Some streets are more important than others. For more than 150 years, there’s one road that stands above all others for the role it played in history. Shuttling commuters today, for 50 years it was one of the only highways that hauled travelers through Omaha into the Great Plains, making the city the “Gateway to the West” that it claimed to be for a long time. This is a history of the Military Road in Omaha.
Congress first allotted money for the Military Road starting in Omaha City in the Nebraska Territory to be built in 1855. Connecting the new town to the New Fort Kearney located in western Nebraska, the US Army Topographical Engineers was responsible for the road’s design and construction. The young Nebraska Territorial Legislature was excited to see it built. The Army wanted it built to be able to move troops and supplies west faster, and speculators wanted more people to have more access to lands for homesteading in the new territory.
Although the land in present-day Omaha was barely developed, much of it was already claimed by 1856. The Army seized land along the route through eminent domain.
In an 1897 account of the road’s history, the Omaha World-Herald suggested the road existed long before white people got to Omaha and long before the US Army built it up. For instance, there are accounts of the 1849 California Gold Rush that talk about settlers’ movements through Omaha. Earlier than that, there is an 1847 account from Mormons traveling along the route:
“This 100-foot section of ruts just west of Little Papillion Creek is one of the very few remaining in the Omaha area. The Mormon Pioneer Company passed this way in 1847, and the route was subsequently used by California gold seekers on the Council Bluffs Road. Thomas Bullock wrote of this day’s journey on April 10, 1847: “[We] travelled on the divide of a rolling prairie, crossed the creek ‘Tapion’ [Little Papillion Creek] and also a marshy creek [Big Papillion Creek], at both which places the ‘Mormon team’ [men who were assigned to help pull wagons out of difficult spots] was called into requisition. On the banks of this last marsh the Camp halted to feed the cattle.”
By 1850, the route that made up the eventual Military Road had several landmarks identified along the way, including the pathway over Black Mud Creek, the top of Prospect Hill where dead were buried, and further west at Saddle Creek Road on westward over the prairies that today make up Benson.
Politics of Wagon Roads
Like many political issues in the early Nebraska Territory, there was tension between residents living north of the Platte River, and those living south of the river. South of the river were racist radicals called the “Nebraska City clique” who wanted Nebraska to be part of The South, complete with plantation farms and slavery; north of the river were liberals who wanted all people to be free, or at least not have slavery. In political proceedings and the media, the southern Nebraskans squabbled with the northern Nebraskans, called the “Omaha clique,” over slavery, statehood, the state capital, and the location of the Military Road. The southerners were upset the north had won the Military Road. In May 1856, Territorial Governor Mark W. Izard wrote to Colonel Steven H. Long, Chief Topographical Engineer to complain construction hadn’t begun quickly enough. Soon after, Lieutenant John H. Dickerson was in charge of construction in the eastern part of the territory.
Originally traveling along the north-south Winter Quarters Road from Kansas to modern-day Florence, Lieutenant Dickerson went north up to the Elkhorn River, crossed on the Mormon ferry there and went to Kearney. There he met Pawnees in a council where they supposedly guaranteed they wouldn’t resist construction of the road over their land. However, they also made it explicit that they didn’t consent to the construction either, and chiefs let Lieutenant Dickerson know they knew of the damage white settlers did to their land.
Dickerson led his group, including almost 30 men, back to Omaha on a different path. Along the way, he stumbled across a route with good wood, water and enough grass to supply the construction of the wagon road, and it shortened the trip from Omaha to Kearney by 26 miles. He went with this new route. Dickerson aimed to build “a good wagon road for the greater part of the year,” and if Congress wanted it to be a year-around road he said he needed more money. Dickerson submitted maps showing his route to Congress in December 1856, and called them “Map showing survey made for a Territorial Road from a point on the Missouri River opposite of Council Bluffs, Iowa (Omaha, Nebraska) showing located road and line of reconnaissance.”
