Omaha tried hard to grow and become successful. With a lot of new construction, growing suburban neighborhoods, and new people moving into town, in the 1880s the city was successful. One of the things Omaha did to attract new investments was hold special events, and this article is about one of them. This is a history of the 1888 creation of the Sebastapol Amphitheater in North Omaha.
A Place in History
“Undoubtably Pain’s Siege of Sebastopol will prove to be the greatest attraction Omaha has ever had… We can cordially commend it to the patronage of our citizens as a pleasing and instructive production.”—Omaha Bee, August 31, 1888
Once upon a time, promoters decided that North Omaha needed an amphitheater. It was 1888 when the city held a booster event called the Omaha Fair and Exposition. A grand event, it was much smaller than the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition a decade later. However, one event was on a larger scale than any attempted at that expo.
In a newly cleared area north and east of the intersection of 16th and Locust, the promoters held a reenactment of the 1854 Siege of Sebastopol. The architects at Mendelsson and Fisher designed the final plans for the facility in August 1888. There was a large building on the site, and seating for 10,000 people. 4,000 of the seats were sold as reserved, with the rest being general admission. Damning up a ravine that extended from Binney Street in Wirt Street east of North 16th, the architects used it as a natural amphitheater. There were artesian waters flowing from the cliff behind the site, and it was piped into the bottom of the amphitheater to create a lake which was 200 feet long and 75 feet wide.. They surrounded the five acre area with a 20-foot high wooden fence, constructed a small island in the middle, and began appealing to the public with promises of delight, awe, and grandiosity in the newspapers.
Construction of the site began in early August and lasted three weeks. A description in the Omaha Daily World said, “The building of the amphitheater for the ‘Siege of Sebastopol’ goes on rapidly, and as many men as can find elbow room are busy putting it up… The lake will be built in the foreground, and the scenery, which with the lake covers ten acres, will occupy the northeast. The lake will be navigated by ships which will take part in the bombardment, and a regiment or two of soldiers will be employed. The scenery, which is mainly painted on iron, covers a width of 380 feet and the tower of the citadel rises ninety feet above the ground.” The newspapers reported crowds coming to watch the construction, and they proudly proclaimed the job would be done “well in advance of the opening date.”
According to the Daily World, on opening night there were two acres of preparations happening behind the curtains. Three “armories” were filled with weapons and uniforms; there was a house for acrobats; two houses for pyrotechnics workers; an “engine and dynamos for the electric lights”; and “at a safe distance outside of the grounds an iron cased powder house” with “completed shells, rockets, bombs, and all but the largest set pieces of fireworks.”
Organizers sold advertising space at the event, accepting bids to cover “1,400 feet of wall space 20 feet high.”
The event was largely financed by Peter E. Iler (1840-e.1917) an industrial leader and the first millionaire in Omaha who ran the Willow Springs Distillery, and Frank Colpetzer (1846-1916), the president of the Chicago Lumber Company in Omaha. The pair sold $28,000 ($873,235 in 2022) in stock to investors, promising returns of 200% and more. The newspaper quoted Iler saying he believed “…the ‘Siege of Sebastopol’ will be the greatest attraction ever put forth in the west” and that “it will be necessary to keep it a month at this city to enable all who wish to see it to be spectators.”
Thomas Lord Kimball (1831-1899) was the acting general manager of the performance. He was notable in Omaha history for several reasons, including being the father of noted Omaha architect Thomas R. Kimball (1862–1934).
Sebastopol on Sherman Avenue
Regarded at the time as one of the greatest sieges ever in history, in September and October 1855 the armies of England and France joined together to attack the Russian fortress at Sebastopol, aka Sevastopol, on the Black Sea. The Russian Empire had fortified the island with the strongest defenses, and they fought back the daily joint English/French/Turkish/Sardinian bombardment on the island for two months. The Battle of the Great Redan lasted from June to September of 1855 as part of the Siege. The British fought the Russians, allowing the French to attack the Malakoff in a decisive battle to the north. That battle, which happened on September 8 1855, resulted in the fall of Sebastopol, bringing the siege to an end.
