Omahans missed old Courtland Beach. A grand amusement park and resort, it was founded in the 1890s where the present-day town of Carter Lake is. People still wanted to swim, boat and have fun on the Cut-Off Lake, and they wanted a public place to do it.
However, after Nebraska officially lost that part of East Omaha to Iowa around the turn of the century, Courtland’s amusement park fell out of fashion, the beach lost popularity, and both were closed. (The resort took on a different life as the Carter Lake Club, but that’s a different story.)
The City of Omaha wanted to bring people to use their new Carter Lake Park, which was donated to the City by the Cornishes.
Mrs. Selena Cornish was formerly Mrs. Selena Carter. She married Mr. Edward Cornish after Mr. Levi Carter died. Mr. Cornish, who was an attorney by trade, was a parks commissioner and encouraged his bride, the new Mrs. Cornish, to honor the late Mr. Carter by donating land to Mr. Cornish’s pet project. Mr. Cornish then nominated that the park be named in memory of Mrs. Cornish’s late husband who was Mr. Carter. I guess we could refer to her as Mrs. Selena Carter-Cornish, but the newspapers never referred to her that way, only as Mrs. Carter and then as Mrs. Cornish. Oh, and that’s why Cornish Boulevard is a short jaunt that leads to the long Carter Lake Drive, which is also accessible via Carter Boulevard, and all of which let drivers navigate around Carter Lake and through Levi Carter Park.
The City of Omaha designed the Municipal Beach and a bathhouse to draw people to the north side of the lake to relax. The investment worked, and a lot of people kept coming.
Located at 809 Carter Lake Drive North, Municipal Beach was a success, and for decades on every good swimming day all summer long a thousand people swamped Omaha’s Municipal Beach to enjoy sun, fun and good times. It was located there from 1919 through to the 1950s, enjoying massive popularity, an influx of money from the US federal government, and a place in many older peoples’ memories still today.
Constantly threatened with the informal Jim Crow practices that dogged Omaha, African Americans wanted to ensure they had access to the beach too. The Black community, including the Omaha Monitor newspaper, called for integration even as the bathhouse was being designed.
However, what was built was not as deluxe as what was drawn above. Instead, the original bathhouse at Carter Lake was a pair of simple wooden structures with pointed roofs. There was a large parking lot beside it, and several docks jutted into the lake. On these docks were diving boards and lifeguard chairs.
The lake was the main attraction though. It proved to be popular all summer long, with swimmers and sunbathers flocking to Municipal Beach every weekend and many weekdays, too. There was an early dredging by the City of Omaha that made this area safe for swimming, and people of all ages took up the opportunity.
Carter Lake’s Municipal Beach continued drawing people into the 1930s. The Great Depression swallowed Omaha’s happiness in many ways. Despite that – or because of it – Omahans came the Municipal Beach to swim, canoe, fish, dive, sunbathe and just hang out at the beach.
Unlike popular private swimming facilities and many City of Omaha pools, the Carter Lake Municipal Beach was not segregated, de facto or otherwise. However, in 1916 when City of Omaha Parks Commissioner Joseph Hummel tried to make it so, he was challenged by African American attorney Amos P. Scruggs with the Nebraska Civil Rights Act of 1893. Hummel rescinded his order.
Several era pictures, including ones below, show African American children and adults swimming next to each other, and in some cases, with whites who are in the water.
The Works Progress Administration and Carter Lake
Then, in 1935, a great thing happened: the National Parks Service, working with the City of Omaha, claimed jurisdiction over the Carter Lake Park. Moving in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, the National Parks Service immediately began improving the park with a new roadway, lakeside improvements, and land consolidation. Working with the Carter Lake Development Society and the City of Omaha, various parcels held by a number of individuals were bought and consolidated into the parkland. By 1936, the park included more than 200 additional acres to add to the original land donation by the Cornish family.
In 1936, a Works Progress Administration (WPA) camp for homeless men was also built at Carter Lake, in addition to the CCC camp. These men were responsible for much of the landscaping. More than 20,000 trees and shrubs were planted throughout the park, and large areas were cultivated and seeded with grass. Picnic facilities were built around the park, including stoves, tables, concealed garbage cans, incinerators, and drinking fountains. Parking areas were being built with guard rails.
