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A History of the Streets of North Omaha by Adam Fletcher Sasse

A History of Streets in North Omaha

“Omaha’s streets suck!”

“My car almost fell into a pothole!”

“My muffler is back down that street!”

If you have said or heard any of these complaints, you know you aren’t the first one. But did you know there are at least 160 years of complaints similar to them?

Omaha was slow to pave its streets. Founded in 1854, the first street paving in the city didn’t happen for a decade, and even then was only downtown and was only made of wood. Omaha was a dusty and muddy big town for a long time.

When the city did begin paving, they used all kinds of things. Before 1890, streets were covered with blocks made from cypress and cedar trees, Galesburg brick, Woodruff sandstone, Colorado sandstone, Sioux Falls granite, and asphalt. That year, the City of Omaha got serious about covering the old dirt roads that made the grid then. However, it took them a long time.

Cuming Street in North Omaha, Nebraska
This shows Cuming Street shooting west from North 30th Street, past Tech High and towards the Northwest Radial Highway. Cuming Street was expanded to carry highway-type traffic in the 1950s.

The First Roads

American Indian tribes moved freely throughout North Omaha for thousands of years before Europeans showed up. Their hunting paths are long gone, but by following the geography of the land its easy to guess that the earliest roads made by Europeans followed those trails. For instance, the Florence Boulevard travels along the top of a ridge, which is where tribes may have had a hunting path.

The first roads in North Omaha made by Europeans and European Americans generally went through the area to somewhere else. The Whitman Trail, which was the precursor to the Oregon Trail, crossed the southern part of North Omaha along present-day California Street. Manuel Lisa, a Spanish fur trader for a French company, had a fort in North Omaha which surely had trails to it that have been lost to time.

The Streets of Winter Quarters

The grand entry of European road-making in North Omaha, though, is clearly defined. Although their first effort called Cutler’s Park was a bust, the Mormons made a massive contribution to the design of the area by using a grid-pattern to lay out their town of Winter Quarters in the Indian Territory that became Nebraska in 1846. The street names in their town included Cutler, Cahoon, Pratt, Woodruff, Russel, Smith, Joseph, Hyram, Carlos, Spencer, Hunter, Eldrege, and Chase Streets. These streets ran east to west from the Missouri River, while the two north-south throughfares ran for a mile parallel to the the river, and were called First Main Street and Second Main Street.

1846 Winter Quarters map
This is the 1846 map of Winter Quarters made by its settlers. It clearly shows each street in town.

Other early roads in North Omaha included Winter Quarters Road, which became Florence Boulevard; Saunders Street, which became North 24th; Sherman Street, which became North 16th; and Ames Avenue, which was originally Commercial Street in the Town of Saratoga. Another road from Saratoga became Carter Boulevard, including its infamous Dead Man’s Curve. There were also roads to other early small towns, including Briggs and DeBolt. All of these were eventually absorbed into the City of Omaha’s street grid, and their historic appearances (names, curves, etc.) disappeared.

It took a long time for the streets in Omaha to get paved.

Military Road

Military Road, North Omaha, Nebraska
1885 and 1856 maps showing the Military Road through Omaha, including modern street names in brackets.

After the Mormons laid out the first streets in North Omaha, in 1850 the US Army laid the first major formal road through the area. Today we call it Military Avenue, since it was made to move supplies to the military forts and posts in western Nebraska. The Overland Trail hauled over the same route in the 1860s, widening the road and ensuring its longevity.

Learn more in my article “A History of Military Road in North Omaha” »

Early Paved Streets

Early Omaha wasn’t a progressive place filled with Victorian-era civic-minded boosters who wanted to make everything beautiful for everyone. Instead, it was a scruffy and determined pioneer profit center where goods were stored to stock the wagon trains that populated the western territory of the United States. Because of that, it took more than 25 years after the city’s founding to get serious about paving the streets.

This Google Earth image shows the last exposed streetcar tracks in North Omaha, located at North 29th and Lake Streets.
This Google Earth image shows the last exposed streetcar tracks in North Omaha, located at North 29th and Lake Streets.

In 1880, the city had 118 miles of streets and supposed only half of these were paved until 1883. In North Omaha, North 24th Street was paved in Cedar blocks in 1890. That year, Spaulding was paved with the same from North 24th to the Belt Line Railway. Bristol was paved with brick from North 24th to North 30th Streets. Further south, Grace Street was paved with granite from North 24th to North 16th Street, and with sandstone from North 16th to North 14th. Wirt, Lake and Clark Streets were paved with Cedar blocks from North 24th to North 16th.

