Fort Omaha

Fort Omaha, USA logo designed by Adam Fletcher Sasse

 Nestled between the Miller Park neighborhood and Sorenson Parkway is a 150 year old institution that’s been a powerhouse, a prison, a balloon school and a neglected surplus, and many other things. This is a short history of Fort Omaha.

A group of officers at Fort Omaha in 1918.

My Story

As a whole, Fort Omaha is a beautiful place with a wonderful history. In my own life, as a kid I’d ride my bike through the campus and just imagine all the things that happened there. When my friend Josh first invited me to visit his house I was amazed. With a dad that was a professor there, his family lived in one of the houses on campus. His house was a mystery to me, filled with interesting things like a computer and Dungeons and Dragons characters. It was the 1980s, and I had never seen those things up close before!

Josh and I walked around campus a few times, exploring the old west road and peeking around abandoned places. He told me about ghosts and soldiers, and helped spark my imagination about this humungous, strangely different place in my neighborhood. My only other exposure to campus was when my class at Miller Park Elementary School sang there during the River City Roundup, and when my dad took classes there.

If you’ve read this blog, you’ve probably already seen my article, “An Interesting History of Fort Omaha.” I wrote that because all the history of the campus seemed cliche to me, and I wanted to show a different side of the place. However, the more conversations I have about North Omaha history with people, the more I realize how little we all know about the vast military outpost in the backyard. So, here is a more basic history.

Originally Made of Wood

An 1875 drawing of Fort Omaha, Nebraska
A circa 1875 drawing of Fort Omaha featuring the wooden buildings, and the hospital in the northwest (upper right) corner.

Cruising through Fort Omaha today, its fun to soak up the regal looking red brick buildings and tall, stately trees that make the campus so beautiful. However, it wasn’t always that way. The original 1868 buildings were all made of wood, and they were laid out on a barren prairie.

The original 1868 buildings at Fort Omaha included a post headquarters, guardhouse, bakery, storehouses, and sutlers store. There were five company barracks on the north and south sides of the parade ground, which was 30 acres big. A hospital was located in the northwest corner of the fort. By 1871, a band barracks, ice house, launderesses’ quarters and quarters for married enlisted men were added.

The first brick buildings were constructed when officers were ordered to live on post in 1878. They were built on the western edge of the fort, and included General Crook’s House

They were almost all demolished and replaced by 1905.

Gentile city dwellers dressed nicely to come watch troops in formation at Fort Omaha, circa 1890.

Omaha Never Needed Protection from Indians

Originally built as the Sherman Barracks in the early 1860s, an early garrison was first established in rented buildings in downtown Omaha. The Army built a new barracks near North 24th and Cumming Streets in 1862. After the Civil War ended, everyone believed the surrounding tribes were no problem, so the Barracks became a supply depot for the forts located throughout the Great Plains.
This is the original Fort Omaha Hospital, built in 1879. It was demolished in the 1890s and replaced in 1906.

Catching wind that the Army was planning to build a huge new outpost, Omaha’s business leaders wanted to pitch the city as a great location. They made a deal with local banker Augustus Kountze to sell them a chunk of his land holdings four miles north of the city. Making an offer to the government, the leaders bragged about the Union Pacific railroad and Missouri River, both ideal for troop and supply movement. They also bragged about having already established businesses to provide support the Army needed. The Army accepted Omaha’s offer.

Barracks at Fort Omaha

Fort Omaha originally covered almost 83 acres. Located outside the Omaha city limits on the Florence Road, the Fort became the home of the US Army Department of the Platte. This department controlled forts and their units in the states of Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming Territory and parts of Utah and Idaho.

It was here that General George Crook led the Department, from 1875 to 1882 and again from 1886 to 1888. In 1879, he spoke on behalf of Chief Standing Bear and the Ponca tribe during the trial of Standing Bear v. Crook. It was during this trial that a federal judge affirmed that Standing Bear had some of the rights of US citizens. That same year, construction on Crook’s new home was finished. Today it is called the General Crook House.

Omaha Needed Protection from Itself
The Fort Omaha Hospital, circa 1900.
Because the US Army officers and soldiers there weren’t racing out to fight battles or bracing for invasions, Fort Omaha became a site for lavish social gatherings. Omahans would carriage out to the Fort for balls and cotillions, military parades and troop reviews. A favorite Sunday gathering for Omaha’s socialites was sitting in the lawns picnicking while the troops performed marches and more.
It shouldn’t be surprising then that Fort Omaha was mustered out of service to the Army at least five times during its existence. However, it never completely faded away. When Omaha’s hoards grew out of control, US Army troops from the Fort were frequently called in to provide crowd control and protection. In 15 riots throughout the city’s history, soldiers carried weapons against Omahans who were rioting, protesting, or picketing. This started in the 1880s, with the most recent example being the 1969 riots in North Omaha.
Other highlights of the Fort’s service included serving as the United States’ first Army balloon school, and hosting Italian prisoners of war during WWII.

