Benson has always been a place of transition and change. Starting in the 1880s, it was a sleepy suburb of a new city. By the 1920s, it was a booming suburb packed with businesses and homes. By the 1950s, it was an urban suburb filled with amenities and bliss. Today, its experiencing a rebirth as a city-within-a-city, with newness and historic preservation abounding! None of this would have been possible without people who commuted to and from downtown Omaha, and it all started with streetcars in Benson.
The First Streetcars
The Benson Motor Company was the third streetcar operation established in Omaha. William McCague, Erastus Benson and Clifton Mayne organized the company in 1886. The company had three miles of track from North 40th Street and Mercer Boulevard westward along the old Military Avenue and then into Benson.
Benson Place was platted by Erastus Benson in 1887. Benson bought about 900 acres of John Creighton’s farm land, and he and Mayne sold lots in the town for the next 20 years.
Chicago businessmen bought land to the south of Benson in 1891, where they platted the Halcyon Heights subdivision. Running from North 60th Street on the west to North 66th Street on the east, Halcyon Heights also went from Maple Street on the south to Grant Street on the north. Halcyon Heights revolved around what was then called Halcyon Avenue, and is today known as North 65th Street.
Benson didn’t grow fast, and only had a dozen houses by 1890. However, within the next decade there was a school, general store, saloon, blacksmith, and a wagon shop. The main street in Benson Place was called Mayne Street, and after the town was annexed in 1917, it became known as Maple Street.
Opened between 1886 and 1887, the first cars of the Benson Motor Company were pulled along the tracks by steam-powered engines. From North 40th and Cuming, the cars moved to North 42nd and Hamilton, then followed the rural Military Road, which was lined with farms all the way to North 58th Street.
The streetcars were so noisy that farmers along the track complained to the Douglas County Board, which eventually and officially declared the Benson Motor Company a public nuisance. The company changed from steam-driven to horse-pulled cars, and made their neighbors happy.
The Big Dog in Town
By 1894, the company was re-organized as the Benson and Halcyon Heights Railroad. In 1902, that company became part of the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Company through consolidation. They were the big dog in Omaha, and now Benson was part of them.
For years after consolidation, the Benson line was the longest streetcar ride in Omaha. From the streetcar barn at North 63rd and Maple, the same car would take riders far south in South Omaha for just a nickel.
After years of innovations and developments of all kinds, the last streetcars in Omaha ran in 1955. Replaced by buses, eventually the city took control of public transportation, and today Metro Transit operates the services throughout the city, including Benson.
There is a sustained conversation about streetcars in Omaha that fluctuates with the years. If light rail or any other innovative commuter rail ever comes back to Omaha, hopefully Benson will be served again!
Thanks to Jason for inspiring this post!