“A wide stretch of softly rippling waves, shining like burnished gold and silver under the rays of the setting sun and the rising moon. White sails dipping here and there and skimming the waves, under the deft manipulation of the tanned and healthy crews that man them. Silent fishermen along the shores, in the boats and swarming the docks. White clad men and women on the porches of the bungalows that line the northern shore of the pretty lake and here and there a fragrant odor of coffee and broiling ham or fish that comes from the kitchen in an alluring manner – this is ‘Bungalow City,’ a colony of Omaha business men who long for fresh air and freedom from the restraints of strenuous city life…” from the Sunday World-Herald, 6/9/07
One of North Omaha’s most forgotten neighborhoods might be Bungalow City.
Starting in the 1880s, early Omahans started building hideouts, shacks, cabins and retreats on the northeast shore of a new lake down by the river. Riding their own horses and wagons, hiring horse-driven cabs from downtown, and later taking a streetcar and then walking the rest of the way, these intrepid relaxers built small houses with sleeping porches, shared docks and a boardwalk to enjoy their getaways.
Bungalow Lake was located on the northeast shore of present-day Carter Lake. After the great floods of the 1870s, a new oxbow lake was created when the Missouri River changed course. Originally called Cut-Off Lake, early residents were middle class managers, small business owners and others from the growing city of Omaha.
Their little community started off with just a few bungalows built by wealthier businessmen who wanted to live on the lake in the summers. Starting around 1904, they built simple, small places they could travel to from Omaha to enjoy fishing, sailing and being outdoors.
Within a year though, there were a dozen shacks, and in two years, two dozen bungalows, and by 1909, Bungalow City included more than 50 houses of varying sizes. That year, it was estimated that up to 800 people lived there and entertained up to 1,600 people every summer. Interestingly enough, the number of boats was surveyed too, with there being as many 60 boats moored there.
From their own docks, residents launched fishing skiffs and swam summer days away. Summer nights were filled with the requisite chirping crickets and blinking fireflies, as well as night swimming, Victorian-era adult beverages, and other frivolities. I imagine Bungalow City was a place where women would let their hair down, children could run freely and working men could enjoy the fruit of their labor.
Taking In The Lake
Cut-Off Lake was a bustling place in the 1890s, but it needed a more romantic name, so it was called Lake Nakoma. In addition to Bungalow City on the northeast shore of the lake, Courtland Beach was almost directly south. There, guests could enjoy a beachside resort hotel, an amusement park with a roller coaster, carousel and more, a massive boardwalk and sandy beaches.
Starting in the 1890s, a streetcar line launched up and down Locust Street to carry residents and weekenders from 16th Street into the village, all the way to present-day Abbott Drive. There, regular workers would depart to their East Omaha homes while vacationers would walk northward along the shoreline to Bungalow City.
Since the states of Nebraska and Iowa were arguing over it after the great flood of 1877, the status of the present-day village of Carter Lake was in flux at this time. This made it a sort of no-man’s land where gambling, prostitution, drinking and all sorts of carousing happened. Instead of just drawing seedy characters though, this actually led to an influx of everyday men looking to escape the pressures of living in Omaha. I suspect that some of them were the builders and weekenders at Bungalow City, simply holing up in conveniently located saloons, brothels, clubs and other hotspots on their way to catch up to their families who traveled ahead of them.
The Omaha Rod and Gun Club was also located on the south side of Lake Nakoma. This erstwhile facility was an essential part of the taming of the lake, as it was the first attraction for city dwellers to come down and enjoy the outdoors. In addition to its named purpose, they also had boats to rent, hosted regular picnics and family activities, and generally drew people to enjoy the outdoors.
The residents of Bungalow City hosted parties and clubs, and had grand plans for their emerging neighborhood. By 1909, they were agitating for a boathouse to be built at their docks, as well as lobbying against an extension of the streetcar line to reach down Locust Avenue towards their home. The businessmen thought the streetcar would make it easy for “undesireables” to reach their beloved haven. They went so far as to consider incorporating their town.
Alas, good times and grand planning couldn’t go on forever.
Sliding Across the Lake
It turns out Bungalow City residents were squatting.
In 1910, the City of Omaha made good on the donation Mrs. Cornish made on behalf of her deceased first husband, Levi Carter. Donating $1,000,000 and the land around the lake which she owned to the City, she made it contingent on the City making Levi Carter Park a reality. While she originally donated the money in 1900, it took the City a little while to get around to fulfilling her wishes. However, they did it in a grand way.
Bungalow City was built on the land Mrs. Cornish owned which she donated.
“Bungalow City, the little village of summer homes on the northeast shore of Carter Lake, must move,” announced the September 30, 1909 edition of the Evening World-Herald. According to the article, Bungalow City owners faced three options for their mansions. They could either move them to Florence Lake; move them 200 feet north of the Carter Lake shore so they wouldn’t be in the park; or put them on skids and move them across the lake in the wintertime.
As a group, they chose the third option.
When the houses were taken across the lake, Bungalow City was no more. Instead, they became part of the Rod and Gun Club. After 1910, Levi Carter Park was finished and there were no more homes on the Nebraska side of Carter Lake. The City of Omaha Municipal Beach was improved soon after, and eventually the Pleasure Pier and Kiddieland were opened on the OMaha side.
I image, though, that on a quiet summer night when there is nobody else on the shore, you could listen carefully on that northeastern shore by the airport. It might be easy to imagine the murmur of excited fishermen as a big one was reeled in; envision an old-fashioned wooden boat with a white canvas sail bobbing through the waters; and remember the smell of coffee and ham. You might have a memory nobody has had in the generations since it was moved.
You might be remembering Bungalow City, Omaha’s most forgotten neighborhood.