This is the original Poor Clares Monastery built in 1904. It still stands at N. 29th and Hamilton Streets.
Located in the middle of the hustle and bustle is a spectacularly beautiful, formerly consecrated rental facility that few people in the entire city know about. For more than a century there was a monastery for Catholic nuns located at N. 29th and Hamilton Streets. Here’s a short history of one of North Omaha’s hidden holy grounds.
Just like every growing metropolis in Middle America, the growing city of Omaha had to have religion. Catholics were among the most dedicated of the early churches to commit themselves to Omaha’s physical, social and spiritual well-being. Among the Catholic Franciscans is a group of nuns committed to doing good things through prayer called the Order of St. Clare, or, as they are known, the Poor Clares. By the way, they called their facility a monastery, not a convent, so I’ve used that term throughout this article.
History of Poor Clares in Omaha
North Omaha was home to the first Poor Clares monastery in the United States.
After working in Europe since the 13th century, Pope Pius IX authorized the Poor Clares to the come the U.S. in 1875, and two years later a small group came from Düsseldorf, Germany, to start the first monastery for the Poor Clares in the western hemisphere. A lot of bishops didn’t want them in town because the Poor Clares relied on donations for their existence, a key part of their system of worship.
Bishop James O’Connor of Omaha wasn’t shy about bringing the Poor Clares to town. In 1877, he asked John A. Creighton to donate to their existence in Omaha, and he ponied up. Creighton, a pioneer Omaha businessman and philanthropist with his brother Edward, donated heavily to Catholic activities in the city, including the Catholic university established in his family’s name, and St. John’s Catholic Church.
In 1878, Mother Mary Magdalen Bentivoglio and two novices arrived to Omaha. Within six months, they moved from a simple house downtown to a bigger wood frame building on Burt Street. In the next decade, two powerful tornadoes struck their monastery and left it in bad shape. In 1888, their first brick monastery was dedicated at N. 29th and Hamilton Streets. When it was selected, the site was located on what was called “West Hamilton Street.”
When N. 29th Street was extended in the early 1900s, the original monastery was abandoned and demolished. In 1904, a new building was finished at 1310 North 29th Street, and in 1908, a new wing and burial vaults were built. A chapel for Mass and a below-ground mausoleum, also called a crypt, was finished in 1960. The mausoleum was made for the sisters at the monastery, and when they moved, they moved these burials with them. The crypts are all empty.
The Omaha order of the Good Shepherd Sisters bought the Poor Clares monastery at N. 29th and Hamilton in 1971, and the Poor Clares brought and moved into the Saint Bernard Parish Convent at 3626 North 65th Avenue later that year.
The monastery in 1908, complete with additional rooms and the chapel. Its rose window is below the chimney.
What the Poor Clares Do
The Poor Clares believe in living closely in community, sharing household duties, caring for the sick and infirm, and in sharing Altar Breads with the parishes. They live a life of prayer fostered by daily celebration of the Eucharist, meditate, daily recitation of the Rosary, and spiritual reading, as well as days of recollection, holy hours, and times of recreation.
According to Sister Joan Mueller, a Creighton University faculty, while prayer is essential to the lives of all Catholic sisters, it is the sole lifework of the Poor Clares and is how they serve God’s people.
The major orders of Catholic nuns in Omaha include the Sisters of Mercy, Servants of Mary and Notre Dame Sisters.
The original cornerstone denotes the date construction started, and says “Monastery of St. Clare Erected by John A. Creighton 1903”.
Covenant Life Fellowship
The Good Shepherd Sisters attempted to open a school in the facility. However, when they failed to raise enough funds to support it, they had to sell it. A church called the Covenant Life Fellowship operated the grounds as a church for almost two decades. Opened in the 1980s, it closed in 2012.
An exterior view of the Starlight Chateau from 2014.
In the 2000s, the monastery became a rental facility called the Starlight Chateau. Today, the Starlight Chateau hosts a variety of events, including weddings, meetings, parties, small conventions or casual get-togethers. Featuring many of its beautiful spaces, the space has been repurposed in many ways. The chapel is used for beautiful weddings. A fellowship hall is now a conference breakout room or reception room. There are a number of small rooms that used to be the nuns’ sleeping rooms that are now available to rent as offices.
Grounds at the Chateau are kept in immaculate shape, too. There is a large lawn, good parking and the original, beautiful grotto in a courtyard. It is a simply spectacular and gorgeous space.
1878—In April, the Poor Clares arrive in Omaha and live in a wood house downtown
1878—In November, John A. Creighton has the first wooden monastery built for the Poor Clares
1888—John A. Creighton builds the first brick monastery
1903—Second brick monastery is demolished for street construction
1903-04—Second brick monastery is built
1908—First addition is built
1960—Second addition (chapel and crypt)
1971—Poor Clares move out, Good Shepherd Sisters move in
2000—Good Shepherd Sisters move out, Covenant Life Church moves in
2013—Covenant Life Church moves out, the facility becomes the Starlight Chateau
With the old country ties in mind, one lawyer in Omaha took it upon himself to bring some fellow Irishmen back to Omaha to stump for “Cowboy” Jim Dahlman, Omaha’s corrupt longtime mayor who was controlled by local boss Tom Dennison. Did his tireless campaigning get him a seat in the Nebraska State Legislature? Was there dirty money involved in building his palatial home?
The John E. Reagan House is located in the Kountze Place neighborhood of North Omaha at 2102 Pinkney Street. Started in 1908 and finished in 1909, the house was where the Honorable John E. Reagan and his wife Margaret raised their family. It was also where he grew his legal career and built his political life.
A Biography of John E. Reagan
A native of St. Louis, Missouri, John Reagan worked hard to leave his mark on the City of Omaha. A second generation immigrant, John’s father left County Kerry, Ireland in 1848. Making his way to Iowa, John’s father was a farmer for most of the rest of John’s life. John was born in 1867, graduated college in Adair, Iowa in 1885, and and made his way to Omaha soon after that.
When he got to Omaha, John Reagan immediately started a grocery store. While he was running his store, Reagan studied law, and in 1897 he was admitted to the Nebraska State Bar. Reagan’s specialty was in handling estates, including land values. He traveled across the United States and Europe for work. The same John Reagan might have been behind the short-lived Omaha Electric Light and Power Company. Founded in 1885 in Omaha, the company’s small plant was located at 11th and Dodge Streets, and was managed and presided over by an Irishman named John Reagan. It was sold in 1889.
Although rare, there are still manhole covers in Omaha manufactured for the Omaha Electric Light and Power Company.
In June, 1902, John married Margaret Cannon. Margaret was born in 1872 in Ohio, and was the grandniece of Edward Creighton and Count John A. Creighton. She was the daughter of Ellen (McShane) and Martin Cannon; Ellen was the daughter of Alice (Creighton) and Thomas McShane of Lexington, Ohio; and Alice was Edward and John’s sister.
The Reagans, like their family members the Creightons, were devout Catholics. They belonged to North Omaha’s Sacred Heart Church, and sent their children to Sacred Heart School. Reagan’s father, Michael, and his mother, Mary (Farrell), moved to their son’s home in 1893. They died in 1898 and 1906, respectively.
After getting married at Sacred Heart in 1902, John and Maggie lived in a modest home at 2936 North 23rd Street. During the following years, the became parents to four daughters (Adesta, Margaret Clare, Patricia, Frances Mary), and were surely excited to move up to their next home.
Reagan Builds a Fine Home
Take away the boards, straighten the lines, prune the greens and apply a paint job, and the exterior is beautiful once again!
Looking for a regal address to build his fine home, John Reagan bought a lot in the posh Kountze Place suburb in present-day North Omaha. Established by Omaha pioneer Herman Kountze, Kountze Place was built out to attract the city’s prominent families. As a streetcar suburb with a dedicated line running up North 24th Street, Kountze Place also had fine electric lamps lined curbed streets while the lots were already served by essential building blocks like running water and sewage. All this was part of Kountze’s plot for hosting the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition on this land, and it worked for drawing Reagan in.
Built to be a stout, strong-looking home, the Reagan House surely housed some wheelin’ and dealin’ back in the day. It’s design is called Neo-Classical because of the tall columns, high windows, and overall feeling that you’re walking back into ancient Greece and Rome when you walk into the house.
The architect of Reagan’s house was a Scotsman named James Bayne Mason. He designed it as two and a half stories tall, with a full basement and a lot of rooms. Although it has a mere 1,600 square feet of space, the house looks large and commanding from the outside. It is clear Reagan wanted to add to it eventually. It’s eleven foot tall porch is spectacular, with a pedimented front supported by tall columns raising to the height of the second story roofline. The whole house was clearly influenced by the Classical Revival buildings constructed for the Exposition. Reagan and his family moved out in 1920.
Soon after, like with several other large homes in Kountze Place, it was advertised as an apartment. At first, the entire house was for rent. An advertisement in the Omaha World-Herald in 1921 said,
Beautiful 8‐room modern house at 2102 Pinkney. Screen porch. Sunroom, living room, dining room and den. Finished in mahogany, on the first floor: three rooms and bath and beautiful sunroom on second floor. Please do not disturb the tenant.
As African Americans continued moving north from the Near North Side neighborhood, white flight spread into Kountze Place. When their race restrictive covenants and redlining practices in Omaha didn’t keep their precious neighborhood white-only, they left quickly. The Reagans may have been part of that trend.
Alas, when whites couldn’t maintain the standard they expected, the neighborhood home values tanked. Today, almost a century later, the Kountze Place neighborhood continues to be plagued by low land values, low home values, and diminishing City infrastructure, including poor street quality, broken streetlights, irregular snow removal, deteriorating sewers, low achieving schools, etc. All of these are a direct result of racist civic leadership, racist policing practices, and racist lending behaviors by banks. White privilege continues to send whites scurrying to the periphery of the city of Omaha, while systemic oppression keeps the vast majority of Omaha’s African American community segregated and under-resourced.
The House Today
According to the application for National Register of Historic Places, the Reagan House today features most of its historical appeal. Although its in rough-looking shape, it is still a strong house with many original features. Outside, the home looks mighty and fine, despite being overgrown with boards covering the windows. The porch mentioned earlier is still beautiful. There’s a porch on the back and a bump out in the kitchen area, both of which may have been built on before 1935. Otherwise, the entire exterior is still original.
Inside the house, a lot of the coolest parts are still there. The layout of the home has never been severely altered, despite having been apartments from the 1930s onward. The first floor has a full kitchen, dining room, living room/parlor, bedroom and a full bathroom. There are original rounded archways between the hallways, finely detailed metalwork grates covering the heating outlets, and plaster walls throughout. Painted stairs lead to the second floor, with a large circular area in the center of the floor. It leads to a bathroom, two bedrooms, a kitchenette, and a living area.
One of the coolest features of the house is on the second floor. A bay shoots out over the front porch, apparently holding a bedroom and part of the second floor living area. The second bedroom connects with that area, too. I want to sit there!
Today, the John E. Reagan House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of throughout North Omaha. It exemplifies the grand homes constructed in Kountze Place between 1880 and 1920, and serves as a distinct example of a change in style that took place after 1900. Before that point, many of the homes in the area demonstrated a distinct commitment to Queen Anne designs, including Eastlake, Victorian, and other styles. However, after the Expo’s success and stylings, homes moved towards more conservative styles, including the Neo-Classical style. Today, it is a prime example among just a few left that embody that aesthetic.
Trying to Be a Big Man
Dennison’s wish for governor was Reagan’s command…
That was good that his house was fancy pants, because John E. Reagan wanted all the power and prestige of of a Roman Senator in the old days. After starting his law practice around 1890, he stayed out of politics for a while. However, starting in the late 1890s, Reagan became very active in Omaha’s Democratic politics. He was the secretary of the county’s Democratic committee for four years and chairman of the committee for two.
It’s important to remember starting in 1890, Omaha was controlled by a political boss named Tom Dennison. Dennison, who lived on the swanky north part of Florence Boulevard at the turn of the century, had the city’s criminals under his thumb and worked hard to make sure they paid him his due. He slowly took over politicians, too, and along with them the Omaha Police Department.
In 1906, Dennison was rallying Democratic support for his gubernatorial candidate to win, then a one-term Omaha mayor called “Cowboy” Jim Dahlman. To make sure his political machine would fall in line for Dahlman’s run for Nebraska Governor, Dennison turned to Reagan to give the command. As the speaker of the citywide Democratic Convention in 1908, Reagan issued the following proclamation:
Resolved that the Dahlman Democratic Club make no endorsement of the candidacy of any of said contestants save and except the candidacy of the Hon. James C. Dahlman for the democratic nomination for governor, which this club heartily and enthusiastically endorses. – Omaha Bee, August 9, 1908
Needless to say, the party did as Reagan commanded and Dennison wanted. Fortunately for Nebraska, the rest of the state didn’t follow suit, and Dahlman wasn’t elected governor. The next steps for Reagan’s political career was to run for office himself.
J. E. Reagan, the Nebraska State Legislator
John E. Reagan only served a single term in the Nebraska Legislature. However, my research shows that while serving as a member of the Legislature, he was the chairman of committees on public lands and buildings, and a member of committees on apportionments, constitutional amendments and federal relations, judiciary, labor, library, manufacturing and commerce, privileges, elections, and public charities. He also got press for proposing a bill to allow more local control to cities, and another fighting higher taxes. Early in his term, Reagan proclaimed himself a champion of union labor. This was before unions were almost wholly entwined with the Democratic Party, and their support was seen as essential by one of Omaha’s state senators.Starting in 1908, Reagan ran for Nebraska State Legislature several times. In 1910 he campaigned at home and abroad for Jim Dahlman. By 1911, he had a seat in the Legislature. He was elected at the age of 42 as a Democrat, which then meant that he was a conservative.
In 1911, Reagan proposed legislation to create a holiday called “Discovery Day.” When it didn’t pass, he changed the name of the holiday in the legislation to create “Columbus Day.” It passed after that, and the state has celebrated the holiday annually since.
Of course a holiday honoring a mass murderer sounded good in an era when they let a murderer run the government, crime, and police.
Reagan was quoted by an Omaha newspaper in 1912 with his opinion about an error by the Nebraska State Board of Health. This agency apparently forgot to separate out the Irish in Nebraska in their census of births among ethnic groups in the previous year. In his upset response to an interview, Reagan’s racism came blaring out of his apparently otherwise well-spoken mouth when he said,
“’What do they think we are, South Sea Islanders or cannibals,’ demanded John E. Reagan today. ‘I suppose they have included us among the British or the Indians or some other class. I am going to investigate and have it corrected.’”
I haven’t found an obituary for Reagan, information about the rest of his term in office, or about his life after the Legislature. Except… in November 1914 he ran for Legislature again. However, he’s not listed in the Legislative directory after his first term, so he didn’t win.
Reagan’s wife, Margaret (Cannon) Reagan, died in 1966 in Santa Clara, California. She was buried in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Omaha, and I suspect she lies next to her husband.
Here’s the 1910 Omaha Bee article that plainly says Reagan did Dennison’s bidding.
A lot of the beauty of restoration is in the details, and the Reagan House has several.
This is one of my favorite spaces in the Reagan House photos. I would start by removing the terrible ceiling though.
On the second floor, I would guess this flooring is 1930s domino laminate. It might be linoleum.
This is on the second floor. I love the unique shape of the doorway here.
I suspect that the central area between the two windows played host to an upright piano originally, and that was a piano window above it.
The room on the right behind the exposed lathe is the second floor kitchenette. Note the hardwood floors and the grates over the heating vents.
A view into the second (?) floor of the house. Note the clawfoot tub showing through in the back of the hallway.
Not two, but three columns hold each side of the portico in balance. Notice that diamond above the porch? That used to be a window, and I suspect it was crystal.
The overgrown bushes could be trimmed back to add a quaint, comfortable look to the house.
The porch and the kitchen bump out are suspected to be pre-1935 additions. However, the rest of the house exterior is original. I suspect the second bay window may have originally had a tent-style roof.
I suspect this is the interior of the portico, and that it was originally built as a second-floor porch, or a sleeping porch. The double-sash windows here have been replaced with aluminum windows; however, the features include the original tongue-and-grove ceiling.
The horns blared out the doors, crowds of Black and white jazz fans waited impatiently to cram in, and bunches of kids stood around the back door trying to get a listen. On any given Friday and Saturday night through the late 1950s, Jim Bell’s Club Harlem was one of the very best places to listen to live jazz in Omaha.
While the Dreamland Ballroom gets all the press, it wasn’t the only jazz club in North Omaha. Located in the heart of the Near North Side neighborhood at N. 24th and Lake Streets, Club Harlem was a hopping place to be. This is a history of Jim Bell’s Harlem in North Omaha.
Who Was Jim Bell?
For a generation, Jim Bell (1884-1959) was Omaha’s main African American entrepreneur and entertainment guru. He was a big man from the South, and constantly took a gamble on opening businesses in the Near North Side. His efforts included several restaurants, a few clubs, a saloon, and other ventures. North Omaha establishments including De Luxe Cafe, the Midway Cafe and the Off Beat Cafe were all run by Jim or his wife Carrie. He also owned Murphy’s Chicken Palace at 42nd and Center, too.
But everyone knew that Mrs. Bell was the one who actually ran the show: She managed the employees, kept the books, scheduled the performers, and made sure everything ran smoothly. Their only child, a daughter named Dorothy, was lavished with attention and made a lot of girls in the neighborhood jealous.
What Was Club Harlem Like?
Opening in 1953, Club Harlem was the fanciest nightclub in Omaha. A massive group of chorus line dancers and a regular twelve piece orchestra framed every night’s performance with excellent comedians, singers, and emcees. The Bells brought in semi-big name performers and up-and-coming local talent. A 1953 Central High newspaper reported that, “Jim Bell’s Harlem the favorite after-the-dance spot of Centralites.”
In his autobiography, Omaha jazz great Preston Love wrote,
“The lure of Club Harlem was like a giant magnet near a pile of nails. Every night would find a crowd of teenagers glued to the back windows in the alley behind the club… Occasionally Jim Bell would slip out the back door and shoo us away, but we were usually permitted to stay and ogle until we got tired and dispersed to our respective homes.”
The twelve-piece big band playing at Club Harlem included trumpets, trombones and a rhythm section that included an acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, drums, and a piano. The popularity of Club Harlem drew wealthy white people to the club, along with work class and middle class Blacks from across North Omaha.
Popular singer Wyonnie “Mr. Blues” Harris got his start at Jim Bell’s Club Harlem. While singing the blues, he also showed his remarkable dancing skills. During the next five years, Harris became the top singer in Omaha. Partnering with Velda Shannon, they became popular enough to travel to New York to sing in Harlem.
Towards the end of the big dance and jazz era in late 1958, the numbers started dropping dramatically at Jim Bell’s Harlem. By late 1958, the club had been retooled and was relaunched as Swingland.
As North Omaha was growing up, different areas developed at different points. The earliest neighborhood was the Near North Side. One of the first suburbs in Omaha is the Walnut Hill neighborhood.
Bounded by Cuming Street on the south, Northwest Radial Highway and Saddle Creek Road on the west, N. 40th Street on the east, and Lake Street on the north, the Walnut Hill neighborhood has a lot of unique features and a rich history.
A map of the Walnut Hill neighborhood.
A Streetcar Suburb
This is the Number 16, a streetcar that went from the railroad stations downtown, up Cuming Street to the Walnut Hill neighborhood.
In 1885, Sam Mercer, a successful doctor and real estate mogul in Omaha, developed a plan to subdivide his section of land near the Prospect Hill Cemetery. A majority stakeholder in Omaha’s main streetcar company, Mercer wanted his to be Omaha’s first-ever “streetcar suburb.” Running the streetcar almost directly from downtown to his development was the second amenity of Walnut Hill.
The neighborhood had its own commercial district, beautiful churches, spectacular parks, and wonderful school. There were other early amenities, too: Omaha was late to pave its streets, and while most neighborhoods were only reachable on dirt, Cuming Street was “paved” almost entirely with cedar blocks as soon as Mercer opened his lots to be sold. Even better than that though, is that within five years, the length of Cuming coming uphill to Walnut Hill was covered with Galesburg brick, a fine paver used in Omaha’s most exclusive early neighborhoods.
For about 20 years starting around 1890, the Omaha Belt Line Railway was also an important transportation factor for Walnut Hill. Designed to provide higher speed, more direct access to the entire city for residents throughout the city, the Belt Line cut straight through the neighborhood. This allowed its residents to take leisurely rides through the city’s extreme outskirts, and gave many people connections to other neighborhoods they would’ve never seen otherwise.
Through example, intention and power, Mercer grew one of Omaha’s most important suburbs early in city history. It had all the right people, all the best homes, and many of the city’s best features. Here’s a short history of the neighborhood.
Galesburg brick pavers like these once paved Cuming Street from downtown Omaha to the Walnut Hill neighborhood, thanks to Samuel Mercer.
A photo from the Mercer Mansion when it was brand new, est 1886.
The first amenity was the crown jewel of the entire community for a long time. Mercer had his own twenty-three room Queen Anne mansion built on the top of Walnut Hill for all to see as they crested the hill on the streetcar. It is located at 3902 Cuming Street.
Built in 1885, this spectacular home is a large, rambling beauty sits on an entire city block. Its ornate brick exterior is unusual and features a lot of peaks and indentations, making the eyeballs pop when you’re trying to take in the whole house. On the corner of the mansion, large 4 story tower told everyone how important the home was to the neighborhood, while the placement of the mansion told everyone how important Mercer was to the entire city.
Inside his home, Mercer built a modern house fit for a king. Cherry, mahogany, oak and black walnut woodwork fills every nook and cranny. Fine moldings, built-in cabinetry and stunning banisters on the staircases make the home spectacular in every way. Originally, there were butler’s rooms and plenty of space for guests. It was stellar.
J. B. Mason House
The J.B. Mason House at 4025 Izard Street.
Local architect J.B. Mason built 4025 Izard, in 1890, just four years after the Mercer Mansion was finished, and just a few houses away. According to myomahaobsession.com, there are “20 or more rooms” with 21 different kinds of wood throughout the house. Home to an eclectic hospital for several decades, there are also “many fireplaces faced with pottery from Holland.” Perhaps the most spectacular detail to this house isn’t indoors at all though. Instead, its in the backyard. The longtime owner of that period, an eccentric doctor, built a grand castle and virtual fairyland in the backyard. I highly recommend the myomahaobsession article about the property.
The Neely House at 4371 Hamilton Street
The Neely House at 4371 Hamilton St in the Walnut Hill neighborhood was built in 1905, and today it has almost 3,400 square feet, sitting on 1/3 acre of land. The house was built for Henry David Neely, who was in the insurance industry and was president of the Nebraska Life Underwriters’ Association. Born in 1851, he was trained as a lawyer and moved to Omaha in 1891. His wife, Emma, was involved throughout the community, including with the Omaha Women’s Club and the Ornithological Society. They were members at the Lowe Avenue Presbyterian Church, which was at N. 40th and Nicholas (the building is still there). Today, the Neely House is subdivided into apartments.
Other Significant Homes and Buildings
This 1880s block at N. 40th and Hamilton Streets includes a former theatre and more.
The Stein block at North 40th and Hamilton Streets has been the subject of ongoing renovations by John Hargiss. Currently, the former bakery on the corner has been restored as a string instrument shop, and the 40th Street Theater has been reopened as a performance and rental space.
An Omar’s Bakery delivery man with his wagon in the 1910s.
Located on the other side of the neighborhood, the Omar Baking Company was located at North 43th and Nicholas Streets. The company delivered bakery products to neighborhoods around the city through much of the 20th century using horse-drawn wagons and trucks. This facility ran from 1923 through the 1960s.
As for fine homes, Mercer’s wasn’t the only one on Walnut Hill. Instead, the entire neighborhood is packed with fine, large homes and kinda glamorous apartments. The City of Omaha has noted that the following homes and buildings are architecturally important:
Samuel Mercer was also responsible for platting the opulent Bemis Park neighborhood, which is next to the Walnut Hill neighborhood.
The Reservoir Wonderland
The beautiful wonderland of Walnut Hill Reservoir was a retreat for all of Omaha for more than 75 years.
The second amenity in his Mercer’s neighborhood is the Walnut Hill Reservoir. Built in 1885 as part of the original Omaha Water Works, the reservoir was improved and maintained for years as a wonderland in a suburban oasis.
The reservoir has three basins that hold about 22,000,000 gallons of water to help quench the thirst of this part of North Omaha, and a huge pumping station moving all that water around. More importantly though, its a lavish park made with a long sidewalk, an observation point that used to look out over the Missouri River Valley, and a glorious fountain. In its day, the park also had glorious lighting, letting lovers and families enjoy the ambience outdoors.
A wet, paved road through the Mercer Park on the edge of the Walnut Hill neighborhood. Notice the sparkling sidewalks and the sun filtering through the trees onto the street.
The neighborhood is also home to the Mercer Park, which is a pretty slice of land that the family donated to the City of Omaha in memory of Caroline Mercer, Samuel’s daughter, after she died in a trans-Atlantic ship sinking. Eleven acres were given to the City in 1910 on the condition they extend Lincoln Boulevard into the park to connect it through the Reservoir’s parkland, with the goal of tying it to the John Creighton Boulevard several blocks away.