“No amount of pen description can give the people a perfect idea of this grand spectacle as it is to be produced here… It must be seen to be appreciated, and every man, woman and child in Omaha and surrounding country should surely attend.”—Omaha Daily World, August 12, 1888
James Pain and Sons (alternately spelled Payne) was the London-based company that put on the production. After putting on similar events nationwide throughout the 1880s, they came to Omaha in August to set up shop. Pain’s company had performed the same event worldwide since the 1860s, and their track record was confirmed in newspapers from New York.
All three of Omaha’s papers, including the Bee, the Daily Herald, and the Daily World all promoted the performance with ads and regular reports leading up to the event. Each carried more than 20 ads for the event for a month ahead of time, and nearly everyday in September while the performances were happening. One ad from the Bee claimed it was “brilliant, realistic and startling. Every night a special night. 350 performers, horses and guns. Artificial Lake! Moving Ships. Bombardment of fort by allied forces. Grandest military spectacular ever produced. Gorgeous pyrotechnic display. The whole making the most interesting and bewildering of exhibitions.”
On August 14, 1888, the Omaha Daily Herald wrote “[This] means success for Omaha and are bound to bring people from hundreds of miles around. ‘The Siege of Sebastopol’ of itself is one of the greatest attractions ever brought to the west and the amount of time, labor and money being expended on its preparation is a sure guarantee of its success. It is the talk of the household, and every member is sure to attend a half dozen times or more.”
Starting a few weeks before the production’s opening night on August 30, the production company began advertising for volunteers. They needed hundreds of people to play extras as the soldiers in the show. Meeting at the armory on Capitol Avenue, the men were fitted for uniforms and given their roles. No final word on how many men actually showed up, but they did advertise having 350 performers.
Rumors must have floated around a lot. The papers addressed one from August 24 when the Daily World reported, “Sebastopol is not a Panorama. An erroneous impression seems to have gained in some parts of the state that “The Siege of Sebastopol” is a panorama. The scenery is only a small part of the spectacle. Several hundred people take part, ships and troops are in action, pyrotechnics are shot off and it is realistic—like a play on a gigantic scale.”
The Union Pacific offered a special train leaving the original Union Pacific depot on 10th Street everyday at 7:30pm and returning after the show was over. There were stops at North 9th and Davenport and the Webster Street Station at North 15th and Webster, and passengers were let out at North 13th and Locust Street, which was three blocks from the amphitheater entrance. The special fare was .25¢. On a few nights of the month, the Burlington and Missouri Railroad offered a special train from Lincoln that departed in enough time for people to see the Siege of Sebastopol. The St. Paul & Omaha ran specials from Sioux City to Omaha and the Elkhorn Valley Railroad brought people in from West Point and beyond. The Union Pacific also ran special lines from Stromsburg to North Omaha and points in between, and from Missouri Valley, Iowa. Omaha’s Belt Line Railway brought patrons in from throughout the city on a special schedule.
Other ways to get to the event included the 13th Street horse drawn streetcar, which transferred at North 20th and Lake Streets and followed Florence Boulevard to Locust Street, where patrons walked over to the amphitheater. There were also “hacks, carriages and carryalls…” that “may be found at every corner in the business part of the city.”
Everyone got in on the preparations, too. The Omaha Police Department initially hired five extra police to patrol the event; by opening night 10 total were brought on board with a captain in command. However, within days there were a total of 25 hired for the performances and the adjacent Omaha Fair and Exposition. On August 22, the mayor vetoed a city council resolution to add electric lights on North 16th leading to the Sebastopol Amphitheater; however, a week later he passed it.
Hotels and boarding houses were predicted to be packed, and businesses were encouraged to set up shop along North 16th to serve the patrons of the production.
“…brilliant, realistic and startling. Every night a special night. 350 performers, horses and guns. Artificial Lake! Moving Ships. Bombardment of fort by allied forces. Grandest military spectacular ever produced. Gorgeous pyrotechnic display…”—Omaha Bee advertisement, August 22, 1888
The show opened on August 30, 1888.
This is how I imagine us arriving together: We get off the train at Locust Street on the Union Pacific special that came up from downtown. Walking up Locust Street in the September dusk, we would turn north on North 16th to the front entrance of the amphitheater. We hear the “Sebastopol Military Band” playing a grand march, and pull out coins for the admission, which was .50¢ and .75¢. Entering the amphitheater, we walked down stairs, and cross through wooden bleachers to a seat. Looking across the space, the scene in front of us included bright spotlights shining on a large pond below. Five or six large wooden boats floating on the water, and a fortress with a tower stand in the middle on an island.
