As soon as the year they started, the founders of Omaha City sought out the US military’s presence in their fledging burg. They knew securing an Army base would make Omaha relevant and bring important technological innovations faster. They succeeded, but only after local banker Augustus Kountze sold the government some choice land at a discount price. That land still abuts North 30th and Fort Streets in present-day North Omaha, and this is a history of the intersection where it sits.
Settling the Wild West
With a tiny town called Florence in the north end of Douglas County serving as a staging and restocking point for westward settlers and Mormons heading to Salt Lake, there needed to be a few roads leading to the old town of Saratoga and Omaha City to the south. One was called Butler Street, and today we call it North 30th. What we know today as Fort Street was originally called Garfield Avenue, and was laid out south of today’s Miller Park neighborhood around 1887. That entire area was still farm fields then, but the area south of there was developing. Small, affordable homes for soldiers’ families were built there.
Before that, in the 1870s, land throughout this area was owned by George Collier and A.J. Briggs, the Brown family and the Nichols family. Their little area wasn’t developed much though, except for a few small farmhouses. During the 1880s, it became fashionable for Omaha’s elite to take weekend rides to Fort Omaha to watch soldiers on parade in their fineries, officers on horses, and enjoy the military show of force.
Picture the scene of a military base with growing cottonwoods encircling it, brick officer’s houses surrounding it and a few large buildings around a large parade grounds. To the west were cornfields cut in half by the little Minne Lusa Creek. Just south of the intersection of Butler and Garfield was a covered bridge over the creek, and there were just two or three buildings at the intersection. This was 30th and Fort in the 1880s.
On the Edge of Town
During the early 1890s, there was an old barn near the intersection where soldiers would gather to gamble. Even though it was out of city limits, the barn was raided by Omaha Police Department detectives, who “pinched” the illegal gamblers more than once. That barn was owned by H.T. Beckman, and in 1901 it was burned down by an arsonist.
Frank Ketchum opened a tavern at the intersection of Butler and Garfield in the 1880s. In 1896, his main customers left the neighborhood when Fort Omaha closed for the first time, so he followed them to their new post at Fort Crook. Around the time he left, the Anheuser-Busch Park opened on the southeast corner of 30th and Fort. It became a popular place for picnics, and northern excursions from Omaha.
In 1899, the Omaha World-Herald ran a few articles about a family living in a box car near 30th and Fort, off the old Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad. Apparently, a lot had been made of them living in squalor and people were asked to make donations. In November of that year though, the newspaper said the family wasn’t that bad off afterall, or “the picture of distress can be as bad as somebody has painted it.” They went on to broker for the family though, and said “No doubt delicacies and nursing might be acceptable.”
Welcoming the 20th Century
By 1900, streetcars were running along Ames Avenue at 30th, and provided an easy way for Omahans to travel to Florence to go to Pries Lake and other entertainments there. That year, two highwaymen robbed a worker as he walked past the intersection late one evening. They ended up escaping, and the worker lost $25.
Edward Rich suffered a terrible fate in 1901. Walking down the railroad tracks where Sorenson Parkway is now, he was caught by surprise when a Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad engine came flying toward him. Without time to leap, according to the newspaper he was practically demolished by the train, with “blood, shreds of flesh, and pieces of clothing” found along the tracks “for several blocks east.” Letters found in his pocket gave his identity, and linked him to a nearby home. Apparently, his parents lived in Florence and his sister lived at 2745 Fort Street, within a mile of where he was killed. Rich had been living in Vermillion, South Dakota, for several years. His family had been out-of-touch with him, and it looked as if he was coming home. Within blocks, he was killed and never made it.
When the sewer was finished running from 30th and Ames to 30th and Fort in 1901, development of the neighborhoods surrounding it was ensured. To the south, the Collier Place and Kenwood neighborhoods, and the old town of Saratoga that was enclosed by Omaha at this point. The Miller Park neighborhood lots were set out for sale, and the intersection of 30th and Fort started developing proper.
Within a decade of the infrastructure growing, there were houses throughout the neighborhoods around 30th and Fort. The streetcar line was pushed north into Florence, and the intersection grew with it. In 1910, the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway company expanded their service to the intersection specifically. Apparently, the re-opening of Fort Omaha in 1906 led to a re-launch of weekend excursions to watch the troops there. However, with streetcar service intact now it was possible for the workingman to see the affairs instead of just the upper crust. The streetcar company added a “Y” to the intersection for cars to turnaround, and added a second car when weekend attendance started topping 10,000 (!) people some days. Announcements of housebuilding skyrocketed, and the neighborhood filled in soon afterwards. During this era, Fort Omaha was a popular baseball field too, in the same league as Rourke Park, Armour Park, Florence Park, Luxus Park and Athletic Park in Council Bluffs.