The City followed through on part of their deal, which is evident in the funky little driveway along Cuming Street north of N. 38th Street – that was part of the deal. However, the City has long since closed down the Park Drive through the Reservoir’s parkland, and they never connected it to Creighton Boulevard.
Walnut Hill Elementary School
Built in 1926, the Walnut Hill Elementary School at 4355 Charles Street was seen as a vital institution for the neighborhood that reflected its important place in the city’s culture. Originally opened soon after the neighborhood was established, the first school building opened in 1888. Mercer himself donated the land for the building, which included the large grove of black walnut trees the hill was named for.
According to Omaha Public Schools, the building has been renovated four times since: once in 1953, again in 1964, 1985 and again in 2004. Ten new classrooms were added that year, and in 2015 the building has 405 student. The school is racially diverse, and there is a large program for English language learners. The percentage of students qualifying for and receiving free and reduced lunch is 98%.
The Walnut Hill car number 171 in the 1890s.
A comparison of the Methodist Hospital building through the years.
Founded in another part of Omaha, in 1908 the Methodist Hospital built a grand 100-plus bed facility that opened at 3612 Cuming Street on Walnut Hill. They surely did this because of the prestige of the address and the ease of getting there via Mercer’s streetcar service.
The Methodist Episcopal Hospital and Deaconess’ Home Association started in 1891. Focused exclusively on opening a hospital, the Methodists’ first hospital was opened at St. Mary’s Avenue and S. 20th Street.
In 1908, they moved their facility to 3612 Cuming Street which had 128 beds in the middle part of the building pictured above. They remained on Walnut Hill until 1968, when the moved the main hospital to west Omaha. Rebranding the Cuming Street location as Methodist Midtown Hospital, it stayed open through the 1980s, when the Salvation Army took over the facility.
In 2016, the Salvation Army demolished this historical edifice to make room for a new building.
The Future of Walnut Hill
Walnut Hill is not a simple neighborhood. Instead, its packed with contradictions and anomalies that make it one of Omaha’s most dynamic neighborhoods. Well-deserving of any preservation effort foisted upon it, the City of Omaha seems just as likely to deny it its vital role as every other neighborhood in North Omaha. Rather than lavish it with praise and reinforcing its identity, media does no favors.
Instead, just like the rest of the North Omaha community, its up to Walnut Hill to embrace its history, to carve out its identity and to reinforce the important role it has played in the past and can have in the future. That’s is one way its like every other neighborhood in the community. Another way is through the influx of newness happening there: Whereas once the neighborhood was wealthy and white, today there are new populations of diversity and ability. Young immigrant families, long-established African American families and others are moving into Walnut Hill and throughout the area where the neighborhood sits. As the section above about Walnut Hill illustrates, there’s newness all about this area.
So the future of Walnut Hill belongs to the residents of Walnut Hill. If the City of Omaha won’t step up, people in the neighborhood should step up for the neighborhood. Its neighboring institutions are trying to, including St. Cecelia and St. Augustine, and the Walnut Hill School.
This is the Phillips 66 gas station at North 40th and Hamilton, pictured in the 1950s. Opening as a White Rose station in the 1910s, it was replaced and the lot is now part of a Tesaro gas station. Photo courtesy of Michelle Kotrc Jud.
In 1926, this wet scene in Mercer Park included trees, sidewalks, and street lamps lining the Mercer Park Drive in the Walnut Hill Neighborhood.
Mercer’s Mansion at N. 39th and Cuming Streets in 1906.
These are shots taken of the interior of the Mercer Mansion in 1963, after it was divided into apartments.
This is the original Nebraska Methodist Hospital at 923 North 38th Street on the edge of the Walnut Hill neighborhood.
The waters of the Missouri River roared wild and free over its valley for thousands of years before Omaha was settled. Even after pioneers gathered on Capitol Hill for a picnic to found Omaha City in 1854, the Missouri still whipped around, flooding the area, shifting its channel and moving willy nilly. Just a few years ago, monumental floods proved its still capable of acting beyond human control.
Along its wild timeline, a little nest of water in East Omaha was created. When European settlers saw it, they called it Florence Lake. Here’s a short history of its appearance, some appreciation, and its disappearance.
A Lake in the Woods
An 1890s map shows why Florence Lake was named what it was. Notice the marshland between the lake and the town.
Located in East Omaha between Carter Lake and the Missouri River, the Florence Lake may have first seen by white people in 1804 during the Lewis and Clark expedition. On this exploration, it was common for the commanders to send men into the surrounding areas to hunt and gather food, as well as to explore.
After that, hunters and trappers went freely up and down the Missouri River to carry booty to and from Manuel Lisa’s fort by the Ponca Hills, and to Cabanne’s Post after that. Since the lake was less than a half mile from the river’s banks, they may have come across it. Similarly, early Mormon scouts heading west to Utah were said to have tried crossing the Missouri at a few different locations on their excursions. One of these places may have been “the Narrows”, which was just east of the lake. That would have led them directly to the lake.
Sesemann’s Park at Florence Lake operated for at least six months in the 1890s. Special thanks to Chuck Martens for locating this ad.
At that point, the Missouri River bottoms were covered in forests. Trees like the red oak, hickory, hophornbeam and redbud covered East Omaha, which was interspersed with some fields, swampy areas, a few creeks and springs.
Early in the City of Omaha’s existence, the US Army Corps of Engineers examined the lake. They determined the lake was likely very old, and theorized it was made by an off-flow of the river that eventually stopped flowing. They conjectured the bend in the river to the north of the Lake, which they called the Florence Bend, was likely softened by flooding in the 1820s, cutting off the flow of water to the lake.
At this point, the lake covered at least 20 acres of land.
Many Uses for a Lake
This section of an 1885 map clearly shows Florence Lake between Cutoff Lake (present-day Carter Lake) and the Missouri River to the far left. Remember that the town of Carter Lake, Iowa, was once East Omaha.
Hardwood Creek flowed between Florence Lake and present-day Carter Lake.
When John Poppenberger saw that area in the late 1860s, he knew he’d found his stake. He immediately claimed some land and built a house there. In 1877, he married Barbara Merritt and brought her home. That year a massive flood formed the Cut-Off Lake just south of the Florence Lake. About 25 years later, that late was renamed Carter Lake.
In July 1875, the Omaha Bee newspaper put on a startling promotional gimmick when they flew the City of Omaha’s first hot air balloon from downtown Omaha to Florence Lake. After the balloon didn’t inflate right and some other technical issues though, the pilot was nervous and forgot to disperse the Bee’s promotional flyers as he went along. Another spectacular thing happened when he descended into the shallows of the lake and was supposedly rescued by some tribal members of the Winnebago. I think its spectacular, at least, given that would be in line with the historical usage of this area from pre-European settlement.
Starting in the 1880s, a hotel sat at the side of the lake. In 1887, grandiose plans emerged for the lake. Starting with that hotel, a plat was set with 37 lots covering two city blocks. The real estate agents selling it advertised that the lots were to be, “covered with hotels and cottages to be used for pleasure resorts and homes.” These agents hyped up an existing hotel, bathing and boat house, and in 1890, Gustave Seseman was the proprietor of the Florence Lake Hotel.
Here’s an 1887 ad for lots for sale next to Florence Lake.
There are no signs that these lots ever sold, though, or amounted to anything of value. The area around the lake flooded annually, and that may have distracted investors from seeing the value of the land.
The water on the lake was still seen as an asset to the growing city a few miles south, and in 1885 there were plans made to install a water pumping station on Florence Lake. However, those were apparently never acted on. Late that decade, the Corps of Engineers started reporting the lake was filling up and emptying out of water. At that point, it covered at least 8 acres. By 1892, a report in the Omaha Bee said that two road houses were built on the road to Florence Lake.
One of these was called Hill’s Road House, and it was notorious. Charles Hill was the proprietor of the institution, starting it in the 1880s and running it for at least 30 years. Newspaper columns connected Hill’s with stories of murders, police busts, robberies and all sorts of rawkus behavior. Piano players and pickpockets, gamblers and dancers and a lot of other characters drifted in and out of want ads and notices, all of them finding occupations at Hill’s. The Omaha Anti-Saloon League and the police targeted Hill’s regularly, along with the Douglas County coroner, who made more than one house call to pick up a body at or near Hill’s Road House. I haven’t found a picture of the joint, but I’m sure it was quiet a site to behold!
In 1897, a flooded overflowed the Missouri River bank and poured into the Florence Lake. Overfilling it, the water flowed through Hardwood Creek to fill up Carter Lake. The floods lasted a week, and then the river receded back into its banks.
Dying At Florence Lake
As a wild place, Florence Lake had a lot of deaths in the early years of Omaha City. This stuck out in my research on the place, because the reports come up again and again.
For instance, in 1880 the Omaha Daily Herald reported that Peoria S. Scott accidentally killed himself there. Scott was a 17-year-old young man who lived with his family at Fort Omaha. It was from there that he and a friend went duck shooting in a rowboat with a friend named Arthur Purtell. At some point in their expedition Purtell hopped out of the boat to retrieve a duck he’d just taken, when he heard a shot from the boat. Finding his friend bleeding to death, Purtell raced back to the Fort for help, but by the time help arrived, Scott was dead.
In 1887, a young man named Alonzo Dorsey went missing from his home in the Near North Side. More than a year later, a skeleton was found with his jacket and personal effects in the reeds around Florence Lake. The cause of his death was never found, but his family suspected foul play because he was originally carrying a large amount of cash.
William Thomas, an ice cutter on the lake, was nearly murdered there in 1891. With a constant stream of tools and materials being stolen from his facility at the lake, Thomas was dismayed to see several of his pike poles outside the home of N. E. Lewis. After fruitlessly searching the property with a constable, ice cutter Thomas returned there with a worker later in the evening to keep looking. Lewis came running out of his house and attacked Thomas with a pitchfork, who then ran away with his company. The next day Lewis was arrested by the constable for attempted murder. I can’t find what happened to him next though.
That same year, 1891, the body of Herman Glelow was found in Florence Lake. After detective work by the county sheriff though, it was revealed that Glelow left Seseman’s Hotel late one evening, and was next found floating. The city coroner though determined Glelow died from destitution, and nothing came of the case.
Deaths kept happening at the lake and around the area, but a sadder ending laid ahead for the lake itself.
A Lake Dies
An 1898 map shows the position of Florence Lake relating to Miller Park.
Somewhere after 1920, the lake ceased to exist.
The Corps of Engineers took action to support the lake’s continued use several times. In 1901, they invested money in building a retaining wall next to the lake to ensure it didn’t flood. In 1912, they reported it was doing fine.
However, activities kept happening there. Picnics continued and there were informal baseball games played at Florence Lake during this era, too. For instance, in 1916 a mail carriers picnic featured a game between Uncle Sam’s Mail Carriers and Tighe’s Colts. The ex-postmaster threw the first pitch, and the new postmaster was the catcher. Other games were played by Nestlehouse and Creighton.
In 1917, there was a county road called East Omaha Street that started at present-day 9th Street and Ellison Avenue and proceeded eastwards along the shoreline of Florence Lake. It was considered for paving as a major street to serve that area. At this point, the lake sat in between 9th Street and present-day Hartman Avenue.
This hotel was located in Saratoga, Nebraska, less than a mile away from the Florence Lake. The Florence Lake Hotel might have looked like this.
But the “old Florence Lake” was referred to in a 1920 report to the Omaha Chamber of Commerce regarding securing the city against floods. Apparently, the lake had seen its day and was almost gone by then.
At the turn of the 20th century, Ed Cornish, a parks commissioner, advocated building a humongous dike along the Missouri River to stop the terrible flooding that plagued East Omaha. His plan was eventually carried out, and his prediction for what could happen to the area came true: “You would see the East Omaha district covered by factories, small farms and dwellings, and the result could not fall to pay many times for the expenditure.”
That’s exactly what has happened in East Omaha.
In the late 1940s, a plan was forwarded to the City of Omaha to build massive dikes lining the Missouri River outside the old site of Florence Lake. During this nearly $600,000 project, the city created a channel for overflow into the river using the old Minne Lusa Creek drain at the north end of Minne Lusa Boulevard, and dug a drainage channel from the old Florence Lake, which was dry by then, into Carter Lake.
Then, during the early 1970s, the City of Omaha designated the area including the old Florence Lake bed as an industrial park, and today that’s precisely what sits there.
Just A Swill Pond
The remnants of Florence Lake in present-day East Omaha.
It was only in the late 1980s that the City of Omaha effectively reclaimed the remainder of the Florence Lake. They reclaimed it to be a storm water drain. During that time, they built the massive Arthur C. Storz Parkway to move traffic through North Omaha to the airport, and the lake was in the way.
Today, there’s only a slight bit left of this one-time hotel beauty, pumping station candidate for household water, and eventual sewage pond. All that’s left now is a foul-looking pool of swill crammed between the Parkway and Hartman Avenue, just east of 9th Street.
A postcard of the Walnut Hill Reservoir from the 1930s.
Need a drink of water? In the early years of Omaha, that meant going to the bucket in the kitchen and pouring it into a cup. If your bucket was empty, you’d either have to go out to the well in the backyard and hoist a new bucket up, or go to the shared well. In the windy autumns, cold winters, hot summers, and rainy springs that filled up life in the Missouri River Valley, that got old really quick.
A section of the reservoir as it appeared at night in the 1940s.
The Original Omaha Water Works
The Walnut Hill Reservoir was built as part of the original Omaha Water Works in 1882. Working with gravity, the reservoir drew water from Missouri River near downtown, bringing it uphill to N. 40th and Hamilton Streets. Within a decade of construction, that system was changed so that water was drawn from the Florence Water Works to Walnut Hill, and distributed from there.
This 1926 picture of the reservoir shows the freshly planted trees and other landscaping that are so mature today.
Located immediately north of Mercer Park, the Walnut Hill Reservoir is bound by Hamilton Street and the Walnut Hill neighborhood on the west, North 38th Street on the east, Nicholas Street on the south, and Mercer Park Drive on the east. Walnut Hill is cut in half by the curvy Park Road, which extends from Mercer Boulevard and Lincoln Boulevard. “Walnut Hill Reservoir” is chiseled into a concrete panel between the steps at North 38th Street.
The reservoir in a photograph from the 1910s.
From its beginnings, the reservoir was seen as a huge asset to the city and for more than a century, the Reservoir was maintained as a beautiful park.
The City of Omaha treated the facility like a jewel, too. The original landscaping at Walnut Hill, including sidewalks, streets, trees, and flowers cost $10,000, which was an exorbitant amount of money in the 1880s. Arriving to the park’s entrance at N. 38th and Lafayette Streets, patrons were immediately greeted by a massive stone walkway, complete with stairs leading walkers to the top of the highest hill in Omaha.
The reservoir was surrounded by a wrought iron fence when it was originally built. Over the years, this fence became more predominant in the landscape of the park. Eventually there was a wrought iron gate installed just before the pumping station entrance.
This is a postcard of the reservoir in the 1940s.
Comprised of a large section of land, the Walnut Hill Pumping Station was the highlight of the facility. Built in front of three large basins, the station drew water uphill from the Missouri to be redistributed for the city’s needs. When it was originally built, it had two basins that held a combined total of 10,000,000 gallons of water. In 1913, that total was increased by 11,000,000 to meet the city’s growing needs.
Early on, the reservoirs were also used as sources of ice for peoples’ homes, too. F. L. Cotton operated a large ice company in Omaha, and his company cut and sold ice annually throughout the winter when Walnut Hill was frozen over.
This is an aerial photo of Walnut Hill from 1947. In the center is the pumping station; behind that are the three pools. In the bottom center is the landmark fountain that once marked the opulence of the park.
A Poopy Debacle
One day in 1909, a bunch of people in the middle of Omaha got sick. Very, very sick. After careful examination of their entire system, the City of Omaha discovered that the old Mill Creek north of Florence was the culprit.
Seems that a lot of sewage from the then-town of Florence drained into Mill Creek. This was the same creek that the old Florence Mill used. It was called old even in 1909 because it was built by the Mormons in 1845. At some point in the history of the town of Florence, city fathers piped its sewage into the creek just east of the mill. Further upstream, at least two dozen farms also emptied into the creek.
None of that load bode well for the new intake engine built on the Missouri River. Built proudly by the Florence Water Works, the gigantic engine was coincidentally built 500 feet south of the mouth of the Mill Creek. As a report afterwards said, “the contents of this creek undoubtably constitute a dangerous source of contamination for the water entering the Florence intake.”
Turns out that contamination got people really sick.
This is the pergola that was located on top of the pumping station.
The water was filtered through the Florence Water Works by the Minne Lusa Pumping Station to the Walnut Hill Pumping Station. From Walnut Hill it was pumped out around central Omaha. In addition to the new engine at the Florence Water Works taking in raw sewage from Mill Creek, the previous year the water company also managed to reroute a city sewage outlet from the old Florence Lake, which was filled in 1909, to a new release eight miles north of Omaha. Additionally, the City of Council Bluffs was also piping raw sewage into the Missouri River north of the engine, too.
Really, really sick. When an epidemic of contamination sickness swept Omaha, the culprit was quickly discovered to be this new pumping engine, thoroughly filled with poop.
It took a mere month after the epidemic for Omaha’s water supply to be cleaned up. As part of the effort, Walnut Hill was fitted with cleaning devices to ensure the water there was clean.
Today, more than a century later, residents throughout the City of Omaha continue to benefit from the powerful, pretty Walnut Hill Reservoir. But some of that happened just because of this poopy debacle.
The Walnut Hill Reservoir fountain in 2013, courtesy of OmaBabe.
Boulevards Near the Reservoir
In 1912, the City of Omaha built a new park-like driveway starting at the reservoir. The Mercer Park Boulevard connected to the Lincoln Boulevard, which swooped and swished to the Park Road, then led beyond to John A. Creighton Boulevard.
From Hamilton Street on the edge of the reservoir, Mercer Park Boulevard connected the reservoir with Bemis Park, to the immediate east past the old Methodist Hospital, currently the headquarters for Omaha’s Salvation Army. Then it continues flowing north to Lake Street along the former 37th Street, and winding east to Bedford Street, where it follows 32nd Street north to Sahler Street. It eventually connects with Fontenelle Boulevard, and is part of Omaha’s 125-year-old extravagantly beautiful boulevard system.
A map of the neighborhood around the reservoir, including Mercer Park, Bemis Park, and more, by the City of Omaha Planning Department.
The New Fountain
In 1915, a fire destroyed the Walnut Hill Pumping Station. The reservoir stood intake, but the engines that drew water from the Florence Water Works and pumped it throughout the area were destroyed. Also, the machines that shifted sewage from the area were severely damaged, too.
Within a year, they were all replaced. The new facility featured heavily in the appearance of the reservoir, too, as it now had massive concrete structure around it. The park-like setting was reconfigured at that point. A beautiful sidewalk was installed at N. 38th and Lafayette which led to two exquisite fountains, and a viewing platform. When it was built, this platform let people have a great view of the Missouri River Valley. Today that view is mostly crowded out by trees and tall buildings downtown.
In 1915, a large multi-colored fountain that was “brilliant at night” was installed. It was turned off at the beginning of World War II, and was never restored to use. The other fountain was restored in the 1990s and is shown above.
A section of the sidewalk at the reservoir as it appeared in 2013. This is the observation deck, and with the stairs crumbling underneath and the trees overgrown above, its obvious the City of Omaha could care less for this once-spectacular jewel.
On March 27, 1964, a massive earthquake in Alaska damaged one of the basins at the Walnut Park Reservoir. The City of Omaha quickly repaired it, but its distance was remarkable.
Although they’ve apparently sporadically tried differently throughout the years, the City of Omaha treats Walnut Hill Reservoir like the rest of North Omaha today and does a poor job of maintaining it. Despite the opulent homes of its neighbors that are well-maintained by well-to-do families and its location near the extravagant St. Cecelia’s Cathedral, the City still doesn’t regard it as highly as it does the spectacularly maintained parks in West Omaha.
For decades, Walnut Hill was included in tourist guides and lists of destinations in Omaha. That wasn’t because it was some kind of engineering wonder, either; instead, it was such a beautiful place with so many wonderful features that people really wanted others to see it.
A group of kids at the fountain in the 1950s. There were colored nighttime lights that made the fountain a fond attraction for many people.
In 1986, the City of Omaha Parks and Recreation Department was working with MUD to build a baseball diamond on the reservoir’s park grounds. The sanctitude and solace of the park was broken by this diamond. The reservoir was also surrounded by a 9 foot tall chain link fence at some point around then.
The Douglas County purchasing office approved a contract for improvements at the reservoir in 2011. However, I cannot find details about what happened.
Today, the stairs are crumbling and grass crowds the sidewalks. Trees are reaching over the pathways, and the beautiful flowers that used to abound are mostly gone now. No colored lights provide a spectacular show for visitors, and while the recently renovated fountain is pretty, it loses some luster with the absence of everything else.
The Nebraska School for the Deaf campus as it appeared in the 1910s.
Long, tall grasses blown over slowly by subtle prairie winds… Poofy summer clouds gliding aloof over the hills around you… Hard winter walks through deep snow you can feel crunchy underfoot… You’re here for school, so you concentrate on your studies… But the sky is beautiful…
In 1869, a Deaf man named William DeCoursey French founded the Nebraska School for the Deaf on 23 acres northwest of the City of Omaha. Today, the school is gone and the former campus is blended in with the rest of North Omaha. Its legacy is far from over though.
Students work in the art studio at the Nebraska School for the Deaf during the 1893-1894 school year.
A National Movement
In the early 19th century, there was a wave of interest, compassion and action for people regarded as “deaf and dumb” in the United States. Starting in New York in 1817, schools opened up specifically to teach them across the country.
In the 1860s, Nebraska emerged from a decade as a territory and became a state. Within two years, the state sought to meet its obligation to educate all of it’s students. In 1869, they funded a new school committed to teaching the Deaf. Located at present-day 3223 N. 45th Street, then it was four miles from the city and almost a mile north of the town of Benson.
Here’s a 1911 picture of students laying the foundation for a new greenhouse at the school.
Working hard to meet the real needs of students, educators at the school were frequently criticized and/or lauded for their attempts. For instance, in 1893 the school’s superintendent was cited for encouraging teachers to use innovative techniques for classroom teaching. Some of those practices included combing boys and girls in the same classrooms, as well as teaching students from different grades in different classes.
This is the student body in the 1894-1895 school year.
The Nebraska Legislature came after the school in 1911. That year, the National Education Association and Alexander Graham Bell rallied strongly across the United States against American Sign Language, believing that learning it stigmatized and isolated Deaf students. Bell funded the main lobbyist organization, called the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf. In response, the Legislature passed a bill banning the use of American Sign Language at the school.
That year, Frank Booth, the school superintendent wrote about American Sign Language, saying, “That language is not now used in the school-room and I hope to do away with its use outside the school-room.”
The ban didn’t last long, and within a few years the school was openly teaching in American Sign Language again.
The school’s students and staff were always strong and determined. In 1931, they made history by becoming the first Deaf school in the nation to win an all-classes state basketball championship. A graduate of the school was the coach.
In 1937, there were 10 buildings on the campus. They included the primary dormitory, a shop, the main building, a hospital, an auditorium, a boys dormitory, a school building, a heating plant and a laundry.
This is a kindergarten class at the school during the 1896-1897 school year.
A teacher at the school named George Propp studied the spending practices of the school and predicted their coming financial difficulties in the 1970s.
Discussing current concepts of Deaf education, Propp stated that Deaf schools “will require a massive application of the resources that exist, as well as the development of technology that lies beyond our present dreams.”
A 1914 picture of the campus. Notice the streetcar tracks in the bottom righthand corner.
Fighting for Its Life
By 1984, some Nebraska State legislators and the Nebraska Department of Education attempted to discredit the school to have it closed. Nebraska’s Deaf community successfully defended the school that year, and for the almost 15 years after. Descending on the Omaha Association of the Deaf Hall, members of local, regional and national Deaf advocacy organizations created a strategy to keep the school open. The Nebraska School for the Deaf Alumni Association, or NSDAA, fought hard. A massive rally was held in 1998, and everyone fought hard.
The school was closed in 1998. Enrollment dropped and student costs climbed, and with only 40 students enrolled that year, it just didn’t work anymore.
These students are working in the Nebraska School for the Deaf woodshop in the late 1890s.
Regional programs created statewide now provide services that once happened only at the school. The State of Nebraska funds these, and also helps local school districts pay tuition and residential costs at nearby states’ schools for the deaf for students who require a residential program.
In 1998, the twenty-three acre campus was sold to a private religious foundation for $2.5 million. Today, its home to many projects and programs, including Big Mama’s Kitchen and Catering, which is a spectacular soul food restaurant.
This is a photo of the campus during the 1893-1894 school year. Italianate designs are complimented by Vernacular efforts and some Victorian-esque work on the far left.
