The waters of the Missouri River roared wild and free over its valley for thousands of years before Omaha was settled. Even after pioneers gathered on Capitol Hill for a picnic to found Omaha City in 1854, the Missouri still whipped around, flooding the area, shifting its channel and moving willy nilly. Just a few years ago, monumental floods proved its still capable of acting beyond human control.
Along its wild timeline, a little nest of water in East Omaha was created. Omaha settlers saw it, sought to develop it, but then oversaw its decline and eventually were responsible for erasing the spot entirely. This is a history of Florence Lake.
A Lake in the Woods
Located in East Omaha between Carter Lake and the Missouri River, the Florence Lake may have first seen by white people in 1804 during the Lewis and Clark expedition. On this exploration, it was common for the commanders to send men into the surrounding areas to hunt and gather food, as well as to explore.
After that, hunters and trappers went freely up and down the Missouri River to carry booty to and from Manuel Lisa’s fort by the Ponca Hills, and to Cabanne’s Post after that. Since the lake was less than a half mile from the river’s banks, they may have come across it. Similarly, early Mormon scouts heading west to Utah were said to have tried crossing the Missouri at a few different locations on their excursions. One of these places may have been “the Narrows”, which was just east of the lake. That would have led them directly to the lake.
At that point, the Missouri River bottoms were covered in forests. Trees like the red oak, hickory, hophornbeam and redbud covered East Omaha, which was interspersed with some fields, swampy areas, a few creeks and springs.
Early in the City of Omaha’s existence, the US Army Corps of Engineers examined the lake. They determined the lake was likely very old, and theorized it was made by an off-flow of the river that eventually stopped flowing. They conjectured the bend in the river to the north of the Lake, which they called the Florence Bend, was likely softened by flooding in the 1820s, cutting off the flow of water to the lake.
At this point, the lake covered at least 20 acres of land.
Many Uses for a Lake
Hardwood Creek flowed between Florence Lake and present-day Carter Lake.
When John Poppenberger saw that area in the late 1860s, he knew he’d found his stake. He immediately claimed some land and built a house there. In 1877, he married Barbara Merritt and brought her home. That year a massive flood formed the Cut-Off Lake just south of the Florence Lake. About 25 years later, that late was renamed Carter Lake.
In July 1875, the Omaha Bee newspaper put on a startling promotional gimmick when they flew the City of Omaha’s first hot air balloon from downtown Omaha to Florence Lake. After the balloon didn’t inflate right and some other technical issues though, the pilot was nervous and forgot to disperse the Bee’s promotional flyers as he went along. Another spectacular thing happened when he descended into the shallows of the lake and was supposedly rescued by some tribal members of the Winnebago. I think its spectacular, at least, given that would be in line with the historical usage of this area from pre-European settlement.
Starting in the 1880s, a hotel sat at the side of the lake. In 1887, grandiose plans emerged for the lake. Starting with that hotel, a plat was set with 37 lots covering two city blocks. The real estate agents selling it advertised that the lots were to be, “covered with hotels and cottages to be used for pleasure resorts and homes.” These agents hyped up an existing hotel, bathing and boat house, and in 1890, Gustave Seseman was the proprietor of the Florence Lake Hotel.
There are no signs that these lots ever sold, though, or amounted to anything of value. The area around the lake flooded annually, and that may have distracted investors from seeing the value of the land.
The water on the lake was still seen as an asset to the growing city a few miles south, and in 1885 there were plans made to install a water pumping station on Florence Lake. However, those were apparently never acted on. Late that decade, the Corps of Engineers started reporting the lake was filling up and emptying out of water. At that point, it covered at least 8 acres. By 1892, a report in the Omaha Bee said that two road houses were built on the road to Florence Lake.
One of these was called Hill’s Road House, and it was notorious. Charles Hill was the proprietor of the institution, starting it in the 1880s and running it for at least 30 years. Newspaper columns connected Hill’s with stories of murders, police busts, robberies and all sorts of rawkus behavior. Piano players and pickpockets, gamblers and dancers and a lot of other characters drifted in and out of want ads and notices, all of them finding occupations at Hill’s. The Omaha Anti-Saloon League and the police targeted Hill’s regularly, along with the Douglas County coroner, who made more than one house call to pick up a body at or near Hill’s Road House. I haven’t found a picture of the joint, but I’m sure it was quiet a site to behold!
In 1897, a flooded overflowed the Missouri River bank and poured into the Florence Lake. Overfilling it, the water flowed through Hardwood Creek to fill up Carter Lake. The floods lasted a week, and then the river receded back into its banks.
