Omaha’s oldest park for a long time, a working class haven that became a “Hobo’s Park,” and a major loss from the construction of the interstates, Jefferson Square Park was Omaha’s first park. Truly a “people’s place,” for a century it was used for all kinds of purposes, including the mundane, revolutionary, recreational, existential, and everyday. This is a history of Jefferson Square Park.
For the focus of NorthOmahaHistory.com, I include everything north of Dodge Street to the Washington County line and east of North 72nd Street. On the southern edge is downtown Omaha, or as it was known for its first 20 years, “Omaha City.” A place of slow progress, this emerging urban center took more than 25 years to start acting like a city. For a long time it lagged in paved roads, parks, schools, and the other amenities that made Eastern cities look and act like… cities. However, occasionally it tried, and the Jefferson Square Park was one of those attempts.
Only One of Three
Recorded history says that when Alfred D. Jones first mapped out the City of Omaha in 1854, he included three parks for the city to develop: Washington Square, Capitol Square, and Jefferson Square. Only one of the three was ever created though, and it was bounded by North 15th, North 16th, Chicago and Cass Streets. It wasn’t universally seen as necessary though, and in 1858 the City leaders considered selling Jefferson Square Park in order to raise money for the government. The park was taken out of consideration soon after and lived to see another day, or more accurately, 41,975 more days (that’s 115 years).
(No. 84) An ordinance dedicating the streets, alleys, levee, Jefferson Square and park to public uses… Jefferson Square and park are hereby forever dedicated to the use of the public as a public square and park, under such regulations and restrictions as the city council may from time to time prescribe…”—Omaha City Council Ordinance No. 84, dated November 29, 1865
When it was dedicated in 1865, the park was formally named in honor of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson Square Park covered an entire city block. In 1872, the Omaha City Council ratified the original park land from the early platting “as a public square and park forever.”
In 1869, the Omaha Daily Herald railed against the park’s condition, saying that Jefferson Square “by neglect, resembles something not less offensive than a barn-yard [sic]. Unfenced, uncared for and unknown, it lies a barren waste. Not a tree, nor a shrub, nor even green grass is permitted to grown upon it.”
Originally, the park was an expanse of grass with no trees. Within a decade, there were young trees planted throughout it, paths around it and spots where people congregated, but not much otherwise. In the meantime, a lively neighborhood with residential, commercial, and industrial properties emerged around the park and the people had needs and dreams.
Games, Balloons and New Visions
The City paid to have the park graded in 1874, and that year newspapers took note of early baseball games were played there by boys from the neighborhood. There were also a number of circuses held on the site in the 1870s and 1880s. The first hot air balloon in Omaha was launched there in 1875 as a publicity stunt for the Omaha Bee newspaper. That was actually a farce though, since it took literally five days to get the balloon enough air to be launched. Just a few years later, in 1878, a proposal was brought to the Omaha City Council and the Douglas County Commissioners to merge the two governments and build a large office on Jefferson Square park to house them. The proposal failed.
In 1881, a railroad man named Webster Snyder said he would personally give the city money for a market house be built in Jefferson Square. Estimated at $200,000, Snyder said he could get “enough money out of New York and Boston to build a half dozen market houses [in Omaha].” Snyder’s plan included housing the market house with a new city hall, and he committed to contracting popular Omaha architect Louis Mendelssohn to design the building. James A. Creighton and other local landowners were accused of lobbying for the Jefferson Square development in order to line their own pockets. However, despite the big money and names involved, it still wasn’t built, despite this offer and repeated proposals to build it for more than 20 years after.
Starting in the 1880s, a notorious region for prostitution, gambling, drinking and drugs emerged adjacent to Jefferson Square. Called the Burnt District, this area was home to all kinds of euphemisms meant to describe things Omahans were uncomfortable with, but still partook in. “Ladies of the night” and “fallen women” were some of the niceties used by politicians, newspapers and others when talking about the sex workers in the Burnt District. Since the park was nearby, it was sometimes associated with these crimes.