Remembering What Was
In 2001, the Nebraska School for the Deaf Alumni Association opened the Nebraska School for Deaf Museum located on the original campus. The museum’s exhibits focus on the history of the school, issues in education and communication within the deaf community and contributions made by deaf people in America. Four rooms have been outfitted to show period life at the school, including a 1930s school room, an athletic display, a 1950s teen club and a 1970s dorm room. There is also some art and woodwork created by school students in the early 20th century.
When the school closed, things changed in Nebraska’s Deaf community. However, the impact of the school continues today.
The Near North Side neighborhood was packed with people for more than a century. People need places to hang out and cool off in Omaha’s hot summers, and in the late 1940s the City of Omaha Parks Department decided to build a swimming pool to serve the community.
By this point, the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects had become strictly segregated, with white families living in one area while African Americans lived in another. However, North 24th Street, which was North O’s main street, was still successful. Businesses packed the corridor from Cuming Street northwards, with customers, workers, owners and others swarming the area constantly. Old timers called it a “sea of glass on a sunny morning” because of the amount of gleaning glass shining at them!
The original 1950s entryway sign at North Omaha’s Kellom Pool.
Meeting An Unmet Need
The city’s established pools like Peony Park, Miller Park and elsewhere maintained discriminatory policies against allowing Blacks to swim. The City decided to build a pool to serve African Americans as well as whites, and located it across the street from the housing projects.
Not content with merely opening a pool, the City merged the pool plans with the design of a new Kellom School. The plan called for the school building to operate as a city-run community center on weekday evenings and on the weekends. Combined with the pool, the thinking was that the community’s recreation needs would be satisfied. This model was heralded nationally for being progressive.
Val Peterson, the governor of Nebraska, officially opened the pool in 1952.
The poolhouse and beginning of the community center at the Kellom Pool in the 1950s.
Who Used the Pool?
The Kellom Pool was used by both Blacks and whites throughout its existence. In the early decades, when the projects had people of both races living there, the pool was used by many residents. In the later decades when the projects became strictly African American, whites came to the pool from other neighborhoods through nonprofit and government programs.
As an integrated pool serving low-income folks and others, there was charity involved. A nonprofit called United Community Services collected used swim trunks to give away at the pool. For several decades the ARC facilitated swim days at the pool for its clients, and the City of Omaha used the pool for summer programs through the 1990s.
Whitney Young, Jr., an acclaimed national civil rights leader, was the Executive Director of the Omaha Urban League in the 1950s. He personally brought groups of Black youth to the pool to swim.
There were near-calamities at the pool. In 1955, a 33-year-old woman named Frenchy Jones was spotted lying on the bottom of the pool near the diving board. A lifeguard and another swimmer pulled her out and the lifeguard gave her artificial respiration. When the fire department arrived in five minutes with a resuscitator, she was revived and taken Children’s Hospital, where she recovered.
In 1956, a beginning swimmer named Robert Wisner, Jr. went into the 12-foot deep end of the pool. Rescued by a 17-year-old lifeguard named Tom Pedersen, Wisner was give artificial respiration until a fire department rescue unit arrived. Wisner survived, and Pedersen was recognized for saving his life.
A mixed group of swimmers at the Kellom Pool in the 1950s.
The Kellom Pool was closed by the City of Omaha in the late 1990s. The site was demolished at the same time the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects were demolished, in 1998.
Today, the site of the pool is part of the Omaha-Council Bluffs Metro Area Planning Agency’s parking lot. Part of the Omaha Lead Superfund Site, the entire Near North Side neighborhood continues to struggle to overcome years racist policy-making, systematic discriminatory practices, and social abandon. The absence of the Kellom Pool serves as a cherry on top of a bitter desert of benign neglect by the City of Omaha and Omaha’s civic leaders.
The site of the Kellom Pool at N. 24th and Nichols Street in 2015.
Dan Desdunes was The Man. For more than 20 years, he was the leader of Omaha’s powerhouse music scene. He also launched several musicians’ careers, volunteered around the community, and was well-thought of throughout his life. But even before he got to Omaha, Desdunes made waves ripple in Louisiana.
Early On In NOLA
Born in 1870, Daniel F. Desdunes came from a strong Creole family in New Orleans. His father, Randolphe Desdunes, was recognized as a leader among the New Orleans Creole community. He was an author of a Creole history, and was highly respected in the community. The elder Desdunes was the founder of the Comite des Citoyens, or Citizens’ Committee
Young Desdunes went to Straight University and studied music. He learned to play violin, cornet, trombone, and the trap drums when he was young, and co-founded a New Orleans band called the Coustaut-Desdunes Orchestra before he moved to Omaha. Desdunes was also a music teacher in New Orleans.
Desdunes was also an early civil rights fighter. As a member of the Comite des Citoyens, he was involved in the first lawsuit challenging the segregation laws in the United States. Participating in a campaign led by his father and others, in late 1891 he boarded a segregated street car and was arrested immediately. Although his case was ultimately thrown out, young Desdunes’ action laid way for Homer Plessy two years later.
Desdunes was a member of the Société des Jeunes Amis, a black fraternal organization in NOLA, and also became a member of the Onward Brass Band. Bandmaster P.G. Lowery recruited him to be the orchestra leader and a member of the parade band P.T. Wright’s Nashville Students by 1897. During this era, Desdunes led the Peerless Orchestra with Laura Prampin, an African American woman, who was billed as “the one and only” Black female trap drummer in the United States. Desdunes was also reported to have, “purchased a slide trombone and started playing second trombone in Harry Prampin’s concert band.”
Moving to the Big O
According to an early source, Desdunes was working with a minstrel show when he was stranded in Omaha in 1904. Other sources say he choose the city. First working as a janitor, he became the manager of the billiards room in the Omaha Chamber of Commerce building, and began his conducting career from there. He eventually became the director of the Colored Knights of Pythias.
In 1908, he took over leadership of the Omaha Military Band, and renamed it with his name. The Omaha Chamber of Commerce named the Dan Desdunes Band “Omaha’s Official Band” in 1918. The band traveled a lot, going on official trade trips, to state fairs, county fairs, good will trips, and events across the United States.
“The word ‘jazz’ first appeared in The Monitor, Omaha’s black weekly newspaper, on November 3, 1917, less than a year after the first jazz recordings were made. This word was used in an advertisement for a charity ball at which the music was to be provided by the Desdunes Jazz Orchestra. This band was led by Dan Desdunes, who was described as the ‘father of negro musicians of Omaha’ in Harrison J. Pinkett’s 1937 manuscript, An Historical Sketch of the Omaha Negro.
Reports from Desdunes’ era said there was no music groups among Omaha’s African American community before he came to town. During his life, he organized a successful production called “Forty Years of Freedom”; appeared as a violin soloist in a joint concert between the Episcopal churches of the city; produced his “Lady Minstrels,” his “Buster Brown” and his signal triumph, “Manager Buster Brown.” His plays, which he composed and presented, were declared artistic successes by the press and public.
During their career, the Dan Desdunes Band also played Black formal events, Black parades and pageants, and Black athletic competitions throughout North Omaha. Desdunes’ son Clarence, who was born in 1895, graduated from Tech High School in Omaha. After that he moved back to New Orleans to become a violinist and conductor, and was a colleague to Jelly Roll Morton and Danny Barker.
Boys Town Band
Desdunes launched a lot of projects and careers. One of his biggest legacies was the Boys Town Band.
In 1917, after visiting the Boys’ Home in Omaha, its founder Father Flanagan asked him to start a band. From that year until he died, Desdunes was the conductor of the Boys Town Marching Band, leading them on several national tours with performances in many major cities, including New York City. They also got to perform for Phillip Sousa when he visited Omaha, and were led by Paul Whiteman, a world-famous conductor in the 1920s.
Another of the careers Desdunes was responsible for was a drummer named Simon Harrold. He joined Desdunes in the early 1920s, and formed a massively popular band after Desdunes passed away.
After his death, the band continued for a number of years with different conductors, still using Desdunes’ name. In 1954, they celebrated their 50th anniversary.
Desdunes’ father died in 1928 while staying at his son’s home in Omaha.
The Desdunes family lived exclusively in North Omaha. Their first home was at 2120 North 24th Street, in the apartments on the second floor next door to the Fair Deal Cafe; their other home was at 2516 Burdette Street.
Desdunes was active in Omaha’s fledgling Civil Rights movement, too. For instance, in 1919, he joined Rev. John Albert Williams of St Philip’s Episcopal Church and newspaper publisher Thomas P. Mahammitt in forming Omaha’s Colored Commercial Club, a kind of Black enterprise organization promoting Black businesses and supporting jobs for African American workers.
Dan Desdunes died in Omaha on April 24, 1929. He is buried with his wife in Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Some of Desdunes compositions include:
“Dandy Dancers Rag”
“Honey Bug Rag”
“Dixie Notions Rag”
“That Teasing Omaha Rag”
“Mexican Thot [sic] Serenade”
Another was called the “Happy Feeling Rag,” and above is a performance of this piece.
There is a street that starts in North Omaha and shoots west, with a man so respected by Omahans that more than a century later they named another street after him. North Omaha has been filled with interesting people since the city was founded, and even before that. One of them was Judge George Baker Lake.
Born in Greenfield, New York in 1827, Lake’s family moved to Ohio when he was a teen. After working on farms when he was young, he went to Oberlin College in Ohio from 1849 through 1851.
He became a lawyer in Ohio in 1851. In November 1856, he moved to the Nebraska Territory and opened up shop in Omaha City. His early partnerships included A. J. Poppleton, George Gilbert, and Charles Brown. In 1863, he was a lawyer in the trial of Nebraska’s first executed prisoner, Cyrus Tator, and the next year he was judge in the trial of the second execution.
Widely recognized as a powerful lawyer, Lake was also a successful politician in early Nebraska. Lake was voted in as a Republican legislator in the Nebraska Territory Senate. He helped draft the Nebraska constitution for statehood, and attended the state’s constitutional convention on behalf of Douglas County.
In 1864, he was elected Speaker of the Senate. A few years later, he was appointed to the Supreme Court of the new State of Nebraska. In 1888, he created a partnership with James Hamilton, and was a lawyer for the rest of his life.Lake was a late abolitionist. Arriving in Nebraska as a Democrat, in the early legislatures he didn’t believe the territory needed an anti-slavery bill. However, his mood changed quickly, and in 1861, he proposed the Nebraska Territory ban slavery in the legislature. His proposal was voted down. Soon after, an early Nebraskan newspaper called him “a radical democrat and African equalizer.” He ended up joining the Republican party for their resistance to slavery.
He was the first Chief Justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court. During his seventeen years on the Court, Judge Lake was widely said to be effective, finely balanced and “splendidly intellectual.” He also served as judge during the trial of Standing Bear vs. Crook in 1879. Lake volunteered as a member of the Omaha Public Schools board, and eventually served four terms in the legislature. He died in 1910 in Omaha. His wife, Abbie Hayes Lake, died in 1920.
Lake Street was named for the judge while he was alive, as well as a school that was built on his land. The man is still so respected that George B. Lake Parkway in extreme west Omaha was named for him in the 2000s, a century after he died!
Built in 1915, the Broadview Hotel at 2060 Florence Boulevard operated for several decades.
Much the same as today, Omaha was culturally segregated in the early 20th century. That included its hotels.
Spectacular stories about wonderful early hotels didn’t include African Americans. Places like the Grand Central Hotel, the Cozzens Hotel, the Herndon House, and later, the Fontenelle, the Blackstone, and the Flatiron Hotel were all segregated, prohibiting Black people from staying in their storied hallways.
This is the Walker Hotel at 2504 Charles Street.
The only option for Black people was to own their own hotels.
According to a 1938 interview with Henry W. Black from the U.S. Congress, around 1890 the first hotel for African Americans in Omaha was opened and run by a Mr. Lewis at 10th and Capitol Streets, and was owned by a Mr. Adams.
An 1917 ad for the Warden Hotel, located near downtown Omaha.
From 1936 to 1966, Omaha had several hotels friendly to African Americans listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book. They were presumably Black-owned, too. Black musicians, actors, and performers stayed at these hotels, as well as Black businesspeople and other travelers.
According to an interview conducted by the University of Nebraska History Harvest, after the Civil Rights movement some musicians reminisced about the jam sessions that happen at these hotels, and the “sense of ‘togetherness’ they felt when they stayed there.”
Patton’s Hotel was a widely-known Black-owned hotel in Omaha, originally located at 1014-18 S. 11th Street.
The Broadview, located at 2060 Fontenelle Blvd., was listed as “Omaha’s finest” in tourist books for African Americans. The Patton Hotel was a popular institution located near South Omaha.
In addition to the Broadview and Patton, there were two other Black-friendly hotels listed in the Green Book. The Walker Hotel, shown above, was a repurposing of the original Jewish Old Folks Home and was located at 2504 Charles Street.
An advertisement for the Booker T. Washington Hotel from a 1917 edition of The Monitor newspaper.
Black-Owned or Operated Hotels in Omaha
Over the years before and after the Civil Rights Movement, there were several Black hotels in Omaha. They included:
Booker T. Washington Hotel, 1719 Cuming Street
Calhoun Hotel, 2423 Lake Street
Dee Gee Apartments-2020-24 Burt Street
Broadview Hotel, 2060 North 19th Street
Central House Hotel, Saratoga (North 24th and Grand)
Patton’s Hotel, originally at 1014-18 South 11th Street, then at 2425 Erskine Street
Walker Hotel, 2405 Charles Street
Warden Hotel, 817 North 16th Street
Lee Von Hotel 2212 Seward Street
According to Love’s Jazz and Art Center, musicians such as Cab Calloway stayed at Myrtle Washington’s at 22nd and Willis while others stayed at Charlie Trimble’s at 22nd and Seward.
The cover of the 1947 Green Book.
Black-Owned Tourist Homes in Omaha
Over the twenty years the Green Book was published, there were other options for African American travelers besides hotels. Throughout the years were called boarding rooms, Tourist Homes and rental rooms. Some of the ones listed in Omaha included:
2220 Willis Ave., operated by Mrs. Louis Strawther
2211 Ohio St., operated by Mrs. M. Smith
2207 N. 25th St., operated by Miss Willa Mae Anderson
2228 Willis Ave., operated by G. H. Ashby
2619 Caldwell St., operated by Dave Brown
2010 Lake St., Mrs. Mary Oerall
2530 Maple St., Mrs. C.H. Hicks
2817 Florence Blvd, The Johnson House
2020 Burt St., Dee Gee Apartment
Having radios and televisions were big innovations for these homes, and the proprietors strove to meet their customers’ needs.
Before Gottlieb Storz, a few other entrepreneurs tried their hand at brewing beer in North Omaha. Afterwards though, Storz dominated. For more than 75 years, his family ran Omaha’s beer industry, and even though the brewery closed in the 1970s, it left a major mark on the city that still stands today. This is a short history of the Storz Brewery.
Since the beginning of Omaha, the city worked hard and played harder. Today’s downtown was packed with bars and brothels for dozens of years, and someone had to stock them with beer. Enter North Omaha’s Saratoga Brewery, Columbia Brewery, and eventually the Storz Brewery, too.
Richard Simeon was 26 years old when started the Saratoga Brewery in 1854 in the town of Saratoga. Located at the intersection of North 16th and Commercial Avenue, Saratoga Brewery was one of Nebraska’s first breweries. Located in the town of Saratoga, surely Simeon planned to supply beer to his bustling community and beyond, including Florence and Omaha City.
It was along the railroad between the bustling Sulphur Springs area and the town of Saratoga, which was located at present-day N 24th and Ames Avenue. Simeon sold his company Ebenezer Dallow in 1863, and at some point after that went to work for Frederick Metz’s brewery. Eventually he married Minna Metz, Frederick’s daughter. After his wife died young in 1881, Dallow opened a theatre in downtown Omaha.
Selling to Germans
These are different images and maps of the Columbia Brewery run by Storz in 1872.
Dallow sold his brewery to Joseph Baumann in 1865, who renamed it the Columbia Brewery and moved it down Sherman Avenue, aka North 16th Street. In 1876, Baumann hired a young German immigrant named Gottlieb Storz. However, Baumann died that year and his widow, Wilhemina, succeeded him in running the brewery, naming Gottlieb Storz foreman.
In 1884, Storz took on J.D. Iler as a partner and they bought the brewery from Wilhemina Baumann. They built up their buildings and machinery, and increased production, and within the next two years Storz bought out Iler. He built a massive new production facility in the 1880s at 1800 North 16th Street.
In 1891, Storz founded a company called the Omaha Brewing Association to make beer and named himself as president. Naming his main brand after himself, Storz sold a lot of beer and built an empire that lasted through 1977.
Building the Empire
Gottlieb Storz’s plant made 150,000 barrels annually, easily making his operation the biggest brewery in Omaha. Storz kept his products high quality because he hired new brewers from Germany, and kept the business in the family. He also built alliances with other local German beer makers, and in the 1890s was instrumental in founding the Omaha Brewing Association as a lobby and promotional arm.
Storz fought big fights. Nebraska was a hotbed in the Prohibition movement, with local and statewide laws targeting the sale of all alcohol, including beer, beginning in the 1890s. In 1916, voters across the state approved a statewide Prohibition, and in January 1919 the state ratified the Eighteenth Amendment. By 1920, Storz was suffering. However, through sales of non-alcoholic beer, soda pop and ice, Storz kept going and even found success.
After the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in 1933, Storz went back to regular production and made 150,000 barrels a year in 1935. When Gottlieb Storz died in 1939, his son Adolph became brewery president.
Adolph’s son Robert Storz became president of the company in the 1950s. In 1966, an investment firm from Iowa bought the company, which soon sold it to a Minneapolis beer brewing conglomerate. In 1977, they closed Storz permanently.
After letting the building sit empty for more than two decades, much of the brewery was demolished in the early 2000s. Today, there are a few remnants left on the site, including the iconic smokestack. Although Omaha may never see the Storz family name rise again, beer brewing in the city is making a comeback.
Over the years, Storz brewed several different labels, including Storz Porter, Storz Old Saxon, Storz Gold Crest, Storz Pale Ale, Storz Wood Duck, Storz Pilsner Club, Storz Gold Crest, Storz Winterbru, Storz Export, Storz Blue Ribbon, and Storz Triumph.
And that’s a history of the Storz Brewery and beer brewing in North Omaha!
The banner from a 1910 periodical for parks maintenance.
It costs money to be a respectful, successful cemetery. They actually have to conduct a regular and brisk business in order to afford their existence. Today, many old cemeteries have charitable groups or beneficiaries who pay for their upkeep. However, it hasn’t always been easy to raise money for cemetery upkeep.
Prospect Hill Cemetery was founded by Omaha real estate mogul Byron Reed in 1863. According to court documents, before Reed bought the cemetery there wasn’t a fence around it, and cattle roamed freely over the graves. Managed by Reed for 20 years, in 1883 its care was handed over to the city’s new cemetery leadership, the Forest Lawn Cemetery Association. In 1893, the Prospect Hill Cemetery Association was formed.
However, making money was rough, and they needed more burials. Where should they go? This is a story of digging up the dead in North Omaha.
A view of the cemetery from a picture I took in 2015.
In a previous article, I explored some of North Omaha’s missing cemeteries, including two that preceded and bordered Prospect Hill called the Omaha City Cemetery and Cedar Hill Cemetery. They’re important here because I explained how the all of the graves in those cemeteries weren’t moved before they were closed, bulldozed and platted for housing developments. Today, more than 100 houses in the Highland and Gifford Park neighborhoods are located there, as well as the Creighton University / St. Joe’s Hospital complex.
Along with those missing graves, the reality is that there are many missing graves in Prospect Hill Cemetery, too! Today, there are many reasons for those missing records, including poor recording keeping, the fires in the Douglas County Courthouse during Omaha’s 1919 race riot, and other factors. Whatever the cause, the missing records directly affected Superintendent Callahan’s legal issues in 1909.
Without proper grave markers or a lot of caretaking of the cemetery over the years by himself or others, Prospect Hill Cemetery superintendent Daniel Callahan was the victim of sloppiness. He made the national news for cemetery officials that year, because nobody wanted to be in a similar situation.
Convicting the Superintendent
A 1909 article announcing the original trial verdict.
In 1908, Daniel Callahan was convicted of unlawfully assisting in disinterring the remains of a dead person. Callahan was the superintendent of the cemetery since 1890, Callahan had been caring for Prospect Hill since before a dedicated association was incorporated to take care of it. He was convicted for directing the cemetery’s gravedigger to throw old bones from any new grave he dug into the bottom of the new grave.
When the gravedigger was arrested, he immediately implicated Callahan as giving him the orders. However, when Callahan was on trial, he fingered Judge Charles A. Baldwin, a pioneer Omaha lawyer who was president of the Prospect Hill Cemetery Association.
Callahan faced a $2,500 fine or three years in the Nebraska State Penitentiary, or both. When the verdict came down, leniency was suggested, and an appeal to the supreme court was planned. He was released on bond.
In the next year, the Nebraska State Supreme Court dismissed the charges. Proclaiming the State hadn’t proved their case, Callahan faced no further prosecution.
By 1906, the Omaha Bee reported that many improvements were being made at Prospect Hill, including a new tool house and “markers for many graves previously unknown.” Meanwhile, period journals credited the case with fighting against “careless and indifferent treatment of the business of burying people” in cemeteries across the nation.
Oh, and Callahan couldn’t have felt too bad about the whole situation: he was buried at Prospect Hill Cemetery when he died in 1928.
Why did Judge Baldwin tell Callahan to just throw the old bones into the same graves as the newly dead? In the he cemetery was prohibited from expanding further
By 1970s, the cemetery was in abysmal condition. Located behind North Omaha’s notorious Hilltop Public Housing Projects, it was unseen, unvisited and mostly forgotten by the city. However, in 1979 interest surged again after the city threatened to demolish the cemetery. A nonprofit called the Prospect Hill Cemetery Historic Site Foundation was formed to preserve, protect and promote the cemetery, and they got to work. That year, the cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and interest began growing again.
In 1980, the Prospect Hill Preservation Brass Band was formed to celebrate the cemetery on Memorial Day.
In 2015, the cemetery hosted the 36th annual Old-Fashioned Memorial Day Observance. Featuring the Prospect Hill Preservation Brass Band, local historian David Wells traced the path of the first Nebraska Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War and talked about the veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg interred at Prospect Hill. The annual tribute to Anna Wilson also happened. Wilson, who was the owner and madame of Omaha’s most expensive brothel, died in 1911 and was buried at Prospect Hill with her gambler husband Dan Allen. For more details, read my article about their burial.
Working with the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, recently the Prospect Hill Cemetery Legacy Arboretum was formed. Recognized for their beauty and appropriateness, there are many beautiful trees there today.
In a place as old as North Omaha, there are bound to be a lot of ghost stories. When I was young, we told ghost stories about places we’d been, we shared the stories we heard, and we made up stories about what we didn’t know about.
When I was young, there were a lot of stories about ghosts, spooks, hauntings and terrors in North Omaha. Since I started the North Omaha History blog eight years ago, I’ve been research what’s fact versus what’s fiction, and collecting any evidence I can find that verifies or refutes the ghost stories I knew then. Along the way, I’ve found some stories I didn’t know anything about.
Here’s a collection of North Omaha ghost stories. Do you know other ones? Share them in the comments below, along with any questions, ideas or other thoughts!
Story 1: The Ghosts of Fort Omaha
The Gas Bag was the official newspaper of Fort Omaha in 1919.
Dead soldiers, grieving widows, a young girl, a Native American warrior, and a nicely dressed middle aged man are seen in different places around the Fort Omaha campus these days. When the night is right and you’re feeling a fright, you might also find yourself in the presence of one of these characters. Whether its a soldier who died in the 1918 flu epidemic, another one who went crazy, or a little girl who died at the Fort, today the campus is littered with stories.
H. P. Stanwood was a serious man, a sculptor and marble cutter who made his living from marking the graves at Prospect Hill Cemetery. In July 1874, Mr. Stanwood and his assistants saw a ghost. After catching site of one of the assistants, she chased him through Stanwood’s shop and then went into Stanwood’s house. The entire time, she was looking for her children.
In the 1910s, a new restaurant was built looking over Carter Lake for the fancy rich people who had cabins at the Rod and Gun Club. One of the first days he was there, the chef saw a flying, flaming ghost swirling around his bedroom above the restaurant.
A decade earlier, one of the high society ladies from North Omaha was cooking in her cabin when her gas stove went up in flames.
For almost 100 years there was a giant healthcare campus in North Omaha by North High School. Spread out over six blocks, there were 20 buildings, including a hospital, orphanage, old folks home, sanitarium, teaching institute, and more. Connecting all of these was a network of tunnels buried two stories underground. After the hospital moved in 1976, almost all of the buildings were demolished, and two decades later a new housing development went in their place. Talking with a friend who lives there, I recently learned that many of the residents in the hear ranging clanging and banging below their houses. Are there still patients below the houses banging on the pipes tonight?