At the Omaha Municipal Beach, the beach was renovated to accommodate 10,000 people. Two bathhouses and a large concession building were built at the beach site, and featured stone masonry construction.
The development of the bathhouses turned out to be controversial though. The City of Omaha instructed the CCC to rip up cobblestones on Avenue H in East Omaha to reuse. However, the East Omaha Land Trust claimed ownership over those pavers. A 1940 court case resolved the issue when the City repaved the street with asphalt as they’d originally promised.
Removing the Bridge and Making the Pier
Through the end of their time at the park in 1937, the CCC removed the old Ames Avenue bridge that crossed the lake. The bridge was once a railroad trestle for the Illinois Central Railroad, and was eventually converted to a pedestrian bridge that went to Courtland Beach. When it became too dangerous to walk on people just ignored it. After it was gone, the WPA took over beautifying the west side of the lake where the bridge started, turning it into an earthen pier.
In 1937, Levi Carter’s widow donated made another large cash donation to the City of Omaha for the park she’d had established 30 years earlier in memory of her husband. That year wrapped up the CCC’s time at the park, leaving the WPA to continue work there. They continued improving the natural beauty of the area.
The Municipal Beach was gone by 1960. Other endeavors at Carter Lake came and went, and the area settled into general neglect. The boathouse, so popular over the previous 75 years, was emptied out and useless now, so the City of Omaha Parks and Recreation Department used it as storage.
Only the bathhouses remained after the beach was gone, and they barely survived. When the roofs started falling in, the City let them. More than 25 years of neglect took their toll, and nobody seemed to care.
The Municipal Beach Today
Today, Carter Lake Park has 520 acres. In 2010, the Municipal Beach bathhouse and pier were included on a multiple properties submission to the National Register of Historic Places called “New Deal Work Relief Projects in Nebraska.” As one of more than 100 sites included in the listing, the building won’t get too much emphasis for its historic contributions, but it secured more attention for the building.
According to the Parks and Recreation Department, the bathhouse has no heat, air conditioning or kitchen facilities, and there are just two electrical outlets above the countertop. Outside the facility there are fourteen picnic tables, along with permanent grills. and portable restrooms next to the bathhouse. There are three rooms inside the building, each one approximately 20 x 30 feet, with two fireplaces inside interior.
It appears that the building isn’t referred to as the Carter Lake bathhouse anymore, either. Instead, it’s now called the Carter Park Pavilion.
In 2013, the City of Omaha completed a $6 million water quality improvement project including shoreline improvements, dredging, fishery renovation, and water quality basins. Implementing the park’s 2011 master plan, one of the first projects includes the renovation of the historic stone pavilion (aka Carter Lake Municipal Beach Bathhouse) on the north shore of the Lake. Along with new roofing, energy efficient windows, doors and lighting were to be incorporated into the project.
In 2014, the City of Omaha signed a contract with an architectural firm to design a renovation plan for the Carter Lake Boathouse. Using funds from a 2010 parks bond, the firm studied feasibility for renovations and developed their plan.
Apparently, the City has a “philosophy of rehabilitation of Omaha’s major older parks.” Their master plan is being completed including a loop trail, picnic facilities, road and parking improvements and a new playground. Water quality improvements in and around the lake will be finished, too.
When the renovation of the historic pavilion aka bathhouse, park roads and the playground, soon the Carter Lake bathhouse will shine like it hasn’t for more than 50 years! Even though Municipal Beach is gone now, the park’s usefulness will go on for a century to come.
You Might Like…
- “Get to know levi carter park, carver and cornish boulevards” from Omaha By Design
- “Levi Carter Park Master Plan Considerations” from Wild Bird Broadcasting
- “Parks Foundation Breaks Ground on Carter Park’s USS Omaha Memorial” from the Omaha World-Herald (2013)
- “Carter Lake Revisited” by Daryl Bauer for NEBRASKAland magazine
- “Veterans work to repair USS Omaha submarine” from KETV (2015)