In 1857, Captain Edward Beckwith took over the construction project. Bird B. Chapman, the Nebraska Territory representative to the US Congress, succeeded in gaining another $30,000 for the wagon road. This wasn’t anything special though, because between 1854 and 1857, Congress allotted money for military roads in every organized territory in the West.
A year later a comment in a newspaper article made it sound like the trail west of Omaha was a half-mile wide at some points. Covered in rutted wagon trail paths, there were times when wagons would sit six across on the trail and axle-high in mud.
Choosing a Route
Starting at the old Fort Kearney near Nebraska City, the Military Road to Omaha came north in the young city along the Missouri River. It was then designed to climb easily up the bluffs that separated young Omaha from the Great Plains. Moving west without hesitation, the road stayed along the top of the hills immediately west of the little town and avoided unnecessary creek crossings as it went westward. Just like the great forests were seen as obstacles to building in the Pacific Northwest, and the lack of water in the Southwest, in Nebraska its high number of streams, creeks and rivers were seen as obstacles to the Military Road in Omaha.
Originally starting at California Street near North 8th Street, the Military Road went west to 24th and Cuming Streets where the military had built a bridge over a creek. On the other side of this bridge, the road jogged to the northwest and went to the intersection of North 33rd and Parker Street. In 1857, there were several small businesses on this corner serving travelers and settlers in hills to the northwest. The road then jutted south and west to follow the present-day path of Hamilton Street at about North 35th Street. From there it went west until it ran into Saddle Creek. Following Saddle Creek north and west, Military Road
Writing in 1915 about his 1860 trip across eastern Nebraska, Julius Sterling Morton wrote, “From a point west of 20th Street I am sure I saw no houses save a ranch near the military bridge about 24th and Cuming Streets. The old Military Road climbing the hill west to where the waterworks reservoir is, and on over the present route to Benson, was plainly visible. Not a house from 24th and Cuming Streets to Elkhorn City, twenty-three miles west. There were only a few cottonwood trees along the creek spanned by the military bridge, a gulch or ravine that heads one fork about 34th and Poppleton, and one fork [later]. As far west as I could see there was no timber; only prairie, unbroken and unfenced; prairie covered with buffalo grass, a dry, parched looking country.”
The bridge at 24th and Cuming Streets was a landmark for many travelers. I haven’t found much about the stream that it crossed, except that it was originally called Black Mud Creek, and may be the same creek that goes underneath present-day Technical High School, aka the OPS TAC.
According to Ryan Roenfeld’s great book, Secret Omaha, a Wild West era landmark on the edge of Omaha was called the Robber’s Roost. The 1897 Omaha World-Herald history of the road said as much, but added locations: First located at the military bridge crossing 24th and Cuming, the robber’s roost was used to mug victims and people were sometimes killed there because of this. After that area became more settled, the roost was moved “six miles up the road” for more dastardly deeds. Ryan reports that it became a “road ranch” which eventually changed its name to the First and Last Chance Saloon.
The city continued to grow. In May 1864, The Nebraskian newspaper reported on the Military Road, saying, “Our streets are jammed every day with the rolling tide of emmigration. Though only beginning, the like has not been seen since the great California mania. A gentleman who has just arrived from eastern Iowa informed us that the road is lined for fifty miles with wagons–the great majority making a beeline for the central Platte River route.”
The earliest developments in North Omaha happened along Military Road in the 1850s and 1860s. The Lone Tree Ferry, Omaha’s original river crossing over the Missouri started in 1850, was located at California Street on the river at the site of the present-day Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitors Center. The 100-acre Union Pacific Railroad yards were located here starting in 1865, as well as the Omaha Smelter Works, later called ASARCO, in 1870. The first “Near North Side” was in the area around North 8th and Dodge Street extending north to Cuming Street starting in the 1860s. Other early neighborhoods around the road included Little Scandinavia and the Long School neighborhood in the 1860s.
