful. That left the northlands beyond East Omaha. Identifying Florence Lake as a useful but under-sized resource, the entrepreneurs and City leaders looked to the little village of Florence. The area offered the right composition of land height, soil type, land availability and growth potential, and the company bought it up.

Starting construction on a massive new water filtering system along John J. Pershing Drive just south of the present-day Mormon Bridge, the facility is about seven miles north of downtown. When it was finished in 1880, the Florence Water Works was seen as a marvel. With millions of gallons of capacity, the system drew water up a hundred foot cliff from the Missouri and filtered it through several large pools.

Building a Behemoth

Florence Water Works, North Omaha, Nebraska
This circa 1925 view shows the top of the Minne Lusa Pumping Station looking over the settling basins at the Florence Water Works.

The beauty of the Florence Water Works was immediately hailed for its beauty and grandeur when it was finished. Over the years, the spectacular vision of this northern institution only grew. When it was originally built, there were only settling pools in place, along with a few utility buildings.

There were bumps along the way. In 1887, the City Water Works Company defaulted on the loans that allowed them to build the water works. The company and its facilities were purchased by the American Water Works Company that year.

Florence Water Works, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a circa 1910 postcard image of the Minne Lusa Pumping Station at the Florence Water Works.

American operated private water companies in many cities, including South Omaha and Denver, and on the East Coast. They had ambitious plans, and when they bought the system, the American Water Works Company started construction on the Minne Lusa Pumping Station almost immediately. They hired an important architecture firm in Omaha in the late 19th century called Mendelssohn, Fisher and Lawrie, who designed the Minne Lusa Pumping Station. It was built between 1888 and 1889.

A Castle in Florence?

Florence Water Works, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a southwest-facing aerial image of the Florence Water Works, circa 1915. It shows the roof of the Minne Lusa Pumping Station, the settling basins, the Missouri River intake valves, and more.

Named for a local creek that was later rerouted to the Missouri River at the north end of Minne Lusa Boulevard, the Minne Lusa Pumping Station was a beautiful, massive building made of Warrensburg sandstone. Sitting on five acres of landscaped park-like areas, the building featured a central tower rising four stories over an arched entryway, and housed a high service pump and huge boilers that filtered water flowed to the city water mains. Jim Dahlman, Omaha’s cowboy mayor, opened the station in a grand ceremony in August 1889.

Inside, the building felt enormous. It housed pumps used to churn the water through cleaning systems, and had plenty of large, open spaces that felt grand and important. Over the first few decades of the station, there were continual reports in the the society pages of Omaha’s newspaper about the superintendent hiring orchestras to play at elaborate dances held for the city’s upper crust. Taking a luxurious drive in elegant carriages along Florence Boulevard and the river road, these fancy guests marveled at the grand feats of engineering within and apparent in the building itself.

Minne Lusa Pumping Station fountain, North Omaha, Nebraska
The fountain in front of Florence’s Minne Lusa Pumping Station in 1935. The fountain was dismantled in the 1960’s and was donated to Heartland Park in 1990 by Metropolitan Utilities District.

When guests arrived at the Minne Lusa Pumping Station, they were greeted by a large granite fountain inside a 12-foot-wide wading pool. Kids would routinely visit the fountain for refreshment, basking in streams from its three monster heads spurting water from their mouths, along with a large stream projecting into the air.

Birch trees lined the pathways at the waterworks, which made for pleasant strolling along the cool pools on hot summer evenings. The entire facility was a visage from Omaha’s high Victorian era, and a lot of people developed sentimental feelings about the place.

Construction Around the Waterworks

Missouri River Intake Valves, Florence Water Works, North Omaha, Nebraska
Built in 1910 as part of the Florence Water Works, the Missouri River Intakes still stand.

Originally built in the 1910s, the Missouri River Intakes were designed to draw water from the river and into the settling ponds at the Florence Water Works. Designed in a park-like fashion along the beautiful J.J. Pershing Drive overlooking the Missouri River, they were as regal at the City’s popular Walnut Hill Reservoir. Today, although they’re fenced in and off-limits to the public, they still serve the same purpose for MUD.

Worker houses and superintendent mansions, Florence Water Works, North Omaha, Nebraska
These are the historic worker houses and superintendent’s mansion at the Florence Water Works.

Living so far from Omaha, the American Water Works Company decided to build worker’s houses on the grounds of the Florence Water Works, too. In the early 1890s, they built at least eight large, two-story American Foursquare style architecture homes, including several bedrooms, full basements and wide front porches. Located north of the Minne Lusa Pumping Station, they sat on Hunt Street, and were connected to Main Street in Florence. Hunt Street doesn’t exist anymore.