Around this time, 30th and Fort was home to the Post Cafè and the Post Pharmacy, both of which obviously served soldiers, as well as George Curry’s store, a small general store. The Post Cafè became the Post Restaurant by World War I. The cafe was open from 1913 through the 1930s, and the pharmacy was open from 1913 through 1923.
By 1913, the intersection was built-up enough and access was easy enough to justify building a new school there. However, this wasn’t any regular school. Instead, it was called the Fort Street School for Incorrigible Boys, and was meant to provide technical education for challenging students. Young men who skipped school, mouthed teachers, fought in the schoolyard and otherwise consistently acted wrong went to this school over almost a decade, learn trades like printmaking, woodworking, machining, and more.
On July 4th, 1914, the “largest gathering ever of Irish people held in this city” happened near 30th and Fort to celebrate the passage of the Ireland home rule bill. Happening in the old Anheuser-Busch Park, the program featured Gaelic sports and pastimes, along with music, dancing and refreshments. There was a talk given on the history of Irish home rule, and a fundraising activity to support the Emmett Monument.
In 1915, baseball in North Omaha reached its zenith as the Omaha Amateur Baseball Association rallied teams and ensured a lot of play at Fort Omaha.
As the United States geared up to enter World War I in 1917, the intersection at N. 30th and Fort Streets became crowded with military men and their support operations. Crowds frequently got off the nearby Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad train in A. J. Briggs’ addition called Briggs Depot, which was located just south of 30th and Fort at 3920 Grand Avenue. That railroad became part of the Chicago and Northwestern, which installed a trestle over North 30th at Grand Avenue, just south of the intersection, around this time.
Harry Lane bought the Post Pharmacy at 2920 Fort Street in 1921, totaling three Land Drug stores serving North Omaha. In 1954, Lane renovated the building after longtime tenants there passed away and the store closed.
In 1922, the former Anheuser-Busch Park on the southeast corner of 30th and Fort was developed for housing as the Woodland Park addition. It included 18 lots on three acres. During the late 1920s, the intersection had one of the first gas-driven bus lines in Omaha, taking passengers from there to South 32nd and Poppleton Streets. This decade also saw an ice house open up at the corner run by Charles Jensen.
On the southeast corner in 1930, a block north of the Fort School, L. V. Nichols opened a station under the White Eagle brand. The corner became a Socony service station in the 1940s, a Meneray and Berge station in the early 1950s, Todd’s Mobil Station in the 1950s and 60s, and remained a gas station into the 1970s. In a grand patriotic gesture, Pearl Church started hosting Memorial Day services for veterans and their families in 1930, lasting through the 1950s. Troops would gather at 30th and Fort with a National Guard “escort of Honor,” and then march to the church for services. The streetcar company opened a specific North High service from 30th and Fort to 30th and Lake in 1933. It was intended to make students use the streetcar more, and to encourage lifelong ridership.
Frank’s Place opened near the southwest corner of the intersection in 1931, offering a “cool beer garden” and Saturday night dancing. In 1934, Edward Robinson opened the Brown Bottle Tavern there, and stayed in place for almost four decades. In 1941, the Florence streetcar service ended and 30th and Fort became the northern turnaround again.
Suburban Bliss After World War II
The entire district around 30th and Fort changed dramatically again after World War II. Houses filled in on every block throughout the Miller Park, Saratoga, Kenwood and Belvedere neighborhoods. A traffic light was (finally) installed at the intersection for the first time. In 1947, the old US Army Fort Omaha was recommissioned as a Navy base, serving reserve troops from across the country as they stayed ready for potential missions around the world.
In 1948, the popular Dall Drug had a store at 30th and Fort for just two years.
In 1952, the Navy reconfigured the entrance to the Naval Personnel Center at Fort Omaha. Formerly an 18-foot-wide road, the new gate had two 19-foot-wide roads with a guard house between them. Traffic lights at the intersection were re-installed, and the traffic flow was improved overall.
Hot Rods and Hooligans
With a car dealership, a gas station, two drive-thru burger joints, a car wash, and plenty of drag racing, the 1950s and 60s made 30th and Fort a cool place for suburban white kids in North Omaha to hang out. Hot rods squealed their tires and dug out along the street, guys and gals hung out windows and stood along the streets next to their cars with policemen crowing and crowds applauding every move. That came with downs, including constant patrolling by policemen, car accidents, and fights among dragsters. However, it was a very social corner with a lot of fond memories for people.