After several verbal and newspaper reports of American Indian tribes conducting raids along the Great Platte River Road in August 1864, there was a panic in Omaha. The young city’s residents decided they were at imminent risk of an attack from the Plains tribes, and they demanded the government do something to prepare. Governor Alvin Saunders appealed to the military to surround the city with “select groups of minutemen,” but all available military personnel had already left Omaha along the Military Road. The city clogged up with wagon trains and travelers waiting to leave until the skirmishes ended, and they relied on the Military Road for relief. It came.
There were several towns founded along the Military Road in the 1870s, including the town of Hayes and the town of Irvington. Hayes was later renamed Bennington. After Bennington the road went to Elk City, then Fremont. From the Missouri River, some bodies of water it crossed in Omaha included the Black Mud Creek, the Little Papillion Creek and Thomas Creek. The Black Mud Creek might have been connected to the North Omaha Creek.
Growth in the Region
The area around Military Road in North Omaha grew quickly in the 1880s. The Webster Street Station belonging to the Omaha Road was built in 1885. As the Military Road headed west, it went by the young Creighton University, which was opened in 1887. Neighborhoods popped up around the road as it traveled west, including the Prospect Hill neighborhood, Bemis Park neighborhood, Orchard Hill neighborhood, and the Clifton Hill neighborhood, all during the 1880s and 1890s. By 1885, a portion of Military Road from North 30th Street west was renamed Hamilton Street.
In an 1885 memoir of a cross-country bicycle trip, an author named Thomas Stevens traveled from Oakland to the Atlantic Ocean. He was riding a farthing, that old style of bicycle with a huge wheel in front and tiny wheel in back. He also didn’t have tires on his wooden wheels, or springs on his seat. From this perspective, he wrote “…and follow the old military road from through the Elkhorn Valley to Omaha. ‘Military road’ sounds like music to a cyclist’s ear, suggestive of a well-kept and well-graded highway; but this military road from Fremont to Omaha fails to awaken any blithesome sensations under my vest to-day, for it is almost one continuous mud-hole. It is called a military road simply from being the route formerly traversed by troops and supply trains bound for the Western forts.”
Erastus Benson bought 900 acres of farm land from Edward Creighton, an early Omaha real estate mogul, in 1886. In 1887, Benson platted the area and called it Benson Place, later changing it to Benson. Located along Military Road, the town was about nine miles from Omaha. Speculators thought the Military Road route would become more popular as farmers in the surrounding region needed a place to go to market, and they built the town up after it was established. William McCague, Erastus Benson and Clifton Mayne organized the Benson Motor Company in 1886 to serve the town and streetcars continued serving the area for more than 60 years after.
The Missouri Pacific Railroad cut the Military Road near North 40th Street for its Belt Line Railway in 1886. The Belt Line was an early passenger train circling young Omaha. The railway went through this specific area for the popular intersections of North 40th and Hamilton and North 45th and Military, both within walking distance of the Belt Line. Switching from passengers to light industrial usages, that railroad was intact into the early 1980s when the track was removed.
In 1896, a terrible accident between a streetcar and a horse-drawn wagon happened at the intersection of Military Avenue and Parker Street. The lawsuit that happened after that was remarkable for establishing the responsibility of the Omaha Street Railway in paying for its driver’s error, and in maintaining the authority of the City of Omaha to regulate streetcar speeds on Military Avenue and other streets throughout the city.
During this era, the Military Road was renamed Military Avenue and it was very important. In the times before Interstate highways and airplanes, and in addition to hauling people to the young towns of Benson, Irvington, Bennington and beyond, Military Road also ushered travelers from one side of Douglas County to the other. Those travelers spent money and came to appreciate young Omaha and its surrounding areas, with many staying or returning to start a life there.
Becoming Urbanized, then Forgotten
After 1900, the areas around Military Avenue urbanized quickly. Benson matured from being a streetcar suburb into a bustling town in its own right, then in 1917 was annexed by the City of Omaha. Shortly after, the Country Club neighborhood started construction around a fine golf course and fancy clubhouse. Around this same era, there was an airfield located near North 45th and Military Avenue. Glenn Curtiss came barnstorming there in 1910.
