The original town of East Omaha was south of the present-day Eppley Airport, west of Abbott Drive, and north of the river. It was known known as East Omaha and was claimed by Edmond Jeffries in 1853. That was a year before the so-called Indian Territory was opened to white settlement and a year before Omaha City was founded. The next year, it became Omaha’s first annexation, brought into the city in 1854.
|This 1940 aerial map shows East Omaha was south of the present-day Eppley Airport, east of Abbott Drive, and north of the river.|
The First Thirty Years
More than thirty years later in 1887, the CB&Q started the East Omaha Land Company to develop land for homes and industrial uses. The company reportedly spent a total of $300,000 clearing low-lying land of willows and to grade streets before lots were offered for sale. It initially owned 1,000 acres east of the oxbow lake called “Cut-Off Lake”, and bought more land quickly, all the way to the bluffs below present-day Florence Boulevard.
|An 1891 advertisement for the East Omaha Land Company.|
Before flooding created Carter Lake in 1877, the East Omaha community wrapped around the west bank of the Missouri River to the former town of Saratoga. The gigantic 1877 flood forced the river out of its banks and shortened the river’s course. Everyone who’d lived on the south side of the lake was now on the Nebraska side of the Missouri River, and East Omaha was more a part of Omaha than ever.
|Shepard Laboratories building was at 22nd Avenue and Avenue J East in this 1952 pic. The building still stands there today!|
A Big Bridge for Big Industry
Houses were being built in East Omaha as early as 1860. For the next forty years, the little town hobbled along slowly, with truck farms all around and grand schemes in the distance. However, there were big plans in the works almost the entire time.
|This is a 1911 ad for the Omaha Alfalfa Milling Company located in East Omaha.|
One of the grand schemes was a bridge over the Missouri River at East Omaha. The East Omaha Land Company wanted to make the area into a manufacturing city where all of Omaha’s wealthy industrialists could build their plants. The largest single real estate deal in Nebraska up to 1890 is said to have occurred there. That year an unknown property in East Omaha was sold to the Omaha Bridge and Terminal company, a subsidiary of the Illinois Central, for nearly $700,000.
|This is 2605 North 24th St East Omaha around 1950.|
By the 1880s, more than 2,000 acres west of the Missouri River and east of the bluffs below Florence Boulevard were covered by 72 miles of roads made by the company. Soon, there were a number of businesses important to Omaha’s growth, including the Pearl Hominy Company mill, the Barber Asphalt Paving Company, Marks Brothers’ Saddlery Company, and the Adamant Wall Plaster Company.
|The Omaha Box Company in East Omaha on East H Street.|
By the early 1900s, the East Omaha Box Company was built there, too, and maintains its factory today.
The Biggest Plant
|The Omaha White Lead Works, later bought by Levi Carter.|
In 1885, prices bottomed out in the lead market and the company was forced to shut down the works. The next year, Carter bought it cheap and reopened the plant, speculating the market would come back. It did, and within five years he was stinking rich. The Carter White Lead Company was born. The plant was originally built on South 20th Street.
Levi Carter ended up selling paints and all kinds of treatments for homes to hardware stores and paint stores across the Northeastern United States. He bought a formula for white lead paint concocted by a Dutch entrepreneur in the 1880s. Within the next 40 years, Carter brand paints were sold across the entire nation. That brand stopped being used when the Dutch Boy brand was used exclusively.
|The Illinois Central Railroad goes over the East Omaha Bridge in this undated photo.|
On June 14, 1891, the Carter White Lead Company caught fire and burnt to the ground. It incinerated the entire plant, which had just been rebuilt to increase production. The only things saved were the warehouse and office, and several outbuildings. The plant itself was completely obliterated. Carter moved the plant to East Omaha and rebuilt on an even grander scale.
By the end of 1891, a new plant that cost $200,000 was built in East Omaha, and within two years the plant’s output reached 7000 tons. There were 21 buildings at the new plant, which was located at North 21st Street East and North 22nd Street East, between East Locust Street and Avenue J.
|The Omaha plant is on the left, and the Chicago plant is on the right.|
Carter’s company became the biggest white lead refiner in the nation, and owned factory in Omaha and another in Chicago. The Chicago plant was the largest single white lead factory in the world.
In 1900, Carter consolidated manufacturing with his new plant in suburban Chicago and closed his East Omaha plant. Levi Carter died in 1903. Two years later, Edward J. Cornish was elected president of the board and appointed president of the company. He reopened the plant, and sold the company in 1907 to National Lead, the white lead trust. They closed the plant in 1916, and continued making the Dutch Boy paints and paints under the Carter name, too.
|The Missouri River was constantly lapping at the foundations of East Omaha, and in 1952 it caused a catastrophic flood that ravished the town.|
The Carter White Lead Company dissolved in 1936. All of its property was distributed to the National Lead Company, which was headquartered in New Jersey. The new owner continued to operate the Chicago plant as the Carter Brand of the National Lead Company.