A large black shadow blocks out the light in a doorway. A group of paranormal investigators study the chapel at Forest Lawn Cemetery. On a long night doing hard work, one of the team members saw the shadow in the basement of the chapel. On their audio recorder a voice said, “get out.” A few years ago on Halloween, a group of people in the basement of the chapel saw a shadow move across the wall and then move into another room. A clairvoyant felt electricity through her body, her knees went weak and she instantly felt ill. That same evening, someone’s hair was pulled and said a name clearly. A large black mass completely blocked out any light coming in through a doorway where the group was gathered, it simply stood there for a moment and then moved away. Today, this group regards the chapel at Forest Lawn Cemetery as the scariest place they know about.
The entrance to Hummel Park as it appeared in the 1910s.
There is a lot of misunderstanding about what happens at Hummel Park. A lot of it comes from racism, a lot from ignorance, and the rest of it from active imaginations. Hummel is a secluded, semi-remote park without a lot of oversight. Because of that, crimes have been committed and covered up there, and attempted coverups. However, a lot of good things have happened there too.
Omaha’s city father’s were shady dudes who stole land, fought opponents and claimed credit for things they never did. However, sometimes their reputations were made by well-meaning historians who followed the adage that history is written by the winners. Well, I’m breaking that rule and telling the story of how Byron Reed didn’t start Omaha’s first cemetery. I also wonder out loud about where the graves went that have been lost in time, and share some ideas about where they actually are today.
The Gas Bag was the official newspaper of Fort Omaha in 1919.
Fort Omaha was opened in 1878. Home to thousands of US Army troops over a century of service, many people lived and died at the Fort. Today, some of the buildings that still survive on the campus include the General Crook House and the Commissary, both built in 1878; the Ordinance Magazine, built in 1883; the Guardhouse, built in 1884; and the Mule Stables, built in 1887.
Ghost stories have been told about the place since it opened.
In 1890, an 60-year-old inmate at the Douglas County Poor Farm named Peter Gronwold, was the servant of a Lieutenant Wilson who lived in officer’s quarters at the Fort. One day while he was doing his work, he had a psychotic episode and started throwing objects around. He flung plates into the wall and broke a glass window. When Lt. Wilson attempted to subdue him, Gronwold suddenly died. Gronwold’s ghost haunted the Fort for at least 20 years afterwards.
Omaha’s society types stand in their finest clothes watching the US Army Calvary doing maneuvers in the parade grounds at Fort Omaha in the 1880s.
When the Fort had regular US Army troops stationed there in the 1880s, it was popular for Omaha’s elite to come out for a fancy day watching the troops do their exercises. More than once though, seances and psychics drew out specters and ghouls for the fancy people to see. According to a 1918 newspaper report, the troops thought one psychic was a charlatan when he conjured a ghost on command. However, they were shocked when the ghost kept returning night after night for a week.
Soldiers raising a dirigible above for Omaha in the 1910s.
On the south end of the parade grounds, where the World War I balloon school was located, in 1918 there was an explosion in some of the gas storage tanks that killed two soldiers and wounded several others. One of them ended up in the Fort’s hospital where he died during surgery. Apparently all three ghosts still haunt the campus today.
In 1945, a soldier at the Fort became violent towards a nurse in the Fort’s hospital and murdered her in the presence of doctors and other nurses. Stories say you can see her staring longingly out the windows of that building late some nights.
In World War II, these soldiers are removing the Spanish-American War cannon from Fort Omaha.
According to a former office staff from Metro Community College, in the 1970s one of the original officers’ houses was being renovated. While they were working, builders said they would hear knocking on the opposite side of a wall they were working on. At first they thought it was other workers, until they learned there were never other workers on the other side when they heard the knocking sounds. They also complained about tools mysteriously disappearing and showing up days later in entirely different rooms.
In other stories, a young girl, a Native American warrior, and a nicely dressed middle aged man are seen in different places around the campus. When the night is right and you’re feeling a fright, you might also find yourself in the presence of a young soldier.
Deaths at the Fort
Some of the people who have died at Fort Omaha include:
Judge T. H. Duval, 1880
Sergeant John Wright, 1882
Reverend George Allen England, 1883
Major Joseph Taylor, 1885
Mrs. Brown, wife of Major Brown,1888
Peter Gronwold, civilian, 1890
Sarah Iowa, infant daughter of Lieutenant Abercrombie, 1890
Little Bear, “an Indian soldier of Company I”, 1894
In the month of October 2015, I was invited to participate in Q98’s After Dark Halloween special with JT and Pat. Making two appearances before the special, I was able to share some stories and have fun with the opportunity.
Here are the shows I appeared on – I’ll be adding the actual After Dark Halloween special podcast as soon as its posted!
Friday, October 30 (I start at 31:58)
Friday, October 23
Wednesday, October 28
I also wrote some articles to share the stories I talked about in these podcasts. They’re listed below.
Nurses learning their trade at Immanuel Deaconess Hospital in the 1910s.
There were 20 buildings at the old Immanuel Deaconess campus in North Omaha. Located at N. 34th and Meredith, the first building opened there in 1891. Over the years, the campus included a hospital, an orphanage, an old folks home, and a mental health institution.
A challenge of having a facility spread out over six city blocks on a hillside was that transporting patients in the wintertime could be treacherous. Hospital administrators solved the issue in the early 1900s when they started making tunnels between the buildings. Conveniently carrying utilities across the campus, the tunnels were located more than 15 feet underground so they wouldn’t freeze, and so they stayed relatively level despite the elevation change.
A picture of the Immanuel Deaconess campus in the 1940s.
In 1976, the hospital moved to a new campus on N. 72nd Street. By the late 1980s, one of the final buildings was demolished. A decade later, a new housing development was built over the top and little thought was given to what had been there. New streets, new basements and street signs and street lights and everything all went up. Apparently, no thought was given to the tunnels, either.
In 2009, I had a chance to talk with a friend who lives in that development. Just talking about things, he told me there was this weird thing that everyone in the neighborhood had experienced. In their basement during no certain times of day, different people can hear clanging and banging coming from below their houses. Without knowing anything about it, I filed it away to learn more later.
This is one of the tunnels below the Immanuel Deaconess campus as it appeared in the 1940s.
A few months ago I was researching an article about the campus when I learned about the tunnels. Dumbstruck, I read about patients gurneys being moved by harried nurses, and corpses being shuffled away by orderlies. Finally, there was a discussion about patients from the sanitarium being moved exclusively through the tunnels, no matter what the weather was outside. The thinking was that in those enclosed spaces, it would be harder for a patient to flee.
Are there still patients below the houses banging on the pipes tonight?
Before Omaha was founded in 1854, white people had been passing through present-day Omaha in Indian Territory for more than a century. The Spanish conquistadors that came to present-day Nebraska in the 1500s didn’t reach the area, but the French trappers who came after them for the next 250 years almost certainly did. In 1825, a fur trader named T. B. Royce opened a post near present-day 10th and Dodge Streets, but closed it just three years later. When the first wagon trains started rolling across the Oregon trail in 1831, the Omaha area was a regular pass-through on the way west.
Veterans of Foreign Wars members, active duty servicemen and some women gather at the Prospect Hill Cemetery in 1947 for a Memorial Day ceremony.
As the settlers, pioneers, gold seekers and others came across the Missouri River, they immediately saw a tall hill to the west. This single tall hill was a landmark for people, as it drew attention for its heights. From those early years, European travelers found Native American grave sites on that hill, and started burying their dead there too. Old folks, sick people, the wounded and others often died heading west, and this hill was a notable place for their graves.
When Omaha City was formally founded in 1854, the tradition of burying dead people on that hill was already at least 20 years old.
Cemeteries We Don’t Talk About
A few early burials were made where present-day S. 14th and Marcy Streets. Early burials also happened in present-day Hanscom Park, near the intersection of Park and Woolworth Avenues. Nobody took care of this site and it soon grew over and was generally neglected, then forgotten about.
There was also a cemetery near South 20th and Poppleton Streets in Shull’s Addition on top of a “fine wooded hill.” The first burial there happened in 1856, when an older married woman was put in the ground. This cemetery was apparently only used for a few years, and then closed down. In the early 1910s, an expensive iron casket with heavy plate glass was excavated from Shull’s cemetery while a building was being constructed. There was also another coffin with a soldiers uniform that had buckshot in the pocket and a pistol in its hand.
In 1860, pioneer real estate tycoon Byron Reed decided he needed to designate land for a proper cemetery.
Somehow, he’d come to own a perfect chunk right on the side of a tall hill just to the north and west of Capitol Hill. Conveniently, it already had several graves marked there. THIS was the hillside the pioneers saw when they came through the area before Omaha was built.
What few people actually talk about, though, is that there were actually already two other cemeteries and dozens of burials incorporated into the new site.
The Missing Cemeteries
This 1878 cutaway from a map of Omaha shows Prospect Hill all the way from present-day N. 30th to N. 34th Street. What’s the land to the west designated “Cemetery.”?
Before Reed bought the land, Omaha settler Rev. Moses Shinn had already designated a cemetery from land he had claimed. He set aside 10 acres in the northwest corner of his property. Shinn then formed the Cedar Hill Cemetery Company in 1858 and filed for recognition with the City of Omaha and the Nebraska Territory Legislature, which was granted in October 1858. Burials continued happening there for the next two years. The first burial there was J. L. Winship, whose death is argued over in history books about whether he was the first legal burial in Omaha.
However, before Shinn got his license, fellow pioneer Jesse Lowe had dedicated 10 acres of his land next to Shinn’s as a cemetery, which he called the Omaha City Cemetery. Several burials happened there before Prospect Hill Cemetery was created.
Then, Lowe and Shinn sold the cemetery land as part of a larger parcel to Reed.
This 1866 map clearly shows Lowe’s Cedar Hill Cemetery, and mark’s Shinn’s Omaha City Cemetery simply as “Cemetery”, both to the south of Prospect Hill.
Using the section lines clearly shown on early Omaha maps, I have discerned that Shinn’s Omaha City Cemetery was located from present-day N. 32nd Avenue on the east to N. 33rd Street on the west; from Patrick Avenue on the north to Charles Street on the south.
Lowe’s Cedar Hill Cemetery was four-times the size of Prospect Hill Cemetery. Its boundaries would have been Decatur Street on the north to Hamilton Street on the south; N. 33th on the west to N. 30th on the east.
Here’s the map above superimposed over a current map.
Neither of these cemeteries were unused, per se. Neither was particularly well cared for though, and because they were both close to the city and quickly subsumed by urban growth, they became more desirable for housing than they were for burials.
Being the real estate magnate that he was, Byron Reed saw this and took action.
Reed Gets His Wish
Byron Reed was given all the credit for founding Omaha’s first cemetery – BUT DID HE?!? No, no he did not.
Prospect Hill Cemetery was named by Reed after he combined Shinn’s cemetery with Lowe’s cemetery. In the history books, he was given a lot of respect for throwing up a fence around the land to keep grazing cows out. Then, as city lore goes, he operated the cemetery on his own for the next 20 years.
In 1878, additional land was designated for a cemetery to the west of Prospect Hill Cemetery. In present-day terms, it extended from North 33rd to North 36th, from Ohio to Parker Streets.
This 1878 map shows even more land that was designated as a cemetery.
When the Prospect Hill Cemetery Association was founded in 1890, they bought more land from Reed’s estate to expand the cemetery, extending the cemetery from N. 30th to N. 34th Streets, from Lake to Parker Street.
In Omaha’s history books, Reed’s Prospect Hill Cemetery is always given credit for being issued Burial Permit #1 by the City of Omaha. Alonzo Salisbury, a wagon train driver, mill owner, and Nebraska Territory legislator was the unfortunate soul who died in October 1858. A funeral director named A. F. Vischer, certified that Salisbury paid $25 for the coffin and the service. His widow, Lydia, certified that she paid $8 to the gravedigger, John Ryan, for his services.
However, that alone is proof that Prospect Hill Cemetery wasn’t Omaha’s first cemetery. Salisbury was buried in Shinn’s Omaha City Cemetery. The remains of the soldiers who died at Omaha during the Civil War from 1861 to 1865 were buried at the Omaha City Cemetery. When the Sherman Barracks were established in Omaha in 1868, Reed made a deal with the commander to bury their dead at the old Omaha City Cemetery.
Jesse Lowe, who was also one of Omaha’s first mayors, was originally buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery when he died in 1868. Why did his death certificate specifically say Cedar Hill if that cemetery was gone by 1860? As a sidenote, Lowe was actually reburied in 1891 at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, and has a marker at Prospect Hill Cemetery, too.
Records and histories show other people were buried there too. Cedar Hill never had too many official burials, but history shows there were several people were buried there.
The other, more obvious mysteries in all this are three-fold:
Why was so much land taken away from Prospect Hill? If it truly extended the distance the records show, today the cemetery is less than half of its original size. Why was all that land taken away?
What happened to Prospect Hill’s burials? Today, the awesome Prospect Hill Cemetery Foundation says there are 15,000 burials at Prospect Hill. Look at that tightly compacted space though, and at Marta Dawes’ awesome records she’s compiling on her awesome website. There aren’t 15,000 graves within the present-day boundaries. So where did all those graves go?
What happened to the other burials at Cedar Hill Cemetery and Omaha City Cemetery? A couple of early Omaha histories mention particular Omaha pioneers being moved into Prospect Hill Cemetery after its founding, and a few soldiers were moved. However, there were at least dozens of burials between those two cemeteries. What happened to those graves?
I would suggest that underneath the homes, businesses and streets south, west and east of Prospect Hill Cemetery today, there are dozens and dozens of unmarked, unacknowledged graves. In 1905, the media in Iowa became incensed when they realized that their first governor, Ansel Briggs, was in an unmarked grave in Omaha. This may have been in one of the old cemeteries. A special commission had his grave moved to Andrew, Iowa, in 1908. What happened to the rest of these folks?
More importantly, why did all the cemeteries I mention in this article go missing from Omaha history? Remember, there wasn’t one or two; there were SIX:
Cemetery at South 14th and Marcy Streets
Hanscom Park Cemetery near the intersection of Park and Woolworth Avenues
Shull’s Addition Cemetery at South 20th and Poppleton Streets
Omaha City Cemetery at North 30th and Charles
Cedar Hill Cemetery at North 26th and Burt Streets
St. Mary’s Cemetery at South 24th and Howard Streets
And Prospect Hill Cemetery was more than twice the size it is currently. Oh, and luckily they found the Potter’s Field near State Street and Mormon Bridge Road.
When Jesse Lowe died in 1868, he left land holdings to his heirs in an estate. In 1894, Lowe’s heirs took the Prospect Hill Cemetery Association to court, charging the association with potentially poisoning land downhill from their planned expansion south of Prospect Hill. Apparently, the association planned to start actively using the site of the former Omaha City Cemetery and/or the Cedar Hill Cemetery, probably to compete with the Forest Lawn Cemetery which opened a few years earlier and effectively cut off burials at Prospect Hill. In the case of Jesse Lowe vs. Prospect Hill Cemetery Association at the Nebraska Supreme Court in 1899, the association lost their right to expand further.
That effectively stopped Prospect Hill from growing and ensured the ensuing residential development of those blocks. Today, there is no indication that Omaha City Cemetery and Cedar Hill Cemetery ever existed. They are… North Omaha’s Missing Cemeteries!
Following is Alfred Sorenson’s history of Omaha, called The Story of Omaha from the Pioneer Days to the Present Time, which was published in 1923. Its a well-regarded source document for some of the information presented in this article.
A 1912 pic by Homer Frohardt of his aunt’s grave at Prospect Hill.
“Where are my children? Are they buried in that tomb?”
H. P. Stanwood was an early and popular sculptor and marble cutter in Omaha. Building a house a shop across the street from the city’s first cemetery, Prospect Hill, he sold a lot of headstones and grave markers. Stanwood was a serious man, and when asked by the Omaha Bee, he said he was “not a superstitious man, and has no faith in ghosts.”
On July 14, 1874, Mr. Stanwood met the lady in white.
That night, Stanwood was resting in his house when he heard pounding on the front door. His workers, two brothers, slept in Stanwood’s shop most nights. That evening one of the brothers stepped outside before going to bed. Looking out over the cemetery, he clearly saw a ghost.
Mouth wide open, he watched as a woman, all white and obviously a ghost, moved toward him in the pitch black night. Running inside and shaking his brother, they both watched as she came through the front door and blew out the lamp in the room.
A grave statue in Prospect Hill.
The brothers ran out the back door to Stanwood’s house, and that’s when he heard them pounding on the door. Not believing anything he was hearing from the brothers, the man decided to go see for himself. But as soon as he walked out the door, he was greeted by the ghost herself. She hit him in the back and asked him if her children were buried in one of the tombs behind her.
Without waiting for an answer, she “flitted through the house”. She went upstairs, scaring one person into jumping out the window. One of the brothers pulled out a gun and shot at the ghost, with no effect. The men chased after her into the cemetery, where she vanished at a grave.
The next night she was back. The brothers became so scared they went to town to sleep that night, and on Thursday night.
The Omaha Bee reported on this story on Saturday, July 18, 1874.
The Rod and Gun Club used to have members’ bungalows clustered together on the shores of Carter Lake. Wealthy North Omahans, of which there were many in the 1880s when the trend started, built their summer homes there.
In 1893, H. C. Oakley’s wife Mabel was cooking at the family cabin located at the Rod and Gun Club. Using a gas stove, her sleeve accidentally caught on fire, and the cabin quickly went up in flames. A report from the June 12, 1912 Lincoln Daily News said, Mrs. Oakley fled from the blazing room literally enveloped in a mass of seething flames, to die in the arms of her husband shortly afterwards. The cabin burnt to the ground.
This was a typical Sunday in the summer at the Rod and Gun Club in the 1890s.
A decade after the tragedy, a restaurant was built on the site of the Oakley’s old cabin. Soon after it opened, the chef there started seeing a ghost in his sleeping quarters, which were located about the restaurant. The first time, he was woke up by the strike of a match, only to see a “woman surrounded by fire and carrying a lighted match in her hand.”
The chef reported that this ghost “hovered about his room by night was that of a woman surrounded by such an unearthly blaze of light that he could not plainly distinguish her features.”
This is how the bungalows appeared at the Rod and Gun Club in the 1910s.
When the ghost held out the lit match towards the chef, he instinctively pushed her arm away – but felt no pain from the sight of the fire that surrounded her. There was no burn on his hand from where he’d contacted the fire. When his dog ran into the room, it immediately stopped and started barking, then ran from the room.
Night after night the ghost came back, but only when there was no light in the chef’s room. He insisted having his sleeping quarters moved to another room. The Rod and Gun Club closed down in the 1940s.
Is that Mabel Oakley paddling at the Rod and Gun Club in this 1900s postcard?
There is a lot of misunderstanding about what happens at Hummel Park. A lot of it comes from racism, a lot from ignorance, and the rest of it from active imaginations. Before we start examining the allegations about the park, let’s look at the actual, factual history of Hummel Park.
The Real History of Hummel Park
More than 200 years ago, a Spanish trader named Manuel Lisa had a fort located near the park. Another trader name Jean Pierre Cabànne opened a post along the Missouri River near the park in the 1820s.
In 1930, 200 acres of land on the southwest corner of River Drive and Ponca Road were donated to the City of Omaha to become a park. It was named after Joseph B. Hummel, the long-time superintendent of Omaha’s Parks and Recreation Department, and one of the most influential parks advocates ever in Omaha.
A mature riparian woodlands covers almost the whole park. There are playgrounds, horseshoe pits, a Missouri River overlook, picnic shelters and a disc golf course at the park, along with the popular “Devil’s Slide,” a natural cliff on the east side of the park.
The Hummel Park Nature Center, operated by the Omaha Parks and Recreation Department, offers environmental education programs and special nature events. For more than 60 years, the park has been home to a summer camp for thousands of learners.
Today, Hummel Park is a beloved area used by thousands of people every year who enjoy it, enjoy the view, and treasure the park. There are a lot of salacious and un-useful rumors about the park though, and following are actual facts that address these rumors.
What Is Fake
Before I explain what is at Hummel Park, let’s talk about what it is not.
The history of the park is not macabre.
There is no evidence of lynchings ever happening at Hummel Park.
There is not a secret lodge anywhere in the park.
There has never been an albino farm at Hummel Park, colonies of albinos there, or homeless albino people roaming the woods. There is an urban legend about this though, and it is not true.
The picnic shelter and picnic areas at the park were built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, and are not satanic worshipping altars.
There are no credible reports of animals being sacrificed in the park.
No archeologist has ever found an ancient Native American burial ground in the park.
What Might Be True
It may be true that one of the first settlers in the area was a German named Jacob Clatanoff. Apparently, he and his wife Laurinda had a cabin in the hills before a park was located there.
It may be true that one day, Laurinda decided to kill her husband and flee with a lover. and buried him there. People who have seen the ghost claim that Jacob always wails and cries, “Where is Laurinda?” and “Don’t leave me!” This may be true.
However, I cannot find any record in historical papers, and the story is only mentioned in books about the paranormal. None of them cite any sources.
What Is True
Hummel Park was created from land donated to the City of Omaha in 1930.
When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, my family and friends messed around on Devil’s Slide.
The stairs at the park did always count up to a different number – but that was because they are falling apart, not because they lead to Hell.
Its also true that there are two historical markers at Hummel Park, one for Fort Lisa and one for Cabanne’s Trading Post. Both of them existed between 1804 and 1828, and were important places for fur trading in the Indian Territory, as the area was called after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Groups of young people have been traveling from Omaha and other towns in the area to use the park since it was opened. In 1933, the Daily Nebraskan reported a picnic day with a few dozen youth there.
In the 1940s and 50s, there was a ski slope at Hummel Park, and from the 1940s through today the City of Omaha hosts a summer day camp at the park.
It is true that there have been several deaths associated with Hummel Park.
In 1936, a soldier was found buried in Hummel Park by a WPA crew working there. An archeologist in Omaha determined the body belonged to a war veteran. Local Boy Scouts decided to rebury the skeleton in a casket at the park, in a gravesite at the top of the cliffs overlooking the Missouri River Valley.
Crime at Hummel Park
As a remote, secluded place, there has been crime at Hummel Park. Bodies have been buried there. The following are crimes where I could find evidence.
Since before the Nebraska Territory was founded in 1854, executions including lynchings, shootings and hangings happened in Omaha. The Omaha Claim Club, established by the city’s founders, used intimidation, threats, and drownings in order to enforce their homesteading over anyone who tried to disagree with them. In 1860, the US Supreme Court made their actions illegal, so they had to find other means to enforce their notions of justice.
In 1863, the Nebraska Territory held its first legal execution in North Omaha, complete with two court trials, more than 200 men interviewed for juries, and a gallows. This is a history of the execution of Cyrus Tator.
This may be an image of Cyrus H. Tator
A Body is Found
Omaha in 1863, where Tator and Neff filled their wagons before heading for Denver.
One day, a boy named Horace Wilson was walking along the edge of the Missouri River at the old town of Sulphur Springs. Located three miles north of Omaha, Sulphur Springs was laid out between present-day N. 16th Street and Carter Lake, with Locust Street on the south and Lothrop on the north.
This kid, walking along on a hot June day, found a body laying in shallow water and covered by the grasses along the river. Wrapped with two log chains, the body was unidentified for two days. It was June 19, 1863.
Born February 28, 1847, in Chatham, New York, Cyrus H. Tator became a lawyer in Hudson, New York. He emigrated to Kansas in 1856, and that year he was involved in early anti-slave trade vigilantism in Kansas, crossing paths with John Brown in the infamous Osawatomie cattle raid that year. Tator was elected the probate judge of Lykins County in 1857, and in 1858, he was re-elected judge and was elected a member of the Kansas Legislature, too. On July 5, 1858, he married Mary E. Bishop (1841-1898) in Kansas, and they had a baby. He was usually referred to as Judge Tator.
In summer 1860, he took a partner in the shipping business named Isaac H. Neff. They traveled to Omaha and drove to Denver that summer, and back to Kansas after that. They did it again in 1861, and 1862. In late May 1863, Neff and Tator showed up in Omaha to load their wagons.
Tator was arrested a week later in Colfax County, heading towards the town of Columbus in the Nebraska Territory, and he was indicted on June 17th, 1863. Tom Sutton, the sheriff of Douglas County, allegedly found Tator waiting to cross in a wagon at Shinn’s Ferry over the Platte River. Tried in the first legal murder trial at the first Douglas County Courthouse, Tator was found with a large amount of money in his pocket.
During his trial, Omaha founding father and judge George B. Lake prosecuted Tator, and A. J. Poppleton defended him. The evidence in his case was circumstantial, but eventually it was considered substantial enough to convict. Herber Kimball, a Mormon leader in Florence, testified that he bought a team of horses from Tator earlier. Apparently, Tator tried to sell Kimball the wagons too, but since he didn’t buy them Tator allegedly abandoned them at the cliffs above Sulphur Springs. Tator was found to have sold some of Neff’s cattle and effects, and left town with a wagon load of goods and team of horses formerly owned by Neff.
Brigadier General McKean, who fought in Civil War battles before and after his Omaha excursion.
