In the history of Omaha big industries have come and gone. Once the stockyards, meatpacking and railroads were all vital, and today they have almost no presence in the city anymore. One of the pieces taken in their absence were bridges. This is the forgotten history of the nearly forgotten Nicholas Street Viaduct, which served the North Downtown area for over 80 years.
Before the Viaduct
North Omaha Creek was an important landmark for pioneers traveling through the Missouri River Valley in the 1840s. The earliest northern edge of Omaha City, it offered the first logical city limit for the pioneer town when it was originally laid out in 1854. When the first city map was
The original Nicholas Street Bridge was built over the former North Omaha Creek in the 1870s. Called the Red Bridge, the creek was mostly only a challenge for 30-40 feet, especially when it flooded. The bridge was a useful intervention to stop the challenges of nature, which pummeled travelers at the spot before the bridge was built. It was a muddy crossing at best, sopping down wagons and getting horses and mules stuck. At worse it was a raging torrent that carried waters from near present-day Locust Street all the way to the Missouri River, cutting through Nicholas Street and making a mess of travel, homes along the way, and more.
That creek was covered when the railroads came in during the 1870s, and by 1890 there was no sign the creek ever existed — except for the floods that ravaged the area for decades afterwards.
There are no images of this bridge known to exist today.
Suing to Get Built
Starting in the 1870s, the Missouri Pacific, Union Pacific, and the Illinois Central along with the Northwestern and Missouri Pacific Railroad companies eventually all had tracks heading north from the Webster Station at North 15th and Webster Street in the present-day North Downtown area. With several railroads tracks next to each other in the 1890s, the crossing formed a dangerous hazard for pedestrians, horses, carriages, wagons and streetcars traversing at any point east or west along North 15th Street, from Webster all the way north to Locust Street and beyond.
Multiple railroad companies shared a large facility just to the north of Nicholas Street called the North Yards, established in the 1880s. The North Yards were packed with more than a dozen trail lines and facilities and all kinds of railroad equipment.
As early as 1907, the City of Omaha passed an ordinance approving construction of the Nicholas Street Viaduct. It insisted the companies with trackage join together to pay for the construction of the bridge, which was estimated to cost at least $80,000 when it was reported in 1910. A report from that year said there were 1,000 complaints about the crossing the previous year, and that 2,500 teamsters walked across 22 tracks over Nicholas Street between North 16th and North 13th Streets everyday.
However, none of the companies wanted to build it. Instead, the City of Omaha had to repeatedly threaten the companies with litigation in order for the construction to happen. Hemming and hawing for years, the railroad companies were determined to keep their money for themselves and successfully fended off construction through 1913. That year, the Nebraska State Supreme Court eventually ruled on the City’s behalf, and as part of the ruling, the City secured an obligation for the railroad companies for them to pay to construct and maintain the viaduct for the life of the structure. The court ruled the companies build two viaducts to carry Omaha streets over the trackage, one at Locust Street and the other on Nicholas.
Construction on the Nicholas Street viaduct, also called the Nicholas Street bridge and the Nicholas Street overpass started in late 1913.
The railroad companies originally wrestled over who would pay for the construction. Eventually, the Missouri Pacific was assigned responsibility for designing the bridge. At nearly 1,800 feet long, the designs went North 16th east to North 13th Street. One estimate said it would take 436 tons of iron to build the structure. The company wanted to permanently close the street-level Nicholas Street, and to eventually double the size of the North Yards after the viaduct opened. The city wanted to keep the original street and have the viaduct as options for drivers.
Several accidents happened during construction, including a man losing an eye after a rivet went astray, a painter falling 30 feet when the iron he was standing on fell, and other calamities that were reported in the newspapers.
The concrete was poured on the bridge in October 1914.
After It Was Built
Formally opened on October 29, 1914, the final designs for the bridge were for a 1,000 foot long structure that was 40 feet wide, with sidewalks on either side and stairwells leading to the groundlevel on the north and south sides. It ended up costing almost $200,000. The companies left on the hook for paying the bill were the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railroad, the Missouri Pacific Railroad and the Illinois Central Railroad.
Not only did the viaduct cross the previously mentioned tracks, it also crossed the Belt Line Railway and the Omaha Streetcar Railway, making it a vital instrument in the area.
Throughout the years, several calamities and regular maintenance happened on the viaduct. A 1917 fire that destroyed the Missouri Pacific offices nearby almost struck the bridge, but firefighters managed to prevent any significant damage. In 1936, the entire viaduct was repaved for the first time. Closing the bridge for almost two weeks, the bridge was reopened with little fanfare. Again in 1953, the bridge was closed for a short time for maintenance by the Missouri Pacific.
There was a collapse of the structure in 1969 after a freight train hopped the tracks and ran into a support. Several tons of concrete and steel squished a freight train that was parked under the viaduct, putting the viaduct out of commission for two months afterward. Paxton and Vierling Steet Company made and erected the new steel for the structure, and it was newly paved after the accident. By this time the bridge was owned by the Missouri Pacific Railroad and the Chicago and North Western Railway Company, which paid for the repairs together.
The End of the Viaduct
The Nicholas Street viaduct was first closed in 1974 for two years when the City of Omaha determined that it was structurally unsound.
The City of Omaha secured $209,000 from the legislature in 1982 to replace the overpass. Intending to tear down the original 1913 viaduct and build anew, the money worked and it was rebuilt in 1984. However, in 1986 Abbott Drive was expanded, the majority of the North Yards were abandoned and the writing was on the wall for the structure.
Between 1995 and 2000, the Nicholas Street Viaduct was completely demolished. The city completely rebuilt Abbott Drive, creating a dead end for Nicholas Street.
Today, there is a single track crossing Nicholas Street between North 16th and North 13th. Nicholas Street runs east of 16th Street today as if there was never a creek, a viaduct, or railroads in the area. Aside from this single track, there are no signs that it ever existed. When the Nicholas Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, there was no mention of the viaduct. No signage, no historical marker and no statue marks the location today.
No matter how many lives it saved and millions of dollars it made, the viaduct, like the railroad companies that built it and almost all of the industries that needed it, is effectively and wholly erased from Omaha history today.
You Might Like…
- A History of Railroads in North Omaha
- A History of North Omaha’s Belt Line Railway
- A History of the Ames Avenue Bridge in North Omaha (c1890-1913)
MY ARTICLES ABOUT THE HISTORY OF NORTH DOWNTOWN OMAHA
PEOPLE: African Americans | Chinese | Hungarians | Italians | Jews | Scandinavians
PLACES: Cass Street School | North Omaha School | Holy Family Parish | Near North Side | Jefferson Square Park | Jefferson Square Neighborhood | 2nd St. John’s AME Church | 18th Street Methodist Church
BUSINESSES: Badger Body | Tip Top | ASARCO | Union Pacific
OTHER: North Omaha Bottoms | Winspear Triangle | Cuming Street | Nicholas Street Viaduct