In 1882, the park was used as a gathering place for striking railroad workers. More than 2,500 men gathered at Jefferson Square to listen to speakers and congregate before marching throughout downtown Omaha. They were demanding $1.75 per day for their work. Eventually they won, but only after attacking linebreakers and rioting downtown.
The City of Omaha fenced in Jefferson Square in 1886 after people regularly complained about cows grazing in the park and pooping all over. Surely fencing in the park had nothing to do with the labor gatherings, drug deals, prostitution, sermonizing, and other activities that happened there.
In 1887, the city council ordered plans to be drawn up for the construction of a library in the park. While they didn’t take action on the plans, the action did prompt real estate mogul Byron Reed to donate land for a library to the city elsewhere downtown. That building still stands.
Omahans had mixed feelings about the park and whether it was a necessity for years. In the 1890s, mayor George Bemis ran into trouble with Christian ministers who were hellbent on reforming the prostitutes in the adjacent Burnt District. Speaking of two of them specifically, Bemis said, “They would like to take the fallen women out into Jefferson Square, pour kerosene oil on them and burn them to the stake.” This indicates the fervor of some religious leaders and their vehemence towards the women in Jefferson Square. Unironically, a rampant fire destroyed a large horse stable and six houses on the south side of the park in 1890. Credited with stopping the fire from spreading, more people felt better about the park afterwards.
It was 1893 when the public clarified their thoughts about the park. The City wanted to build a market house on Jefferson Square. Suing the City, a group of Omahans fought to preserve the space as a place where no structures would be built. That year, the Nebraska Supreme Court stopped the City from building in Jefferson Square “in perpetuity” in hopes of preventing other construction. The issue didn’t go away until 1904, when the Omaha Market House was built elsewhere downtown.
A Park for the People
The Ak-Sar-Ben band played in the park every summer throughout the decade. An 1897 crowd drew 1,000 listeners “dotting the gravel paths and lawn of Jefferson Square park.
For most of the next 20 years, the people of Omaha felt warmly about Jefferson Square. In the early 1890s, a circular walkway was carved into the grounds from different angles, with a circular walkway in the middle that was fenced and filled with flowers. By this point all the trees grew in, forming a beautiful backdrop at the edge of the park. The whole park was covered with a lawn, and there were plantings through. An 1898 report about American parks said it was one of Omaha’s two primary parks, the other being Hanscom Park.
“Just to explain, there were Hobos, Bums, Gypsies, drunks, prostitutes, business people, children, and people from all walks of life mingling at Jefferson Square. I was only there during daylight hours and never saw anything worse that someone passed out or sleeping in the park. The police would just let them be.”—Facebook commenter, 2016
Of course, not everyone felt romantic about the “posy grounds,” as witnessed in an 1894 article about building an auditorium on Jefferson Square in the Omaha Bee. Debasing the park, the paper remarked, “It is not located conveniently for the class of people that want rest and fresh air… and in its immediate vicinity east are railway shops, warehouses and factories that constantly emit volumes of smoke.” In 1899, the issue rose again in city council but was swatted down because “the courts have already held that the park can only be used for park purposes.”
For three days in April 1894 the park became the center of rallies for a massive movement. A group of 1,500 homeless men called Kelly’s Army was traveling through Omaha on the way to Washington, D.C. riding on boxcars owned by the Union Pacific. Led by Californian Charles T. Kelly, the men were stopped in Council Bluffs by the railroad, which hired hitmen and others to intervene. When this happened, as many as 2,000 workers gathered in Jefferson Square to march to Council Bluffs and intervene. The railroad won with guns though, and the Omahans returned home. Many of Kelly’s Army continued on foot and completed the journey to Washington, D.C. where they joined with other “armies” to protest the economic situation to the federal government. Perceptions of the park changed again.
In 1897, the park was proposed as the home of a new $1,200,000 post office. Valuing the park at $400,000, the city council voted down the site and the federal government located it elsewhere.