At 10am on the morning of August 28, Cyrus H. Tator took communion from Rev. Dr. Thomas Lemon, one of Omaha’s early Methodist ministers. From the moment his trial ended, Tator would tell anyone listening that he was innocent, always in a calm voice.
At the request of the sheriff, Brigadier General Thomas J. McKean brought forty soldiers from Company C, 7th Iowa cavalry, to preserve order. Present-day North 16th Street was the route the procession took from the county jail to the gallows. The road was lined with buggies, wagons, and people of all ages, sexes and colors, on horseback and on foot. When they arrived, the soldiers gave room to the prison wagon by forming a square around it. Reports from that time say there were 2,000 people in attendance.
An 1875 illustration of the Execution of Cyrus H. Tator.
A gallows was built near the cliff looking out over the river. It was made plain, with four upright posts for the scaffolding, a platform and trap door, steps leading up to the platform, and a short seat on each side of the platform.
Sheriff Sutton and Marshall Riley walked Tator from the wagon to the gallows. Sutton placed the rope around Tator’s neck, and Marshal Riley tied his hands behind his back. Sutton drew the black hood over Tator’s head. Rev. Lemon sat on one side with Tator, while Sheriff Sutton and Marshall Riley sat on the opposite side.
Before the knot was adjusted a last time, Tator was given the rite of his last words. In them, he called God to witness that he was an innocent man; that he had not murdered Isaac H. Neff; and that he didn’t know who murdered Neff.
Research by Omaha History Club administrator Michaela Armetta shows that at exactly 1pm, the trap door was sprung, and Tator died quickly. After hanging 22 minutes, his body was lowered, placed in a coffin, and sent back downtown to be claimed.
Tator was buried September 13, 1863 at Prospect Hill Cemetery. Notes on his records say, “Executed For Murder of Neff.” Neff himself was interred at Prospect Hill Cemetery on March 8, 1864, with a note on the interment that said, “Murdered by Cyrus Tator.” Nobody knew how old Neff was. It took nine months for him to be buried, but there’s no excuse given in notes from the cemetery. It might have taken that long for family members to claim the corpse. Both Tator and Neff are both buried in unmarked graves at Prospect Hill. They are actually buried in the same lot, and each of the surrounding lots has about 8 burials. Tator and Neff are in lot 47.
According to her obituary, Tator’s wife Mary never remarried. Instead, she worked in asylums in Kansas, Missouri and Colorado, and died in 1889.
In 1979, there was a brief announcement in the Omaha World-Herald by Don Beckman. With straight-forwardness, he said a historical marker would probably be erected in Prospect Hill Cemetery to commemorate Cyrus Tator’s execution. “Noting the consequence desperadoes began to pay when law and order became established in the newly settled territory,” Beckman sounded defensive of the marker. Its not apparent any marker was ever placed though, and today there’s nothing in the cemetery or near the site where the hanging happened.
On October 24, 1889, the Omaha Daily World reported that G.S. Kennedy, an African American mechanic who frequented the bar at the Paxton Hotel, was “somewhat indignant” for being charged a higher price than usual because, as the bartender said, he was Black. My review of other articles from early Omaha shows wasn’t Kennedy’s experience wasn’t exception in Omaha; it was the rule.
Race and racism has dominated Omaha has history of movement, organizing and activism for civil rights for African Americans and others that goes almost back to the founding of the city. Following is a timeline of race and racism in North Omaha.
1804 to 1900
1804: York, a slave of William Clark on the Lewis and Clark expedition, became the first recorded Black person in the area that became Omaha.
1854: The Nebraska Territory was created by the United States Congress with condition that it stay free of slavery. That rule was broken regularly.
1859: Five years after the city’s founding, a proposal was raised to the Omaha City Council to abolish slavery within city limits. It fails.
1860: Eliza, a slave who ran away from an Omaha businessman, was tracked to Chicago and was arrested there under the Fugitive Slave Act.
1865: The proposed Nebraska State Constitution had a clause limiting voting rights in the state to “free white males” that kept the territory from becoming a state for almost a year.
1867: St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed, and was the first African American congregation founded in Omaha.
1879: Chief Standing Bear, a leader among the Ponca tribe, was arrested and imprisoned at Fort Omaha by the US Army. In Standing Bear vs. Crook, he stood accused of leaving Oklahoma without federal permission. Winning the trial, for the first time Native Americans were recognized as human beings by a U.S. court.
1884: Matthew Ricketts became the first African American to graduate from an institution of higher education, Ricketts earns a degree from the University of Nebraska College of Education.
1889: On October 24, the Omaha Daily World reported that G.S. Kennedy, an African American mechanic who frequented the bar at the Paxton Hotel, was “somewhat indignant” for being charged a higher price than usual because, as the bartender said, he was Black.
1891: Joe Coe was lynched by a white mob of 10,000 people for allegedly raping a white woman.
1892: Dr. Matthew Ricketts became the first African American to be elected to the Nebraska Legislature.
1894: The first African-American fair held in the United States took place in Omaha in July.
1899: J. A. Smith died suspiciously after being arrested by Omaha police. He was arrested for “loud talking”.
1900 to 1930
1900: From this point forward into the 1970s and even beyond, taxi cabs in Omaha were segregated. Whites only rode with black drivers as a last resort. In areas where people frequently caught cabs, white people would hold signs that read “NCD,” which meant “no colored driver.” Dispatchers would also use this code over the radio when sending a cab to pick up a rider.
1905: More than 800 students, the children of European immigrant laborers in South Omaha, protested the presence of Japanese students, the children of strikebreakers. They actually locked teachers and other adults out of the school buildings.
1909: A white mob attempts to murder a Greek man after the death of a South Omaha policeman. When they are denied, they turn to Greektown and demolish several blocks of homes and businesses. A young boy was killed, and 3,000 people of Greek descent flee the city.
1910: A “Colored Old Folks Home” was opened in North Omaha at 933 N. 25th Street by the Negro Women’s Christian Association.
1914: The Omaha chapter of the NAACP was opened.
1917: The Hamitic League of the World was established by George Wells Parker in Omaha. It was committed to Black pride. Its declared purpose was “To inspire the Negro with new hopes; to make him openly proud of his race and of its great contributions to the religious development and civilization of mankind and to place in the hands of every race man and woman and child the facts which support the League’s claim that the Negro Race is the greatest race the world has ever known.”
1918: Cyril Briggs became editor of the African Blood Brotherhood journal, The Crusader, which was printed and distributed in Omaha.
1919: Around September 1st, police raid at a downtown hotel and shoot a black bellboy named Eugene Scott. The Omaha Bee called the shooting as reckless and indiscriminate, noting it as the “crowning achievement” of a “disgraceful and incompetent” Omaha police department.
1919: Harry Haywood became radicalized by white mob rule over South Omaha. He eventually became a leader of the Communist Party of America.
1920: Redlining was imposed on African Americans using insurers, banks, real estate agents and landlords to create a black ghetto in the Near North Side neighborhood. It stays intact through the 1950s.
1920: The Omaha Colored Commercial Club was founded to promote black business, provide job placement for African Americans, and better relations between white and black businessmen in Omaha.
1921: Earl Little forms the Omaha chapter of W. E. B. DuBois’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
1921: The first “king keagle” of the Nebraska KKK was J. Albert Ellerman.
1921: The Omaha headquarters of the KKK was at S. 40th and Farnam Streets.
1921: In February, the Omaha NAACP met to discuss how the KKK was working to segregate African Americans. George Wells Parker was a guest speaker at the meeting, which happened at Zion Baptist Church.
1921: In March, an editorial letter in the Omaha Bee from George Washing Lee said, “What has become of the Ku Klux Klan in Omaha? Rabbi Cohn was roasting the Klan at negro meetings every night here for a while and to hear him, one would think the clan was in full force here, but as yet I have seen no signs of it… …I challenge Rabbi Cohn or any other Jewish or African luminary for cite any specific instance since the days immediately following the civil war, when the Ku Klux Klan has violated any statute on American law books… Any man who might attack the Klan these modern days merely displays his ignorance.”
1921: Mayor Dahlman and the city commissioners admitted they are “keeping in close touch with the Ku Klux Klan both locally and nationally.”
1921: In August, the Omaha Bee reported the Omaha “kavern” of the KKK had 750 members. The newspaper excitedly proclaimed “Officials differ in their views on the Ku Klux Klan.” Known to stoke racial flames in order to sell their paper, The Bee found the Omaha police chief didn’t have a problem of the KKK, while the US district attorney in Omaha thought everyone should stay alert to the terror of the organization. The secret police chief in Omaha, Dave Dickinson, had no problem with the KKK, while Douglas County sheriff Mike Clark declared he’d fight against the KKK at every turn.
1921: In September, National KKK leader W. H. McElroy visited the state and reported more than 500 new members were being initiated into the KKK each week.
1921: On September 21, the Omaha Bee announced that the KKK voted not to hold public meetings or events in Omaha, including parades.
1921: In November, F. E. Maxey was named as the “king kleagle” and organizer of the Nebraska KKK.
In 1921, Rabbi Frederick Cohn of Temple Israel was quoted about the opening of a KKK chapter in Omaha saying, “It is an infamous organization striking at the fundamental principles for which the American government stands.”
1922: The Omaha KKK met at the Lyric Hall at 19th and Farnam. The owner of the hall, Dr. Harold Gifford, kicked out the renter when he discovered the true purpose of their meetings.
1925: Malcolm Little, son of Earl Little, was born at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine Hospital in Omaha. Malcolm Little eventually took the name Malcolm X.
1925: In July, the Dan Desdunes Band cancelled plans to play at an Omaha KKK meeting. Desdunes was quoted saying, “I looked upon it as a purely business proposition, but some of my friends thought otherwise. I could see nothing wrong in playing for an hour for the organization, to ‘drum’ up a crowd.”
1926: In the 1920s, young Malcolm Little’s family lived in Omaha. After becoming Malcolm X, he wrote in his autobiography, “When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away, preaching in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because ‘the good Christian white people’ were not going to stand for my father’s ‘spreading trouble’ among the ‘good’ Negroes of Omaha with the ‘back to Africa’ preachings of Marcus Garvey.”
1926: The KKK held “the last public meeting” in a field at S. 67th and Pacific Streets. Two unidentified speakers defended the KKK and said people who aren’t “native, white protestant citizens” of the US were dangerous to American ideals. Men in hoods handed out application cards in the dark under “two blazing crosses, one of red electric lights, the other of gasoline-soaked burlap. There were loud speakers and a band played before the speaking began.
1926: F. L. Cook was a field representative of the KKK in Omaha.
1928: F. L. Cook was forcibly removed from the KKK. He was replaced as its Omaha representative by C. J. Roberts.
1928: In October, a retired grocer named C. J. Roberts was reported to be the new field representative. He lived at 1922 S. 51st St.
1929: Whitney Young became the leader of the Urban League in Omaha.
1930 to 1960
1932: The City of Omaha made KKK property exempt from taxes.
1938: Mildred Brown and her husband S. Edward Gilbert establish the Omaha Star, which eventually became Nebraska’s only African American newspaper.
1946: Harry A. Burke becomes superintendent of Omaha Public Schools. He reportedly says as long as he was superintendent, there would not be a black educator in the school system, other than the two schools that served the black community, because he opposed having black teachers “where white children would see a black person in a role of prominence or authority.”
1947: Father John Markoe worked with students and community members to form the DePorres Club at Creighton University.
1948: The DePorres Club staged Omaha’s first sit-in at a restaurant in the Douglas County Courthouse with 30 members joining. The restaurant eventually committed to desegregation.
1948: The DePorres Club was expelled from Creighton University, and started meeting in the Omaha Star offices.
1950: A. T. Ricard tried to reorganize the KKK in Omaha.
1950: The Omaha Rockets independent Black baseball team folds.
1952: The DePorres Club began the Omaha Bus Boycott, which continued for two years until the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Company commits to hiring African American drivers.
1952: “We don’t have anything against him, it just wouldn’t work out,” said Luella Blackson (1879-1979) when asked why she and 17 other African Americans wrote a letter to City of Omaha public defender Joseph M. Lovely. The letter requested that a white landlord be prevented from moving a house and a white family into a predominantly African American neighborhood. However, two days later the newspaper reported the petition was withdrawn, implying the NAACP and the Urban League’s involvement changed the situation. The newspaper drew editorials for a month related to the issue, with most comments coming from segregationists in support of keeping the white family from moving in. The Urban League’s final word was that the neighborhood in question wasn’t even predominantly Black.
1953: The DePorres Club wins a boycott of Reeds Ice Cream. The store refuses to hire African Americans until five months after the boycott begins. They hired one African American, and the boycott was ended.
1955: Peony Park was picketed by African Americans and whites because of their discrimination. They don’t allow African Americans in. The Nebraska Supreme Court finds them guilty and fined them $50.
1958: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at Salem Baptist Church.
1958: African-American educators in Omaha Public Schools start a professional group called Concerned and Caring Educators, which continues today.
1960 to 1980
1962: Bertha Calloway formed the Negro History Society.
1963: 4CL was formed to demand civil rights for African Americans in Omaha.
1963: In September, the Sorrow March was held in downtown Omaha in memoriam to the children killed by the Birmingham church bombing.
1963: The City of Omaha Human Rights Commission was formed in response to the protests of 4CL.
1964: Malcolm X, who was born in Omaha, speaks in the city.
1966: Two days of rioting ravish the Near North Side neighborhood, ending when National Guard troops arrive.
1966: A Time for Burning, a documentary about race issues in Omaha, was released and received an Oscar nomination.
1969: An officer of the Omaha Police Department shoots an unarmed African American 14-year-old girl. Riots break out across North Omaha.
1969: Black Liberators for Action on Campus (BLAC) organized a sit-in at the office of the University of Nebraska at Omaha president to lobby for African American history courses at the institution. 54 students are arrested by the Omaha Police Department.
1970: Ernie Chambers was elected to the Nebraska Legislature for the first time. He continued to serve for the following 40+ years.
1970: David Rice and Ed Poindexter, leaders within Omaha’s Black Panthers unit, are arrested for the murder of an office in the Omaha Police Department. The officer was killed when an explosive blew up an abandoned house in North Omaha.
1971: Rice and Poindexter were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
1976: Omaha Public Schools was ordered to establish integrated school busing practices by the United States Supreme Court.
1976: The Great Plains Black History Museum is founded by Bertha Calloway. 1977: JoAnn Strickland Maxey became the first African American woman elected to the Nebraska Legislature.
1976: According to the Omaha World-Herald, a man called Wilkinson tried to re-organize the KKK in Omaha.
1978: Construction begins on the North Freeway bisecting North Omaha, cutting the African-American community in half and marring social fabric for decades.
1980 to Today
1981: An African American family signs a lease for a duplex in East Omaha, and within a week the home was burnt down. The case is unsolved.
1988: Mad Dads, a group of African American and white fathers, formed to protest gangs in Omaha.
1995: Arsonists tip over, burnt and destroyed an African-American woman’s car in East Omaha at the same location as the 1981 arson. The case was unsolved.
1996: Omaha Public Schools ends court-ordered busing.
1997: Marvin Ammons, an African American Persian Gulf war veteran, was shot dead by officers from the Omaha Police Department.
1998: The North Freeway / Highway 75 is dedicated from Lake Street to the new Sorenson Parkway and Storz Expressway.
2000: George Bibbins is killed by officers of the Omaha Police Department after leading a high speed chase.
2000: The Nebraska Legislature sets term limits to prevent Ernie Chambers from continuing to serve as North Omaha’s senator.
2002: Omaha’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was dedicated.
2007: An Ethiopian businessman buys a grocery store in East Omaha. Within a month, it was vandalized, robbed and burnt to the ground. The case is unsolved.
2014: More than 30 Omaha Police Department officers, mostly white, respond to a parking complaint at North 33rd and Seward Streets. They apprehend African American Octavius Johnson and beat him, and also beat several members of his family. After a video of the incident emerges, a lengthy internal investigation occurred and six officers are fired from the department.
From 1920 to 1928, Omaha’s Colored Commercial Club was an business referral, employment agency, and community building org dedicated to Omaha’s African Americans. Its credited with providing the first social worker to Omaha’s African American community, and matched thousands of people to work. With offices at 2420 Lake Street, here’s a short history of the organization.
With the lynching of Will Brown and the near-ransacking of the Near North Side in 1919, Omaha became deeply segregated. By 1920, it was evident to African American businessmen that they needed to promote their own business interests throughout the North Omaha community, across Omaha and around the Midwest.
The Omaha Colored Commercial Club was established in 1920. Designed to help African Americans find professional employment, the Club also kept local money within the local community. The club made it clear to African Americans which businesses were Black-owned and which hired Blacks, so that African Americans could support businesses that supported them. It provided other services, too, including lending books. The Omaha Public Library counted its distribution in their annual report in 1922.
Harrison Pinkett, an African American lawyer in North Omaha who moved to the city from Washington, D.C., was the founder of the Club. After that, the leadership of the Club was a who’s who in North Omaha’s African American leadership. Prince Hall Masons were especially involved. In 1922, three of the four Club officers were members of the fraternity, including Nathaniel Hunter, president; Rough AshIer; Dr. Craig Morris, secretary, Rough Ashier; and Dan Desdunes, treasurer, Excelsior.
According to their brochure from 1923, “The purpose of the Colored Commercial Club is to cooperate in Commercial and Civic enterprises among the Colored People of Omaha; to foster a better relation between the Colored and White Business Houses.”
W. E. B. DuBois’s magazine, The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races, recognized the Club in 1920. They said it was committed to “promoting the commercial, industrial, and public interests and welfare of the city.” In 1921, the Club reported they’d placed 2,200 African American men and women in jobs throughout the community since being founded. The Club’s secretary, Grace Hutton, was credited with doing the majority of the work. When she passed away in 1943, Hutton was credited with being Omaha’s first social worker to serve African Americans, through the Club.
The Omaha chapter of the Urban League was the first established west of the Missouri River. It was started in 1928, and was attributed to being an outgrowth of the Omaha Colored Commercial Club. The Club doesn’t show up again after that.
North Omaha’s Kountze Place neighborhood is a wealth of beautiful homes, churches, and historic sites. Omaha banker and investor Augustus Kountze bought these 160 acres of prairie land in the 1870s. With early buyers taking large plots around his, Kountze started laying out lots in the area in the 1880s.
Soon naming it Kountze Place, Augustus made sure Omaha’s early trolleys came right to his new suburb. In short order, he also installed gas street lamps and sidewalks on the main streets, and encouraged all sorts of businesses and institutions to move in. Opening in 1890, he Presbyterian Hospital was an early neighbor. It was only a few years earlier that Omaha’s grand Prettiest Mile Boulevard, later called Florence Boulevard, was laid out right through Kountze’s land, and that didn’t hurt development either.
In the 1890s, Kountze became urgent about growing his neighborhood, and in 1898 he hosted the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in the area. In the next several years, the rest of his neighborhood filled in. In the decade after the Expo, the University of Omaha opened in the neighborhood, along with the Swedish Mission Hospital across the street. Kountze Park was also developed, and the area flourished.
Binney Street’s Roots
Binney Street was one of the early streets in Kountze Place to fill up with beautiful homes. There were reasons for that.
In 1897, Kountze donated land to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church to relocate their church to the site. Moving quickly, their old building stood on the site for only a few years. In 1902, popular Omaha architects Fischer and Lawrie designed the grand gothic, traditionally-laid out building that stands today. Recognized for its significance in 1983, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places then. The church also hosts a school across the street, and a rectory next door.
I mention Sacred Heart first because its beauty reputedly caused the rest of Binney Street to build up quickly after it was done. Many people wanted to live near its regality, and knew that its construction would bring up the value of the neighborhood. It did that precise thing, and through the 1940s the neighborhood’s homes held their value.
Other churches on Binney Street included Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, which built a new building there in the 1890s and left the neighborhood in the 1940s. Established as Omaha’s Black Episcopal church, St. Philip the Deacon built a new structure on Binney Street in 1949. In 1986, they joined another north Omaha church to integrate congregations and launched the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection. Immanuel Baptist Church was located at N. 24th and Binney Streets.
Easter Day Tornado of 1913
In 1913, the biggest tornado ever to strike Omaha ripped along Binney Street in this area. Many homes along the block were obliterated by the F5 monstrosity, including both grand, whimsical wealthy peoples’ houses, and tiny workers homes. More than other streets in Kountze Place, Binney seemed to be a target.
The picture at the top of this article was taken in 1896. I estimate that of the rooftops shown, more than a dozen were obliterated.
Redlining and White Flight
However, Omaha’s racist redlining practices began in earnest in the 1940s, largely bordered by Binney Street. Strict informal and formal guidelines from Sacred Heart’s parish members focused on maintaining their neighborhood’s white chokehold prevented African Americans from moving northward from the Near North Side neighborhood. A neighborhood covenant was imposed, and African Americans were kept out by discrimination from the bankers, real estate agents, insurers and homeowners that controlled the neighborhood’s real estate transactions.
Despite their feelings of supremacy and dominance though, eventually housing discrimination was banned in Omaha and African Americans moved into Kountze Place. Today, the neighborhood is still home to many fine homes, and Sacred Heart Church continues to exist.
Fine Homes on Binney Street
The following homes are examples of some of the opulent and more normal houses that were built throughout the neighborhood. They were designed in a number of interesting styles, with a few on the National Register of Historic Places and designated Omaha Landmarks.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour! Feel free to share it with your friends, and leave a comment below. Thanks!
Built at the height of an early boom in Omaha, the McCreary Mansion was built three miles north of the city in the mid-1870s. After moving to the Nebraska Territory from Ohio in 1860, the early career of John McCreary (1832-1908) was spent building telegraph lines across the Midwest. In addition to lines he laid across Ohio and Kentucky, he was involved in laying the Union Pacific telegraph from Nebraska to Salt Lake City. He married Mary Creighton, the sister of Edward and John Creighton, in that family’s native Ohio.
The year after his mansion was finished, McCreary retired to his estate and focused on improving his land. Located immediately north of John Redick’s estate, McCreary had ten acres of land. Located along Saunders Street, McCreary started with a two story Italianate style home that had a dozen rooms, just outside the city limits. Popular Omaha builder Francis Dellone and his brother designed and built the home for McCreary. In the 1890s, McCreary added another floor to the house for a total of 15 rooms.
McCreary was never settled. Towards the late 1880s, he left Omaha for Wyoming, where he launched a ranch of almost 3,000 acres with 500 head of cattle on it. McCreary died in 1908. A generous benefactor of North Omaha’s Sacred Heart Church, he was buried at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery.
In 1905, McCreary sold his home and it became the Swedish Mission Hospital. Over the next two decades, the institution was a landmark in North Omaha. With fifteen rooms in three wards, they added a separate three story building, allowing the hospital to treat 600 patients annually.
In 1926, the hospital came under formal control of of the Swedish Evangelical Covenant Church and was renamed the Evangelical Covenant Hospital. They tore down the old McCreary Mansion that year to replace it with a new building.
Today, there is no historical marker at the site, and few students of history remember the contributions of John McCreary to North Omaha history.
John Jay Brown, called J. J., moved to Omaha from New York in 1856, when the city was still brand new. Opening his own store, he was one of the opportunists who built a wholesaling company to outfit settlers leaving Omaha. Like many of the capitalists in Omaha, his business boomed in the 1870s and he became wealthy. In 1884, he sold his wholesale company and founded the Omaha Loan and Trust Company.
Brown invested in many early Omaha industries, including the city’s Gas Light Company, the Omaha Street Railway Company, the South Omaha National Bank and the Omaha National Bank. He was also the treasurer of the Omaha Driving Park Association, and heavily involved in the Omaha Driving Park. In the 1880s, Brown formed the Omaha Fair and Exposition Association with John Creighton, intent on hosting the Nebraska State Fair on the site and to start planning a major expo for Omaha.
Contracting with Vincent Battin of Council Bluffs, Brown had a two story Italianate style brick home built. It featured a large porch and 11 foot high ceilings in almost all of the 16 rooms. There was a large drawing room,
The home had beautiful grounds, covered with trees, flower gardens, and full bushes, all with a view of the Missouri River valley. The lot it sat on was narrow and wide, and sat between Sherman Avenue and the cliffs overlooking the bottoms.
J. J. Brown died in 1901. In 1903, the home became the second location for the Wise Memorial Hospital, which moved to its own dedicated building in 1908. In 1910, Brown’s mansion was destroyed, and in 1911 a permit was issued to build a new house on this location.
The A. J. Poppleton Estate as seen from Sherman Avenue.
Address: 2232 N. 16th Street
Architecture: Victorian Gothic Style
Demolished: est. 1945
Early politics in the Nebraska Territory were often dirty, ruthless and more than a little roguish. A. J. Poppleton was one of the people who made it that way.
A lawyer, he frequently partnered with a group of other young brash professionals including George Miller and James Woolworth to make sure their will was heard. He was tied up in the Omaha Claim Club, including their notorious enforcement methods, and finagled his way to becoming the Speaker in the Nebraska Territorial Legislature for a short time. He was a powerful force in the 1857 fight to keep the Capitol in Omaha when the town of Florence tried to steal it. Poppleton also became Omaha’s second mayor, serving for six months in 1858.