One of the reasons 30th and Fort became so popular in the 1950s was the Marshall Drive-Inn, a carhop fast food restaurant opened in 1947 at 5319 North 30th Street. Marshall’s was the penultimate drive-in, with carhops on roller skates and dragsters peeling in and out of the place. In 1953 though, Marshall sold the place to Yano Caniglia, a young Italian guy from south of downtown. Caniglia’s Royal Boy Drive-In took over the place, and was popular for almost two more decades.
Henry Jourdan operated a car dealership selling Plymouths and Chryslers at 30th and Fort from 1938 until 1956, when he retired. Jourdan Motors was located on the southeast corner by Camden Avenue. A car wash was built nearby at 30th and Saratoga Streets in 1950, and today the Symphony of Suds remains open at the same location.
In 1959, “Bronco Billy” Barnes opened Omaha’s first locally-owned and operated fast-food restaurant at the intersection, called Bronco’s Drive-In. During that time, “fast-food” was an entirely new concept. Business was good through the hot rod years, and the restaurant stayed popular into the 1980s.
The hot rods at 30th and Fort were so predominant that the Omaha Police Department regularly targeted the intersection for traffic tickets. On night in July 1959, they cited 13 drivers in a mere 45 minutes on a range of infractions, including faulty mufflers, illegal wheels, speeding and reckless driving. That night, one policeman reported that the intersection was the “toughest spot” in their citywide safety campaign.
In 1961, Caniglia’s Royal Boy Drive-In became Mr. C’s Steakhouse, which became a longtime landmark at 30th and Fort. The iconic place held a lot of special memories for people, including its “old world charm” including murals and year-around Christmas lights, its outdoor seating area resembling Italy, and its home-style food. However, like many around it for decades, Mr. C’s was also a segregated business, then only serving Blacks out the backdoor in the 1970s, and in the 80s openly welcoming African Americans.
A major transition in the intersection’s busy-ness and relevance happened in 1967. After 101 years in Omaha, the U.S. Army formally withdrew all units from Fort Omaha, ending their usage of the city’s resources for all intents and purposes. During that year, the U.S. Navy also transitioned the use of the Fort from being its personnel center with national relevance, to becoming the Naval Reserve Training Center. While it was still used, it wasn’t as popular, and it led to the complete turnover of the Fort for civilian usage just seven years later.
White Flight Changes Everything
By 1970, the intersection of 30th and Fort was changing rapidly. The economic stability provided by middle class residents in the surrounding neighborhoods was diminished as white people fled African Americans moving into the area. Racism drove segregation and isolation in this area for decades before; with the changing laws and culture of the 1960s, the businesses, houses, churches and institutions around 30th and Fort changed a lot.
In 1975, Metropolitan Community College took possession of Fort Omaha. The General Crook House was immediately listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and a short while later the entirety of the campus’ historic facilities were made into a historic district. The preservation of Fort Omaha was seen as a tremendous success for historic preservationists in the city. The site became home to the Douglas County Historical Society and Landmarks, Inc., an advocacy organization.
A neighborhood bar called Ju Jo’s Pub opened in the old Brown Bottle Tavern location in 1976, and stayed open until 1991. Commercial Federal Savings and Loan opened a branch on the southeast corner of 30th and Fort in the 1980s. The Omaha Fire Department considered building a new fire station at the intersection in 1976, but reconsidered and didn’t do it.
During the 1970s, white flight struck the surrounding neighborhoods en masse, with middle class white families evacuating their homes due to “block busting” and other fear-mongering tactics by real estate agents anxious to sell new homes in west Omaha. Absentee landlords, disjointed urban renewal efforts and half-baked school improvement plans plundered the values of properties around 30th and Fort Streets. Businesses came and went during this time. Unfortunately, with the closure of Mr. C’s in 2006, the intersection appeared blighted for a decade.
Mr. C’s growth bought up the buildings on the northeast corner of the 30th and Fort. With their ever-expanding parking lot, several storefront buildings once located on the corner were demolished and replaced by parking for the restaurant’s growing business.
A 1972 feature in the Omaha World-Herald about Sophie Shaw highlighted her longtime management of the Wee-Wash-It Laundry at 30th and Fort. Shaw had been in business since 1953, and in 1972 closed. According to a recent comment on this website by David Caniglia, Yano Caniglia made arrangements with Shaw to buy her building business and building to demolish it and grow their parking. Apparently, according to David Caniglia, the old Lane Drugstore building and a cafe space were demolished through similar arrangements, too. By the time Mr. C’s closed, it covered a quarter of the block with a parking lot facing the corner of 30th and Fort.
