For 100 years, Omahans loved the circus. During my lifetime, we wore summer clothes and packed in the auditorium. Earlier generations gathered under canvas tents held up by huge poles. The most popular place for those tents to rise was located in North Omaha. This is a history of the Circus Grounds aka the Exhibition Grounds aka the Show Grounds that were at North 20th and Paul Streets.
What Were They?
The circus grounds extended from North 18th to North 20th Streets, and from Nicholas on the south to Paul Street on the north, comprising about eight city blocks covering about 20 acres. They were importantly located nearby The Coliseum, which was built at North 20th and Burdette in 1879 to be Omaha’s premier social center. Located on three streetcar lines, they were within 10 minutes of downtown and surrounded by the thriving Near North Side neighborhood.
From the 1870s through the 1930s, the circus grounds hosted dozens of shows, performances, exhibitions and even the “Greatest Show on Earth,” over and over.
The Performances and Companies
During the earliest years of the grounds during the 1870s, traveling museums and menageries would come to the show grounds and display their exhibits to paying customers. Advertising in the Omaha Daily News and the Omaha Herald, hundreds of people would attend for .10 a day and have a lot of fun marveling, gawking and taking in exotic, strange and unique performances and displays.
However, after 1892 the big circus companies came to Omaha regularly. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was the largest, with Hagenback, Cole Brothers and several others following. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West also set up and performed there, as well as at the Omaha Driving Park and at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition.
During the 1890s, huge circuses started arriving in Omaha. Using huge crews of temporary labor and circus workers, these companies would launch huge tents and spread dozens of wagons across the circus grounds. Sometimes there’d be a midway with barkers, sideshows and games. Other times spectators would simply pour into the temporary bleachers inside the tent at designated times, and they’d watch the show.
Barnum and Bailey and other shows liked to be hyperbolic in their ads, proclaiming half of all elephants in North America were in their shows, or the tallest leap ever was being made, or 400 of the greatest horses ever would perform. However, smaller shows came through, too, like the 1902 Pan-American Show with a European managerie, the triple circus hippodrome and a “Congress of Living Phenomena.”
At the turn of the 20th century, some of the Ringling Brothers Circuses coming to the North Omaha circus grounds claimed five trainloads of animals and performers, including “400 of the finest horses,” hundreds of acrobats, dozens of elephants, and countless other performers.
In 1902, the Omaha American Association anxiously promoted baseball games at the 20th and Paul circus grounds. There were also political events, religious revivals and other outdoor and big tent activities held at the site.
The circus trains would cross the Missouri River on the Union Pacific Bridge and park their operations by the Union Station. Then, the entire circus would parade through downtown Omaha, first along 10th Street to North 16th, then to North 20th to Paul Street.
In 1898, one of the circuses advertised a “double parade” leaving from the circus grounds at 3:30pm, going south on 20th to Cuming Street, east to 16th Street, south to Douglas, east on Douglas to 9th Street, south to Farnam and west of Farnam to 15th Street, north to Davenport then west to 18th Street, then to Webster to 19th and north to Paul Street, ending at the “old circus lot.”
The End of the Grounds
With no building on site and nobody to advocate for its value, in the early 1930s the circus grounds were closed permanently. Helping its demise was the 1927 fire that devastated the nearby Coliseum, which acted as a magnet for performance acts.
Activities like the grandiose circuses moved indoors to new show grounds at North 30th and Wirt Streets, into the City Auditorium or westward to AkSarBen, while others fell out of fashion and simply stopped happening.
During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration was looking for important action across the nation for people to make money on public works projects. In 1938, the WPA camp at Carter Lake took the lead in constructing the first public housing projects in Omaha, located directly north of North 20th and Paul Streets, and called the Logan Fontenelle Public Housing Projects. In 1939, they doubled the site, effectively taking all the land from Paul to Clark Streets, from North 16th to North 23rd. Other public projects flooded the area in the years afterwards, demolishing landmarks like St. Philips Episcopal Church and the old Kellom School.
Today, there are no historic markers or commemorative plaques marking the site of the circus grounds, and barely anyone knows they ever existed. If your family is from North O though, ask you great grandmother if she remembers the circus grounds, the tents and the elephants that used to haunt 20th and Paul. Then listen to the stories and tell me in the comments section below…
You Might Like…
- A History of the Charles Street Bicycle Park by Ryan Roenfeld
- A History of the Omaha Driving Park
- A History of Ak-Sar-Ben in North Omaha
- The Circus in America — A thorough website documenting a lot of circus history.