Big Balloon Base

The Florence Field in North Omaha, including troop tents, barracks, and on the hillside, a balloon nest.
Hot air balloons and dirigibles were considered high technology during World War I. Never before had flying equipment been used so effectively in war, and the United States didn’t want to miss out where European allies were racing ahead. They Army established a balloon training school at Fort Omaha at the onset of the war.
By 1917, the Army decided they needed to expand operations. Leasing 119 acres north of the Fort, they established Florence Field in the hills north of Redick, east of Martin and west of North 30th Street.
Florence Field was a wholly separate military installation from North Omaha, with its own roads, buildings and other accommodations. The City of Omaha’s Park Commission graded two roads to the field, while there was electricity and telephones installed. Troops from Fort Omaha built several buildings, including a headquarters, barracks and mess halls, painted sage green with ivory trim and topped with red slate roofs. There was a fence surrounding the entire field, with gates on North 30th and at the top of the hill where the Field’s southern boundary was.
In 1918, the Florence Field was visited by French military advisors who were helping train the three regiments assigned to the balloon school. Troops established an extended base near Fort Calhoun to further their training, with that area established to train how to fly under gunfire.
The balloon school was closed and moved from Fort Omaha after the war.

The Fort In Modern Times

Fort Omaha quieted down after World War I. The balloon school was moved to Illinois, and life went on. In 1929, the Fort’s headquarters building became the Seventh Corps Staff Officers Headquarters. Between 1933 and the end of World War II, the building was both a barracks and the Commissary for Fort Omaha.

US Army troops muster their horses and mules in the present-day parade grounds, with tents scattered across the left side of the photo.

The Fort was mustered out of service after WWII. However, from 1947 to 1974, it served as a U.S. Navy personnel center and as the headquarters for the Naval Reserve Training Command. The Army transferred command of Fort Omaha to the Navy in 1947. Starting that year, the Navy used the Fort as a training base for local members of the Navy and Marine Corps Reserve.

In 1956, the Navy established a nationwide Naval Reserve Command. For Omaha became the headquarters for a Rear Admiral and his staff, with his two-star flag and the bell of the Navy cruiser USS Omaha on display. Today, they are still at the Fort Omaha Headquarters Building entrance as a unique testament to the Navy’s presence at a former Army fort in the middle of the United States.

This is the main entryway to Fort Omaha in the 1950s when it was U.S. Navy installation. 
Today, the main entrance to Fort Omaha is at N. 30th and Fort Streets. Beginning in 1974, the facility has been maintained and used by Metropolitan Community College. In the 2000s, MCC began a massive expansion program that significantly increases the size of the college and its offerings to students.

Fort Omaha is a beautiful place today, abuzz with the sounds of learning and rich with a wealth of history.

The back of officer’s row houses as they appeared in 1931.

Fort Omaha Historical Tour

In 1979, the Fort Omaha Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, The Fort Omaha campus is a beautiful place to walk around. If you love history, there are many buildings, historic plaques, and specific places you’ll want to visit. Some of them include:

  • General Crook House, West Road and Middle Road, 1879
  • Quartermaster’s Office, 1878
  • Commissary, 1878
  • Guardhouse, Middle Road and North 30th Street, 1884
  • Ordinance Magazine, Second Road and East Road, 1883
  • Mule Stables, Supply Road and West Road, 1887
  • Bourke Gate, South Road and North 30th Street, 1896
  • Shiverick Gate, Middle Road and North 30th Street, 1932
  • Parade Grounds, Middle Road and East Road, 1868
  • Site of the Dirigible unit, First Road and East Road, 1907
  • Site of Florence Field, North 30th and Martin Avenue, 1908
  • Enlisted Double Barracks, 1906
  • Headquarters Building, 1879
  • Hospital, 1906
  • Officer Row Duplexes, 1879-1918 Firehouse, 1906
  • Post Exchange, South Road and East Road, 1912