The intersection was forever changed by the development of the Highway 75 North/Sorenson Parkway/Arthur Storz Expressway interchange immediately south of 30th and Fort, which lasted from 1976 through 1992. Starting in the 2010s, Metro College redeveloped the southern end of their campus at Fort Omaha, too. Suddenly, hundreds of more vehicles went through the intersection as they conveniently reached Florence, the Ponca Hills and I-680.
The Future of 30th and Fort
Continuously working on the improvement, stabilization and sustainability of the historic facilities, and the appropriate modernization the campus ever since, in the 2000s, Metro began a massive expansion program that significantly increased the size of the college and its offerings to students. Today, there is a new entrance to the campus from the Sorensen Parkway, and the traffic issues endemic to 30th and Fort have largely been relieved. There are 73 acres of land with 32 buildings at Fort Omaha today, including more than 375,000 square feet of space.
Today, the Mr. C’s Restaurant site is home to a massive mixed-use commercial/residential building featuring apartments for students at Metro. Called 30 Metro Place, the building is a $20 million mixed-use project meant to compliment the developments at Metro. 30 Metro Place is a 113,000-square-foot building that has 110 apartments and 12,000 square feet of commercial bays. It is also home to a sculpture called “The Icona” that stands near the entrance, and was designed in part to honor the site’s treasured past. Charles Drew Health Care is the anchor commercial tenant, and offers medical, dental and behavioral health care there.
The Bronco’s restaurant was closed and demolished in the 1990s. Its business was replaced in the same location with a different structure by a Sonic Drive-In in the late 1990s. A Popeye’s Louisiana Style Chicken fast food restaurant opened on the southeast corner where the gas station was in the 1990s.
The Douglas County Historical Society has maintained the tremendous asset of the General Crook House as a museum, and developed a neighboring building as historical archives. I can’t say enough for how much I admire this place, the organization and the work done there. Ironically, or perhaps in a nod to 30th and Fort’s history as a hot rod haven, the Douglas County Historical Society hosts an annual event called “Vintage Wheels at the Fort” that gathers cool cars, great memories and fundraising for this essential organization.
I still appreciate that the future is unwritten for North Omaha, and even the intersection of 30th and Fort. It lacks the blustery ignorance of suburban happy days, and seems to be forgetting the ignorant painfulness of its last 25+ years. Instead, hope springs eternal and good things are happening.
Here’s hoping the future shines as bright as possible.
30th and Fort Historic Business Directory
- A & L Cafe (1946-1961)
- Anheuser-Busch Park, southeast corner of N. 30th and Fort St. (1896-1922)Briggs Depot, 3920 Grand Ave. (circa 1870-circa 1920)
- Brown Bottle Tavern, 5212 N. 30th St. (1934-1973)
- C & S Cafe (circa 1945-1953)
- Caniglia’s Royal Boy Drive-In, 5319 North 30th St. (1953-1961)
- Chandler’s Furniture, 5207 N. 30th St. (1958-1966)
- Charles Drew Health Care, 5319 N. 30th St.
- Dohse Cafe (1919-1920)
- Frank’s Place, 5212 N. 30th St. (1931-1934)
- Fort Omaha (1869-1947)
- Fort Street School for Incorrigible Boys, 5100 N. 30th St. (1913-1919)
- Gendelman Fruit Store, 5319 North 30th St. (circa 1921-1948)
- Jourdan Motors (1938-1954)
- Ju Jo’s Pub, 5212 N. 30th St. (1973-1991)
- Lane Drug, 2920 Fort St. (1921-1949)
- Lundhoff Grocer (circa 1888-1930)
- Marshall Drive Inn, 5319 North 30th St. (1948-1953)
- Metro Community College (1975-present)
- Mr. C’s Restaurant, 5319 North 30th St. (1961-2007)
- Post Cafe, 5224 N. 30th St. (1913-1923)
- U.S. Navy Personnel Center (1947-1967)
- U.S. Naval Reserve Training Center (1967-1974)
- Wee Wash It Laundry, 2924 Fort Street (1953-1972)
- 30 Metro, 5319 N. 30th St. (2018-present)
You Might Like…
- A History of Fort Omaha
- A History of Minne Lusa Creek
- A History of the Fort Street Special School for Incorrigible Boys
- A History of Mr. C’s Restaurant
- A History of the Miller Park Neighborhood
- 30 Metro official website
- Fort Omaha Metro Community College official webpage
- Douglas County Historical Society official website