The Poppleton Mansion up close, with a carriage house to the left.
His most important – and best paying – job was working as the general counsel at the brand-new Union Pacific headquarters in downtown Omaha. As their lawyer for 24 years, he argued many cases in local, state and federal courts. His most important case was done outside the Union Pacific though.
In the 1870s, he represented Chief Standing Bear in a trial brought by the U.S. government at Fort Omaha. Winning the trial, the judge famously declared for the first time ever that Indians were human beings, and as such had the rights of American citizens.
Poppleton was also a real estate investor. Carefully choosing areas throughout Nebraska, he prided himself on never speculating on railroad property, and relying solely on his career as a lawyer for his wealth. Poppleton and his business partner James Woolworth bought the former town of Sulphur Springs in the 1860s after it went belly up.
In 1911, the widow Caroline Sears Poppleton stood for this picture with a portrait of her husband beside her.
In the 1880s, Poppleton built a country estate out along Sherman Road that he called “Elizabeth Place.” His home looked out over Cutoff Lake, now called Carter Lake and much small than it originally was. With 15 rooms, it had a magnificent view of the Missouri River bottoms.
Early Omaha historians thought his personal library was great, with one writing,
“He has a large and well selected library of general literature at his elegant and commodious home on Sherman avenue, and, notwithstanding his multiplicity of duties, he is an extensive reader.”
This is Caroline Sears Poppleton in 1911, in the home’s highly regarded library.
Poppleton lost his sight completely in 1892, and died in 1896.
After his death the estate subdivided into house parcels called Victor Place, and it was largely built out be 1911. Caroline moved out of the home by then, and passed away in 1917.
Their home was sold at some point afterwards and was used as the Roszelle Sanitarium and Rest Home for a few years. It was demolished around 1915.
The most famous mansion built in North Omaha was probably the Mayne Mansion, also known as the Redick Mansion. Clifton E. Mayne was a pioneer real estate investor and salesman in the city. In the 1870s, a farmer built a little house along Saunders Street leading north out of Omaha. He sold ten acres and his little farmhouse to Mayne in 1885.
About the Mansion
Clifton Mayne was wealthy and determined to build a monument to his own success, quickly built his new home. It was built in the Eastlake style from the remnants of an earlier farm house located at the same spot. Standing near the intersection of North 24th and Pratt Streets, Mayne kept 10 acres along with the home and carriage house.
The house’s tower, several fireplaces and the gingerbread-trimmed veranda made the home a “Victorian extravaganza,” as mentioned in one Omaha architectural guide.
The house had 20 rooms total. After entering through a large wraparound porch, visitors were immediately greeted by a formal Victorian foyer, and then ushered to the grand oak parlor. A large kitchen held its own dining table, as well as a formal dining room. Hardwood floors, twelve foot ceilings, plenty of bedrooms, and a large basement including a wine cellar were features in the mansion. Mayne also built a five story tower on the mansion, with a fancy viewing area at the top. Located on a wide, flat plain, this tower could see miles in every direction. The estate itself felt expansive, with fine trees planted along its edges, a large prairie held the wonders of nature for Mayne. He also expanded on a fruit orchard planted by the farmer before him.
As a wheeler and dealer in the early city’s growth, Mayne threw lavish parties and regularly hosted his colleagues and dignitaries in his home. However, the party didn’t last long because Mayne’s fortunes waxed and waned with Omaha. When the city hit hard times in the late 1870s, he had to sell his crown jewel.
John Redick was a pioneer lawyer, politician and judge in Omaha. When Mayne had to sell the mansion in 1878, Redick was there to pick up the beautiful home. Acquiring a quarter section of land around the mansion, Judge Redick raised his family in the home for the next few decades. In those years, he and his wife Mary hosted a plethora of social events, making the home,
For more than 15 years, the Redicks held an open house on New Years Day, along with all the social activities for their popular children, including John Jr., Oak, George, Albert and Elmer. When Judge Redick’s wife died in 1896, he remarried and moved away. His son Oak managed the home, and inherited it in 1908 when Judge Redick died. It was during Oak’s life that Augustus Kountze, who owned the land around the mansion, started selling lots in his Kountze Place neighborhood. By this point, the Redick Mansion was regarded as an old house and lots its desirableness.
Closed Down and Moved Away
In 1909, Oak joined the board of a new higher education institution called the University of Omaha. Originally offering them the entire estate for $100,000, the board failed to raise all of the money they needed. Consequently, Oak sold them just the mansion and a city block’s worth of land for $25,000. They renamed it Redick Hall and used it as their primary building for the five years.
Students at the University loved the old house. Many of their notes and poems fawned over it, celebrating the halls, kitchen and creepy spaces throughout.
After using the building for several years, in 1916 the University sold the mansion to a resort on Keeley Island on Lake Shetek near Currie, Minnesota. Workers dismantled the entire home and loaded it onto railcars, which shipped it to the island where it was rebuilt. Rebuilt and named the Valhalla Pavilion, it was a roaring celebration for visitors until 1928, when it burnt down in a fire.
The University of Omaha built a new hall in the same place and expanded the campus. In the 1930s, it moved to 60th and Dodge and was renamed the University of Nebraska – Omaha.
Today, there is no historical marker, monument or plaque designating the location of this once-vital building in North Omaha’s history.
As far as I’m concerned, the history of Omaha’s Near North Side neighborhood is the richest in all of Omaha. It has been home to working class families, poor people, and the wealthy; northern Europeans, African Americans, and eastern Europeans; Lutherans and Catholics, Jews and Black Muslims; slums, family homes, and mansions; looked like a pioneer town, had country gentleman farms, been a suburb, and had slums; professional offices, warehouses, manufacturing plants, local storefronts, printing presses, training centers, supermarkets and pop-up shops; giant churches and synagogues, and tiny storefront temples and more. So much has happened here, and clearly its story is still being written…
With the first houses in this neighborhood emerging in the decade after Omaha was settled, the Near North Side is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. Because of its 150+ year history, it has almost seen some of the most dramatic changes in Omaha history.
Establishing the Near North Side
Early settlers in the Near North Side included Germans, English, Irish, Canadians, and Swedes.
Spanning from Omaha’s North Downtown neighborhood boundary at Nicholas north to Locust, the Near North Side spans from Highway 75 on the west to the cliffs on the east next to North 16th. There are several neighborhoods today that identify their space within the Near North Side, including Conestoga Place, the Long School Neighborhood, and others. Note that the Near North Side used to start at Cuming, but that area has been re-aligned with the North Downtown Omaha redevelopment.
The first homes in the Near North Side belonged to wealthy businessmen who dotted their country estates around the area. They generally built large mansions in a variety of styles, including Queen Anne, Italianate, Gothic and Eastlake, When they moved out, early developers built houses all the way around the outskirts of their land, and then filled them in. That’s the reason why this neighborhood has a lot of odd-sized rectangular blocks. Still in this area are historic “shotgun houses” from the 1870s, along with industrial buildings from the 1880s.
A lot of early businesses in Omaha got their start in the Near North Side. One of the largest was the Storz Brewery Company, which started at the northeast corner of North 18th and Burdette Streets in 1886. After moving to North 16th, they became a major player in the regional beer market until the 1970s, when the brewery was permanently closed.
In 1913, a major tornado destroyed much of this neighborhood.
The Jewish Community
The Jewish Old Folks Home once located in Omaha’s Near North Side neighborhood.
Starting in the 1870s, Omaha’s Jewish community was established and gained a foothold in this neighborhood. By 1920, the area was renowned for its Jewish residents owning the majority of businesses and commercial buildings in the area. There were several synagogues and other Jewish institutions located in North Omaha, too, and after 1910, an area was even called Little Russia for the number of Russian Jews who moved there.
Homes throughout the area were used by Jewish families, hosting religious gatherings and spiritual activities for the entire history of the neighborhood through the 1960s. There were many Jewish businesses in the Near Northside, too, as kosher meats, fish and poultry were important, as well as groceries, clothing and shoe stores, hardware, furniture, and more were needed by everyone living there.
That’s right – Ak-Sar-Ben was started in the Near North Side!
The Near North Side became a bastion of working class and middle class stability starting at the turn of the century. Schools and churches of all kinds filled the neighborhood, with the convenience of urban living benefiting everyone. North 24th became wildly popular, and all of the businesses along the strip grew in stature and success from 1900 through 1929, and even beyond.
The Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben, Omaha’s premier philanthropic and social organization, was founded in North Omaha in 1895. Its roots in the Near North Side shown through the construction of the first Ak-Sar-Ben Den at 2221 North 20th Street in 1906. Ak-Sar-Ben built upper class bonds of business, family and community that continue driving the entire city of Omaha to this day. However, their Den didn’t last: in 1927, a conspicuously advantageous fire burnt the building to the ground. It was conspicuous because it allowed the organization to built its new facility on a huge slice of land in west Omaha starting the same year.
Churches continued growing in the Near North Side during this era, too. The Salem Baptist Church congregation moved; St. John’s A.M.E. built a fascinatingly beautiful building starting in this era; and many other congregations steadied during this time.
The Near North Side was a stable, warm and strong neighborhood for nearly two decades, until a conspiratorial calamity blasted the area with contempt and hatred.
Redlining and Segregation
US Army soldiers from Fort Omaha were called in to protect the Near North Side neighborhood in 1919.
In the 1920s, white flight started to take hold of the neighborhood as African Americans were redlined there after the Red Summer of 1919. After the lynching of Will Brown in downtown Omaha, white mobs moved north to attack African Americans in the Near North Side neighborhood. They were met there by US Army soldiers from Fort Omaha, who drew a line around the neighborhood and told African Americans if they stayed inside those lines they would be protected. Those lines became entrenched when city leaders, real estates agents, bankers, and insurance agents colluded to keep African Americans within them. This was called redlining.
In short order, many white people fled north and west out of the Near North Side. The quality of the neighborhood quickly deteriorated as the City of Omaha strategically underserved the infrastructure there. They indifferently bulldozed high quality homes and apartments for the next 75 years, and discouraged white people from investing in the area in a variety of ways. Through silent complicity, they continue allowing bad homeowners in the area. The quality of schools, businesses, parks, and other civic infrastructure deteriorated.
The H. A. Haskell House at 2216 Maple Street in the Near North Side.
The federal government built a low-income housing project in the Near North Side neighborhood in 1937, and doubled its size the next year. For the next 50 years, the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects held many African Americans in a cycle of poverty and depression that was hard to break.
Omaha’s white population apparently couldn’t continue its interest in the neighborhood. Industries, businesses, and other institutions that helped white people thrive in the Near North Side community began divesting from the neighborhood. Several hospitals closed by the 1940s, while the University of Omaha moved away in 1937. Industries that had allowed some African Americans to establish a foothold in the middle class became harder to access when streetcar service slowed in the 1950s.
Hill’s Chicken in a Box, a Near North Side institution, offered a variety of other services including catering, employment, rentals and real estate at 2324 North 24th Street.
The African American Community
A mini-golf course along N. 24th in the 1950s.
Starting in the 1920s, the African American community flourished in the Near North Side neighborhood. Developing black-owned businesses, black churches, black social clubs and other community infrastructure, the Near North Side reflected the energy and vitality of the Harlem Renaissance happening 1,500 miles away.
The Near North Side’s African American culture had many touch points, including the popular Carnation Ballroom, Jim Bell’s Club Harlem, the famous Dreamland Ballroom and others. Between these North Omaha institutions, generations of famous performers played, including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, and a young James Brown. One of the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Wallace Thurman, grew up in the Near North Side, along with jazz legend Preston Love, political leader George Wells Parker and military hero Alfonza Davis.
Omaha’s strong civil rights movement began emerging in the 1920s with the rise of Black Nationalism in the area. Malcolm X’s father was a minister in North Omaha, and an advocate of Marcus Garvey’s work. His involvement led to Omaha’s KKK to firebomb young Malcolm’s home, forcing the family to flee the area. In the 1940s, a group of white college students at Creighton University worked with African American community members through the De Porres Club. They picketed and boycotted many businesses in the Near North Side to increase the hiring of African Americans. Their successor organization, called 4CL, worked in the neighborhood to challenge discrimination and racism across the whole city.
Inverted Power Struggle
This was the headquarters of the Omaha Black Panthers.
By the 1960s, the twisted fabric between white Omaha and the African American Near North Side ripped. The Civil Rights movement, although active in Omaha for 40 years, didn’t yield equality for African Americans. Instead, the City of Omaha routinely neglected to provide basic civic services for the neighborhood, and upward economic mobility had encouraged a growing number of African Americans to move from the neighborhood.
Working with the federal government and the State of Nebraska, the City of Omaha also ran the North Freeway straight through the Near North Side, which once extended to North 30th Street. This divided the economic, social, religious and cultural strength of the neighborhood with a literal physical boundary that continues to affect the entire North Omaha community today.
In 1954, Charlie Hall started the Fair Deal Cafe at 2114 N. 24th in the Near North Side. It become Omaha’s “Black City Hall” and stayed open for almost 50 years.
At the same time, economic pressure suffocated the neighborhood. The Storz Brewery, a major employer in the community, closed in 1966. Unemployment within Omaha’s African American community was at a high point in the 1960s, when at first, overt discrimination allowed white employers to not hire people because of the color of their skin. When that became illegal, the same companies moved from northeast Omaha to west Omaha, creating a successful transportation barrier for many African Americans in the Near North Side neighborhood.
The outcome of this reality was almost four years of riots in the neighborhood between 1966 and 1970. White police shot African Americans. Protesters demanding more services, rights and opportunities from the City government, as well the end to discrimination from Omaha’s white population, picketed and rallied frequently. Omaha’s Black Panther leaders were framed for an explosion that killed a police officer. Radicals arose, police abused, and peaceful gatherings turned to firebombings, beatings, looting, and a lot of other violence.
Businesses fled the neighborhood during and after the riots. People moved away.
The riots aren’t to blame; racism is. The top photo shows the block south of North 24th and Burdette in 1969 after the riots. The bottom Google Map screenshot shows the same blocks after 45 years of neglect and decay – and now that sole building is gone.
Tepidly Calling It A Comeback
For more than four decades after the riots, the city seemingly pursued a policy of benign neglect toward the Near North Side and much of North Omaha. Streets crumbled, business didn’t come back, schools kept underperforming. There were many tokenistic gestures during this time, including selective community forums, occasional empowerment trainings, and a few street lamps replaced on major streets. More than a few plans were made that never came to fruition.
Today, there are more plans than ever. Public announcements and private investments are being hinted at, and some people feel positive about the future. As the North Downtown area continues to be invested in with new developments and its historic properties rehabilitated, there’s a sense that prosperity has to creep northwards next, positively affecting the Near North Side neighborhood. Suggestions about the redevelopment of the Webster Telephone Building sound plausible, and the creation of a 24th and Lake Historic District seems imminent.
The most important newspaper in North Omaha history, the Omaha Star has been housed in the Near North Side since its establishment in the 1930s.
However, a lot of residents seem to believe its more of the same. Burnt out from decades of seemingly false optimism, some folks decry every positive news announcement about the neighborhood as a farce. They’re used to seeing their same neighborhood blasted as violent, gang-ridden and drug-filled by the same news sources. If you believe everything the internet says, it seems like the rest of the city agrees with them, both white and black.
Let’s tepidly say the Near North Side is going to make a comeback. With more new homes, historic preservation and economic investment happening than ever before, it looks like change is going to come. Only time will tell…
Built as the North Presbyterian Church, today 3105 North 24th is the Church of Jesus Christ Whole Truth.
Omaha’s Historic Near North Side Map
Omaha’s Near North Side History Map by Adam Fletcher Sasse for the North Omaha History Blog.
The following are landmarks listed on either the National Register of Historic Places or designated as Omaha Landmarks in Omaha’s Near North Side neighborhood. This is also the key to my map of the Near North Side’s historic places map.
The Memmen Apartments built in 1889 at 2214, 2216, 2218, and 2220 Florence Boulevard
The Broomfield Rowhouse built in 1913 at 2502-2504 Lake Street
The Jewish community in North Omaha was tied together with the establishment and growth of the community for a century. As I read personal accounts of growing up in North Omaha written by very old people in the 1980s, it became obvious people loved the area. However, it also became obvious why the Jewish community felt they needed to leave.
Origins of a Community
From the 1860s through the 1960s, North Omaha was home to a lot of Omaha’s Jewish community. The Near North Side became the predominant Jewish neighborhood in Omaha starting in 1905, and stayed that way until white flight began in 1920. During that time the Jewish population of Omaha doubled, and North 24th Street became the lifeblood of the population. Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues, family homes and other Jewish institutions were packed throughout the Near North Side, Kountze Place, North 16th, and other North Omaha neighborhoods. Many of these places were located along North 24th, from Dodge to Ames Avenue.
The Jewish people in North Omaha came from throughout Europe, including Germany, Bohemia, Russia, Romania, Poland and Hungary. Today, Omaha’s Jewish community is spread throughout the city, and no synagogues or shuls are left in North Omaha. There are Jewish cemeteries here though, and a lot of history. Here’s a little bit of it.
I had to learn some words in order to write this article. If you’re not Jewish, you might want to learn these words:
Beth – Hebrew word meaning “house”, used sometimes for a Jewish house of worship.
Kosher – Literally means proper or correct, and describes food that is okay to eat under Jewish dietary laws.
Shul – Yiddish term for a Jewish house of worship, used primarily by Orthodox Jews.
Synagogue – The most widely accepted term for a Jewish house of worship.
Building the Near North Side
The Near North Side neighborhood grew slowly at first. Starting in the 1860s, it crept northward from the city limit at present-day Cuming Street and lurched toward Lake Street.
As the neighborhood grew, a lot of different immigrant nationalities clustered there. In the Near North Side neighborhood, there was a Scandinavian area (Little Stockholm), an Irish area (Gophertown), and an Irish neighborhood, among others. The Jewish community of the city tended to cluster in this neighborhood, too. According to Jewish records, in the 1870s and 1880s a large number of Hungarian and German Jews moved into North Omaha.
By the 1880s, the Jewish community across Omaha was growing rapidly. Successful businessmen quickly moved beyond the smallish houses that originally sat throughout Omaha’s North Downtown, and moved into the big new homes being built throughout the Near North Side. When Herman Kountze opened his new suburb to the north of Lake Street, middle and upper class Jewish families were some of the first to have fine homes built in Kountze Place.
They built homes there because many Jewish businesspeople opened stores along North 24th Street, starting at Dodge and extending northward as North Omaha grew. Along with other ethnic and national group, Jewish-owned groceries, bakeries, kosher meat, poultry and fish markets, clothing, drug, hardware and shoe stores lined every major street in North Omaha. Other businesses included hucksters, peddlers, and salesmen, all of which were differentiated in Omaha. Jewish immigrants in North Omaha also worked in packing houses, smelters, junkyards and on the railroads.
Some of the specific businesses along North 24th Street included Sam Freid and Iz Kuklin’s Kosher Meat Market; Altschuler’s Mattress Manufacturing; Spiegal’s Junk Yard; Wolk the Tailor and Wolk the Barber; Hans Dansky’s Garage; Siref’s Harness Shop; Sore’s Upholstery; Goldstein’s Confectionary; Micklin Lumber Yard; Sol Lewis Record Shop; Murwitz the Photographer; Silinsky Furniture; and Levine Furniture. Forbes Bakery was started by Isadore Forbes on North 24th and Lake Streets, too.
There were several kosher markets in North Omaha too, including ones owned by the Shukerts, Diamonds, Binstein and Glass families. The Nebraska Kosher Market was one, too.
Within North Omaha, Jewish businesses served many purposes.
The Omaha World-Herald reported that dozens of Jewish families were affected by the tornado, like the entire family of Nathan Krinsky, including the parents and five children, dead. The newspaper wrote,
“…many of these families were left penniless without food, clothing or shelter and in destitute circumstances and not infrequently illness from exposure and injuries sustained in the storm, followed with the result that the already great misfortunes were increased many fold.”
—Omaha Morning Bee, March 23, 1913
Immediately after the tornado, a Jewish relief station was set up at 1604 North 24th Street in the H. Freidman’s clothing store after the Easter Sunday tornado. According to the Omaha Bee, “…many of the Jewish families have not a good speaking knowledge of the English language. The Jewish people thought it best to take care of these unfortunates with the aid of those who can communicate easily with them.” The Jewish Relief Committee was made of representatives from each of the synagogues in the city. According to one source, the committee agreed to cooperate with the citywide relief committee, but, as one member of the Jewish committee said,
“We always care for our own people.”
—Omaha Morning Bee, March 26, 1913
Laying the Foundation
Between 1880 and 1920, the Near North Side boomed in growth. The neighborhoods in-filled with multi-family homes, first focusing on “St. Louis flats” (apartments above stores) and then including rowhouses, duplexes, fourplexes, and after 1900, apartments buildings. According to one personal history I read, there was a “good side” of the neighborhood, and a different side.
Different Sides of the Neighborhood
The “good side” was located between present-day Hamilton Street and Lake Street, from N. 24th to 30th Street. Professional people and business owners lived in the this neighborhood, and in time they moved further north into Kountze Place, as well. The other part of the neighborhood lived from Cuming to Lake, N. 24th to N. 16th. This is where immigrants moved to get started, and where working class people owned their homes.
Starting in the early 1880s, Russian and Romanian Jewish immigrants started flooding into North Omaha. The neighborhood they lived in was between Kellom and Lake Schools, and was referred to as Little Russia. Escaping persecution at home, these Russians came to Omaha for many reasons, including its well-established Jewish community.
Among them was a child named Tillie Olsen. After going to Lake School and leaving Omaha High School early, she was a worker and labor organizer in the 1930s in South Omaha’s meatpacking industry, organizing the United Packinghouse Workers of America in the area. Influenced by her parents’ Jewish socialist leanings and North Omaha, she was an activist all her life. Using her experiences, Olsen wrote highly influential novels and some nonfiction books. She’s regarded as one of the most important Jewish authors of the century.
In July 1914 the Omaha Bee announced a new “branch library station” that would offer books in Yiddish in at unnamed drug store on North 24th Street, which was called “a center of Jewish population.”
By the end of World War I, North 24th was packed with Jewish businesses. Even after the neighborhood was redlined by the 1920s, Jewish business owners maintained their businesses throughout the neighborhood.
Jewish Institutions in North Omaha
In 1952, B’nai Israel moved to 1502 N. 52nd Street and has been called Beth Israel since. They had founded the first Jewish cemetery in North Omaha in 1872. Called Pleasant Hill Cemetery, its located at 6412 North 42nd Street. The Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol, aka “The Litvsche Shul”, was built in 1883.
Golden Hill Cemetery was founded by Chevra B’nai Israel Adas Russia in 1888. Located at 5109 North 42nd Street, its one of the oldest cemeteries in Omaha. In 1909, B’nai Jacob Anshe Sholom was a Hungarian congregation that moved several times, including to North 22nd and Cuming Street and to 6412 North 42nd Street.
B’nai Jacob Adas Yeshuron, aka “The Kapulier Shul”, was incorporated on North 19th Street in 1909. Soon after they built a new synagogue at North 24th and Nicholas. They merged with Beth Hamedrosh Adas Yeshurun and worshipped together at North 25th and Seward Street. In 1948, the City of Omaha bought the land where their synagogue was and the congregation moved their building to 3028 Cuming Street, and both congregations moved to that location.
In 1916, Beth Hamedrosh Adas Jeshurun was organized by members from B’nai Israel because they lived too far from that synagogue to walk to Sabbath and holiday services. After buying a house at North 25th and Seward in 1920, in 1922 they built a new building at the same site.
Beth Hamedrosh Adas Yeshurun merged with B’nai Jacob Anshe Sholom to form B’nai Jacob Adas Yeshurun in 1952, keeping the nickname “The Kapulier Shul”. After staying at their Cuming Street address for more than 30 years, they closed in 1985.
Wise Memorial Hospital
The first Wise Memorial Hospital was opened in North Omaha in 1901. Named for Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, founder of American Reform Judaism, it was located in a small frame building constructed at 3208 Sherman Avenue in 1901. In 1902, Wise Hospital moved to the former J.J. Brown estate in North Omaha at 2225 Sherman Avenue. The hospital stayed there until 1908, when it moved to South Omaha.
Beth Hamedrosh Adas Yeshuran
In 1922, Beth Hamedrosh Adas Yeshuran moved to North 25th and Seward Streets. The structure was designed in a “Modern American” style symmetrical fashion all the way around with more attention given to the main façade on the West side. Facing North 25th, this side has two piers with copper tops which extend beyond the true roof line and face an original cobblestone road. This building was first designated a historic structure in 1939, despite being constructed only 21 years earlier, 1918. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), started by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, created jobs for people during the Great Depression. This program was the only thing in place to document historic structures at the time. The WPA determined the historical significance of the building in 1939.
In 1926, the Jewish community established Shaare Zion at 1821 North 20th Street. In 1939, they moved to 1552 N. 19th Street and become known as the “the Riekes Shul” in honor of their benefactor. In 1952, Shaare Zion moved to 1522 Douglas Street.
