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Nebraska...Our Towns

Omaha

Douglas County

The people who started "a town across the river from Council Bluffs" never envisioned this. Omaha, with its ever-changing skyline, is "Nebraska's city above all others upon a stream" or anywhere else in the state. [World Herald photo, DCHS]
A sketch of the Mormon's Winter Quarters in 1846-47. [DCHS]
The "frontier town" of Omaha City, Capital of Nebraska Territory, from the 1858 edition of Frank Leslie's newspaper. [Omaha Public Library Reference Dept. DCHS]
Five steamboats at the Omaha wharf at the foot of Farnam Street, in the late 1860s. The Colorado carried the UPs first locomotive from St. Louis in 1865. [Joslyn Art Museum, DCHS]
NW view of Omaha towards Capitol Hill, 1870s. [DCHS]
View towards the river, 1872-75. [O'Connor, DCHS]
FModern electric streetcars helped the city grow.
Two-horse street car in front of the Jacobs Block, ca. 1875. [DCHS]
The Grand Court at night, 1899. During the Exposition. [B.Grunwald]
The "East Midway" filled with tourists. [B.Grunwald & DCHS]
Omaha, about 1900, looking east down Capital Avenue. The Douglas Street bridge completed, far right. [DCHS]

Omaha was created out of the visions and dreams of many hard-working men and women, who -- over the years -- transformed the natural landscape: first into a town, and then into Nebraska's metropolitan city, with a population of nearly 333,000.

The word "Omaha," according to Indian legend, means "above all others upon a stream." Indeed, its location on the Missouri played a key role in its development. The river attracted both Spanish and French explorers and fur traders as early as the 1700s. Americans made their first recorded visit in 1804, in the form of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Clark noted in his journal, "[this] area would make a good location for a trading and military post."

Manual Lisa operated a trading post on the west bank of the river from 1812-23, followed by Jean Pierre Cabanne (1823-33). A decree in 1834, which made the lands west of the Missouri "Indian Territory," prevented settlement by whites for another 20 years. However, a ferry was established at "Trader's Point" to accommodate emigrants who were "just passing through," heading west to Oregon or California.

Changes in the late 1840s, when a multitude of Mormons arrived, was amazing and irreversible. After their flight from Illinois, the Mormons paused at Miller's Hollow (in Iowa). Then in 1846, with permission from Big Elk, Chief of the Omahas, Brigham Young led them across the Missouri to "Cold Spring" (probably on the Little Papio near 61st Street). After a few months they moved to "Cutler's Park" (in northern Omaha). In September, they moved again to "Winter Quarters" (the Florence area), where they constructed a city for 4,000 people.

The quality of construction varied greatly, from two-story houses with wood floors, to dugouts with sod fronts. Before the year was over, more than 700 had perished from exposure, malnutrition, and sickness. The area was abandoned in 1848 when many headed west to "the promised land" in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, and others returned to Iowa to await their turn. Today, all that remains is a mill and the cemetery.

The Gold Rush of 1849 popularized the Mormon Trail, and west-bound travelers helped to dispel the myth that Nebraska was "the great American desert." Soon great public pressure was placed on officials to open the area to settlement. This was accomplished in 1854 when a delegation of Omaha Indians, headed by Logan Fontenelle, signed the papers in Washington D.C. ceding much of their lands to the government for a payment of nearly $850,000. With this treaty and the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the territory was ready for settlement.

"Omaha City" was actually organized by the owners of the Council Bluffs & Nebraska Ferry Company, which ran between Iowa and the Nebraska Territory. They had prospered from the gold rush trade, during which Council Bluffs had become an outfitting center and "jumping-off point" for the overland route. Now its business leaders hoped to entice the proposed transcontinental railroad to their city, and felt their chances would be improved if there was a city on the west bank of the river opposite Council Bluffs. Alfred Jones, Omaha City's first postmaster, platted the town site early in 1854 laying out 320 blocks.