5,000 people attended on opening night. Each performance had three parts: Part 1, including a “Grand military spectacular, drills, sword combats, etc.”; Part 2, “Realistic bombardment of forts by military, men of war, and artillery,” and; Part 3, a “Grand pyrotechnic display.”
There was a backdrop that was 90 feet tall with mountains, fortresses, and the “glare of the sun in the distance appear[ing] miles away…” One article described the performance scenery by saying, “Looming the center stands the defiant tower and the solid walls of the Malakoff, while to the left is seen the city skirted by the Redans, whose formidable walls were stormed and carried by English valor. On the right is the Black Sea on whose bosom floats the allied fleets, which for months rained a storm of shot and shell on the besieged city. The inner fortifications, ramparts, magazines, and other features of a great fortified post are faithfully represented, making an imposing scene especially enjoyable to those familiar with the great event illustrated.”
“The bugle call summons the men to arms and the meeting of the Generals is depicted…” then a games display, “Then will come the battle, which will continue until is heard the famous cry, ‘Sebastapol has fallen.'”
Excited reviews talked about the grandiosity and scale of the performance, and expounded on the “bayonets and rifles,” bombing and boats in nearly every scene during the two hour show. The day after, advertisements immediately proclaimed it “an immense success” and blared on about all the wonders of the show.
A different account of the performance said, “The action opens in front of the Malakoff and Redan, the famous redoubts where the allied forces were arrayed against the Russians. The Russian sentinels are seen on the hills, the English are at work in the trenches, and a troop of English calvarymen enter and pass in review.” An ad said it was “The grandest of military spectacular conceptions, invented and produced by Pain & Sons of London and New York, Thearle & Cooper, managers. Realistic bombardment of forts, by boats, on an immense Artificial Lake. Terrific assault of fortress by allies.”
To hold this performance, promoters built an auditorium at the site covering the ravine, which was filled with water. More than “10,000 square yards of scenery” were used, and the entire display was lit by electric lights, which were still uncommon in 1888. The ad also said performers were “correctly costumed and excellently drilled as Russian soldiers, Cossacks, French and English troops and marines, Turks, Sardinians, etc.”
A different account said the games display included “cutlass drills, vaulting, a donkey race, a fisticuff match on the back of donkeys, an exhibition of sword carving, a [display of] Highland skill and prowess, which relieve the sword dance, and other similar feats of monotony of camp life in the armies of the different nations. The games will close with a grand assault of arms and a duel between calvary and infantry.”
Pyrotechnics Go BOOM
These are drawings related to the pyrotechnics in “The Siege of Sebastopol.”
After the battle was a huge fireworks display with “a most magnificent display of fireworks, consisting of portraits of local celebrities, set pieces, jeweled fountains, forest of fire, and hundreds of the most gorgeous of Pain and Low’s fireworks, which are renowned the world over.” Apparently Pain and Sons had superior pyrotechnics, making the event more spectacular and “thrillingly realistic.” Bragging a $1,000 firework display during every show, an ad said it was “consisting of the latest novelties, Manhattan Beach Aerial and Aquatic Pyrotechnics.” Special firework displays were featured several nights, and included a portrait of Omaha industrialist William A. Paxton (1837-1907); the Nebraska State Capital; Governor John M. Thayer (1820-1906), and; Senator Charles F. Manderson (1837-1911); as well as event financiers Peter Iler and Frank Colpetzer. These displays were approximately 60 feet x 75 feet in size.
An account of the evening said the band played “The Campbells are Coming” during the performance.
There was a lot of praise for the performance. At the beginning, the reviews said it was a great and getting better; by the end, they said it was stupendous and always went off without a flaw. In the middle of the month of performances, a review said, “The nightly productions of the wonderful spectacle, the Siege of Sebastopol, continue to be the great amusement feature. The various troops employed in the siege are growing in skill and the whole performance now works without a hitch of any sort. Special set pieces are added to the fireworks display every evening, announcements of which appear from day to day.”