At the same time streets on the north end of Omaha were getting paved, there were streetcar tracks being installed throughout the community. Originally pulled by horses, the more popular electric streetcar tracks eventually won out. The companies would basically come along, remove all the paving for a street along the tracks’ route, then replace the paving after they were finished. Pictured above are tracks on North 29th Street, which was the original north-south route instead of North 30th, south of Ames Avenue. That was obviously later corrected.

Before 1890, almost nothing else north of Spaulding was paved. North of Cuming Street, nothing west of North 24th Street was paved, except for Cuming, which was paved privately all the way from North 16th to North 40th by Samuel Mercer for his Walnut Hill neighborhood. The vast majority of streets in North Omaha were dirt roads in 1890. Brand new developments, single homes on small spreads, and the small number of businesses were all on dirt roads.

1890 North Downtown Omaha Paving Map
This 1890 paving map shows (from top) Izard, Cuming, Burt, Webster, California, Cass, Chicago, Davenport, Capitol and Dodge Streets; from 8th to 24th Streets. The reference key on the left shows what type of paving the streets had.

In 1890, the Omaha City Council started prioritizing street paving. However, they weren’t particularly fast or determined about it. Instead, they plodded along and paved where they wanted to, as they wanted to. Although citizens complained, there wasn’t a lot of progress.

15 years later, little progress had been made. According to a paving map from that year, the most substantial progress was made on North 16th, which was paved from Dodge to Fort with asphalt and stone. North 30th was paved from Bristol to Florence with brick, stone and macadam, which was tar-covered gravel. North 20th Street was paved in brick from downtown north to Lake Street. North 24th Street was asphalt from downtown to Lake Street and brick from Lake to Ames Avenue. Near that intersection, Commercial Avenue was paved in stone, but Ames Avenue was still dirt.

By this point in 1905, the only streets between 16th and 24th that had any paving on them were Nicholas, Paul, Clark, Grace, Lake, Corby, Binney, and Emmet Streets. They had a variety of surfaces, including wood block, sandstone, and granite.

West of 24th and north of Dodge, the only east-west streets with any paving were Cuming, parts of Burt, Hawthorne Avenue in the exclusive Bemis Park neighborhood, Parker, Bristol, Evans, Spaulding, and the intersection of 30th and Ames. These were also covered in a variety of surfaces, with wood being the most popular. The only exception was North 40th, which was paved in asphalt from Dodge to Hamilton Street, then Hamilton to Military was covered in brick, and Military Avenue was covered in brick and stone to the city limits at North 48th Street.

110 years ago, all of the rest of Omaha was covered by dirt roads. Instead of gravel and cracked avenues, the main features of North Omaha’s streets were mud ruts, snow-covered drives, grass-covered lanes and holes big enough to hold pots.


Types of Streets in North Omaha

There are many ways streets are referred to in North Omaha.

North 16th and Nicholas in the 1910s.
Looking north on North 16th from Nicholas Street in the 1910s. In the distance are the Mother’s Flour silos, with the Storz brewery behind them.

Every roadway in Omaha is governed by the City government, and they dictate how and why particular types of streets exist. According to City of Omaha ordinances, when the word “Circle” is used, it refers to a street that’s a cul-de-sac, a dead-end street or a street that has its entrance very close to its exit. The City uses the word “Parkway” for a street that carries noncommercial traffic with extensive landscaping. “Boulevard” is used for streets and rights-of-way that are part of the Omaha Park System. The word “Drive” is for streets that are curvy and don’t fit the normal east-west or north-south pattern. A “Court” is the name for a thoroughfare or access road that is not a public right-of-way but has the same alignment and characteristics as a public avenue.

At one point in Omaha history, being an “Avenue” meant that a roadway was wider than usual, and was supposed to be tree-lined. Being a “Street” meant that the roadway was designed for efficiency. Streets were supposed to have limited parking and stop signs; avenues were supposed to be for parking and signage, relaxing all driving. This prescription didn’t prove accurate though, and the system was abandoned.

A List of Types of Streets in North O

Boulevards in North Omaha

In 1889, the City of Omaha planning commission decided to get serious about establishing parks throughout the city. Horace Cleveland, a nationally popular landscape architect, was hired to develop the plan, and North Omaha benefitted a lot from his work. Today, more than 125 years later, several winding, tree-lined boulevards still grace the community.

1920s City of Omaha Planning Commission "Plan Showing Proposed Inside Boulevard System and Boulevard Extensions"
City of Omaha Planning Commission “Plan Showing Proposed Inside Boulevard System and Boulevard Extensions” from the 1920s.