All the towns along the river immediately became embroiled in the fight for the territorial capital. Not only would that designation ensure their dominance in the new territory, but it would also give them an advantage in attracting the railroad. At the first meeting of the territorial legislature, held in Omaha City on January 16, 1855, Florence, Bellevue, and a number of other towns pleaded their virtues, but the host town immerged as the winner! Omaha City was named county seat for Douglas County the following year, and incorporation procedures completed on February 2, 1857.

"Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper," November 6, 1858, reported:

Omaha City... capital of Nebraska Territory...has a population of about 4,000. It has a pleasant and commanding site, and is built close upon the margin of the river...[and] contains some magnificent buildings.

Omaha has, through great opposition, held the capital since the organization of the Territory...[and] is the most populous city...[with] a commanding commercial position, the only drawback being want of a good landing, which a little expense might remedy.

The site...was first known as the "Lone Tree Ferry," where, for several years, W.D.Brown ran a flatboat across the river with California emigrants; and the place was an old camping-ground, where the Indian war-dance and other wild extravaganzas were practiced without restraint.

...Omaha, being one of the places earliest settled, has been the theater of many scenes of interest, excitement, and border collision, the pique and jealousy of other rival towns being brought constantly to bear against "the capital."

 

The decision, in 1863, to route the railroad through Council Bluffs guaranteed the growth of its "city across the river" throughout the remainder of the century. By the time the first tracks were laid in July 1865, Omaha (whose post office had dropped the "city" portion of its name) was already a major freight and outfitting center. Its wharves were jammed with steamboats, and the business district was well established.

As territorial days ebbed and statehood was being pushed, the battle for the location of the state capital escalated. While it was almost unthinkable to place the state's capital out on the prairies, miles from "civilization," it happened! After several days of bitter and sometimes violent retaliation against the the representatives who voted for a nonexistent town to be called "Lincoln" in Lancaster County, local businessmen were persuaded that, "it was a prize that Omaha could afford to let go."

While most other towns were in their infancy, the people of Omaha were transforming their town into patterns reminiscent of the homes left behind. Resonant with the sounds of men and women working to make a living, build homes, schools, and churches, this progressive young city was on its way.

Omaha's role in military history dates from 1868 when "Omaha Barracks" was established to protect railroad workers and settlers. When the headquarters of the Department of the Platte was moved to this location in 1878, it was designated "Fort Omaha." For nearly 30 years it was the gathering and dispersal center for troops guarding the people in Omaha and smaller settlements out-state. In 1888 Fort Crook was organized to provide additional training grounds. Fort Omaha, which had become surrounded by the city, suspended operations in 1896, but reopened between 1905-13 as a school for the Signal Corp, with some classes in ballooning.

In 1916, with gathering war-clouds in Europe, the fort was again activated, this time under the name "Fort Omaha Balloon School," the first such military school in America. After the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917, operations increased to the extent that a sub-post was needed to accommodate men and the maneuvering balloons. "Florence Field," about a mile north of the fort, consisting of 119 acres, was acquired for this purpose.

In the years following the war, Fort Omaha remained under the command of the army. During World War II, it served as a support installation for the 7th Service Command, an induction center, and a work-camp for Italian war prisoners.

Following that war, command of the post was handed over to the navy. The last units of the Navy Reserve Command transferred out in 1974, and the grounds were deeded to Metropolitan Community College, which opened at this site in 1975. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the Historical Society of Douglas County operates the commander's residence as a restored house museum.

Omaha faced a period of hard-times, back in the 1870s, along with the rest of the nation, but grew despite economic problems elsewhere because of the traffic being funneled through the city. It achieved phenomenal progress in "the great expansionary period" of the 1880s, augmented by the continued rapid settlement of the state. The Union Pacific, and other emerging railroads, actively recruited settlers from the East and abroad, selling them "railroad land" in Nebraska. The claims that "the amount of rain increased with the amount of sod broken" was believed, and Nebraska's population more than doubled during that decade from just over 450,000 to well over 1,000,000. Suddenly, Omaha had an agricultural hinterland.

