A History of the River Drive in Omaha

An Art Deco tree taken from the 1919 report where the majority of this article was drawn from.

Imagine a smooth, easy drive on a Saturday afternoon in the fall all of it weaving along nineteen miles of the city’s waterfront. There are long, calm curves and tall, stately oaks lining the boulevard, with walkers and bikes moving along a nice sidewalk that goes that entire distance. At evening, you turn to go home, your way lit by warm street lamps along with the glow of fireflies.

Welcome to Omaha’s River Drive

 

The smooth, calm River Drive in Omaha that could have been… Photo courtesy Durham Museum.

In 1889, the City of Omaha hired renowned urban designer Horace Cleveland to design a series of park-like boulevards around the city, along with some key parks. Several of them were in North Omaha, including the first one, Florence Boulevard, and beautiful parks like Miller Park and Fontenelle Park.

For many years, the City worked from these plans and expanded on them. The plan inspired city leaders to throw around the idea of a riverfront boulevard for several years. At this point, civic leaders and businessmen wanted to use the river to its fullest advantage.

Their plans crystalized in 1919. Promoting the river drive be designed as a unique, enormous war memorial, people started to rally around a new plan. The route would overlook the majestic Missouri River as a tribute to the sacrifices and contributions of Omahans in the Great War, the War to End All Wars, World War I.

Looking south along an existing stretch of the potential River Drive, today section is part of JJ Pershing Drive. Photo courtesy Durham Museum.

According to a 1919 City government planning document, the goals for Omaha’s River Drive were to:

  1. Take advantage of an unsurpassed opportunity;
  2. Create an improvement for which Omaha may become world famous;
  3. Build of a memorial worthy of the City’s best efforts;
  4. Make an asset of what would otherwise become a liability of waste land, and;
  5. Afford an unlimited opportunity for commemorating the city’s history and its men and women who performed a distinguished service.

Planning Possibilities

 

The original 1919 planning map of the proposed River Drive in Omaha. The dashed lines represented the route.

Plotting a course to connect South Omaha and North Omaha with a grand boulevard, this was easily the most beautiful unrealized dream of Omaha’s progressive era. It would connect the city’s farthest reaches as a crowing jewel for Omaha’s marvelous boulevard system. Seeing past the differences in the city’s northern and southern populations, the River Drive was intended to unite a disparate population in beauty and fluidity.

South Omaha Route

A preliminary section of Omaha’s River Drive along the Missouri in 1919. Photo courtesy Durham Museum.

The route through the city began at the Douglas County / Sarpy County line. It went like this:

  1. Starting south of Missouri Avenue and east of 13th Street wind the boulevard to Mandan Park
  2. Join it to Brown Park tract and Spring Lake Park, enlarging both of them along the way.
  3. North of Missouri Avenue, the Drive would connect with River View Park between 13th Street and the Burlington Railroad.
  4. North of River View Park the bluffs should be acquired by the City, and drive should be made with a good roadway construction and outlook points along the way.
  5. North of this bluff the Drive could be carried over the Burlington Railroad south of Martha Street.
  6. A spacious river front park should be made immediately south of the Union Pacific Bridge.

Downtown Route

Looking out over the expanse of what the River Drive would’ve seen in 1919. Photo courtesy Durham Museum.
  • From the Union Pacific Bridge north to the Iowa-Nebraska state line in East Omaha (present-day Carter Lake, Iowa), the River Drive would consist of a wide roadway with sidewalk or esplanade and simple ornamental balustrade and river wall built between the harbor line and existing river front buildings.

North Omaha Route

The River Drive would’ve extended from this intersection of Florence Boulevard and Read Street in North Omaha, as it appeared in 1919. Photo courtesy Durham Museum.
  • From the river bank in East Omaha there would be two northern routes for the River Drive:
    • One leading to 11th Street and a proposed entrance to Carter Lake Park at about 14th and Ames Avenue, on the west side of the park.
    • The second route would proceed north from the riverfront to the eastern most portion of Carter Lake Park.
  • On the second route, River Drive could proceed through the Park and north along Florence Boulevard to the Florence Water Works. A new bridge would be built over the railroad tracks at N. 16th and Read Streets.
A digger works on the preliminary roadbed near the Florence Pumping Station on the Missouri in 1919. Photo courtesy Durham Museum.

Omaha’s River Drive was originally conceived to run along the entire riverfront north of downtown. However, planners were concerned about the continuous erosion caused by the river. They also thought the additional miles added by going along the river would be too long. With Carter Lake Park right there as a beautiful destination, the planners left the length of the river off the route.