That event didn’t stop the success of the park though. Filled with strolling pedestrians and surrounded by commerce and fun, in 1898 there were events from the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition held at the park. Starting in 1900, Rev. Annie R. Woodbey of Ebenzer Baptist Church started holding revival meetings in a tent on Jefferson Square. Rev. Woodbey was a noted African American temperance speaker who had traveled the nation with her message. During this same era, Omaha’s Black community used the park as a rallying point to recognize Emancipation Day, an annual event celebrating the end of enslavement.
A romantic sounding introduction swept readers into a 1901 Omaha World-Herald article about people in the park by saying,
“The fall of leaves in Jefferson Square foretells the approach of winter. In a short time heaps of soiled snow and ridges of sleet and ice will carpet the green sward that has been the pleasure resort of many of Omaha’s poor throughout the long summer days. Already the birds have flown away and only their nests in the tree branches remain as reminders of mated love.”—Omaha World-Herald, October 27, 1901
The article goes on to account for “the characters in old Jefferson Square,” talking about the lovelorn and the lonely, “weary ones” and ones “of the middle class” all intermixing. “Yes, and some have died there and by their own hand.” Its a wistful account, for sure. It tells the story of “Uncle” Samuel Sinnard, “a decrepit old man” that “came early in the morning, stayed throughout the day,” and whose visits “only ended a week ago, when his form was carried to the grave.” The same article tells the account of a “veiled woman in black.” Her name unknown, “she was not an old woman” and only came to the park dressed in an all-black gown with a veiled face at sundown, staying there until everyone left the park. Nobody ever knew her name.
That same year, the Omaha Police Department arrested George Baird and C. McCaffrey, two speakers who were charged with obstructing the sidewalk. Hundreds of people were listening to the men give a talk on Socialism when three policemen made the arrest and broke up the crowd.
In the 1910s the Omaha World-Herald reported there were “thousands of people daily” at the park. Installing two fountains and cement paths, there was landscaping everywhere with flowers and more. An Omaha attorney named Simeon Bloom left $3,000 in his will to the city when he died in 1903. Designated for “refreshment of man and beast,” it sat in the park for decades.
A national report on American cities from 1909 cited the park as one of the most notable in Omaha, on par with Miller, Hanscom, Riverview and Elmwood Parks. In 1910, a group of advocates from North Omaha asked the City to considered moving the old Douglas County Courthouse to Jefferson Square to serve as an art museum. Community leaders including George Sheperd sat on the official City committee to consider the proposal. Advocating a gymnasium and bathhouse be built in the basement of the building, the proposal didn’t happen and the building was simply demolished.
Becoming a “Hobo’s Home”
The park didn’t stay popular with everyone. During the 1910s, it was frequently targeted by City government officials. The chief of police was quoted characterizing it as “the hoboes’ home” when railing against people sleeping in the park. The city council designated money for dozens of benches that year. “Oftentimes citizens like to go to the park for a rest, but when they see a lot of dirty hoboes strung out all over the park, taking life easy in their own fashion, they desist. The park has become a congregating place for those who are taking the open-air ours through necessity.”
Concerned with how relaxed people appeared in the park, it was 1913 when City of Omaha Parks commission Joe Hummel “ordained it” that “Jefferson Square, goal of the footsore and weary, must cease to exist as a loafing center and rostrum for socialists, free thinkers, anarchists and soapbox orators.” That year, the Omaha City Council made it a misdemeanor crime “for any person to recline on the grassy carpet in any park, to make speeches to his brethren gathered there, or even to walk on the earth in said park along any but the beaten paths.” Although it applied to all the city parks, Hummel said “it strikes at the conglomerate crew which has enjoyed Jefferson Square so long that the memory of men runneth not to the contrary.” Another clause attributed by Hummel to Jefferson Square particularly said, “It is further provided… that drunken men be not permitted in the parks, that no games of chance or any business be transacted therein and that patrons of the parks be required to sit on benches provided for them and not on the grass or flower beds.” Within a week though, Hummel rescinded his condemnation. He was quoted in the Omaha Bee as saying, “We can’t always do what we want to. Now, I don’t intend to try to keep them off the grass in any of the parks. It’s no use… You can’t stop people from gathering in the street, can you? Well, neither can you stop them from gathering in the parks and walking around. There you are.”