Spurred by Edward Rosewater's criticism in the "Omaha Bee" newspaper, whose editorials attacked Omaha's "do-nothing attitude" of the 1870s, businessmen responded by building the industries needed to process and market Nebraska's agricultural and mineral wealth. During the 1880s, many of Omaha's flour mills, breweries, and meat and food processing plants were built.

Omaha businessmen also developed a wholesale and jobbers industry which extended west along the railroads, across Nebraska and to the Pacific Coast. Traveling salesmen sold goods to small-town shopkeepers for agents back in Omaha. The goods were then shipped out of Omaha by rail for firms such as M.E.Smith & Co. (a drygoods wholesaler), and Omaha-Baum Iron Store (a wholesaler of hardware). In addition to bringing in millions of dollars in trade, these salesmen played an important role in promoting Omaha's future.

Businessman and promoter William Paxton was a prime mover in the development of Omaha as a livestock center. He helped organize the Union Stock Yards, which ultimately became the largest industry dependent upon the Midwest's agricultural bounty. The town of South Omaha evolved out of the livestock trade and was laid out around the stockyards. Both entities grew rapidly, and by 1890 the population numbered over 10,000 people and claimed four major meat packing plants. At the turn of the century, South Omaha (known as the "Magic City") had over 26,000 inhabitants and was considered the "backbone of Omaha's economy."

Omaha saw a dramatic boom in the 1880s. Exclusive neighborhoods were established such as Kountze Place, Park Wild, and Bemis Park. As the city grew, the "Gold Coast" was developed along the high wooded area to the west of 38th Street; and "West Farnam" became the place to live. This set the pattern for expansion to the west. Successful business and professional people built fashionable homes and mansions in the Blackstone area, the Cathedral-Duchesne area, and even as far west as Happy Hollow and Fairacres.

Omaha's expansion gave rise to the development of a number of small towns at the edge of the city. Dundee and Benson were founded during this period. They became complete communities with post offices, village offices, business districts, schools, and churches, not at all interested in annexation. Immigrants from many European countries found Omaha in need of their talents and skills, ready-made for the establishment of whole colonies in the new world. German, Italian, Scandinavian, Austrian, Irish, Swiss, and Czech communities, complete with a recreation and music hall in which traditional festivals and events abounded. Their contributions to the growth of Omaha was significant. To their credit, many still support the rich ethnic heritage that enrich Omaha's cultural diversity.

The streetcar played an important role in facilitating the development of these communities, along with railroad "motorcars" linking out-lying towns, separated by miles of farm land from the city. Seymour Park (Ralston), Millard, Irvington, and Bennington, also developed on the fringes of Omaha's prosperity.

In 1893 the bubble burst when over-expansion, coupled with a drought, resulted in a "money panic." With the economy nearly paralyzed, Omaha's new subdivisions and these newly-platted towns stood still. Stores, manufacturing, and processing plants closed; thousands lost their jobs and eventually left the area. All new construction ceased and many homes stood empty.

Fortunately, when the economy began to recover in the last part of the decade, a leader emerged for Omaha. Gurdon Wattles orchestrated the "Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition" of 1898. It stretched over an 180-acre tract in north Omaha and featured a 2,000 feet-long lagoon which was encircled by 21 classical buildings exhibiting the world's finest and most modern products. "Tourism" had arrived. The Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben, organized in 1895, provided a new dimension to the community.

By 1901 Wattles had consolidated all the independent streetcar lines into one company, and in 1903 he helped organize the Omaha Grain Exchange and the Omaha Business Men's Association (a group vowing to keep labor unions out of Omaha and maintain open shops). Downtown construction and housing developments, platted in the 1880s boom, resumed.