After initially planning only 10 performances, with four of them just fireworks, the company ended up holding 18 full shows beginning on August 30, and planned on continuing from September 1 through 15 except on Sundays, and then on September 18, 20, 22, 25 and 27. The performance was cancelled on September 15 because of the weather. There were special attendance days throughout the event, including a “drummer’s day” and a day for “travelingmen.” They would get a discount for attending. There were two “Children’s Shows” held where kids until 12 attended for free.
“The affair will be the greatest advertisement Omaha has ever had.”—The Omaha Daily Herald, August 30, 1888
On September 18, the newspaper made a point of calling out Alexis Schott of West Point, Nebraska, who was a French Army veteran of the Crimean War and a soldier at the actual siege of Sebastopol in 1854 and 1855.
Each show began at 8pm and lasted until 10pm. In the first week of the performances, the newspapers were gushing about “a great many persons came in on regular trains yesterday.” Reports on attendance always fluctuated, with between 5,000 and 9,700 per performance for each day.
In the middle of the performances, an article printed in the Daily Herald shared the show’s management complaining that season ticket holders were taking advantage of the owners’ generosity by transferring their nontransferable tickets. “…the latter have called for a halt. Hereafter all season tickets presented by others than the parties to whom they were originally issued will be taken up and destroyed,” the article said. “If Omaha people have not pride enough to come to the front and support such a gigantic exhibition as ‘The Siege of Sebastopol,’ an exhibition that has brought more people to Omaha than any other venture… they have no reason to grumble if they are taken off the list of worthy citizens.”
While the performances grossed over $1.4m in modern amounts, ultimately it lost money. By the end of September though, more than a week after the show was over, the Daily Herald reported, “Several papers are unnecessarily worried over the report that backers of the ‘Siege of Sebastopol’ in Omaha lost money. Dry your tears, friends. The money was donated by businessmen who did not expect either principal or interest. They provided entertainment for the thousands visiting the city, and are content.”
By October 10, 1888, the production’s investors had filled in the ravine and taken down the 20′ wall around the five acres they used, and there was no signs it was ever held there. By December, they were selling all of the lumber for approximately $3,500.
The planners of the 1890 Omaha Fair and Exposition deliberately turned down any interest in holding another event like the “Siege of Sebastopol” or Barnum’s Circus for their event, complaining that those special events drew spectators away from the 1888 event. In 1895, the owners of Lake Manawa attempted to land performances of the production there, but it didn’t work.
North Omaha’s “Siege of Sebastopol” Production By The Numbers
- 2 = The runtime of the production in hours
- 8pm = The start time of the show each night
- 5 = The number of acres used by the Sebastopol Amphitheater
- 20 = The height of the fencing in feet surrounding the Sebastopol Amphitheater
- 15,000 = The number of square feet of the manmade lake
- 90 = The number of feet high the scenery was
- 10,000 = The total square yards of scenery
- 25 = New policemen hired by the City for the performances
- $1,000 = The value of the fireworks used nightly (app. $23,514 in 2022)
- 350 = Total number of performers
- 4 = The minimum number of railroads with specific services for the performances
- 19 = Total number of performances
- 10,000 = The number of seats available for each performance
- 4,000 = Reserved seats at each performance
- 6,000 = General admission seats at each performance
- .50¢ = Tickets for general admission (app. $16 in 2022)
- .75¢ = Tickets for reserved seating (app. $23 in 2022)
- $3,500 = The value of used lumber from the fencing when it was removed
- 5,000 = The number of people who paid an average of .50¢ nightly for 19 nights of shows, totaling $1,481,380.00.
As of this writing in 2022, it has been 134 years since the production “Siege of Sebastopol” occurred in North Omaha. Between then and now, the ravine was filled and 30 houses were built on the block where it was located. Today, about 20 of those still stand. The area around it was developed around 1910, and finished infilling with houses in about a decade. After blockbusting and white flight struck in the 1950s, the stability of the area crumbled. Pursing a policy of benign neglect towards the entire North Omaha community, the City of Omaha divested in infrastructure for the neighborhood including street, sidewalk and lighting maintenance, as well as upgrading sewers and providing for amenities.
Today, there are no evident signs that the Sebastopol Amphitheater ever existed.