The first and most renowned piece of the puzzle was called The Prettiest Mile in Omaha Boulevard. Its graceful, wide roadways were lined by long lawns and flower-bedazzled medians which split north-south traffic into different lanes. Homes along this stretch were sold as part of the Norwood Addition, and maintain much of their behemoth beauty. Today, this section forms the northernmost stretch of Florence Boulevard between the Storz Expressway and Reed Street. Florence Boulevard extends southward through the beautiful Kountze Park neighborhood, and goes downtown along North 20th and North 19th Streets.

Other boulevards in North Omaha include Lincoln Boulevard, which was named after Abraham Lincoln. It runs through the Bemis Park neighborhood east-west from North 33 Street to Mercer Boulevard. Mercer the connects to the John A. Creighton Boulevard, which was named after the city’s famous banker and runs south-north from Mercer Park through the Pleasant Hill neighborhood north and east through Adams Park. It merges into Paxton Boulevard at Sprague Street, which was named after the Omaha industrial tycoon. Paxton then melds into Fontenelle Boulevard, which goes through the park of the same name and towards Benson.

Looking east on Belvedere Boulevard towards Miller Park in the 1910s.
Looking east on Belvedere Boulevard towards Miller Park in the 1910s.

In the far-north section of the community, the John J. Pershing Drive Named is named after a famous World War I general. It runs south-north from East Omaha from Abbott Drive at North 16th Street, then between the river and Florence, under the Mormon Bridge past Dodge and Hummel Parks, finally ending at Ponca Road. Originally part of a 1915 “back-to-the-river” plan in which a boulevard would follow the entire length of the Missouri River from North Omaha through Downtown to South Omaha.

The Florence Boulevard, mentioned earlier, was designed to connect to Minne Lusa Boulevard, which criss-crossed Miller Park on the old Birch Drive and connected to Belvedre Boulevard. That strip carried cars to Fontenelle Boulevard. The Carter Drive extended from Florence Boulevard, shooting towards Cornish Boulevard to wind into Omaha’s Levi Carter Park.

All of these boulevards were originally part of a plan to tie together North Omaha’s beautiful parks, including Kountze, Adams, Miller, Carter Lake and Fontenelle, with other parks and boulevards throughout the city. Many of them still serve that purpose, and although some have been altered, many still maintain the vision H.W.W. Cleveland laid out in 1889.

In the 1910s, the City of Omaha entertained an ambitious plan to build a 19-mile-long River Drive that would connect Omahans with the Missouri River. Although it was never fully completed, there is a remanent of the test section between the J.J. Pershing Drive and the Missouri River, as well as a section that was completed north of the Mormon Bridge to Ponca Road. Other notable additions to the system that weren’t part of the historic plans are the Abbott Drive, which was paved in the 1950s, and the Sorenson Parkway, which was completed in the 2000s.

Florence Boulevard, North Omaha, Nebraska in the 1920s.
This is Florence Boulevard by Miller Park in the 1920s.

Boulevards in North Omaha


Bridges and More

This is the Locust Street Viaduct in North Omaha around 1945.
This is a pic of the Locust Street Viaduct, looking west towards the intersection of North 16th and Locust Streets from 11th Avenue.

After the Mormons settlers of Winter Quarters left the area in 1847, the town had a few residents left. However, it was in the 1850s that James Mitchell acquired the property and launched a town named after his daughter. While he established new street names, he also created plans for a new bridge to span the Missouri River. A bridge company was formed, but nothing was built under their watch. It wasn’t until 1936 when it was attempted, but that didn’t work. In 1952, the first span of the Mormon Bridge was finished, and in 1975, the second. It operated as a toll bridge until 1979. The bridge continues to operate today.

The Locust Street viaduct was an important roadway in North Omaha for several decades. Built between 1916 and 1918, the viaduct extended from North 14th Street to North 11th Street. Carrying traffic from North Omaha to the Carter Lake area, the viaduct traversed over the Missouri Pacific Railroad, which headed to a roundhouse in this area. In 1990, a train hit one of the upright supports for the viaduct, smashing the train and making the viaduct structurally unsafe. It was torn down shortly after, and replaced with a regular roadway.

There was a railroad trestle over North 16th Street at Commercial Avenue to prevent traffic from being stopped with the Missouri Pacific Railroad which crossed there at one point. It was removed in the 2000s.

Cuming Street at North 25th, looking west towards the Robert's Dairy and Tech High School.
Cuming Street at North 25th, looking west towards the Robert’s Dairy and Tech High School.