Facilities for Jewish Elders
In 1916, the Daughters of the Israel Aid Society bought the house at 2506 Charles Street in North Omaha for $5,000 to serve as the Omaha Jewish Old People’s Home. Dedicated in 1917, the society also bought the house next door around the corner for use as a traditional bathhouse. Over the years, there were many fundraisers held for the institution, and many funerals were held there for the residents. It was open until 1940.
Starting in the early 1920s, North Omaha started integrating in earnest. Afraid of living next to African Americans, many white people throughout the community moved to west Omaha. Institutions that had been key to the community had been closing or moving away for several decades, with the University of Omaha (1938), the Covenant Evangelical Hospital (1937), and others.
With the closure and leaving of North Omaha’s synagogues and other Jewish institutions, the Jewish community started leaving the area. However, many kept businesses along North 24th Street through the following decades.
In September 1951, Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol and B’nai Israel combined congregations to become Beth Israel. A new synagogue was built at 1502 North 52nd Street, and the Torahs from both former synagogues were moved to the new one. Temple Israel, the oldest synagogue in Omaha that was originally located downtown, moved to North 69th and Cass Streets in 1954.
In the 1960s, several riots ravished the businesses along North 24th Street and dotted across the Near North Side neighborhood. After many Jewish-owned businesses were looted, burnt and destroyed, North Omaha’s Jewish people left from the neighborhood permanently. North Omaha has never been the same.
One of the things my research has shown me is that North Omaha was never a majority Jewish neighborhood. The census numbers show that first people to build between Cumings and Lake were English, Swedish, Italians, Germans and Poles. African Americans moved to the near north side from the downtown area between 1880 and 1900, which was when the Jewish started moving in.
From my estimates based on census data, in the next forty years, the Jewish population in North Omaha only ever totaled 20% of all people living there. By 1950, they began moving to West Omaha.
I can’t find any solid numbers on it, but when reviewing the last names on my North 24th Street business directory, about 3/4 of them are Jewish. I think that’s where the real tension came: Jewish people never actually had a majority population in the community but controlled the vast majority of businesses. Jewish business owners in North Onaha hired African Americans, but African Americans didn’t own a majority of the businesses by the time they lived in the majority of the community, around 1960.
I think that caused the fires to burn, and still causes a rift in the community today. The Jewish people are gone, but their legacy in the community is not.
THAT is Omaha history.
Jewish North Omaha Historical Tour
Synagogues and Shuls
Former location of Beth Hamedrosh Adas Jeshurun, 1521 North 25th Street
Former location of B’nai Jacob Adas Yeshurun, 3028 Cuming Street
Site of Shaare Zion Synagogue aka the “Riekes Shul”, 1821 North 20th Street, 1552 N. 19th Street, 1522 Douglas Street
Site of B’nai Jacob Adas Yeshurun, aka the “Kapulier Shul”, 1521 North 21st Street
Sites of B’nai Jacob, North 22nd and Cuming (Wolf’s Hall), North 22nd and Nicholas Streets (Founded in 1890)
Site of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, North 19th and Burt Streets (Founded in 1897)
Site of Beth Hamedrosh Adas Yeshurun, North 19th Street (Founded in 1883)
Site of Chevra B’nai Israel Adas Russia (Founded in 1886)
Sites of B’nai Jacob Anshe Sholom, North 22nd and Cuming Street, 1111 North 24th Street, 6412 N. 42nd Street
Site of Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol, aka the “Litvsche Shul”, 723 North 19th Street
Site of B’nai Israel, 1502 N. 52nd Street (Founded in 1868)
Site of Congregation Chov’ve Zio (Founded in 1902)
Site of Midrash Haggodol, aka Chevra Israel (Founded in 1886)
Site of “Hungarian Congregation” (Founded in 1882)
Former location of Beth Israel Synagogue, 1502 North 52nd Street
Pleasant Hill Cemetery, 6412 North 42nd Street (Established in 1872)
Golden Hill Cemetery, 5109 North 42nd Street
Temple Isreal Cemetery, 6412 North 42 Street
Louis Friedman Jewish Funeral Home, 4415 Cuming Street
Site of Jewish Old People’s Home, 2504 Charles Street
Site of Jewish Old Peoples’ Home ritual bathhouse, 1512 North 25th Street
Sites of First Wise Memorial Hospital, 3208 Sherman Avenue, 2225 Sherman Avenue (Founded in 1898)
Site of Dr. Philip Sher Jewish Home for the Aged, 101 North 20th Street
Site of (Original) Jewish Funeral Home, 1912 Cuming Street
Site of 1913 Jewish relief station from the Easter Sunday tornado, 1604 North 24th Street
Former location of Micklin Lumber Company, 2109 North 24th Street
Former location of Ideal Hotel, Ideal Furniture and Ideal Hardware, 2524 North 24th Street
Former location of Forbes Bakery, 2711 North 24th Street
Former location of J. Bernstein Groceries and Meats, 4901 North 16th Street
Site of Mushkin and Epstein Kosher Market, 1415 North 24th Street
Site of Shalkofski Soft Drink Parlor, 1502 Webster Street
Site of Marks Kosher Market, 1804 North 20th Street
Site of Sam Freid and Iz Kuklin’s Kosher Meat Market, 1513 North 24th Street
Site of Silver Star Confectionery, 1604 North 24th Street
Site of Micklin Lumber Company, 19th and Nicholas Street
Site of Shukert Kosher Market, 1619 1/2 North 24th Street
Site of Kosher Market, 1415 North 24th Street
Site of Wolk the Tailor, 1506 North 24th Street
Site of Wolk the Barber, 1508 North 24th Street
Site of Milton Mayper Clothing, 1412 North 24th Street
Site of Joe Spiegal’s Junk Yard, North 24th and Caldwell
Site of Hans Dansky’s Garage, 2003 Florence Boulevard
Site of Kulakofsky Kosher Market, 119 North 12th Street
We like history. We want to be proud of the past. Sometimes, in order to be proud, we intentionally forget, ignore, or otherwise let go of the parts of the past that we’re not proud of.
For years, the people of Omaha have been told that all of the buildings of the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition were demolished right after the event ended in the fall of that year. But they weren’t destroyed!
Instead, after all the success Omaha had with the Expo, a group of investors decided they needed to keep the buildings up and start another grand event. Working together, they raised enough money to buy the buildings.
In 1899, this group created a second event, swearing to Omaha’s residents it would be bigger than the first. They called it the Greater America Exposition. Unfortunately, they’d planned a racist, opportunist crapshoot designed to soak up money from visitors. Because of this, and simple bad planning, the second Omaha Expo is generally thought of as a failure today.
A promotional pin saying, “Greater America Exposition – Omaha – 1899.”
The Trans-Mississippi Expo Ends
After the Trans-Mississippi Expo ended in 1898, a group of investors immediately collected money from 200 people in order to buy the Expo grounds in Kountze Place.
Some buildings were torn down right away. Of the fifty state buildings at the Expo, the Kansas and New York buildings went first, with the New York building getting converted into a duplex somewhere in the neighborhood. The Nebraska building was moved and converted into storehouse for state property. The Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin buildings went shortly after.
This is a comparison between 1898, 1898, and today.
However, with rumors of another event the following year, many states decided to keep their buildings standing. The City of Omaha’s Parks Board waited on pulling out the trees, shrubs and flowers lent to the Expo, too, as they wanted to see what would happen.
Edward Rosewater, publisher of the Omaha Bee, chaired a committee dedicated to launching a new Expo in 1899. On November 1, 1898, this committee bought every part of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, including,
“…buildings, appurtenances, engines, apparatus, materials and furniture for the sum of $17,500.00 and the assumption by the purchasers of all the obligations to the owners of lands leased for the purposes of the Exposition.”
If scenes from the Greater America Exposition look identical to ones from the Trans-Mississippi Exposition look similar, that’s because in many places they were!
Colonial Building, Greater America Exposition. The dominant feature of the Greater America exposition at Omaha is the novel exhibits of the resources, products, manufactures and characteristics of the peoples and lands that have fallen in to the protection of the United States through the war with Spain. The colonial building is one of the most interesting.
The Spanish-American War Ends
In August 1898, the Spanish-American war ended, and in late November, Spain accepted the American terms for peace. In December, President McKinley said he favored Omaha hosting another expo during 1899 for the nation to share its new “possessions” gained from the war. That included Cuba, Guam, Philippines, and Puerto Rico.
At that time, racism was flaring across the United States. Staking out its colonial power through the Spanish-American War, the U.S. suddenly began to flex muscles it had only used within its boundaries before that. Now they wanted to show off the treasure trove of culture they stole from their new territories.
By late December 1898, the Expo’s lagoon was opened to ice skaters for season. That same month, the new gathering gained a name, now being called the Greater America Exposition of 1899. By Christmas, it was decided that the 1899 Expo will reflect the United States on a miniature scale. In March, Dr. George Miller was elected the chairman of the Greater America Exposition executive committee. That same month, the Omaha Bee used several posters by renowned artist John Ross Key to promote the Expo in the newspaper.
A poster of the Expo lagoon by John Ross Key used by the Omaha Bee to advertise the 1899 Expo.
Rides and Exhibitions
By March 1899, the federal government agreed to bring exhibits from all its new colonies. This event was definitely intended to be a celebration of American colonialism, the American empire, and the spread of military-driven capitalism. Many of the presentations were plainly racist, actively and deliberating attempting to show that white people were superior to every other person around the world.
Since plans for the GAE were picking up in March, people were getting big visions of what could be. However, by April 7, 1899, 20 concessions had been closed. The GAE managers were worried people already had enough of some Midway rides during the TME.
In April, a new exhibit was added. Made of the collection from the Libby War Prison Museum from Chicago, it was a private collection created by Charles Gunther. After closing his building early in 1899, the collection came to Omaha for the Greater America Exposition of 1899 before going back to Chicago. It was moved into the Government Building.
At the Greater America Exposition, Omaha Neb. 1899 “Just tell them that you saw me.”
Also by the end of April, agreements were made for…
The Nebraska Building to be used for a women’s display, as well as offices for the state fair and the fraternal organizations;
The Illinois building to be used by the fraternal organizations;
The Agriculture and Horticulture Buildings to be used by the Nebraska State Fair exhibits;
The Liberal Arts Building to be filled with the new American Colonies display.
That month, as many as 500 men were working on the grounds. They painted and patched building, and cleaned and replanted flower beds.
On Sunday, May 8, 1899, the expo grounds were officially re-opened for the first time. At the same time, architectural repairs were started in main court. The Omaha Electric Light Company was contracted to furnish power for live exhibits, the Midway, and lights on grounds, and more than 40,000 new lights were added throughout the expo grounds. The public was welcome into the grounds officially on May 31, 1899.
In early June, 1899, Omaha’s merry-go-round that was at 15th and Capitol Avenue in downtown for almost a decade was moved to the expo grounds near the giant see-saw.
That same month, arrangements were finalized for the Government Building to feature the Libby War Prison Museum and a North Pole collection. The Horticulture Building was filled with palms, tropical plants and fountains, along with 100 cages of singing birds, canaries and parrots. The Temple of Palmistry became home of the Omaha Occult Society, and the Orpheus Vaudeville Theater occupied the former site of Chinese Village.
In April 1899, the organizing committee for this new expo thought everything was going well, and that huge crowds were likely to show up. However, after fighting with the committee over the previous five months, Edward Rosewater refused to rejoin the committee. He very plainly said they hadn’t raised enough money to make the new expo work. Although he ended up joining, what he said was a sign of things to come…
The committee proceeded making arrangements. The State of Nebraska agreed to canceling the Nebraska State Fair in 1899, and focusing all of its energy on the Greater America Expo. All the walkways were bricked in, 800 trees were planted around the lagoon, and 40,000 electric lights were ordered for the entire Expo. The committee was excited to report that, “GAE is almost a fairyland with 1500 new globes of white fire…”
The Midway was filled by June 1899.
St. Johns Lutheran Church of Council Bluffs purchased the giant “Wigwam” (a 50 foot tall plaster tipi) and planned to run a restaurant in it.
On July 1, 1899, the Greater America Exposition opened to the public. 28,000 visitors attended on July 4th, reputedly eclipsing the crowd that attended the previous year’s Trans-Mississippi Exposition. All total, in the first week of the 1899 Expo, there were 70,000 admissions, which organizers claimed was far greater than the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Expo.
By the middle of the month, the daily attendance at the Expo averaged 2,000, where the Tran-Mississippi averaged 2,300. On July 20 there was a special event at the Expo for kids, with more than 10,000 children attending. The admission was set at .50c and .25c during day, .25c and .15c evenings and Sundays.
A July 1899 advertisement from the Omaha Bee.
Hard Times Hit the Expo
On July 12, 1899, formal reports of the 1899 Expo revealed that the event is out of money. Edward Rosewater, Jonas Brandeis, Herman Cohn and Thomas Fry resign from the executive committee that day. Rosewater, who had been arguing with the organizers of the Expo since the they started, kept agitating for the next six months.
Two days later, two managers of the event were fired. A new manager borrowed $25,000 to keep the event operating and a new executive committee was formed. The same week, the Denver Times reported that of the Greater American Exposition had no government exhibits, no exhibits from neighboring states, no mining exhibit, no agriculture exhibit, and nothing else of substance. Instead, they declared “it is An Omaha Scheme, simply a big carnival midway.”
At the beginning of August, the executive committee was cut down in size, while superintendents, staff, and security guards were laid off. There were a lot of complaints about wheels, horseless carriages and dogs running loose on Expo grounds that didn’t happen at the 1898 Expo.
That same month, fish started starving in the lagoon. Reportedly, millions of them of all sizes, including minnows, carp, and perch. On August 7, 35 feet of the balustrade (colonnade) on the east side of lagoon fell over onto the sidewalk. Since they were all built to be temporary fixtures, the plaster and horsehair balustrade was going to fall down at some point. On August 14, the bicycle races were cancelled because nobody showed up to watch them. The next night, the fire dance was cancelled after the Expo managers failed to schedule a band to play. Electricity was shut off, the show was declared off, and the audience left in the dark.
On August 18, the Expo’s special “Carnival Night” was cancelled when the lights weren’t scheduled to be left on. Low attendance plagued the Expo for the following month. However, the same week, on Aug. 21, attendance exceeds any previous day, with 12,000 people coming through the gates.
The Picture Gallery room was reportedly only 1/3 full by August 7, looking bare and empty. The water carnival was called off on August 31 because nobody was coming to it. A week later, 26 guards resigned in protest on September 6 after their manager was released.
845,000 people had attended the Greater America Exposition by its closing on October 31, 1899. It was estimated that half of all attendees came on free passes.
One of the few improvements on the Expo grounds was the removal of concrete walkways and their replacement by red brick.
Going Out With A Riot?
On October 31st, 1899, approximately 25,000 people came on the last day of the Expo, “swamping the Midway.” At 4pm, all of the electricity in the Expo grounds went off. The workers at the Expo’s coal plant went on strike because they hadn’t been paid. Police raided the building, and the lights were back on by 7pm.
However, “boisterous crowds” took aim at the Expo’s installations once lights went off at 9pm because the Expo was out of coal. As one period reporter wrote,
With the passing of the lights the pandemonium already rampant on the Midway descended into wild commotion. The crowd merged into a wriggling mass of humanity, like an army of centipedes… Signs were torn down, thatching torn off the Filipino Village. When the conglomeration grew more boisterous, the few remaining exhibitors began to close up their doors and box the more breakable goods… Reminding one of the preparations for an expected cyclone.”
Demolition of the Expo
The city government of Omaha and the State of Nebraska frequently voiced concern that there were plans to make the expo grounds permanent, and neither wanted that to happen. Built to be temporary, they wanted to see the wrecking ball swing, and on November 1st, 1899, that happened.
A railroad car packed with demolition equipment arrived on November 4th. Drays, early bulldozers and other machinery torn down buildings buildings immediately. The lagoon was emptied on the first day it was possible. All of the concession stands were closed, and the area businesses were emptied. Court cases were filed against the Expo’s executive committee immediately for unpaid bills, and workers became upset at being short paid by the Expo.
During November, the Giant Seesaw was shipped to Coney Island, where it was used for more than a decade. By November 15th, the original backers of the Expo were paid back.
However, a group of unpaid employees filed a charge against the executive committee, threatening the Expo with bankruptcy. On November 29th, the Expo organization is declared insolvent. J.B. Kitchen, a local businessman who built the first Paxton Hotel in downtown Omaha, offered to head an effort to raise the money owned the workers from other local businessmen. He contributed $1,600 towards the $80,000 owed. Kitchen’s efforts weren’t successful, and on December 30, a judge awarded the workers the money due to them through bankruptcy proceedings.
By January 1900, almost all of the buildings, walkways and other elements of the Expo grounds were completely gone.
There were some closing arguments among the various players involved. At one point, the Greater America Expo organizers threatened to sue the Trans-Mississippi Expo organizers over who was responsible for completing the final touches before the land was ceded to the City of Omaha Parks Board. The Parks Board, which never formally recognized the Greater America Expo organizers, threatened to sue members of the executive committee if the job wasn’t done.
In the final months of cleanup, which were May and June of 1900, there was a fire that took out the last remaining elements of the Expos.
Everyday throughout the months of the Greater America Exposition, this type of ad ran in local newspapers.
Deaths and Injuries
Several people were hurt at the Greater America Expo, and some died. Here are some of those unfortunate people:
July 26: Jennie Hoover, 14 year old daughter of the engineer of the Scenic Railroad was wading in the lake and drowned. Midway concessionaires took up a fund to help pay funeral expenses.
September 4: R. C. Wisner, an employee on the Expo’s Midway, was arrested for reckless shooting. He was firing blanks as part of his show and pointed the gun at some boys, and accidentally shot one of them. The Omaha World-Herald wrote, he was “filling the forehead of one of them with powder, burning the flesh considerably.”
September 7: Edith Shugart, a 3 year old child, was injured when she was bitten by a dog roaming the grounds. Her father worked at the Expo’s horse races.
September 10: A Lincoln man put his knee through one of the mirrors in the Mystic Maze and had to be taken to a hospital.
September 10: Julia Lone Elk, a tribal member participating in a horse race for women, was unconscious after she fell off her horse.
Sept. 19: A group of seven boys fell from a 70 foot tall tree at N. 21st and Paul Streets while trying to watch the Wild West Show. They were perched on the highest limb of the tree and it broke. One suffered a broken leg.
Sept. 28: An Oglala Sioux named Conquering Bear who was at the 1899 Indian Congress died in downtown Omaha when he supposedly jumped off a moving street car, fell and struck his head.
Why Not Remember?
I don’t know why more people don’t know about the Greater America Expo. Maybe it has always been eclipsed by the grandiosity and novelty of its predecessor. Maybe the right people weren’t involved. Maybe it really was just a big Midway, filled with fluff and no substance. Maybe it was plain imperialist racism that people don’t want to remember.
Whatever the reason, this blog is an attempt to rekindle the embers, relight the street globes and reinvigorate the streets of North Omaha with the history that built the place. Go ahead, take a ride on the Giant Seesaw and have a grand time!
Nestled between the Miller Park neighborhood and Sorenson Parkway is a 150 year old institution that’s been a powerhouse, a prison, a balloon school and a neglected surplus, and many other things. This is a short history of Fort Omaha.
A group of officers at Fort Omaha in 1918.
As a whole, Fort Omaha is a beautiful place with a wonderful history. In my own life, as a kid I’d ride my bike through the campus and just imagine all the things that happened there. When my friend Josh first invited me to visit his house I was amazed. With a dad that was a professor there, his family lived in one of the houses on campus. His house was a mystery to me, filled with interesting things like a computer and Dungeons and Dragons characters. It was the 1980s, and I had never seen those things up close before!
Josh and I walked around campus a few times, exploring the old west road and peeking around abandoned places. He told me about ghosts and soldiers, and helped spark my imagination about this humungous, strangely different place in my neighborhood. My only other exposure to campus was when my class at Miller Park Elementary School sang there during the River City Roundup, and when my dad took classes there.
If you’ve read this website, you’ve probably already seen my article, “An Interesting History of Fort Omaha.” I wrote that because all the history of the campus seemed cliche to me, and I wanted to show a different side of the place. However, the more conversations I have about North Omaha history with people, the more I realize how little we all know about the vast military outpost in the backyard. So, here is a more basic history.
In September 1868, Augustus Kountze leased a large chunk of his land to the US Army. The Omaha Barracks were originally established three years earlier as the Augur Barracks in Omaha City, but they were obsolete soon after because there wasn’t room for drills or expansion. Renamed the Sherman Barracks after Lieutenant General William Sherman, they were soon renamed again when he protested. They were called the Omaha Barracks.
According to the National Archives, it became main destination for all troops and stores for the western side of the Missouri River. A decade after it was established, the Department of the Platte headquarters moved from Omaha City, and in December 1878, the place was renamed FortOmaha.
Made of Wood
Cruising through Fort Omaha today, its fun to soak up the regal looking red brick buildings and tall, stately trees that make the campus so beautiful. However, it wasn’t always that way. The original 1868 buildings were all made of wood, and they were laid out on a barren prairie.
The original 1868 buildings at Fort Omaha included a post headquarters, guardhouse, bakery, storehouses, and sutlers store. There were five company barracks on the north and south sides of the parade ground, which was 30 acres big. A hospital was located in the northwest corner of the fort. By 1871, a band barracks, ice house, launderesses’ quarters and quarters for married enlisted men were added.
The first brick buildings were constructed when officers were ordered to live on post in 1878. They were built on the western edge of the fort, and included General Crook’s House
They were almost all demolished and replaced by 1905. One of the original officer’s quarters still stands today, although a mile away from its original location. Building 15, which was located in the northwest corner of the fort, was moved to Florence Boulevard at some point around the turn of the century. It still stands today on the boulevard.
Gentile city dwellers dressed nicely to come watch troops in formation at Fort Omaha, circa 1890.
Omaha Never Needed Protection from Indians
Originally built as the Sherman Barracks in the early 1860s, an early garrison was first established in rented buildings in downtown Omaha. The Army built a new barracks near North 24th and Cumming Streets in 1862. After the Civil War ended, everyone believed the surrounding tribes were no problem, so the Barracks became a supply depot for the forts located throughout the Great Plains.
This is the original Fort Omaha Hospital, built in 1879. It was demolished in the 1890s and replaced in 1906.
Catching wind that the Army was planning to build a huge new outpost, Omaha’s business leaders wanted to pitch the city as a great location. They made a deal with local banker Augustus Kountze to sell them a chunk of his land holdings four miles north of the city. Making an offer to the government, the leaders bragged about the Union Pacific railroad and Missouri River, both ideal for troop and supply movement. They also bragged about having already established businesses to provide support the Army needed. The Army accepted Omaha’s offer.
Barracks at Fort Omaha
Fort Omaha originally covered almost 83 acres. Located outside the Omaha city limits on the Florence Road, the Fort became the home of the US Army Department of the Platte. This department controlled forts and their units in the states of Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming Territory and parts of Utah and Idaho.
It was here that General George Crook led the Department, from 1875 to 1882 and again from 1886 to 1888. In 1879, he spoke on behalf of Chief Standing Bear and the Ponca tribe during the trial of Standing Bear v. Crook. It was during this trial that a federal judge affirmed that Standing Bear had some of the rights of US citizens. That same year, construction on Crook’s new home was finished. Today it is called the General Crook House.
Omaha Needed Protection from Itself
The Fort Omaha Hospital, circa 1900.
Because the US Army officers and soldiers there weren’t racing out to fight battles or bracing for invasions, Fort Omaha became a site for lavish social gatherings. Omahans would carriage out to the Fort for balls and cotillions, military parades and troop reviews. A favorite Sunday gathering for Omaha’s socialites was sitting in the lawns picnicking while the troops performed marches and more.
It shouldn’t be surprising then that Fort Omaha was mustered out of service to the Army at least five times during its existence. However, it never completely faded away. When Omaha’s hoards grew out of control, US Army troops from the Fort were frequently called in to provide crowd control and protection. In 15 riots throughout the city’s history, soldiers carried weapons against Omahans who were rioting, protesting, or picketing. This started in the 1880s, with the most recent example being the 1969 riots in North Omaha.
Other highlights of the Fort’s service included serving as the United States’ first Army balloon school, and hosting Italian prisoners of war during WWII.
Big Balloon Base
The Florence Field in North Omaha, including troop tents, barracks, and on the hillside, a balloon nest.
Hot air balloons and dirigibles were considered high technology during World War I. Never before had flying equipment been used so effectively in war, and the United States didn’t want to miss out where European allies were racing ahead. They Army established a balloon training school at Fort Omaha at the onset of the war.
By 1917, the Army decided they needed to expand operations. Leasing 119 acres north of the Fort, they established Florence Field in the hills north of Redick, east of Martin and west of North 30th Street.
