Carter Lake was carved from an old channel of the Missouri River in 1877. Within a decade, it became a fun-filled place for all kinds of people. Over the next century, there were at least three amusement parks, four resorts, three ballrooms, two steamboats, a waterfront boardwalk, several hotels, six bathhouses, several members-only clubs and much, much more. There was also crime, court battles and an old streetcar! This is a history of Carter Lake, including its origins, features and stories.
Omaha Needed Places to Play
As an elbow in the Missouri River, when the west side of Carter Lake by Locust Street was a river bank, it was home to Sulphur Springs. Sulphur Springs was a little town with a logging mill, a few stores, a hotel and more where the big dream was to land steamboat traffic moving up and down the river in Nebraska’s territorial era (1856-1866). Only one steamboat ever landed there, but the sulphur springs themselves, which burst out of the cliffs east of N. 14th Street, stayed popular for another 75 years.
In 1877, Carter Lake was formed as an oxbow lake after a massive flood shifted the Missouri River channel to the east. Immediately afterward, a legal battle broke out between Nebraska and Iowa. Alternately, Nebraska claimed the land of East Omaha, including all of the present-day City of Carter Lake, and Iowa disagreed. Each wanted it, and each disparaged it. That went back and forth until 1912, when the US Supreme Court settled the matter once and for all.
After the river stopped moving in 1877, Omahans needed things to do. That’s even more true when a city’s population booms, and 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 activities. 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. Boating and swimming, fishing and hunting were early affairs. However, a criminal moved in immediately that built brothels and bars, saloons and gambling houses. As a lawless no-man’s-land between Iowa and Nebraska, this “East Omaha” area (what they called the City of Carter Lake before 1912) had no police force, and when the sheriff came around he was often found in one of the places of ill repute.
So it came to be that Carter Lake was Omaha’s most fun place to play, both for the innocent and the guilty!
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.
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.
After a court case many years later, the land was acknowledged as being in Iowa. Shortly after, it was renamed after an industrialist in the area named Levi Carter (1830-1903), and today the city on the south end of the lake is called Carter Lake. The park was named Levi Carter Park first; the lake was renamed second; afterwards, the Carter Lake Shore Drive, the City of Carter Lake, Carter Lake Club, Carter Lake Elementary School, Carter Lake Improvement Club, and the Carter Lake Ball Fields were all named for him or the lake.
Ed Creighton, one of the namesakes of Creighton University and a very rich man, bought the land in the 1870s. After he died, his brother supported a few financial endeavors by the water, as well as another popular name among Omaha’s early wealthy, Oak Redick, who was the son of John I. Redick, a real estate tycoon in early Omaha.
Cut-Off Lake Arrives
Cut-Off Lake 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 was one of three icehouses that plundered the lake throughout the winter to fill the city’s ice boxes all year long.
Important note: Originally called Oxbow Lake, the place known as Lake Nakoma, Cut-Off Lake, Lake Nakomis, Courtland Lake, and now called Carter Lake, are all the same thing.
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.
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.
Demands on the lake grew. In response, real estate agencies sold lots in places like the Rod and Gun Club, later called the Carter Lake Club, the Neptune Park subdivision and the Wavecrest addition. Businesses popped up along the boulevard and paved streets, including brothel, taverns and more.
Hanging Out at the Beach
Aside from real estate, most of the early business at Carter Lake was recreational in nature. Between 1889 and 1992, there were recorded at least four resorts, three ballrooms, and two amusement parks on the banks. What wasn’t recorded were the brothels and bars, but more on those later!
Cortland Beach was a resort and amusement park established on the south shores of Carter Lake in 1889. Built up with a roller coaster, a midway and all sorts of rides, it thrived until the turn of the century. In 1906, it was bought by the Omaha Rod and Gun Club, which kept the amusement park running for a short time and built the first seawall in town. They changed their name to the Carter Lake Club in 1912. An operator named J. W. Munchhoff ran that park through 1917.
The Carter Lake Club operated several of facilities for the next 60 years, and they sold the house lots on streets bearing their name. A movie theater, bowling alley, a new clubhouse and more were built up by the 1920s. In 1938, it was bought by Joseph Malec Sr, who also owned Peony Park. He operated the main pavilion as a bingo hall and rental facility starting in 1951. When he introduced dances in the 1960s, it became a popular performance space for bands. In 1975, an arson ravished the pavilion. In 1976, the Malec family opened a new dancehall called The Warehouse Ballroom in the former Carter Lake Club bowling alley and movie theater. It ran until 1991, when it was demolished for a new housing development at North 15th and Avenue Q Streets.
