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.
Growing Up by the Fort
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 website, 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.
In September 1868, Augustus Kountze leased a large chunk of his land to the US Army. The Omaha Barracks were originally established three years earlier as the Augur Barracks in Omaha City, but they were obsolete soon after because there wasn’t room for drills or expansion. Renamed the Sherman Barracks after Lieutenant General William Sherman, they were soon renamed again when he protested. They were called the Omaha Barracks.
According to the National Archives, it became main destination for all troops and stores for the western side of the Missouri River. A decade after it was established, the Department of the Platte headquarters moved from Omaha City, and in December 1878, the place was renamed Fort Omaha.
Made of Wood
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. One of the original officer’s quarters still stands today, although a mile away from its original location. Building 15, which was located in the northwest corner of the fort, was moved to Florence Boulevard at some point around the turn of the century. It still stands today on the boulevard.
Never Needed Protection
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.
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.
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.
Defended Against Itself
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
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. Read more here »
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.
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.
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.
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
- 1979 – Fort Omaha listed on the National Register of Historic Places
You Might Like…
- A History of the Fort Omaha Balloon School
- A History of the Fort Omaha House
- A North Omaha History Guide to Fort Omaha
- Ghosts at Fort Omaha
- A History of the Miller Park Neighborhood
- A History of the Intersection of 30th and Fort
- Fort Omaha Walking Tour by Metro Community College
- Douglas County Historical Society Fort Omaha Facts by Liz Rea
- 1919 editions of the Gas Bag, Fort Omaha’s official newspaper
- Fort Omaha’s 1974 National Register of Historic Places nomination for
- “Fort Omaha Balloon School: Its Role in World War I” by Inez Whitehead for the Nebraska State Historical Society.