In the midst of the wave of prosperity following the turn of the century, nature delivered a catastrophic blow. Eastern Nebraska became "tornado alley" in 1913, the most devastating of which struck Omaha on Easter Sunday. The tornado demolished or damaged over 2,800 homes and businesses, took 140 lives, and injured another 400. A similar storm in 1975 caused many thousands of dollars more in damages, but because of an early warning system, far fewer injuries. In both instances, the people rallied together to clean up the debris and help to rebuild.

Omaha's skyline shot upward, as Wattles completed the Fontenelle Hotel in 1913. Adding to Omaha's growth were the annexations of South Omaha and Dundee in 1915, followed by Florence and Benson in 1917. (Fairacres "resisted annexation" until the early 1940s.)

The political leader of this period was mayor "Cowboy Jim" Dahlman, who served from 1906-18, and 1921-30. Dahlman was closely associated with "city boss" Tom Dennison, who was alleged to have support from both parties at all levels of local government. Even with a changed to a commission-form of government in 1911, Dahlman was again appointed mayor. Major accomplishments of these years included the city's purchase of the waterworks, the gas company, and formation of the metro-utilities district in 1921.

Signs of hard-times were being felt even before the stock market crash in 1929. To their credit, not one of Omaha's banks failed as a result of that event. When new leaders were elected in the 1930s, Omaha was faced with the Depression, coupled with the drought which destroyed the crops and economic base of the farmlands that supplied Omaha's industries. It brought the city to a virtually standstill.

By 1932 relief funds were drained. Not even the "alphabet soup relief" created by President F.D.Roosevelt did much for Omaha. What finally ignited the economy was the end of the drought in 1939, and increasing orders for war materials needed for the conflict in Europe. In 1939 Omahans celebrated the world premiere of the Paramount movie "Union Pacific" during the week-long "Gold Spike Days."

World War II, that burst upon the nation on December 7, 1941, brought great changes to Omaha. While no large war-industries were located within the city, many people worked at nearby plants: the Martin Bomber plant at Fort Crook, and the ordnance plant at Mead. Many were employed at food processing plants, turning out tons of flour, cereal, butter, meat, and dehydrated foods. Still others worked at the Omaha Alcohol Plant, where corn was turned into fuel. Largest of its kind in the world, it produced 50,000 gallons of alcohol daily "for the war effort." Omaha's work force climbed from 80,000 in 1940 to over 100,000 by 1945.

Omaha was justly proud of its volunteer efforts. It received recognition for having started the national "scrap metal drive," for support of war bonds, and for the Red Cross Center and Canteen at the railroad depots, which hosted thousands of soldiers and never closed.

By the end of the war, Omaha was already planning improvements. In 1946 the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) began operations, completing the goal of public ownership of utilities. In 1947 both the downtown Aksarben Bridge and the South Omaha Bridge were made toll-free. The first federally financed housing was started in 1948, and the municipal baseball stadium was built in 1949.

In Omaha's centennial year, 1954, ground was broken for a civic auditorium. At the charter convention held to review municipal government, A.V.Sorensen emerged as the man who could provide leadership, keep the delegates on track, and encourage them to make the necessary changes. The convention decided on "a strong mayoral system" in which voters elect seven council members, responsible for executive matters, and a mayor, who appoints department heads to serve at his behest. Sorensen also was a "good salesman," getting the voter to approve the new charter that November. He continued to serve the city, first as councilman through the transition, and later as mayor.

In 1956 Omaha had, at long last, surpassed Chicago as the world's largest livestock market. That same year Western Electric built a plant on a 390-acre site near Millard that would employ thousands.

In 1957 Omaha was chosen the "All-American City" by the National Municipal League and by Look Magazine. At the award dinner, held in the new auditorium, Omahans reflected proudly on their thriving businesses, good schools and colleges, hospitals, churches, public parks and other recreational and cultural attractions, which ranged from art museums and the symphony to horse racing. Indeed, life during the 1950s seemed solid.