Sand Point Beach was a private beach located east of the Carter Lake Club on the northeast corner of town, and opened to the public in 1914. Some assert it was just a real estate scam, but since it was owned by Oak C. Reddick, it was real, and kinda nice. The park featured dressing rooms, rental boats and other features, it was an affordable alternative to the members-only Carter Lake Club. A new auto road was paved along present-day North 13th Street, and the beach became very popular. Amusement park operator J. W. Munchhoff moved the rides from Courtland Beach to Sand Point in 1917, creating the Lakeview Amusement Park, which included a dance pavilion and promenade, a roller rink, swimming beach, a thrill house call The Old Mill, a carousel, a penny arcade, and a miniature railroad.
For a few years, the Omaha Auto Speedway aka the Carter Lake Race Track was located in Carter Lake, too. Famous racers like Eddie Rickenbacker raced at the Speedway. The Lakeview Amusement Park closed by 1933. All the rides there – 16 tons worth – were taken away in 1945 from the World War II metal drive.
Today, the only remnants of the beaches and parks and their fascinating histories are streets called Carter Lake Club. There are no history markers or fun tours to take, and a lot of memories are being lost right now.
Incorporating Carter Lake
Over 40 years of wrangling with Nebraska and Iowa over who owned the land south of Carter Lake brought the states to the US Supreme Court. According to local historian Ryan Roenfeld, the City of Council Bluffs was greedy for property taxes on industries in the area. That area they wanted didn’t have paved streets, water, sewer, or regular law enforcement.
Omaha dropped their interest in the land. Their own investments in the North Omaha Bottoms and with the East Omaha Bridge hadn’t resulted in a windfall or substantive amount of taxes over time, so they just wanted out.
In June 1930, Carter Lake residents voted for incorporation by a slim margin. Including more than 1,200 acres, the incorporation affected the Carter Lake Club, Chez Paree, Lakeview Park, and many other landmarks throughout the community. Basically, anything east of the Carter Lake Drive and the North Omaha Bottoms, west of Abbott Drive, south of the lake and north of Winspear Triangle were captured in the new town, which was one of the only incorporations in Iowa in the last century.
Changing Times and Public Parks
The entirety of the lake became popular in the 1920s, waning in attention in the 40s, and getting popular again in the 1950s. It and stayed that way for years afterwards. 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.
The amusement park at the beach was closed in the 1920s because 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.
Throughout the next several decades, the land around Carter Lake held steady as a truck farm area. Eppley Airfield was carved out of land belonging to the park in the 1920s, and its only grown and grown, eventually pushing the town of East Omaha entirely off the map.
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.
For a decade starting in the early 1950s, Levi Carter Park hosted a separate, modern amusement park. Called the Carter Lake Kiddieland and Pleasure Pier, it was at the old Municipal Beach Bathhouses built by the CCC just 20 years earlier. The little amusement park had picnic grounds, a roller coaster, a steamboat, and several Midway games.
Crime, Mobsters and Criminals at Work
When the amusement park opened and tourists started coming through, the con-men and gangs followed them, as well as bookies, bootleggers, dealers and hookers. Everyone was out to make an easy buck, and many did.
In the 1890s, an Italian mafia group called the Black Hand was credited with murdering a Sicilian at Carter Lake in retaliation for escalating problems in Omaha’s Little Italy neighborhood. Early on, there were organized dog fights at Sand Point Beach, and later there was cockfighting and boxing matches to bet on, too.
Starting with innocuous taverns and hotels, the main strips along Locust Street, N. 9th and N. 17th became home to brothels, violent bars and opium dens, among other shady places. A 1930s report said there were beer taverns, gambling halls, and as many as 17 brothels within a four block area along Locust.