Fort Omaha Timeline

The history of Fort Omaha began before the Fort was established. With base commanders moving in and out, regimens and troops coming and going, and the Fort being closed and opened again, it has been part of a lot of Omaha history. Here are some of the most important dates from the history of Fort Omaha.
  • 1862 – Omaha is designated the headquarters for the Military District of Nebraska Territory
  • 1866 – Omaha was made headquarters for the US Army Department of the Platte
  • 1868 – Sherman Barracks established at present-day N. 30th and Fort Streets; renamed shortly afterwards as Omaha Barracks
  • 1878 – Omaha Barracks renamed Fort Omaha
  • 1879 – The Trial of Standing Bear held at Fort Omaha
  • 1896 – Fort Omaha declared surplus property and abandoned
  • 1898 – Spanish-American War
  • 1907 – US Army established a dirigible training program at Fort Omaha
  • 1908 – US Army establishes a balloon training program at Fort Omaha
  • 1909 – US Army closes the dirigible training program at Fort Omaha
  • 1909 – US Army establishes their Signal Corps School at Fort Omaha
  • 1913 – US Army closes their Signal Corps School at Fort Omaha
  • 1916 – US Army Air Service, 9th Naval District, Balloon and Airship Division opens at Fort Omaha
  • 1917 – United States enters WWI
  • 1917 – US Army leases Florence Field, 119 acres of land about one mile north of Fort Omaha along Martin Avenue
  • 1918 – WWI ends
  • 1919 – Fort Omaha declared surplus property and abandoned
  • 1921 – US Army moves all balloon operations from Fort Omaha
  • 1935 – US Army 7th Corps Area Headquarters established at Fort Omaha
  • 1941 – United States enters WWII
  • 1941 – US Army 7th Service Command uses Fort Omaha as a support facility
  • 1945 – WWII ends
  • 1946 – Fort Omaha declared surplus property and abandoned
  • 1947 – US Navy assumes control of Fort Omaha and designates in a reserve training center
  • 1947 – US Navy designates Fort Omaha as a Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Center
  • 1951 – The US Navy officially designates Fort Omaha the US Naval Personnel Center
  • 1974 – Fort Omaha declared surplus property and abandoned
  • 1975 – Metro Community College moves to Fort Omaha

Related Content

Elsewhere Online


Bonus Pics!

Here’s a comic from a 1919 edition of the Fort Omaha newspaper called Gas Bag. Notice it was made just for Fort Omaha.
Kids taking swimming lessons in the swimming pool at Fort Omaha in the 1940s.
The balloon hanger at Fort Omaha in 1918.
Soldiers at Fort Omaha in 1918.
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Author: Adam Fletcher

I'm a writer and speaker who teaches people about engaging people. I specialize in youth engagement in communities, at home and through education. Learn more at adamfletcher.net

13 thoughts on “Fort Omaha”

  1. Hello

    Really great article on the history of Omaha. You definitely captured a lot of great history about Fort Omaha and the many historical places added are very useful to me. I am a history teacher and I am also moving to Omaha within a few weeks so I have been looking up so history from our library on Fort Omaha and everything that occurred during those times.

    I especially like how you spoke about how Fort Omaha would carry out social events for the solders in that time of war. Really great read and I hope to share this history with my future students. Thanks again
    Frank Cotti

    Like

  2. Hi Dave, and thanks for writing. Perhaps you've already heard, but in Omaha there's a particular stigma about North Omaha. The neighborhood has been looked down upon since the African American population gained predominance there in the 1920s. Many white people left the community entirely by the 1960s. There's a struggling effort to preserve, maintain, uplift and share the history of this area, as well as the people who lived in it throughout time. Fort Omaha is part of North Omaha's history.

    I hope you take some time and read around my blog for other histories. I'm intentionally trying to share the history of places other people don't, as well as the important histories in the community. I'd love to hear about your experience moving to the city with this knowledge.

    Best wishes, and have great successes with your students! You could even share this blog with them and have them research and write neighborhood histories, too!

    Like

  3. So many memories of Fort Omaha in my life. My ex-husband got held in the guard shack that was between the entrance and exit roads one Halloween as police thought his chosen costume of camouflage was something else. I worked in one of the old buildings on the South side years later and was told that workmen would hear knocking on the opposite side of a wall they were working on and at first thought it was other workers, until they learned there were never other workers when they heard the knocking sounds. (Quite an appropriate memory to share in October).

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  4. Dave, there are a large number of books on the history of Omaha, many of which my also history-loving grown son has gifted me with. I will be loaning “A Dirty, Wicked Town; Tales of 19th Century Omaha, by David L. Bristow, to a friend tomorrow. I do not know if it still takes place, but there used to be an annual Native American Pow-Wow on the Ft. Omaha campus consisting of Nebraska tribes. Welcome!

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