Imagine a time when riding a streetcar was interesting, respected and almost a little glamorous. On the dusty, granite-covered streets of Omaha, that time was during the 1870s and 1880s. That new technology needed fanciful buildings to go along with the times, and the streetcar maintenance shop at 2606 North 26th Street in North Omaha was one of those buildings.
In 1884, Colonel Mathewson T. Patrick gave the Omaha Horse Railway Company three acres of land at North 26th and Lake Streets. Colonel Patrick owned a section of land on the northwest corner of North 24th and Lake Streets, and he wanted to ensure his property would make him money! The way he did this was by making sure that some day, some way the streetcar would make it to his land. His gamble paid off.
After laying out a little bit of track across the Near North Side between the 1860s and 1880s, the Omaha Horse Railway Company wanted to expand its service throughout the area to make more money, including points north and west, and they needed a place to park their operations that was big enough for a stable and corral for the horses. This guaranteed Colonel Patrick the streetcar would provide service to his development.
Three years after Colonel Patrick gave his land away, a long barn was built at the corner of present-day North 26th and Lake Streets that could stable 235 horses. Along with a large corral and a shed, that was everything the Omaha Horse Railway needed to succeed. With quaint horse-drawn streetcars roaming around North Omaha, downtown and South Omaha, the company was doing decently.
Suddenly, someone else thought they could succeed, too!
In 1887, the cable car was introduced in Omaha, and soon the Cable Tramway Company had a line shooting up North 20th to Lake Street. They fought constantly with the Omaha Horse Railway though, to the point where there was a 200-man brawl at 30th and Ames when both companies ended up there at the same time. Both companies couldn’t last though, and in 1889, the Omaha Horse Railway and Cable Tramway Company were consolidated under the name Omaha Street Railway Company.
Quickly, more lines shot all around the area. The 26th Street Line went along 24th Street from Hamilton to Seward, then west to 26th and north to Lake street. The Lake Street Connection took riders on Lake Street from 26th down to 18th Street.
In 1890, the 26th and Lake streetcar lot went from Lake north to Ohio, from North 27th east to 26th. There were three buildings on the lot, including a car house where the horse-drawn streetcars were kept and repaired; a shed that I presume was for storing coal; and a long building covering almost the whole lot from north to south. There was a large corral area in the southwest side of the lot, and a small structure in the southwest corner at North 27th and Lake Streets.
The safe at the barn was robbed of $572.65 in 1891. Three armed men rushed the office after closing time and tied up the five people working there. Using blasting powder, they opened the safe, got the money, smashed the telephone and left. Since the surrounding area was “sparsely populated” with “little police protection,” the report I read wondered why it hadn’t happened before then.
The last horse-drawn streetcar route in North Omaha ceased operation in June 1895, and the 26th and Lake Streetcar Barn got really quiet, really quick. That didn’t last long.
As Omaha grew, its streetcar system needed to grow, too. By 1900, the commercial growth around North 24th and Lake Streets was doing good, and the streetcar lines only helped it grow. New technology was coming into the streetcar industry, and the 26th and Lake Streetcar Barn was going to see changes.
The first big change was more lines right around the area, and further out. New rails would take riders along North 22nd from Nicholas to Charles Street; then west on Charles to 25th; then north on 25th to Lake Street. In 1901, the streetcar lot extended from Lake north to Ohio Streets and from North 27th east to 26th Streets. There were two buildings on the lot, marked on an insurance building from the era as “Old Barn, Used for Storage,” and a small building marked “Shed.”
In 1909, Gurdon Wattles, the president of the Omaha & Council Bluffs Street Railway Company wrote a long report for the Omaha Bee newspaper about the state of his company. He reported that the company was growing on all fronts.
To power all this action, a new electrical substation needed to be built. The new building was located in the southwest corner of the 26th and Lake Street lot. A concrete building, the building had thick wire cables in underground clay conduits, oil switches in a fireproof vault, and thousands of currents of electricity coming through it. Air-blast cooled transformers sent juice through rotary convenors. It was very electrical, and certain people today are still impressed by what was happening there.