One of the most notorious didn’t open until Chez Paree came to town in the 1920s. Located at N. 3rd and Locust Streets, it was said to be the largest gambling house between Chicago and Reno from the 1920s through the 1940s. Paul Weyerman was part owner of the Chez Paree, and eventually left Omaha for Las Vegas. Al Capone and other Chicago mafioso were rumored to come to the Chez Paree over the years. When it was burnt to the ground in 1942, Chez Paree opened up again the next day a few blocks away. Big names constantly filled Chez Paree with a sense of importance and purpose, with musicians and performers including Benny Goodman, Joey Bishop, Sophie Tucker and George Gobel lighting the bill.
Over the years, the mayors of Omaha constantly pestered Iowa officials to crack down on the join, and in 1949 the State shut down Chez Paree and the Stork Club, another notorious den of good times.
Historical Industries and Businesses
Carter Lake has never been the economic powerhouse Omaha’s industrialists wanted it to be. Starting with their developments at the eastern end of Locust Street in the town of East Omaha, several plants came and went starting in the 1880s. They included the East Omaha Box Company, the Omaha Alfalfa Company, the Carter White Lead Company, and several other factories.
The burning desire to industrialize East Omaha, including the present-day City of Carter Lake, led to the building of the East Omaha Bridge and its reconstruction by the Illinois Central Railroad. At one point, there were two railroad bridges across Carter Lake, and lines with them that are all removed and gone now. North-south rail lines traveled west of North 11th Street, carrying the Union Pacific, Missouri Pacific/Belt Line and other lines through Omaha, as well as two roundhouses on the west side of Carter Lake. The Holmquist Elevator was nearby, too.
During that same time, several large scale industrial icehouses opened along the shores of Carter Lake. They were owned by several companies and exchanged ownership many times, but some of the operators included Droge Elevator, Council Bluffs Coal & Ice, and Bloomer Cold Storage. Those plants stayed open into the 1930s.
In the 1970s, the Airport Drive-In was a popular destination in Carter Lake, along with the Diary Queen on Locust Street. Today, Lakeside Auto Recyclers and Owen Industries are larger employers in the city, while airport services like hotels, a gas station, car rental companies, long-term parking and other operations are moving in, too.
Carter Lake 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.
However, the only thing that’s been totally steady since 1877 has been the most unsteady feature of the area since 1877: THE Carter Lake. Rising and falling according to the whims of nature, neither Nebraska or Iowa has wholly taken responsibility for the health of the lake. There were been projects to rehabilitate the area, adding fish and removing the invasive plants that choked the shoreline. The City of Omaha rehabilitated the CCC-built bathhouses and had them listed on the National Register of Historic Places, seawalls were been rebuilt and generally speaking, the lake is in good shape – for now. However, time can only tell what the fate of both the lake and the city will be. Long live Carter Lake.
Thanks specifically to Ryan Roenfeld and Ronald Potter for their contributions and inspirations that informed this article. Thanks to members of the Omaha History Club and the Pershing School Facebook Group, too.
Timeline of Carter Lake History
- 1853—A pioneer named Edmond Jefferies originally claimed State of Iowa land that became the City of Carter Lake. Eventually he amassed more than 2,000 acres in the area.
- 1877—Carter Lake is formed as an oxbow lake when a massive flood moves the Missouri River channel to the east. Nebraska claims the land of East Omaha, including all of the present-day City of Carter Lake, is part of Nebraska. Iowa disagrees.
- 1880—The lake is generally referred to as “Cut-Off Lake” starting this year.
- 1881—Major flood waters saturate all of eastern Omaha, saturating East Omaha from the river to Florence Lake to Carter Lake.
- 1889—Frank D. Kent opens the Courtland Beach Amusement Park near present-day North 9th and Avenue Q in the present-day City of Carter Lake, Iowa.
- 1895—The first reference to the lake as “Courtland Lake” occurred.
- 1890—Levi Carter moves his factory and rebuilds in the present-day City of Carter Lake. It stayed open until the 1920s, when it was bought by another firm.
- 1892—The US Supreme Court says the land present-day Carter Lake sits on is actually in Iowa.
- 1895—The pavilion, steamboat landing, rollercoaster, merry-go-round, and other items are added to Courtland Beach.
- 1896—Count John A. Creighton begins 10 years of fiscal support to keep the park open at a loss.
- 1906—The Omaha Rod and Gun Club starts operating Courtland Beach.
- 1906—Looking for a more poetic name, the club started calling the lake Lake Nakoma or Lake Nakomis this year.