As Omaha grew up, it soaked up Military Road and slowly the street disappeared. First, the sections downtown and in the old “West Omaha” area changed their names, being called California Street, Cuming Street and Hamilton Street. The diagonal jog from North 33rd and Parker Street to North 35th and Hamilton Street was straightened out and disappeared into the newly platted house lots in the Montclaire neighborhood. The street called “Oregon Trail” today was actually part of the early Military Avenue, and is the only remnant of the road in this area today. Eventually, the section along the Saddle Creek was obliterated and rebuilt as the Saddle Creek Road, then remade into the NW Radial Highway.
By the turn of the 20th century, the section of Military Avenue in downtown Benson was a fairly popular place, bustling and important for its businesses, bank and more. There was a grain elevator located along Military Avenue as it left Benson, along with the Benson Feed Mill, and the road continued westward from there. In 1918, Douglas County took federal road construction money to cut and grade portions of Military Road in Omaha. By 1940, the section of Military Avenue through downtown Benson was renamed Maple Street.
When NW Radial was built in 1954, almost all memories of the old Military Road seem to have been erased along with it. Laid over Military Avenue from North 47th to North 58th Street, the Radial was a suburban expressway that Omaha knew had to be built in order to show the federal government it anticipated the arrival of the Interstate freeway system coming that decade.
During this era the Benson community was integrated into Omaha as a thriving suburb. After the injection of the high speed traffic along NW Radial, several department stores and suburban developments filled in the area. After the streetcar service stopped in the 1950s the community stabilized and enjoyed its status as a western edge of Omaha for a decade. As it became surrounded, much of its commercial traffic left for further western locations and the downtown area died off for about 50 years.
Some of the important locations along the original route of Military Road in North Omaha include the Lewis & Clark Landing at the Riverfront; the 32nd and Franklin Street Park; the Prospect Hill Cemetery; the Walnut Hill Reservoir; Gallagher Park, originally Krug Park; Grace Young Park, and; the Benson Park.
During the first two decades of the 21st century, Creighton University acquired much of the land around the further east section of the original Military Road. That area was renamed North Downtown Omaha, a new stadium and tourist facilities were built, and its redevelopment continues significantly today. In the 2020s, downtown Benson is experiencing a renaissance of its own. The Bemis Park area continues doing well, and there is growing recognition of the historic value of much of the area north and south of the original Military Road east of North 72nd Street.
Remembering Military Road
From 1857 to the early 20th century, Military Road was one of the only highways in Omaha. It was also the only highway to Fremont, and it connected Omaha to the western United States few other roads could claim. Sure, for a long time it was a rutty dirt road with a few rotten bridges and poor supplies, but it was important all the same.
As for historical recognition, there is one monument acknowledging the road today.It reads, “This boulder erected 1912 by Omaha chapter Daughters of the American Revolution to mark place of the Oregon Trails 1846 the California Trail 1849 later called the Military Road.” This monument is located along the street at 3026 Lincoln Boulevard in North Omaha, and is the only monument specifically marking this important roadway in the community.
In his book, Roenfeld says “a small marker for the Oregon and California Trails was also erected in 1912 on Military Rd. just west of N. 90th St.” There is a picture of this marker below.
A report to a federal commission in 1976 claimed the “Old Military Road Historical Project in Omaha, NE” was underway. The report said, “The history of an old military road in Douglas County will be researched to find its relationship to the Benson area. A book will be published of any pertinent information that is found.” A contact named Mikel Scoggins from the Benson Commercial Club was listed. However, there is no sign online that any work was ever completed on this project.
In 1993, a historic segment of Military Road located near West 82nd and Fort Streets was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. No signage was ever installed though, and despite the 1918 concrete roadbed being hidden in some trees and grasses there, few people know about the historic location now.
