An Early History of Carter Lake

Everything begins somewhere. For Omaha’s Carter Lake, it was as a fun-filled day in the water for all kinds of people. Following is the early history of the place. It includes a waterfront boardwalk, hotels, a resort, clubs and an amusement park.
An early postcard for “Where we used to bathe” at Cut-Off Lake in the (est) 1890s.
Sailboats plying on the waters of Lake Nakoma in the (est) 1890s.

People need things to do. That’s even more true when a city’s population booms.

Omaha boomed more than once. The biggest boom happened between 1890 and 1900, when the population skyrocketed almost 321% in the ten years. The number of city residents zoomed from 30,000 people to 140,000 residents.

As the population burst, people needed places to go and things to do. With few public parks and a raging gambling and prostitution scene, there weren’t a lot of things for families and particularly children to do. There were a lot of ambitious businessmen, and were willing to try different ventures.

Lake Nakoma was a place to make a few bucks from meeting residents’ recreation needs.

The bungalows lining the lake, and the long, low lawns leading to the water in the (est) 1900s.
Another (est) 1900s image of the bungalows, with sailboats, rowboats, and a kayak cramming the beach.

 


Making Money from Nature

Originally owned almost wholly by one of the city’s richest men, the land around Cutoff Lake was a formally incorporated town called East Omaha in the early 1860s. After a court case many years later, it was acknowledged as being in Iowa and was renamed after an industrialist in the area named Levi Carter, and today the town on the south end of the lake is called Carter Lake. The land to the north of the lake is called East Omaha now. In 1853, an early founder of Omaha Edmond Jefferies filed a claim on 30 acres of land in what is now known as Carter Lake, Iowa. The Missouri River slowly shifted its channel over the next dozen years, and Jefferies original 30 acres became 78 acres. Ed Creighton, one of the namesakes of Creighton University and a very rich man, bought the land in the 1870s.

“Carter Lake Moonlight”, circa 1920.
The Carter Lake Club House was located near the intersection of Cornish Boulevard and Carter Lake Drive, circa 1910. After lasting more than 60 years, it went up in a fire in 1975.

By then, that shift in the river left an Oxbow Lake behind. Eventually known as Lake Nakoma or Cut-Off Lake, it was a few miles north of downtown Omaha and just across the way from North Omaha. Renowned for its natural beauty, it was said that this lake “is unsurpassed for its purity and absolute freedom from organic matter.” The Arctic Ice Company plundered the lake throughout the winter to fill the city’s ice boxes all year long. (Important take-away: Originally called Oxbow Lake, the place known as Lake Nakoma, Cut-Off Lake, Lake Nakomis, and now called Carter Lake, are the same thing.)

Creighton eventually sold off his land to interested buyers, and a streetcar company was one of them.

The Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Company was owned by ambitious businessmen. In the 1880s, they bought a slice of beachfront property on what we now call Carter Lake. The Company opened it to the public in the 1890s.

Boats and canoes along a dock with bungalows and buildings in the background in (est) 1890s.
An (est) 1880s postcard from the Lake.

 


Growing Demand

Back then, hopping on one of the company’s trolleys was the best way to get to the beach. Fun-seekers from Near North Omaha, Florence, Benson, or the Gifford Park neighborhood and others across the city could also get to Cutoff Lake relatively easily by walking, bicycling, or wagoning along Locust Street, or meandering in their early auto along Omaha’s boulevard system.

Early on in the 1890s, the company sold lots along the shorelines of Lake Nakoma. The city’s residents came in droves, playing on the beach, renting boats and canoes for rowing across the lake, and swimming in the smooth, safe waves lapping across it’s surface. In 1903, a court awarded an injunction against a hot air balloon pilot operating off the lake, forcing him to stop damaging the plants at Courtland Beach.

In 1890, the Omaha Bee newspaper reported that there were four resorts on the lake. The one at Cortland Beach was said to be “more pretentious, having neat dining room and lunch rooms and a number of well kept boats. The beach here is sandy and clean and the bathing and fishing unexcelled.”

In 1905, fifteen sportsmen founded the Omaha Rod & Gun Club. They may have been the most important among the many private clubs along the lake, many of which built bungalows and docks for all kinds of recreation. Along with watercraft and shooting, there was incredible fishing. As early as the 1890s, the State of Nebraska had been stocking the lake, and ornithologists flocked to the lake’s shores to watch for the beautiful flocks that swarmed up and down the Missouri River Valley.

Crowds on the shore at the Gun and Rod Club in the (est) 1890s.
A later (est) 1900s image of the Gun and Rod Club at the lake.

 


A Date at Courtland Beach

Imagine a warm summer evening at the turn of the century. Look out on Carter Lake and see the lightning bugs flickering and listen to the cicadas roaring. Now picture yourself strolling along a boardwalk wrapped along the edge of the lake. Walking by clubs and docks with sailboats bobbing in the darkness, you see cottages and restaurants all crowding the edge. Then you see a brightly lit amusement park.