Bridges and Trestles in North Omaha


North Omaha Street Directory

According to the City of Omaha, the Public Works Department does street repairs, snow removal and street sweeping on more than 4,500 miles of streets. Some of the east-west streets include the following.


Major Intersections

A 1988 aerial pic of 30th and Ames, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is an aerial view of the intersection of 30th and Ames in 1988.

There are more than a dozen major intersections in North Omaha. Some are historically relevant but have become unimportant; others have only grown and grown; and still others just exist. Their importance today varies by degree. In this listing, I will avoid the downtown area by starting at Cuming Street and going north to I-680; then going west to North 72nd Street. Some of these intersections are listed here. I know I’m missing some historically significant intersections – please share your suggestions with me in the comments section below!


Historic Street Names

Some of the streets in North Omaha don’t have their original names anymore. Instead, they were named, renamed and rededicated several times over the years.

Canal Street, North Omaha, Nebraska
Omaha’s Canal Street originally ran from approximately east to west from North 9th to North 15th; north to south from Yates to Seward. Thanks to Michele Wyman for identifying this location. It bisected Bowery Street, Aspinwall Street and Bright Street, and was just a block north of Blessington Street. Thanks to Michele Wyman for identifying this location.

The area called Central Park today started out as a country intersection for farmers in the north and northwest parts of Douglas County. Today, the intersection of North 42nd and Grand Avenue barely shows any signs of having thrived. However, in its day there were businesses, a school, a church and more there. Given its once-remote nature, it should come as no surprise then that while Grand was once called Tuttle, there were also streets named 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th. Today, they are called Saratoga, Browne, Camden and Fort, respectively. Grand Avenue acted like a main street for this neighborhood. Two little stubs of Maple Street near North 16th were originally called Central Street.

Streets in the City of Florence, Nebraska in 1885
This map shows some of the streets in the City of Florence in 1885.

The City of Florence

Florence is old, and because of that it had streets that aren’t around anymore, or that have been renamed.

For instance, streets running east-west in the historic city of Florence that were north of Mill Creek included Parker, Downey, Sargent, Cook, Ferry, Davenport and Bridge. South of the creek, east-west streets included Pacific, Jackson, Fillmore, Calhoun, Clay, Jefferson, Wilit, State, Madison, Harrison, Monroe, Adams, Farnum, Washington and Briggs. Spring Creek bisected the town on the south end, and Hanover, Taylor, Scott, and Spring Street ran east-west there.

Running north-south, the streets in old Florence were named and numbered, but with different numbers than today. Starting at the Missouri River and going west, the streets were Mill, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, then Main, Bluff, Prospect, Buffalo, and Elk.


North Omaha’s Streets as Weapons

While it seems like a community’s streets would become sacrosanct at some point, that hasn’t been the case in North Omaha. Instead, the City of Omaha has used the community as a drawing book where they could erase and rewrite streets and neighborhoods at will to suit their grandiose visions for the city. That’s meant the obliteration of neighborhoods, the demolition of A LOT of historical structures, and the erasure and reconfiguration of many streets throughout the years.

North Freeway / Interstate 580

One of the most controversial street projects in Omaha was the creation of the North Freeway. Originally envisioned as an interstate highway to connect I-480 with I-680 called I-580, it was stopped more than two miles south of its pathway by resistant neighborhoods and political force. Destroying more than 2,000 homes, churches, businesses and other buildings, the construction of this highway took almost 20 years. The construction of this strip is attributed with ripping Omaha’s main African American neighborhood into two sections and effectively undermining the success of the area for the last three decades.

Instead of reaching north to I-680, the North Freeway was connected by the new Sorenson Parkway and to the new Arthur Storz Expressway.

North 16th Street

For a century, North 16th Street was one of the most important streets in Omaha. It was so important, it was renamed for one of Omaha’s heroes for many years. The original location of country estates and grand mansions, it gave way to swanky apartments and vital industries. Eventually it settled into suburban bliss.

Another controversial and obviously discriminatory way that the City of Omaha used streets in North Omaha was the construction of the Hilton Hotel in downtown Omaha. Originally proposed as a mega-hotel that would be a boon to the city by bringing its hotel stock into the 20th century, the Hilton Corporation told city planners it would need a two-block section to create an effective footprint for its building.

They blocked off North 16th Street.