Dying At Florence Lake
As a wild place, Florence Lake had a lot of deaths in the early years of Omaha City. This stuck out in my research on the place, because the reports come up again and again.
For instance, in 1880 the Omaha Daily Herald reported that Peoria S. Scott accidentally killed himself there. Scott was a 17-year-old young man who lived with his family at Fort Omaha. It was from there that he and a friend went duck shooting in a rowboat with a friend named Arthur Purtell. At some point in their expedition Purtell hopped out of the boat to retrieve a duck he’d just taken, when he heard a shot from the boat. Finding his friend bleeding to death, Purtell raced back to the Fort for help, but by the time help arrived, Scott was dead.
In 1887, a young man named Alonzo Dorsey went missing from his home in the Near North Side. More than a year later, a skeleton was found with his jacket and personal effects in the reeds around Florence Lake. The cause of his death was never found, but his family suspected foul play because he was originally carrying a large amount of cash.
William Thomas, an ice cutter on the lake, was nearly murdered there in 1891. With a constant stream of tools and materials being stolen from his facility at the lake, Thomas was dismayed to see several of his pike poles outside the home of N. E. Lewis. After fruitlessly searching the property with a constable, ice cutter Thomas returned there with a worker later in the evening to keep looking. Lewis came running out of his house and attacked Thomas with a pitchfork, who then ran away with his company. The next day Lewis was arrested by the constable for attempted murder. I can’t find what happened to him next though.
That same year, 1891, the body of Herman Glelow was found in Florence Lake. After detective work by the county sheriff though, it was revealed that Glelow left Seseman’s Hotel late one evening, and was next found floating. The city coroner though determined Glelow died from destitution, and nothing came of the case.
Deaths kept happening at the lake and around the area, but a sadder ending laid ahead for the lake itself.
A Lake Dies
Sometime after 1920, Florence Lake ceased to exist.
The Corps of Engineers took action to support the lake’s continued use several times. In 1901, they invested money in building a retaining wall next to the lake to ensure it didn’t flood. In 1912, they reported it was doing fine.
However, activities kept happening there. Picnics continued and there were informal baseball games played at Florence Lake during this era, too. For instance, in 1916 a mail carriers picnic featured a game between Uncle Sam’s Mail Carriers and Tighe’s Colts. The ex-postmaster threw the first pitch, and the new postmaster was the catcher. Other games were played by Nestlehouse and Creighton.
In 1917, there was a county road called East Omaha Street that started at present-day 9th Street and Ellison Avenue and proceeded eastwards along the shoreline of Florence Lake. It was considered for paving as a major street to serve that area. At this point, the lake sat in between 9th Street and present-day Hartman Avenue.
But the “old Florence Lake” was referred to in a 1920 report to the Omaha Chamber of Commerce regarding securing the city against floods. Apparently, the lake had seen its day and was almost gone by then.
At the turn of the 20th century, Ed Cornish, a parks commissioner, advocated building a humongous dike along the Missouri River to stop the terrible flooding that plagued East Omaha. His plan was eventually carried out, and his prediction for what could happen to the area came true:
“You would see the East Omaha district covered by factories, small farms and dwellings, and the result could not fall to pay many times for the expenditure.”-Edward Cornish, City of Omaha Parks Commissioner
That’s exactly what has happened in East Omaha.
In the late 1940s, a plan was forwarded to the City of Omaha to build massive dikes lining the Missouri River outside the old site of Florence Lake. During this nearly $600,000 project, the city created a channel for overflow into the river using the old Minne Lusa Creek drain at the north end of Minne Lusa Boulevard, and dug a drainage channel from the old Florence Lake, which was dry by then, into Carter Lake.
Then, during the early 1970s, the City of Omaha designated the area including the old Florence Lake bed as an industrial park, and today that’s precisely what sits there.
Today’s Swill Pond
It was only in the late 1980s that the City of Omaha effectively reclaimed the remainder of the Florence Lake. They reclaimed it to be a storm water drain. During that time, they built the massive Arthur C. Storz Parkway to move traffic through North Omaha to the airport, and the lake was in the way.
Today, there’s only a slight bit left of this one-time hotel beauty, pumping station candidate for household water, and eventual sewage pond. All that’s left now is a foul-looking pool of swill crammed between the Parkway and Hartman Avenue, just east of 9th Street.
You Might Like…
- A Short History of the Original East Omaha
- A History of Carter Lake, aka Cut-Off Lake, aka Lake Nakoma
- A History of Pleasure Pier and Kiddieland Amusement Park
- A History of Florence