A Possible Home for the Big Show
East Omaha, east of Carter Lake, was the preferred site for the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1897. The area considered was between Carter Lake on the south and Florence Lake on the north, which is now where Beechwood Trailer Courts are now located. Florence Lake Hotel was once on this site.
|Edward Trapp was the Justice of the Peace in East Omaha for a long time.|
A period newspaper account reported that,
It has about 1,000 acres available… offers level ground… is dotted with trees… plentiful water supply. It is less than 3 miles form the Downtown Post Office. A paved street (16th) already extends almost to the site and a new bridge across the Missouri River makes accessible from Iowa.
The property lost out, and the expo was held up Locust Street at North 16th Street.
|The lands owned by the East Omaha Land Company included much of present-day Carter Lake, Iowa.|
The US Supreme Court Weighs In
Iowa and Nebraska didn’t always get along.
After the 1877 flood, the states argued over and over about who owned which land that switched sides along the Missouri River. After losing in their district court, Iowa took Nebraska to the US Supreme Court.
In 1892, the Supreme Court held that the sudden change in the river’s course did not change the original boundary. In Nebraska v. Iowa, they ruled that a large area of land formerly known as East Omaha was still part of Iowa. The Court let Nebraska and Iowa come up with their own plan to straighten things out, and they did. Today, more than a century later, all roads into Carter Lake run through East Omaha and North Omaha.
In 1903, the East Omaha Land Company was still selling land. Their holdings were mostly east of the lake. With their road network and streetcar service, that year they advertised East Omaha as “the manufacturing center of Omaha.”
|This is a Mona Motor Oil Company’s brick warehouse next to a the Barnsdall refinery in East Omaha in 1930.|
The town of East Omaha went on. In 1950, there were 2,500 residents. There was a constable who served as the local law enforcement for many years, with support from the Omaha Police Department. Five grocery stores, six taverns and the school were among the bedrocks of the community. Harold’s, which went on to become a citywide grocery chain, was founded in East Omaha. There were several other businesses, too, including a machine shop and garages.
After Levi Carter died, his widow remarried Edward J. Cornish. Cornish, who was the chairman of the Omaha Parks Board, convinced her to donate some of Carter’s land to the city to commemorate him, along with $1,000,000 for improvements. In 1907, she did that and a beautiful boardwalk was built around the lake, along with a boathouse and other amenities.
East Omaha was an oil town, too. A number of locals worked for Mona Oil over the years, but didn’t know its history. The Monarch Manufacturing Company was started in Council Bluffs in 1889. Shortening their name to Mona Motor Oil in the 1910s, Mona had major refining and distribution operations in East Omaha. Renaming the business with the owner’s name in the 1920s, the new Searle Petroleum Company launched a new advertising stunt in 1925 called a radio station. KOIL, whose call letters were inspired by Searle’s advertising, was the second radio station in the Omaha metro area. It was the first ABC affiliate west of the Mississippi River, and the second NBC affiliate west of the Mississippi River. The station continues today. Between 1910 and the 1960s, the company suffered more than a half-dozen major fires at its East Omaha refinery, including an explosion in 1952 that killed two men. The company did not last though, and was bought out in 1964. There were several buildings in East Omaha associated with Searle and Mona, including the warehouse pictured above.
Growing a Town
In the 1920s, East Omaha got two institutions that held the community together: East Side Presbyterian Church and the Pershing School. Two writers, Martha Stein Volovich and Marie Stein Alford, researched and wrote a very thorough history of both these places that I’m going to borrow from.
East Side Presbyterian Church was the heart work of M. Adela Doty. Starting in 1928, she worked with the local Presbytery and the Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary in North Omaha to build a worship hall for East Omaha. It was built at 2304 Avenue K. As the membership expanded, there were weddings, baptisms, birthdays and more that were constantly celebrated. Members came from the Sherman neighborhood and around Florence Lake, and stayed at the church for decades. However, the church wasn’t official until 1952, when East Side Presbyterian Church was formally founded. After that, the Doty Hall Educational Building was built across the street and dedicated in 1961, and a parsonage was built at 2408 Perkins Avenue. The last new member joined the church in 1985, and it was closed soon afterwards.