Wattles said the company was especially proud of the large brick car-building and general repair shops they’d built at 26th and Lake Streets. Designed by an important architecture firm called Fisher and Lawrie, it was built in 1905. In 1907, the company bought another lot north of the shop, from Ohio to Corby. By this point, these buildings and the lot were used as the only repair shop for streetcars in Omaha.
“1 night watchman, approved clock, heat – steam, power elec. blowers to woodworking machines.” On a 1935 insurance map, its obvious the Omaha & Council Bluffs Street Railway Company was working to protect their investments at 26th and Lake.
The big building on the southeast corner had three sections: the Truck Shop where streetcars were repaired; storage rooms; and a machine shop where work happened. A single, large building on the west of the middle of the lot had an ironwork shop, wood work shop, and a paint shop. There was also a storage building, a lumber building, and the Lake Street Electrical Sub-Station on the lot.
Despite the optimism of needing to expand operations, the north yard of the lot was marked as being “leased to contractor,” although I’m unclear about who the contractor was. Times were changing, too. As technology made bussing more efficient and reliable, streetcars became less important.
Dialing It Down
After World War II, the car culture was grabbing imaginations and streetcars were falling out of fashion in Omaha. Cuming Street and Northwest Radial Highway were coupled with a vision for the future Interstate system, and a concerted effort pushed people off shared transportation and into their cars, driving solo from their new west Omaha homes downtown, and to leave again. Against that backdrop, the streetcar was painted as a nuisance. At the same time, buses were running more than ever, and a vision emerged to eliminate Omaha’s streetcar system.
As far as I can tell, the streetcar barn at 26th and Lake was sold for the first time in 1944. In 1951, the lot was sold again, this time to a group of investors who weren’t involved in the streetcar business. At some point, it was acquired by the City of Omaha, which used it as a maintenance yard for public works vehicles until 2016. The City of Omaha Fleet Management website says, “We have one major repair facility at 26th & Lake Streets and five small repair facilities located in Public Works and Parks Departments yards.
Demolishing the Barn?
In 1985, the Fire Department Repair Shop at 2204 Ames was relocate to what was then called the Northeast Joint Use Facility at 26th and Lake Streets. However, that never happened, and instead the facility was relocated to southwest Omaha. At some point, the Public Works Street Maintenance Division Offices were moved to 52nd and Dayton.
In the 1980s and 1990s, two City of Omaha maintenance facilities in northeast Omaha were abandoned, and services were consolidated into the 26th and Lake Streets facility. Recognizing that a 1985 plan to merge Parks and Recreation Department maintenance operations into the 26th and Lake facility hadn’t happened, a plan was made to build a new, “more centralized” facility in the future. From that point, they decided to abandon the 26th and Lake property or put it to another City of Omaha use.
Early in 2016, the 26th and Lake Streetcar Barn was included in a new listing on the National Register of Historic Places for the 24th and Lake Historic District. Recognized its substantive role in the development of North Omaha, the nomination for the historic district acknowledged the importance of this building.
In the summer of 2016, the City of Omaha began emptying out the building, and word spread that the City of Omaha plans to demolish the 26th and Lake Streetcar Barn. Whether the intention is to simply empty the City of an old building or rob North Omaha of its heritage, a movement is growing to save the building, led by Restoration Exchange Omaha.
Only time will tell whether this campaign to save the 26th and Lake Streetcar Barn. In the meantime, its important to learn the history. Thanks for reading this; following are links to related reading.
- Omaha Street Railway History – 1909 Newspaper Advertisements by William H Hodge Collected by Joe Thompson
- Omaha and Council Bluffs Railway and Bridge Company article on Wikipedia
- Orr, Richard. (1996) O&CB: Streetcars of Omaha and Council Bluffs. Omaha.
- 24th & Lake Historic District National Register of Historic Places Application, National Park Service