Within the next decade, however, Omaha began to experience the disquieting changes that typified urban life in America during the last half of the 20th century. Sorensen emerged from retirement in 1965, replacing Mayor Dworak's controversial administration. Armed with his take-charge attitude of facing problems head-on, Sorensen dealt with the problems of busing and the desegregation of schools, urban sprawl and the decay of the downtown business core, open housing and integration in the work place, as well as increasing crime and violence. Sorensen, felt by many to be Omaha's best mayor, brought the city through some very trying times, and helped to create a "New Omaha."

Diversification was the key to Omaha's new economy, which includes a broad class of manufacturing and processing plants, and many service industries. The world's largest health and accident company, Mutual of Omaha, as well as United of Omaha, Guarantee Mutual, Woodman of the World, and Physicians Mutual, are among the more than 40 insurance companies with home offices in the city.

Transportation, so important in Omaha's early growth, currently provides an even greater role in delivering products, goods, and people around the country and the world. The Omaha Airport Authority, created in 1959, recently oversaw a $60 million expansion project. Eppley Airfield provides facilities to commercial and general aviation, serving 12 major and several commuter airlines. Omaha, corporate headquarters for the Union Pacific Railroad, remains a major employer in the city, having installed a computerized system train dispatching center in the newly-restored UP freight station on the south edge of the Con Agra campus.

Likewise, communications remains important to Omaha's economic development. Beginning back in 1861, under the guidance of Edward Creighton (for whom Creighton University was named), the Western Union Telegraph Company strung the first telegraph wires west of Omaha, eventually linking the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. In 1941 American Telephone & Telegraph began installing underground cable west from Omaha, linking the city with long distance phone service to the west coast. Today, in 1990, U.S.West Communications has its 13-state corporate headquarters in Omaha. Quality phone service, equipment, and Omaha's central location has spurred the growth of the telecommunications and telemarketing industry. Over 20 reservation centers employ more than 10,000 Omahans, making this the "800-capital of the world."

Ag-related industries continue to be an integral part of Omaha's heritage, and have grown to dominate the food processing industry. In addition to meat packers, major employers include the Kellogg Company, which daily turns the yield of thousands of acres of corn into corn flakes, and the Campbell Soup Company, which produces frozen Swanson and LeMenu products. Most recently, Con Agra has again transformed Omaha's downtown skyline by building its modern world headquarters on 30 acres of the 113-acre riverfront-redevelopment project in the once-bustling Jobbers Canyon. Con Agra, with annual sales of $15 billion, processes products of Omaha's hinterlands and those of the world.

Today, the dreams remain the same, only the names of the dreamers have changed. Omaha's builders now include corporate executives such as Harper, Scott, Stoney, Walsh, and Yanney, and politicians include Morgan, Albert, Kerrey, and others. As in 1854, the city is still resonant with the sounds of men and women working to build a good living, and dreaming for the future.

By Roger Reeves, Historical Society of Douglas County, Box 11398, Fort Omaha, NE 68111

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: History of Nebraska , by Andreas; The 1898 Exposition, Rinehart; Omaha and Douglas County, 1980, Dustin; Glimpses of Omaha, Grant; The Gate City: A History of Omaha, 1982, Larsen & Cottrell; History of the City of Omaha & South Omaha, 1894, Savage, Bell & Butterfield; The Story of Omaha, From the Pioneer Days to the Present Time, 1923, Sorensen; Omaha, The Gate City, and Douglas County, 1917, Wakely; A.V.Sorensen and the New Omaha , 1987, Dalstrom; Born Rich: A Historical Book of Omaha , 1978, Killian; and the Criss Lecture Series: The Mormon Experience at the Missouri, Bennett; The Indians of Eastern Nebraska at the Time of White Settlement, [Ethnography of the Pawnee & Omaha] Clark; A.V.Sorensen & the New Omaha, Dalstrom; Urban Visions [City Planning in 20th Century Omaha], Daly; Frontier Omaha & Its Relationship to Other Urban Centers, Larsen; Early Pioneer Trails and Their Impact Upon the Omaha Area, Martin; and Urban Settlement & Growth in Douglas County, Peterson, all in 1989.