- 1908—Edward and Selena Carter Cornish donate 260-acres to the City of Omaha in memory of her first husband, Levi Carter, to form the Levi Carter Park. Soon after, the lake is referred to as Carter Lake, it’s name today.
- 1912—The Omaha Rod and Gun Club is renamed the Carter Lake Club.
- 1914—Sand Point Beach, a highly developed swim area east of the Carter Lake Club, opens to the public.
- 1915—The Carter Lake Race Track, aka the Omaha Auto Speedway, opens near present-day 9th and Key Cir. It closes just two years later.
- 1925—The City of Omaha set aside 200-acres of planned additions to Levi Carter Park for the Omaha Municipal Airfield.
- 1927—Carter Lake votes to secede from Iowa, only to be rejected by Omaha, which doesn’t want to install water or sewers to the village.
- 1930—Carter Lake votes to incorporate in order to recuperate some of the taxes Council Bluffs takes from them.
- 1932—The City of Omaha announces ambitious plans to use the remainder of the Carter/Cornish donation to make the entire lake into a park. Plans included a boulevard to circumnavigate the entire thing, as well as fine beaches, ball fields, parking and more. The plan was never realized though.
- 1938—The Carter Lake Club facilities are sold to Joseph Malec, who also owned Peony Park.
- 1943—The river flooded massively, causing evacuations of the City of Carter Lake and East Omaha and covering the entire area.
- 1949—Chez Paree and the Stork Club, popular gambling and dancing venues in Carter Lake, were closed by police raids.
- 1951—Malec renovates the Carter Lake Club pavilion and makes it into a rental space and bingo hall.
- 1952—Carter Lake was evacuated as a major flood brought 16-mile-wide waters covering the city, East Omaha and the North Omaha Bottoms.
- 1960—The Omaha Municipal Airport is renamed for early daredevil flyer and philanthropist Eugene Eppley, and becomes Eppley Airfield.
- 1967—Major flooding hit Carter Lake.
- 1968—Our Lady of Carter Lake Catholic Church was established. In 2011, Our Lady of Carter Lake Church merged with Council Bluffs’ Holy Family Church and Queen of Apostles Church to form a new parish called Corpus Christi Catholic Parish.
- 1975—An arson destroys the Carter Lake Club, aka the Carter Lake Ballroom.
- 1976—The Warehouse, a new rental space and bingo hall, is opened by Malec in the former Carter Lake Club bowling alley and movie theater at North 15th and Avenue Q.
- 1984—Major flooding hit Carter Lake.
- 1990—Major flooding hit Carter Lake.
- 1992—The Warehouse is closed and demolished to make way for a new housing development around a new shoal.
- 1993—Major flooding hit Carter Lake.
Historic Tour of Carter Lake
- Locust Street—Extending from N. 16th, across the Locust Street viaduct and all the way to the Missouri River, this street carried the first massive traffic in the city to Courtland Beach via streetcars. Start at N. 16th and Locust and travel east.
- Site of Courtland Beach—Also known as the Omaha Rod and Gun Club and the Carter Lake Club, this was the most popular tourist destination in the early history of the city. Go to N. 9th and Avenue Q and follow the Carter Lake Club streets.
- Site of the Courtland Beach Pavilion—Known as the Carter Lake Ballroom. Go to 213 Carter Lake Club.
- Site of Lakeview Park—Site of a large amusement park, including a rollercoaster, dance hall and more. Go to N. 17th and Avenue Q.
- Sand Point Beach—Located within Lakeview Park, this was a popular swim area including changing rooms, picnic pavilions and more. Go to Sand Point Drive.
- Site of Ames Avenue Bridge—Spanning the lake from Ames Avenue on the west to Avenue R on the east, this belonged to the Illinois Central Railroad. It was destroyed by the 1913 Easter Sunday tornado. In Omaha, go to Ames Avenue and Carter Lake Shore Drive West, and then walk to the end of the pier. In Iowa, go to Wavecrest Park. Also called the Carter Lake Fishing Pier and Boat Launch, the bridge site was reconstructed from the former landing area from the bridge by the CCC in 1935.
- Carter Lake Boathouse—Originally built in 1936 by the CCC at Carter Lake, it was rebuilt in the 1990s by the City of Omaha. Go to the intersection of Cornish Boulevard and Carter Lake Shore Drive West, and then enter the parking lot at the boathouse.