A one-room schoolhouse was organized in 1892 and was the only school in District 61. In 1926 it was replaced with a building at 28th and Locust. Students chose the name for their new school in honor of General J.J. “Blackjack” Pershing. The new Pershing School opened the same year as the Omaha Municipal Airport, later renamed for Omaha hotel magnate and philanthropist Eugene Eppley. Located near the south end of the first runway at the airport, Pershing School had many planes fly directly overhead on takeoff and landing. Starting in the 1950s, noise from jet airliners at the airport routinely halted class work. In the 1960s, a second runway was opened that diverted the heaviest traffic, and landing lights were installed on the roof of the school.
East Omaha was an individual town with its own culture, habits, hobbies and ways of being. While East Side Presbyterian was a center of some peoples’ social lives, others had their fun in several bars, some in a few clubs, and a few picked through the town dump for good times.
Chez Paree was a nightclub originally located in East Omaha. With a front including popular entertainers, singers, comedians and others, the gambling casino in the back ran freely through the 1930s and 40s. On February 11, 1942 there was a fire that leveled the building. The next day, February 12, 1942, there was a brand-new Chez Paree in Carter Lake. They moved the operation into Iowa because Nebraska’s state patrol and Omaha’s police department were becoming intolerant of the operation.
Aside from Chez Paree, the Stork Club was also in the area.
In 1947, a flood obliterated many of the homes in East Omaha. Around this time, Pershing School had 750 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, with another 108 students going to high schools in Omaha with their tuition paid by the county. There was an eight acre playground next to the school. A decade later, after many residents moved away and the student population dropped, District 61 was absorbed into the Omaha Public School District. In January 1958, the Pershing School became an Omaha school.
By July 1957, more than 800 people petitioned the City of Omaha Planning Commission to annex East Omaha. The proposed area covered 306 acres and included 662 residential structures and estimated 2,800 people. There were also 24 retail establishments in the area, mostly on Locust Street, and lots of independent junk car dealers. At this point, there were 11.5 miles of streets with 1.5 miles of them covered in concrete. The Omaha Police Department, which patrolled the area, considered it a “high crime” neighborhood.
By 1970, Locust Street and 25th Street leading to the marina were the only improved streets in East Omaha. Out of 2,298 people who lived in the area, 94.9% were white, with 89 African Americans and 26 American Indians, and two marked as other. Only 24.5% of residents had finished eighth grade. Meanwhile, 9% of the homes had no plumbing, 29% had no connection to the public sewer, and 65% were owner occupied. It looked like the plan was for the City to buy the lots out, and they had a way.
The City of Omaha’s Airport Authority eventually purchased many of the houses in the area, along with the school building after it was closed. It was demolished soon after. In a 1976 report, sociologists reported that East Omaha was, “a place in the city but it is not a part of the city.”
Modern Times in the Old Town
Using the power of eminent domain, the City of Omaha has virtually eliminated ALL of East Omaha. Several residents fought the City and attempted to keep their homes. However, after court cases and other high pressure tactics pounded away at their health and livelihoods, most stopped. Today, only one house remains in East Omaha, across from the former Harold’s Grocery.
The Open Door Mission moved to East Omaha in 1987. There were still a few houses left in the area. In the 1990s, the City of Omaha and the Airport Authority completed their transition of the East Omaha neighborhood by demolishing the remainder of the residences in the area.
In 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began a cleanup on the Carter White Lead Company site in East Omaha. Today, there is a Nebraska Youth Correctional facility there, along with an Omaha Correctional Center.
Abbott Drive has been spruced up to welcome visitors to the city who arrive by the airport, and Lindbergh Place wraps around the airport next to the levee. Barely anyone knows about the neighborhood that used to be there, and there’s no reminders of what used to be.
This is Omaha history.
Town of East Omaha Landmarks
- Illinois Railroad bridge (1893 to 1980)
- Pershing School (1926 to 1976)
- East Side Presbyterian Church (1928 to 1975) at left; Carter White Lead Company (1878 to 1907) at right
- East Omaha Box Company (1895 to present)
- Eppley Airfield / Omaha Municipal Airport / American Legion Municipal Airport (1925 to present)
- Carter Lake
WHAT ELSE? Please share your memories in the comments section below!
Special thanks to Ronald Potter, Matt Lesley and Ryan Roenfeld for their contributions to this article!
|Here’s a cut away from a 1971 map showing East Omaha then.|
|Here’s an East Omaha family with a makeshift walkway during the 1952 flood.|
|In this illustration from the 1920s, you can see the development of East Omaha at the end of Locust Street.|
|The Carter White Lead Paint thermostat was a promotional tool used through the 1950s.|
|A 1910s ad for Carter’s White Lead Paint.|
|The Carter White Lead Paints were sold across the United States by the end of the 19th century.|
|This is a 1930 plat map of the area.|
Special thanks to Ryan Roenfeld, Ronald Potter and others for their contributions to this article!