In 1915, the U.S. Army set up a recruiting booth in the park “who will be there regularly to help in the work of the Omaha army recruiting station.” Although not allowed to “accost prospective rookies,” they did “assertively” answer questions about the opportunities and advantages of signing up. The Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic recognized Omaha’s patriotic contributions by donating a flag to the City via Mayor “Cowboy” Jim Dahlman at a Jefferson Square Park ceremony in 1917.
It was Mayor Dahlman who nominated in 1916 to “set aside Jefferson Square for public speaking.” After Hummel rejected it, the idea wasn’t adopted.It was Mayor Dahlman who nominated in 1916 to “set aside Jefferson Square for public speaking.” After Hummel rejected it, the idea wasn’t adopted.
In 1918, the City built a public bathhouse at Jefferson Park, and a “comfort station for men and boys.” Describing the building, a report from the era said, “The outside walls are built from old cobblestones that were torn up from the streets. The inside walls are cement, and there are cement partitions and floors.” The building held a caretaker’s office, toilets, wash basins, locker room with 40 lockers and showers in the middle with steel partitions. There was a separate locker room for boys. The bathhouse was built because a survey of the neighborhood found that living quarters throughout the area didn’t have baths, which was especially problematic for the majority of the workers who lived there because they worked in smelters and railroad shops. Along with these workers was a “floating population” that “made this square their headquarters.” Open from June 1 to October 1, the bathhouse was free, with charges for a towel and locker keys. In 1921, 13,500 men used the showers.
In the 1920s, the park was referred to as “No Man’s Home,” alluding to the “thousands of people” who used the park daily, “principally those living in the most congested section of the city, and many who have no home whatever.” In 1922, Hummel proposed turning the bath house into a “comfort station” for people of both genders. His proposal failed though. In 1930, a letter to the editor said the bathhouse was “empty and unused.”
During the Great Depression, the situation in the park became very tenuous. Homeless and under-employed people swarmed the area, sitting in the park all day long, using the bathhouse whenever it was open, and panhandling on the busy streets. Pedestrians and customers in the area began avoiding the park, where reports of public drunkenness and fighting were common, and the police presence was intimidating—at times.
Racing to the End
The New Deal was a government funding program to help the United States recover from the Great Depression. Part of these funds were used for a relatively new concept of “urban revitalization,” which included the concept of “slum clearance.” In Omaha, these funds were used to demolish homes in the historic African American neighborhood called the Near North Side. The Works Progress Administration did complete a CCC project in the park to renovate it in 1934 though. Eventually, there were plans to demolish the Jefferson Square Park and redevelop the area for other uses.
That didn’t happen though, and the park continued to languish during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1940, the City installed a wintertime ice skating rink, maintaining it there for the next several years.
In 1945, they tore down the bathhouse, ostensibly because it was outdated, but likely because it attracted homeless people. It should come as no surprise that the usage of the pejorative “Hobo Park” really picked up in these times, with the newspapers and radio news using the diminutive phrase for the space and the people who were there. In 1946, the City redesigned the fountain, adding lights. In June 1949, the park got new playground equipment, a new recreation shack, and parks staff provided summertime activities and equipment to kids in the park. “This place ain’t what it was when I started coming around,” remarked an elderly man who frequented the park. The next summer the same thing happened again, this time with the newspaper commenting, “Jefferson Square is one of the happiest spots in the downtown area.”
When the U.S. federal government began development of the Interstate highway system in the 1950s, leaders with the City of Omaha quickly jumped on board with the State of Nebraska. One of the fastest routes they established was I-480, and putting out feelers they immediately started hearing opinions about demolishing Jefferson Square Park.
However, by 1955 the fountain was removed after vandals were accused of wrecking it. By the early 1960s, kids who grew up in the surrounding neighborhood during knew they weren’t supposed to play in the park because of the alcohol and drug use in the park. By the mid-1960s, the police patrolled Jefferson Square Park by driving through it in their patrol cars without getting out.