By then, the shores of the lake were most developed at Courtland Beach. Starting as a resort with a big building and gazebos, by then a newspaper said that Courtland was a “swimming hole turned amusement park” that, at its peak, had all the best rides. Home to one of the area’s first roller coasters in the late 1890s, Courtland was popular with adults and children.

The Omaha Rod and Gun Club clubhouse was at Courtland Beach by 1909. After the original operator went out of business in 1909, the Rod and Gun Club bought Courtland Beach in an effort to expand their membership.

In 1912, the Courtland Beach amusement park was looking for people to operate its different activities. The operator, a man named J.W. Munchhoff, advertised that it was the only amusement park operating in the Omaha area. He reported that with over 203,000 residents to advertise to, the .5¢ would make new operators “big money.” Munchhoff advertised that the park already had four bowling alleys, a mammoth roller skating rink, boating, a rolling ball game, and sold popcorn and peanuts, etc. He wanted an operator for the merry-go-round and ferris wheel, as well as outdoor acts and musical attractions.

Later that same year, an industry newspaper reported that Munchhoff succeeded. The park added an outdoor vaudeville theater and installed 1,000 seats for three daily performances. A ride called a Carry-Us-All as well as a new Ferris Wheel were installed, too. That year, there were pavilions and a ballroom at Courtland Beach, too, and dating there was the best fun in the area.

There were races all over the area. Bicyclists had an oval track early on, where they later brought motorcycles, including Indians and Harley Davidsons, to race. A World War I hero named Eddie Richenbacher became a car racer, racing on a track at Courtland Beach in the late 1910s and averaging over 91.7 miles per hour.

Courtland Beach was always busy, and the lake was the place to be.

The resort at Courtland Beach in (est) 1890, packed with boats, and a red boathouse to the north.
The (est) 1890s postcard of the roller coaster and a ride at the Courtland Beach amusement park.
A token from the amusement park.

 


Changing Times

The entirety of the lake became popular, and stayed that way for years. Different clubs had sailing events, and between Bungalow City, the Omaha Gun Club, and a YMCA Camp, people stayed there year-around. Along with a major boathouse along Locust street, as well as hotels and club houses scattered around, there were restaurants and resorts all along the lake. There were also scruffy gambling houses, hotels, and bars along Locust Street in the town of Carter Lake.

But by the 1920s, things were changing. Krug Park, packed with a roller coaster and rides in Benson, was booming, and Peony Park on the western edge of the Omaha was hosting grand ballroom dances that Courtland couldn’t keep up with. By the 1930s, the amusement park was closed up and gone.

Amusement parks weren’t gone from Carter Lake for very long though. In the late 1940s, the City of Omaha became determined to have another amusement park on the lake, and you can learn about it here.

In the late 1930s, Civilian Conservation Corps built roads and drives around Carter Lake and cut down the rough banks of the lake. They built up the Municipal Beach and took down an old bridge to make a pier, and built stout bathhouses that still stand today. They also planted trees and shrubs by the thousands, set up picnic stoves and built rustic benches.

A (est) 1910s postcard from Carter Lake’s Rod and Gun Club


Today

Today, there are no signs of Courtland Beach or the former glory that lined Carter Lake. But those lightning bugs still glow, cicadas still roar, and every now and then, people have dates at the lake. The grand Carter Lake Club building burnt down in 1975 after a major renovation stripped it of its beauty.

On the north side of the lake, there are buildings left from other times, including the bathhouse at Municipal Beach and the pier, a remnant of a bridge that once crossed the river.

A (est) 1960s postcard of a quieter, more docile Carter Lake.
The Sea Scouts boat on Carter Lake in the (est) 1930s.


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Elsewhere Online


Bonus Pics!

Early History of Carter Lake podcast
Listen to our podcast for show #16, “An Early History of Carter Lake.”
In 1913, E.J. Cornish built an “artistic ice house” where the Hammond Ice House was originally located on Carter Lake. The exterior was finished with stucco and wood paneling, and was large enough to store 80,000 tons of ice. It was four stories tall.
This photo shows men harvesting ice to place on the conveyor belt that would bring it back to the ice house.
This is an 1910s photo of the Carter Lake Club located on the lake and pictured above in postcards.
This is the location of the Municipal Beach, opened in the 1890s and renovated in 1919 and again in 1935. It was closed by the 1950s.
 
 

8 thoughts on “An Early History of Carter Lake

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  1. Great article, mostly way before my time. Summer 1963 my brothers, and neighboring buddies would bicycle south on Florence Blvd to horseshoe bend to Carter Lake Blvd coasting all the way to 16th Street. Go in the back door the broken rail bar for the coldest pop in Omaha. Then on to Carter Lake, fishing, swimming, being kids.

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  2. ce history my family is from EastOmaha.We grew up on Carter Lake.Swimming ,fishing,boating,bicycling,or just hanging out kicking it at this lake.My father and brother are avid Metal Detectors.They have recovered some many artefacts rings,coins, etc.Really enjoy research your articles. Thank you.

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