Florence Field was a wholly separate military installation from North Omaha, with its own roads, buildings and other accommodations. The City of Omaha’s Park Commission graded two roads to the field, while there was electricity and telephones installed. Troops from Fort Omaha built several buildings, including a headquarters, barracks and mess halls, painted sage green with ivory trim and topped with red slate roofs. There was a fence surrounding the entire field, with gates on North 30th and at the top of the hill where the Field’s southern boundary was.
In 1918, the Florence Field was visited by French military advisors who were helping train the three regiments assigned to the balloon school. Troops established an extended base near Fort Calhoun to further their training, with that area established to train how to fly under gunfire.
The balloon school was closed and moved from Fort Omaha after the war.
The Fort In Modern Times
Fort Omaha quieted down after World War I. The balloon school was moved to Illinois, and life went on. In 1929, the Fort’s headquarters building became the Seventh Corps Staff Officers Headquarters. Between 1933 and the end of World War II, the building was both a barracks and the Commissary for Fort Omaha.
US Army troops muster their horses and mules in the present-day parade grounds, with tents scattered across the left side of the photo.
The Fort was mustered out of service after WWII. However, from 1947 to 1974, it served as a U.S. Navy personnel center and as the headquarters for the Naval Reserve Training Command. The Army transferred command of Fort Omaha to the Navy in 1947. Starting that year, the Navy used the Fort as a training base for local members of the Navy and Marine Corps Reserve.
In 1956, the Navy established a nationwide Naval Reserve Command. For Omaha became the headquarters for a Rear Admiral and his staff, with his two-star flag and the bell of the Navy cruiser USS Omaha on display. Today, they are still at the Fort Omaha Headquarters Building entrance as a unique testament to the Navy’s presence at a former Army fort in the middle of the United States.
This is the main entryway to Fort Omaha in the 1950s when it was U.S. Navy installation.
Today, the main entrance to Fort Omaha is at N. 30th and Fort Streets. Beginning in 1974, the facility has been maintained and used by Metropolitan Community College. In the 2000s, MCC began a massive expansion program that significantly increases the size of the college and its offerings to students.
Fort Omaha is a beautiful place today, abuzz with the sounds of learning and rich with a wealth of history.
The back of officer’s row houses as they appeared in 1931.
Fort Omaha Historical Tour
In 1979, the Fort Omaha Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, The Fort Omaha campus is a beautiful place to walk around. If you love history, there are many buildings, historic plaques, and specific places you’ll want to visit. Some of them include:
General Crook House, West Road and Middle Road, 1879
Quartermaster’s Office, 1878
Guardhouse, Middle Road and North 30th Street, 1884
Ordinance Magazine, Second Road and East Road, 1883
Mule Stables, Supply Road and West Road, 1887
Bourke Gate, South Road and North 30th Street, 1896
Shiverick Gate, Middle Road and North 30th Street, 1932
Parade Grounds, Middle Road and East Road, 1868
Site of the Dirigible unit, First Road and East Road, 1907
Site of Florence Field, North 30th and Martin Avenue, 1908
Enlisted Double Barracks, 1906
Headquarters Building, 1879
Officer Row Duplexes, 1879-1918 Firehouse, 1906
Post Exchange, South Road and East Road, 1912
Fort Omaha Timeline
The history of Fort Omaha began before the Fort was established. With base commanders moving in and out, regimens and troops coming and going, and the Fort being closed and opened again, it has been part of a lot of Omaha history. Here are some of the most important dates from the history of Fort Omaha.
1862 – Omaha is designated the headquarters for the Military District of Nebraska Territory
1866 – Omaha was made headquarters for the US Army Department of the Platte
1868 – Sherman Barracks established at present-day N. 30th and Fort Streets; renamed shortly afterwards as Omaha Barracks
1878 – Omaha Barracks renamed Fort Omaha
1879 – The Trial of Standing Bear held at Fort Omaha
1896 – Fort Omaha declared surplus property and abandoned
1898 – Spanish-American War
1907 – US Army established a dirigible training program at Fort Omaha
1908 – US Army establishes a balloon training program at Fort Omaha
1909 – US Army closes the dirigible training program at Fort Omaha
1909 – US Army establishes their Signal Corps School at Fort Omaha
1913 – US Army closes their Signal Corps School at Fort Omaha
1916 – US Army Air Service, 9th Naval District, Balloon and Airship Division opens at Fort Omaha
1917 – United States enters WWI
1917 – US Army leases Florence Field, 119 acres of land about one mile north of Fort Omaha along Martin Avenue
1918 – WWI ends
1919 – Fort Omaha declared surplus property and abandoned
1921 – US Army moves all balloon operations from Fort Omaha
1935 – US Army 7th Corps Area Headquarters established at Fort Omaha
1941 – United States enters WWII
1941 – US Army 7th Service Command uses Fort Omaha as a support facility
1945 – WWII ends
1946 – Fort Omaha declared surplus property and abandoned
1947 – US Navy assumes control of Fort Omaha and designates in a reserve training center
1947 – US Navy designates Fort Omaha as a Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Center
1951 – The US Navy officially designates Fort Omaha the US Naval Personnel Center
1974 – Fort Omaha declared surplus property and abandoned
1975 – Metro Community College moves to Fort Omaha
Here’s a comic from a 1919 edition of the Fort Omaha newspaper called Gas Bag. Notice it was made just for Fort Omaha.
Kids taking swimming lessons in the swimming pool at Fort Omaha in the 1940s.
The balloon hanger at Fort Omaha in 1918.
Soldiers at Fort Omaha in 1918.
BONUS: The Fort Omaha House
Built in 1869, this house was originally located at Fort Omaha, and as of 2017, is 127-years-old. Originally building 15 in the wood-framed Omaha Barracks, it stood at the fort until approximately 1900.
Around that year, eccentric bachelor brothers William and Oliver Grenville bought it and moved it to Florence Boulevard. Originally located across the street from their commercial greenhouses, the home has stood at 6327 Florence Boulevard since.
Originally situated on 2.5 acres, today it has 2,550 square feet in the house with four bedrooms, and includes 1.25 acres of land. There’s also a 125-year-old barn down the cliff behind the house.
An Art Deco tree taken from the 1919 report where the majority of this article was drawn from.
Imagine a smooth, easy drive on a Saturday afternoon in the fall all of it weaving along nineteen miles of the city’s waterfront. There are long, calm curves and tall, stately oaks lining the boulevard, with walkers and bikes moving along a nice sidewalk that goes that entire distance. At evening, you turn to go home, your way lit by warm street lamps along with the glow of fireflies.
Omaha’s River Drive
The smooth, calm River Drive in Omaha that could have been… Photo courtesy Durham Museum.
In 1889, the City of Omaha hired renowned urban designer Horace Cleveland to design a series of park-like boulevards around the city, along with some key parks. Several of them were in North Omaha, including the first one, Florence Boulevard, and beautiful parks like Miller Park and Fontenelle Park.
For many years, the City worked from these plans and expanded on them. The plan inspired city leaders to throw around the idea of a riverfront boulevard for several years. At this point, civic leaders and businessmen wanted to use the river to its fullest advantage.
Their plans crystalized in 1919. Promoting the river drive be designed as a unique, enormous war memorial, people started to rally around a new plan. The route would overlook the majestic Missouri River as a tribute to the sacrifices and contributions of Omahans in the Great War, the War to End All Wars, World War I.
Looking south along an existing stretch of the potential River Drive, today section is part of JJ Pershing Drive. Photo courtesy Durham Museum.
According to a 1919 City government planning document, the goals for Omaha’s River Drive were to:
Take advantage of an unsurpassed opportunity;
Create an improvement for which Omaha may become world famous;
Build of a memorial worthy of the City’s best efforts;
Make an asset of what would otherwise become a liability of waste land, and;
Afford an unlimited opportunity for commemorating the city’s history and its men and women who performed a distinguished service.
The original 1919 planning map of the proposed River Drive in Omaha. The dashed lines represented the route.
Plotting a course to connect South Omaha and North Omaha with a grand boulevard, this was easily the most beautiful unrealized dream of Omaha’s progressive era. It would connect the city’s farthest reaches as a crowing jewel for Omaha’s marvelous boulevard system. Seeing past the differences in the city’s northern and southern populations, the River Drive was intended to unite a disparate population in beauty and fluidity.
South Omaha Route
A preliminary section of Omaha’s River Drive along the Missouri in 1919. Photo courtesy Durham Museum.
The route through the city began at the Douglas County / Sarpy County line. It went like this:
Starting south of Missouri Avenue and east of 13th Street wind the boulevard to Mandan Park
Join it to Brown Park tract and Spring Lake Park, enlarging both of them along the way.
North of Missouri Avenue, the Drive would connect with River View Park between 13th Street and the Burlington Railroad.
North of River View Park the bluffs should be acquired by the City, and drive should be made with a good roadway construction and outlook points along the way.
North of this bluff the Drive could be carried over the Burlington Railroad south of Martha Street.
A spacious river front park should be made immediately south of the Union Pacific Bridge.
Looking out over the expanse of what the River Drive would’ve seen in 1919. Photo courtesy Durham Museum.
From the Union Pacific Bridge north to the Iowa-Nebraska state line in East Omaha (present-day Carter Lake, Iowa), the River Drive would consist of a wide roadway with sidewalk or esplanade and simple ornamental balustrade and river wall built between the harbor line and existing river front buildings.
North Omaha Route
The River Drive would’ve extended from this intersection of Florence Boulevard and Read Street in North Omaha, as it appeared in 1919. Photo courtesy Durham Museum.
From the river bank in East Omaha there would be two northern routes for the River Drive:
One leading to 11th Street and a proposed entrance to Carter Lake Park at about 14th and Ames Avenue, on the west side of the park.
The second route would proceed north from the riverfront to the eastern most portion of Carter Lake Park.
On the second route, River Drive could proceed through the Park and north along Florence Boulevard to the Florence Water Works. A new bridge would be built over the railroad tracks at N. 16th and Read Streets.
A digger works on the preliminary roadbed near the Florence Pumping Station on the Missouri in 1919. Photo courtesy Durham Museum.
Omaha’s River Drive was originally conceived to run along the entire riverfront north of downtown. However, planners were concerned about the continuous erosion caused by the river. They also thought the additional miles added by going along the river would be too long. With Carter Lake Park right there as a beautiful destination, the planners left the length of the river off the route.
North of the Florence Water Works, the bluffs and ravines were considered having unusual beauty and attractiveness.
The River Drive would use the existing roadway along the riverfront north to Ponca Creek.
There, the River Drive would turn west along Ponca Creek Road, eventually connecting to the old Washington Highway.
The plan left the end of the River Drive open, with the thought that eventually it could connect with future boulevards that would travel “west and south from this point, outside of Omaha city limits.” That would have been south along present-day N. 72nd Street, and west toward Cunningham Lake.
Getting People to the Boulevard
An old road along the Missouri in Florence that was going to be used for the River Drive, as it appeared in 1919. Notice the wagon ruts on the bottom right corner. Photo courtesy Durham Museum.
By this point, the City Planning Commission wasn’t cold and unthinking about the regular people in Omaha. In 1919, cars were still relatively rare in the city and they weren’t seen as a necessity. Streetcars roamed throughout the city, and the Commission wanted people going to the River Drive as easily as they did other parts of the city.
Embracing the new technology of the automobile, they recommended that a popular motor bus service be established across the entire Boulevard system and on the proposed River Drive when finished. This would give people an opportunity to see and enjoy the natural scenery along Omaha’s Boulevards and Parks and the River Drive.
The Drive would’ve connected with almost every major east-west street in Omaha at the time. Intersections would be smooth and easy, and the River Drive would be accessible for walking, too. The Commission estimated half of the city’s population lived within walking distance to the River Drive, so its usability and appreciation were almost guaranteed.
City Fails, River Drive Dies
The unrealized dream of Omaha’s River Drive could have looked like this view from 1919. Photo courtesy Durham Museum.
The 1919 plan said plainly, “To acquire the necessary right of way for the Drive now is neither a difficult nor expensive task. Delay means complete failure of this remarkable plan.”
Unfortunately, most people at the time didn’t take the Commission’s plans seriously. The City of Omaha was experiencing fiscal challenges at that point, and without serious political leadership Omaha’s River Drive was merely an unrealized vision. The plan failed that year, and was never seriously resurrected after that.
People did talk about the plan through 1938, including a beautiful op-ed piece in the World-Herald calling for the City to activate the beauty of the river. But without real leadership behind it or real investment, little happened. Abbott Drive and JJ Pershing Drive were completed along the originally planned drive, but were done separately from the 1919 plan. Nothing happened in South Omaha.
In the next 90 years, Omaha’s waterfront suffered. Old industrial areas on the river shut down and rotted, many poisoning Omaha’s population and the Missouri as they were ignored. That included the old ASARCO plant, the Union Pacific shops, and others. A car wrecker located north of downtown was open for more than 50 years, and the old Willow Springs Distillery sat empty for a long time, too.
As late as 1971, Omaha city planners were considering a River Drive that would extend from the Washington County line deep into Sarpy County. Of course, that never happened either. See the proposed map at the bottom of this article.
Omaha started wrestling with the value of the Missouri Riverfront again in the 1970s. After more than 50 years of neglect and decay, the city’s civic and political leaders started recognizing the cultural, economic and health benefits of the river. By 1990, a plan led the City to begin opening up the downtown waterfront in a major way. Over the next two decades a billion dollars was invested in this area, giving Omahans access to an area they’d rarely tasted since the 1890s.
As part of that plan, the City of Omaha designed a long riverside trail for walking and biking that extended north from the Douglas / Sarpy County line. Built in sections, the first part opened in 2003. There are currently three sections completed, leading all the way north to the Boyer National Wildlife Refuge.
While I can’t find anything that directly links the choice of the trail’s pathway to the River Drive plan, according to the map of Omaha’s Riverfront Trail, it is following the historically planned, unrealized dream of those 1919 planning commissioners. Maybe the City of Omaha will install markers someday that commemorates the vision those planners had back then.
In the meantime, go take a walk or a bike ride. Skim through the snow along the waterfront trail in the winter, shuffle through the autumn leaves in October, feel the warming spring rains in April, and reveal in the songs of the cicadas in summertime. However you enjoy it, take a moment to remember the story of the olden days a century ago when city planners thought Omaha needed to be driving along the same way, enjoying natural views and loving the Mighty Mo up close and personal… And be grateful for that beautiful beast!
This is a history of the Presbyterian Theological Seminary located at 3033 North 21st Street in the Koutnze Place neighborhood of North Omaha from from 1902 to 1943.
In the late 1880s, the state of Nebraska was bursting with production. New farms established during the previous twenty years became lush with crops, towns and villages were growing across the state, and the main cities were booming with success. Omaha was advertised as “The Gateway to the West”, drawing settlers from the East with promises of lush growing farms and endless prosperity.
In the first three decades of the city’s growth, Omaha became well-churched. Despite its reputation for being a “wide open” city where anything goes, the city was actually a work-a-week place where you’d put in your five days, party Saturday night, go to church on Sunday, and then start over on Monday. When they went to church, they tithed well and helped many institutions grow throughout their city.
The Presbyterians were one of the congregations that grew along with Omaha. Arriving soon after the city’s founders, the first Presbyterian church in Omaha was opened in 1856. Over the next 25 years, more than 100 Presbyterian churches were founded in towns and cities across Nebraska. Their buildings became institutions for the faithful, for their communities and for the culture of the state. However, educating enough pastors to lead these flocks was becoming a challenge.
Filling a Need
In 1891, Nebraska’s Presbyterian leaders felt it was time to take action. That February, a group formed the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Omaha. Knowing surrounding the surrounding states of Iowa, South Dakota, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, and other states needed ministers, they were confident of success.
That same year, Dr. George L. Miller, a pioneer businessman and land speculator in Omaha, donated 25 acres from his Seymour Park estate to the Seminary for the construction of a new campus. Located five miles from downtown Omaha, the denomination didn’t have funds to build their campus yet, so they never used his land.
Starting in September 1891, classes were originally held at Second Presbyterian Church at North 24th and Nicholas Streets in North Omaha. In 1894, the Seminary leased the Canfield House at 9th and Harney in downtown Omaha. That lasted for two years, until 1896 when donors back East purchased the former Cozzen’s Hotel in downtown Omaha and donated it for use as the Seminary’s home. The Seminary met there for the next five years, with an average of 25 to 30 students starting annually. In 1899, the Seminary graduated eight ministers; the same year, 24 new students began.
Graduation took three years of studying after students completed eight months of classes each year. Admission required students to be church members, college graduates, or to have the approval of local church leaders in their home area. Students also had to complete an examination to enter the school. There were no fees of any kind for these students. They studied all parts of theology, including mission work, with six professors.
Growing into North Omaha
As the only Presbyterian seminary between Chicago and San Francisco, the institution kept growing. The Seminary’s growth led the Seminary to buy land in North Omaha’s popular Kountze Place neighborhood in 1901. In the years after the popular Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in 1898, Kountze Place filled in quickly. Lots that were difficult to sell before the Expo were snatched up quickly by homebuilders and new buyers. Omaha’s Presbyterian Theological Seminary was one of those customers.
The Seminary bought two blocks in the fashionable Kountze Place neighborhood along Florence Boulevard, North 21st, Emmet and Spencer Streets. A year later, the a three story Gothic Revival building was finished. Complete with four stories, it had classrooms, offices, a library, a chapel, a dining room, janitor’s quarters, and 50 dormitory rooms for students. A bell tower stood in the center of the building. It opened for classes in 1902.
Located in the posh Kountze Place neighborhood, the Seminary was near Omaha University, the Evangelical Covenant Hospital, and along the Florence Boulevard, which was called “Omaha’s Prettiest Mile” through the 1950s. There were streetcar lines on North 24th, North 30th, and North 16th Streets.
The Vanderburgh House
In the late 1890s, Charles E. Vanderburgh of Minneapolis bequeathed an inheritance to the Seminary. By 1905, the Seminary built the Vanderburgh House, a fine home for the president of the Seminary, and maintained it as part of the facilities.
The Seminary was influential in a number of ways. In 1909, the University of Omaha was established a few blocks north of the Seminary and most of the teachers were recruited from Seminary faculty. Three of the University’s first four presidents were ordained Presbyterian ministers. In the first decade of the century, the Presbyterians also opened a hospital on Wirt Street, also in the Kountze Place neighborhood.
By the 1910s, the Seminary had a special department to teach Bohemian (Slovakian) ministerial candidates. Led by Rev. Jaroslav Dobias, these students participated in chapel activities, prayer meetings and conferences with other students. Otherwise, they learned as a small group on their own.
The faculty for the college year 1917-1918 included:
Rev. Albert B. Marshall, D.D., president and professor of homiletics and pastoral theology
Rev. Joseph L. Lamp, Ph.D., D.D., professor emeritus of Hebrew, Old Testament literature and exegesis
Rev. Frank H. Riggley, Ph.D., professor of Hebrew, Old Testament literature and exegesis
Rev. Daniel E. Jenkins, Ph.D., D.D., dean and professor of diction and polemic theology
Rev. Charles A. Mitchell, Ph.D., D.D., professor of New Testament literature and exegesis
Rev. Charles Herron, D.D., professor of ecclesiastical history and missions
Special lectures are given in 1917-18 by:
Professor J. M. Coleman of Bloomington, Indiana, on studies in Christian socialism
Rev. Henry C. Mabie, D.D., of Boston, on the significance of the cross and foreign missions
Rev. W. S. Marquis, D.D., of Chicago, on the Presbyterian United Movement
The Seminary was said to be a monument to the efforts of Matthew Lowrie, who served as a professor as well as the president of the Seminary. During his years, attendance increased from nine students to twenty six, with diplomas granted to 125 students.
Closing the Seminary
During its lifespan from 1891 to 1943, more than 1,000 graduates served in the Midwest, other states and around the world. However, despite its consistent popularity, the Seminary struggled financially since its beginning. Omaha’s Presbyterian Theological Seminary simply wasn’t able to sustain. In 1943, the general assembly of the U.S. Presbyterian Church voted to close the seminary after it failed to meet the minimum accreditation standards of the American Association of Theological Schools.
Grace University was founded in North Omaha in the former Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and stayed there for a year in 1943, when it was known as the Grace Bible Institute. After Grace University moved from the building in 1943, the federal government started leasing the building. They converted it into 27 apartments for government workers in the World War II effort. In 1951, the building was sold to a private management company which also owned the Garden Homes Apartments which were built on the former seminary lawn.
The seminary’s governing board continued to exist for several decades after its closure, and today operates as the Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation. They became committed to raising funds to support theology students to attend seminary in schools around the world.
In November 1979, there was a fire that destroyed the building, which was then called the Mark IV Apartments and was owned by the Omaha Housing Authority as low-income housing. They had renovated it a year earlier. The Omaha World-Herald reported the fire was an arson, and the building was demolished within a month.
Coincidentally, the Garden Homes Apartments along Florence Boulevard, which were built as public housing projects, had been vacated two years before. Developing a plan to promote private ownership of the apartments as town homes, they sought to rehabilitate them. However, with a large, 75 year old building behind the apartments, the value of the rehabilitation might have been compromised.
A convenient arson’s fire, a demolished landmark and a lot that’s been empty for almost 40 years… That’s what happened to the Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary building. It still sits on Omaha’s conscience.
Suburbs need social clubs, and social clubs need swingin’ good fun! North Omaha’s Viking Ship was that place for more than 50 years before turning into a quasi-community center. Here’s the history of the Viking Ship, aka Birchwood Club aka The Prettiest Mile Club.
2582 Redick Avenue through the years: 1916 Prettiest Mile Club; 1946 Birchwood Club; 2014 Viking Ship.
As Omaha grew, it grew suburbs. The first master planned development in the city in North Omaha. It was called Minne Lusa after Spanish fur trader Manuel Lisa.
Owned and built by Omaha investor Charles Martin, the community was designed by architect Everett S. Dodds, he also designed the majority of houses in it. Martin wanted a social hall for his neighborhood, and Dodds conceived of a Spanish Colonial Revival style building at the intersection of Redick and Minne Lusa Boulevard.
Opened as the Prettiest Mile Club in 1916, for almost the last 100 years the building has been host to all sorts of activities, including a dinner club, social clubs, Scouts, card clubs, fraternities, sororities, conferences, football teams, cheerleading clubs, and conventions, weddings, reunions, parties, and much, much more.
When I was a youth, there were a lot of things I got involved in at the Viking Ship. There was a time when my dad was a janitor for the building, spending his energy cleaning the messes from parties and laboring over the decrepit old shell. I tried boxing for a little while when I was 12, following my brother there several nights a week for a few hours. Old Gus held the punching bag and barked orders while my brother laughed at my sorry attempts to become Rocky. I remember my sisters taking gymnastics there for a while, and more than one organized dance being held in the main part of the building for youth. I remember seeing behind panels at hidden old parts of the building and wondering what was there, all the way back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
This is my homage to the curious mind I had back then. Please share your memories, thoughts and ideas in the comments section below.
The Prettiest Mile Club
A women’s social club at the Prettiest Mile Club, circa 1914.
Located at 2680 Redick Avenue, the three-story building is 48 wide by 80 feet long. It originally included a gym, bowling lanes and a card room; a dining room, general parlor, and two small rooms for women’s parties, and a full kitchen. The third floor was an enormous wood floor ballroom with two chimneys, and there was a gorgeous oak spiral staircase winding upwards. Clubs and fraternities, sororities and associations from across Omaha would meet there to enjoy the atmosphere, the view of Miller Park lake and the exclusivity of their suburban dreamland known as The Prettiest Mile Club.
The Birchwood Club
In 1930, the Prettiest Mile Club was purchased by a fraternal organization that ran it for a number of years. It was renamed the Birchwood Club, and operated under that name through the 1960s. A swimming pool and outdoor lounge area was also added during this time. At this point, the Birchwood Club started acting like a recreation center for families.
The swimming pool had remodeled locker rooms that were connected to the pool area. The pool had a large deck area, umbrellas, landscaping and a decorative fence.
On the basement floor, four bowling alleys and another lounge were added. They were are available to members for open bowling and for league play. A new bar and tables were also added.
During this era, the dinner club at Birchwood Club was managed for a time by Dave Hayden. Hayden also ran restaurants at the Omaha Airport and Union Station, both called Hayden House, and Hayden himself was highly respected.
In 1957, The Omaha Press Club held its first dinner show at the Birchwood Club. This was a typical event in those years.
The Viking Ship
The Viking Ship as it appeared in 2015.
A private family purchased it in the 1970s, and at some point it was remodeled extensively and renamed The Viking Ship. The ballroom became a gymnasium for gymnastics; the main floor is rented out as a party hall. The basement was remodeled once as a workout gym and a boxing club. Cheerleading and community meetings happened for a long time there, too.
However, today the Viking Ship struggles to survive. June Blair, who has owned the building with her husband since the late 1970s, was on a television news interview recently to declare the building is in dire straits. The same interview shared the story of the boxing gym moving out, and showed the building in an abysmal state.
Searching the internet, I found a past fundraising effort that apparently secured $650 out of $40,000 needed to reroof the building. It had pictures of the building falling apart on the interior and exterior.
So this post is to help the world see what the Viking Ship has been, and hopefully to inspire people to consider what it could become. What do you think?