Florence, Nebraska map from 1923
This is a map of Florence from 1923. Notice the position of the Florence Water Works, including the railroad line serving it and the streets north of it that don’t exist anymore.

There was also a mansion built for the superintendent of the facility. The homes were renowned for being large, plush environments guests liked to visit because of the beauty of the water works. The superintendent regularly played host to guests, and was frequently included in the city’s newspapers’ gossip and society columns.

Florence Depot Museum, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is the former Florence Depot, once located along the Omaha Road next to the waterworks. Today, it has been moved and serves as a museum celebrating Florence’s history.

In 1895, the facility was sold by the American Water Works to a local company called the Omaha Water Works. In addition to its water business there, the new company fostered the development of a railroad line to run next to the waterworks. Built by the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railway, aka the Omaha Road, the line ran from downtown Omaha north to the Florence Depot at North 28th and Tucker Street, immediately west of the works.

Talbot's Ice House was located on the Omaha Road railroad at the Florence Water Works when this 1901 Sanborn Fire Company insurance map was made.
Talbot’s Ice House was located on the Omaha Road railroad at the Florence Water Works when this 1901 Sanborn Fire Company insurance map was made.

In addition to passenger traffic, the Florence Depot served as a loading point for the icehouse contracted by the Omaha Water Works sold ice and distributed it throughout the region. Built in the 1880s, the icehouse was run by David Talbot and ran for several years as the only icehouse in Omaha under the company named Reservoir Ice Company. Talbot was a wealthy man whose monopoly over the city’s ice industry stood for several years.

It is still in use today, with a different exterior. It was remodeled in the 1960’s to repair damage done by age and termites.

The Great Demolition

Demolishing the Minne Lusa Pumping Station, North Omaha, Nebraska
This 1970 pic shows the removal of the 1889 tower and second story from the Minne Lusa Pumping Station at the Florence Water Works.

Over the following century, a lot changed in the life of the Minne Lusa Pumping Station. Technology improved, rot set in, and significant changes were made. In all, there were four major renovations to the building over the next 100 years.

Maybe all the big changes began in 1912 when the Florence Water Works and its Minne Lusa Pumping Station were acquired by the City of Omaha. Determined to make water a public resource, Omaha worked with the county to establish a pseudo-government entity to operate its water and power needs, and called it the Metropolitan Utilities District, or MUD.

By the end of World War I, it was no longer fashionable for the well-heeled to party at the pumping station. Sometime around World War II, a fence was installed around the settling basins, and later it was expanded and raised. Probably in the 1950s the workers houses to the north of the pumping station were demolished, partly to prepare for the impending construction of the Mormon Bridge, partly for convenience.

Florence Water Works, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a north-facing aerial view of the settling basins at the Florence Water Works, circa 1970.

After operating it for almost 60 years, in 1970 MUD took the direction of local Frank N. Latenser of the firm John Latenser & Sons. Frank was an active preservation advocate who launched an effort to install a Florence History Park similar to Colonial Williamsburg. However, he was also the architect responsible for the desecration of the Minne Lusa Pumping Station. In the late 1960s, he drafted plans for the “modernization” of the plant.

Demolition was underway and redevelopment happened in the early 1970s. Latenser’s designs removed the four-story tower; removed the arched entryway; removed the fountain at the entryway, and; clad the remainder with metal siding and a new roof.

In the late 1970s the superintendent’s mansion was demolished, other facilities were constructed, and the Florence Water Works faded from Omaha’s collective imagination.

Acknowledging Historical Roots and Growing Needs

Minne Lusa Pumping Station, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is the Minne Lusa Pumping Station in February 2018, as its restoration continues. The original shapes of the building have been restored, aside from its demolished tower and second floor. The window and doorway arches have been revealed, and the exterior reflects its original look. Pic courtesy of the Metropolitan Utilities District (MUD).

A cool thing happened in 1988 when the Minne Lusa Water Works was designated an Water Landmark by the American Water Works Association. Maybe it was this designation that started to spark interest in the history of the grand old dame that once crowned North Omaha’s architectural legacy. Whatever the cause was, it worked.