The 1960s riots in North Omaha scared white Omahans into believing their businesses, culture and security in downtown Omaha was in jeopardy. Rather than addressing the economic, social, educational and cultural stagnation brought on by white flight from North Omaha, the City’s leaders were bound and determined to enforce racial segregation. So, in a cynical and veiled attempt at placating their white constituents, Omaha’s white city planners walled off one of the three major roadways leading commerce into North Omaha. They used the Hilton Hotel to literally block traffic on North 16th.

Today, more than 40 years later, that abomination still stands as a Doubletree Hotel, and North Omaha still suffers because of this white supremacist planning today.

1883 George Bemis map of North Omaha with major streets in yellow.
Real estate mogul George Bemis published this 1883 map of Omaha, which I’ve clipped to show North Omaha specifically. I’ve added yellow dashes to highlight present-day 16th, 24th, and 30th Streets; as well as Cuming, Hamilton, Lake, Locust, Ames and Fort Streets.

Streets have been used as weapons against North Omaha repeatedly in the last half century. Incapable of defeating North Omaha’s African American culture and spirit, white pathology drove city leaders to divide and conquer the community through a web of highways, parkways, expressways and road blockages. These concrete appendages of white supremacy wiggle throughout the area today, still enforcing their hate-filled contemptuousness on every person in North Omaha, including whites, Blacks, low-income and working class people. Fewin the community have benefited. Now, outside the community? That’s a different question…

N. 18th and Lothrop St., North Omaha, Nebraska
The intersection at North 18th and Lothrop Streets shows its bricks in this pic by Michaela Armetta.

Recent Times

24th and Lake Streets, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is looking south toward North 24th and Lake Streets in the 1940s. Tuchman’s Grocery, Duffy Drugs and other businesses are shown.

The future of North Omaha’s streets is still being written. While its true there are a few brick streets left, its also true there are gravel streets throughout North Omaha, including in East Omaha, in the Saratoga neighborhood, and scattered around far North Omaha. That doesn’t sound very futuristic. In the meantime, the City and its redevelopment plans have destroyed some of North Omaha’s traditional grid pattern streets in the Near North Side neighborhood. Instead, they’ve installed cul-de-sacs in the neighborhood, awkwardly breaking up more than 100 years of positive patterns.

Is this going to continue? Does the City want to eliminate North Omaha’s grid patterns? What’s the point of leaving a few brick-covered streets in North Omaha?

Only time will show us, and even then we’ll have to wait and see what the City of Omaha brings…


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BONUS PICS!

1912 Omaha Belt Traffic Map
This is a 1912 map showing the Omaha Boulevard System throughout the entire city.
OmahaMap1
This is an 1860s map of Omaha City, showing that North Omaha was merely at Cuming Street and no further.

6 responses to “A History of Streets in North Omaha”

  1. Very interesting article on the Streets of North Omaha. I grew up in Florence, North Omaha. My mother’s mother was JessieKing Lonergan, before her marriage to DC Lonergan she taught at Florence Grade school on North 31st. Her father was Francis Morris King who was the Mayor of Florence. I was told that King Street was named after him. I’m pretty sure the Douglas County Historical Society has information on him, although I haven’t personally researched this my brother in law has.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Adam,

    Enjoyed your informative article about North Omaha streets.

    One quibble. The article states that Decatur St. was named for Stephen Decatur, “who nobody apparently knows much about.”

    Actually I learned a lot about Commodore Decatur from books I checked out from the Omaha Public Library bookmobile which periodically parked on 30th Street next to Blessed Sacrament School (where I was a member of the Class of 1961). He’s well known for his naval exploits during the Tripoli War against the Barbary Pirates and the War of 1812.

    I don’t remember the context in which he said it, but he’s also known for the famous quote, “our country, right or wrong.”

    Dan T.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My further research discovered that Decatur Street appears named for another “Stephen Decatur,” who played a role in pre-Civil War Nebraska Territory. The Omaha World-Herald says the street is named after this Stephen Decatur (17 Dec 1952, p. 10), as does the Douglas County Historical Society. The town of Decatur, Nebraska is also named after him.

    I used air quotes around the name of this gentlemen because that does not appear to have been his real name. He seems to be Stephen Decatur Bross, somewhat a scoundrel for abandoning his wife and child(ren) and came west. He also seems to have abandoned a second wife when he departed for Colorado in 1859. However he did interact with other important people in local history, e.g., Logan Fontenelle, Peter Sarpy, and Thomas Cuming.

    The best summary of Stephen’s life is in the Omaha Daily Herald, 10 June 1888, p. 4. He’s also written up in Wikipedia.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Where is the street named Idledale Lane? Should be between Weber and Potter.

    Like

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