“Now its a place for offbeats, unsociables and other dregs… A wide new highway would look much nicer, and add to the beauty of our fair city.”—Omaha World-Herald letter to the editor, April 30, 1964
In 1961, the newspaper announced that that Nebraska Department of Roads was considering using an elevated highway in order to preserve Jefferson Square. The paper excitedly declared that “state engineer John Hossack said the idea ‘is only a possibility and doubtful’ because of engineering and cost problems.”
The Omaha World-Herald went after the park all decade. In 1964, the paper wrote of the park saying, In 1964, the editors of the paper said, “When the highway builders drill holes for viaduct supports, it will be interesting to see whether they strike wine.” That same year, they editorialized that “One of the smallest bits of parkland in Omaha is also one of the most controversial… Good riddance, cry its detractors. Not so, reply its supporters, who argue that downtown Omaha needs even this little patch of green.” In a 1969 smear job in the paper, the park was called an “outdoor flophouse for drunks and vagrants.” They quoted a policeman who said, “I guess it’s good to have it cleaned up and used for the Interstate, but when Jefferson Square was there, at least you knew where those characters were most of the time.”
In 1968, Omaha Police Department patrolman Robert E. Wiese ran over Joseph A. Harrison, who identified as a homeless man, even after onlookers warned the police about the man laying down on the sidewalk. Although there were no roads through the park, it was a routine activity by police to scare away homeless people sleeping there by randomly driving around there.
However, culture continued around the area with examples like Native Americans gathering in the park to socialize. Despite all the talk of demolishing the park, some people wanted it saved. A 1962 letter to the editor in the World-Herald said “Most Omaha citizens would resent confiscation of Jefferson Square for a downtown interstate route and ‘progress.’… There must be some way to prevent the disappearance of this island of green with its dozens of old trees. Let’s get together and save Jefferson Square. The interstate could be swung over some of the miserable tenement blocks nearby, and thereby improve the downtown area.” Rather than stand against the action though, an Omaha advocacy organization called Friends of the Parks insisted that the City simply replace Jefferson Square Park with an equal size space. Rachael Gallagher, a hugely successful parks advocate in Omaha, was among the people calling for that new space to be in the same neighborhood, but that didn’t happen.
With the impending construction of I-480 though, the City of Omaha seized the opportunity to demolish the space and revitalize everything south of the new interstate. Engineers managed to find the skills and money to use an elevated highway, but demolished the park instead of preserving it. At the same time, they choked off the Jefferson Square neighborhood, signed the death warrant for the larger region of North Downtown, and strangled the economic viability of the Near North Side.
The park was demolished in 1969. There are no signs of it today, and the remnants are tucked under the interstate or under a parking lot in it’s place.
Buildings In or Proposed for Jefferson Square Park
- School (built, moved), 1863-1878
- Military headquarters (proposed), 1876
- Joint city/county building (proposed), 1878
- Market house (proposed), 1884-1901
- Library (proposed), 1887
- City hall (proposed), 1889
- Auditorium (proposed), 1894
- Post office (proposed), 1897
- Amory (proposed), 1906
- Museum (proposed), 1910
- Fire station (proposed), 1915
- Bathhouse (built, demolished), 1918
Omaha’s First Public School
The first public school in Omaha was a one-room wooden building opened in September 1863 on the southwest corner of Jefferson Square. Providing daylong classes for students in first through sixth grades, the first two months there were rough, with a new teacher every four weeks. However, Mrs. Cooper came in early November 1863 and taught the remainder of the semester. Two years later, the school building was moved to North 14th and Cass Streets where it became the Cass Street School. In 1878, the building became a stable when it was moved to North 22nd and Burt Streets.
Today, there is no sign or marker for the first public school in Omaha, or its first public park. You can visit the location at North 16th and Cass Streets.
Special thanks to the Omaha History Club for their contributions to this article, especially Michele Wyman, Ryan Roenfeld, Micah Evans, Jill Benz, and others.
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