- Carter Lake Bathhouse—These buildings were built in the 1930s to replace structures originally built in the 1920s. They were renovated by the City of Omaha Parks and Recreation Department in 2016, and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Go to Carter Lake Shore Drive North and park in the lots in front of the buildings.
- Carter Lake Improvement Club—Founded in 1947, the club works for the continuing improvement of the City and lake. Go to 4328 North 9th Street.
- Site of Chez Paree—Blackjack, craps, and roulette were played openly, along with some of the best live acts of the era in this nightclub. It was reputed to be the biggest casino between Chicago and Reno, and was located in two different places. Go to Abbott Drive and Locust Street to the see the first location. Go to the site of the second location was at North 3rd and Locust Street.
- Site of Courtland School—Open at the turn of the century, this school operated for 25 yeas. Became the Carter Lake Community Church, which replaced the original building in the 1960s. Go to North 9th and Avenue K.
- Site of the Carter Lake Race Track—Also called the Omaha Auto Speedway, this track was only open a few years, but left a remarkable mark in the city’s memory. Go to North 9th and Key Circle
- Watson Park—In addition to serving as a member of the Iowa Senate, De Vere Watson was the city attorney for Carter Lake and a special city attorney for Council Bluffs. Go to the park at North 9th Street and Avenue Q
- Neptune Park—The Neptune Park Addition was a much-hyped development that, starting in 1914, added dozens of homes to Carter Lake, and this beautiful park. Go to the park at Neptune Circle and Cedar Street.
- Mabrey Park—Wilson Mabrey was the mayor of Carter Lake for more than 40 years. Go to the park at North 17th and Willow Drive.
- Wavecrest Park—Platted in 1914, the Wavecrest Addition added dozens of homes to Carter Lake. Go to the park at 112 Shoreline Drive.
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MY ARTICLES ABOUT HISTORIC NEIGHBORHOODS IN NORTH OMAHA
National Register of Historic Places Historic Districts in North Omaha: 24th and Lake Historic District | Benson Downtown Historic District | Country Club Historic District | Dundee/Happy Hollow Historic District | Fairacres Historic District | Fort Omaha Historic District | Minne Lusa Historic District | Nicholas Street Historic District
Historic Neighborhoods in North Omaha: Bedford Place | Belvedere Point | Bemis Park | Benson | Briggs | Bungalow City | Carter Lake, Iowa | Central Park | Clifton Hill | Collier Place | Creighton University | Crown Point | DeBolt | Druid Hill | East Omaha | Florence | Florence Field | Fontenelle View | Gifford Park | Fort Omaha | Gold Coast (Cathedral) | Jefferson Square | Kellom Heights | Kountze Place | Little Russia | Long School | Malcolm X Memorial | Miller Park | Miller Park Duplex Historic District | Monmouth Park | Montclair | Near North Side | North Downtown Omaha | Omaha View | Orchard Hill | Plum Nelly | Prettiest Mile in Omaha | Prospect Place | Raven Oaks | Redman | Saratoga | Sherman | Squatter’s Row | Sulphur Springs | Ponca Hills | Wakonda | Walnut Hill | Winspear Triangle | Wyman Heights |
Lost Towns in North Omaha: Benson | Briggs | DeBolt | East Omaha | Florence | Saratoga | Sulphur Springs
- History of Carter Lake website by Russ Kramer
- Carter Lake: A Slice of Iowa in Nebraska (Brief History)
- Carter Lake Preservation Society official website
- Articles about the Carter Lake Club burning down
- “Boating: The way we were” by Jon Farrar for NEBRASKAland magazine
- Carter Lake’s Colorful, Confusing History from the Daily Nonpariel
- Ghost in North Omaha – A Nebraska State Historical Society account of a story about a ghost at the Gun and Rod Club (1912)
- “Cut Off Lake a Celebrated Places for Birds Along Missouri River” from the Wild Birds Broadcast website
- “Carter Lake Journal: Standing By a Capricious Neighbor,” The New York Times (1988)
- “Community-based efforts decrease algae toxins in Carter Lake” Section 319: Nonprofit Source Program Success Story: Nebraska. US EPA. (2011)