Starting in 2013, MUD began exploring renovating and restoring the Florence filter plant. Local architectural firm HDR redesigned and re-engineered the structure for MUD. In addition to updating many of the engineering apparatuses within the plant, HDR succeeded in bringing back some of the historical value of the building, restoring the arched windows and installing an appropriate roof for the structure. Their work won several national awards, and the Florence Water Treatment Plant was toured by the Nebraska Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers. It is held in high regard within its field today.

Today, the Florence Water Treatment Plant is the oldest and largest water treatment facility in MUD. In 2017, MUD renovated the Minne Lusa Pumping Station. Focused on restoring the exterior to it’s original aesthetic, the project included removing and replacing the original brick around the building; rebuilding the original windows; removing and rebuilding the original main entrance; replacing the roofing, and; bringing back the original interior finishes where possible. The total investment took more than a year and cost $9.5 million dollars.

This is a 2016 aerial image of the Florence Water Works from Google Earth.
This is a 2016 aerial image of the Florence Water Works from Google Earth.

Today, the 130-year-old Minne Lusa Station stands proudly near J.J. Pershing Drive and is the site of MUD’s water treatment plant museum.

Today, the Florence Water Works continues to filter water for the city as part of MUD.

Related Articles

Elsewhere Online

Listen to a history of the Florence Water Works and the Minne Lusa Pumping Station on the North Omaha History Podcast
Listen to a history of the Florence Water Works and the Minne Lusa Pumping Station on the North Omaha History Podcast!

BONUS PICS!

he settling basins at the Florence Water Works in North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a 1958 pic of the settling basins at the Florence Water Works
Minne Lusa Pumping Station at the Florence Water Works, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a circa 1910 photo of the Minne Lusa Pumping Station at the Florence Water Works.
Florence Water Works, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a postcard of the settling basins at the Florence Water Works in the early 1890s.
Florence Water Works, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a circa 1900 stylized image of the Florence Water Works from a water industry journal.
Minne Lusa Pumping Station at the Florence Water Works, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a circa 1920 postcard image of the Minne Lusa Pumping Station at the Florence Water Works.
Hunt Street, Florence, Nebraska
This is a southeast-facing aerial view of the Florence Water Works workers houses along Hunt Street
Minne Lusa Pumping Station at the Florence Water Works in North Omaha, Nebraska
This is a circa 1915 postcard of the Minne Lusa Pumping Station at the Florence Water Works.
Settling basins at the Florence Water Works in North Omaha, Nebraska.
This is a circa 1958 aerial view of the settling basins at the Florence Water Works

Published by Adam

I am a speaker, writer and consultant focused on youth engagement. I also share the history of North Omaha, Nebraska.

10 thoughts on “A History of the Florence Water Works and Minne Lusa Station in North Omaha

      1. The fountain that originally stood in front of the building is currently located on the east side of the lagoon at Heartland of America park in downtown Omaha. The original front door and some smaller artifacts are on display inside the Pump Station.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Comments in this story about the Howell Filter Plant are inaccurate. The Howell Filter Plant is a separate structure at the Florence WTP, located to the southwest of the Minne Lusa Pump Station. The Minne Lusa Pump Station’s primary function is to pump water into the distribution system. No filtration takes place in this building.

    The Howell Filter Plant was originally constructed in three phases starting in 1924, with additions in the 1930s and 50s. In 1977, the masonry façade was removed and replaced with insulated metal panels. Renovations were completed in 2016 that included another complete façade replacement.

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  2. Children used to be allowed to splash in the fountain, but in the 50’s polio reared its’ ugly head, no one knew for sure what caused it, some children were affected so badly they were put in iron lungs, while one of my cousins just had to wear leg braces for a while. I used to love traveling down Pershing Drive both as a child and then as an adult, between the Missouri River and the ponds on MUD knowing our drinking water was very clean, plus those “ponds” were pretty concrete pools, and the grounds were also quite pretty.

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  3. I hope you get the chance to see the new renovations to the Pump Station. She will never be the grand structure that she once was but we tried to honor the history of the beautiful building. And if you want to visit the fountain, it is currently in the Heartland of America Park, along the east walkway.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The Minne Lusa Pump Station was recently recognized by the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) with an Honor Award as the Category Winner for the water and wastewater projects. See the features in th Omaha World Herald:
        https://www.omaha.com/special_sections/acec-nebraska-presents-six-honor-awards-for-engineering/article_3c0699fd-c7c8-5c37-9471-e35bf4f877a8.html

        The projects is also featured in HDR’s Portfolio:
        https://www.hdrinc.com/portfolio/minne-lusa-pump-station-improvements

        Liked by 1 person

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