  • North of the Florence Water Works, the bluffs and ravines were considered having unusual beauty and attractiveness.
  • The River Drive would use the existing roadway along the riverfront north to Ponca Creek.
  • There, the River Drive would turn west along Ponca Creek Road, eventually connecting to the old Washington Highway.
  • The plan left the end of the River Drive open, with the thought that eventually it could connect with future boulevards that would travel “west and south from this point, outside of Omaha city limits.” That would have been south along present-day N. 72nd Street, and west toward Cunningham Lake.

Getting People to the Boulevard

An old road along the Missouri in Florence that was going to be used for the River Drive, as it appeared in 1919. Notice the wagon ruts on the bottom right corner. Photo courtesy Durham Museum.
By this point, the City Planning Commission wasn’t cold and unthinking about the regular people in Omaha. In 1919, cars were still relatively rare in the city and they weren’t seen as a necessity. Streetcars roamed throughout the city, and the Commission wanted people going to the River Drive as easily as they did other parts of the city.
Embracing the new technology of the automobile, they recommended that a popular motor bus service be established across the entire Boulevard system and on the proposed River Drive when finished. This would give people an opportunity to see and enjoy the natural scenery along Omaha’s Boulevards and Parks and the River Drive.
The Drive would’ve connected with almost every major east-west street in Omaha at the time. Intersections would be smooth and easy, and the River Drive would be accessible for walking, too. The Commission estimated half of the city’s population lived within walking distance to the River Drive, so its usability and appreciation were almost guaranteed.

The City Fails and River Drive Dies

The unrealized dream of Omaha’s River Drive could have looked like this view from 1919. Photo courtesy Durham Museum.

The 1919 plan said plainly, “To acquire the necessary right of way for the Drive now is neither a difficult nor expensive task. Delay means complete failure of this remarkable plan.”

Unfortunately, most people at the time didn’t take the Commission’s plans seriously. The City of Omaha was experiencing fiscal challenges at that point, and without serious political leadership Omaha’s River Drive was merely an unrealized vision. The plan failed that year, and was never seriously resurrected after that.
People did talk about the plan through 1938, including a beautiful op-ed piece in the World-Herald calling for the City to activate the beauty of the river. But without real leadership behind it or real investment, little happened. Abbott Drive and JJ Pershing Drive were completed along the originally planned drive, but were done separately from the 1919 plan. Nothing happened in South Omaha.

In the next 90 years, Omaha’s waterfront suffered. Old industrial areas on the river shut down and rotted, many poisoning Omaha’s population and the Missouri as they were ignored. That included the old ASARCO plant, the Union Pacific shops, and others. A car wrecker located north of downtown was open for more than 50 years, and the old Willow Springs Distillery sat empty for a long time, too.

A New Vision for Omaha’s Waterfront

Courtesy of UNMC.
Omaha started wrestling with the value of the Missouri Riverfront again in the 1970s. After more than 50 years of neglect and decay, the city’s civic and political leaders started recognizing the cultural, economic and health benefits of the river. By 1990, a plan led the City to begin opening up the downtown waterfront in a major way. Over the next two decades a billion dollars was invested in this area, giving Omahans access to an area they’d rarely tasted since the 1890s.
As part of that plan, the City of Omaha designed a long riverside trail for walking and biking that extended north from the Douglas / Sarpy County line. Built in sections, the first part opened in 2003. There are currently three sections completed, leading all the way north to the Boyer National Wildlife Refuge.
While I can’t find anything that directly links the choice of the trail’s pathway to the River Drive plan, according to the map of Omaha’s Riverfront Trail, it is following the historically planned, unrealized dream of those 1919 planning commissioners. Maybe the City of Omaha will install markers someday that commemorates the vision those planners had back then.
In the meantime, go take a walk or a bike ride. Skim through the snow along the waterfront trail in the winter, shuffle through the autumn leaves in October, feel the warming spring rains in April, and reveal in the songs of the cicadas in summertime. However you enjoy it, take a moment to remember the story of the olden days a century ago when city planners thought Omaha needed to be driving along the same way, enjoying natural views and loving the Mighty Mo up close and personal… And be grateful for that beautiful beast!

Related Content

 

External Links

BONUS PICS!
This is a southbound view of North River Drive, which is today known as John J. Pershing Drive.
The houses on the right are the superintendent and worker houses at the Florence Water Works.

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