The first residential historic designation in Omaha happened along the former Military Road though. It was 1983 when the City of Omaha identified the Bemis Park Landmark Heritage District as substantial. In 2004, the Country Club Historic District along the old Military Road was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Benson Downtown Historic District was added in 2021. In 2020, the registry added the Orchard Hill Commercial Historic District to the rolls. While all of these mention Military Avenue in their applications, none acknowledge the direct role of the road in building the historic significance of the areas.
Today, there are no markers, signage or indications that Military Road itself had any significant role in the development of the American West, in the Nebraska Territory or in Omaha today. The original route is forgotten, and Omaha doesn’t seem to care about this Old West route that once carried the future through the city.
Historic Sites on North Omaha’s Military Road
- Lone Tree Ferry at California Street and the Missouri River
- The first Near North Side neighborhood circa 1860
- Places for stocking wagons along Cuming Street
- Military Bridge over Black Mud Creek at N. 24th and Cuming St.
- Creighton University at N. 24th and California circa 1887
- 1912 Military Road history marker at 3026 Lincoln Boulevard
- Street called Oregon Trail that was part of Military Road
- Prospect Hill Cemetery at N. 33rd and Parker St. formerly on the Military Road
- Belt Line Railroad at N. 40th and Hamilton circa 1886
* Military Theater, 2216 Military Avenue circa 1928
- Street called Military Avenue that was part of Military Road
- Country Club Historic District on Military Road circa 1926
- Benson Commercial Historic District circa 1887
- Street called Military Avenue that was part of Military Road
Special thanks Michaela Armetta, Ryan Roenfeld, Michele Wyman, Ryan Roenfeld, Micah Evans, and the rest of the Omaha History Club for their contributions to this article!
You Might Like…
- History of North Omaha’s Cuming Street
- A History of Streets in North Omaha
- History of the North Freeway in Omaha
- A History of Railroads in North Omaha
BONUS STORY: A Mob on Military Road
By Adam Fletcher Sasse
In 1861, two men were arrested, one confessed and implicated the other, and a judge ordered a trial. A mob walked into the jail and murdered the one accused of being the worst, and let the other walk.
George Taylor lived on Military Road northwest of Omaha in 1861. One day that spring when he’d left home, his wife reported that two men broke in, tied her up and took all the valuables in the house. The marshal heard about the crime from George Taylor, and he went looking for the men. He found two unknown men playing cards and flashing money at a saloon who seemed like they were guilty. The marshall arrested them and learned their names were James Bouve and John Iler. However, they were released when the sheriff listened to them describe the hard work they’d done to earn their pay. The marshal apologized and the men went back to drinking.
The judge told the marshal to follow the men, and he did. When he found the men walking towards the river, he immediately arrested them again and brought them to the courthouse this time. There, the judge had called George Taylor’s wife to identify the criminals. She fingered Bouve and Iler.
That night, a “committee of men” accompanied by the marshal interrogated the men. With a gun to his face, Iler confessed they did it, and was led to the spot where the pair hid the booty.
The next morning, this committee decided to have their own trial. They made up their own jury, then listened to Taylor’s wife. A real lawyer got up and said the law should be followed and this fake trial should be stopped. The jury found the men guilty, and asked if they should be over to the committee instead of letting them go to real court. The jury said yes, they should go to the committee. Turning to the crowd outside for a vote, they mostly agreed the committee should have their way. “…when the crowd dispersed it was pretty generally understood that the vigilance committee would have a ‘neck-tie sociable’ that very night.”
At midnight, a crowd showed up in Omaha’s courthouse, “overpowered the marshal,” and took the men from their cells. A rumor went through the crowd that Bouve was a professional gambler and thief who’d killed several men in Colorado. Without making a confession and while cursing the crowd, Bouve was murdered. “The committee” lynched him with rope hung from a rafter in the ceiling of the courthouse. For his confession, Iler was turned loose and shot at while he ran from town.