Short History of Omaha, NE

Omaha enjoys a rich and colorful history.

In 1819 the steamboat Western Engineer passed the plateau where Omaha now stands. It was the first steamboat to ascend the Missouri River to that point. T. B. Roye (or Royce) established a trading post within the present city limits of Omaha in 1825.

In 1846 the Mormons, led by Brigham Young, established the temporary settlement of Winter Quarters (in the present-day Florence area) where more than 300 died during the harsh winter.

When Nebraska became an organized territory under the Nebraska-Kansas Act of May 30, 1854, the Council Bluffs & Nebraska Ferry Company hired Council Bluffs surveyor Alfred D. Jones to prepare a survey of “Omaha City.” The original town plat consisted of 320 blocks, each 264 feet square. All the streets were made 100 feet in width, except for Capitol Avenue and Twenty-First Street, which were 120 feet wide. Men and women from Council Bluffs celebrated the beginning of Omaha at a Fourth of July picnic in the future town.

Jones convinced an Iowa Congressman that he, Jones, should be postmaster of the new town. When he received confirmation from Washington in May of 1854, he had no office. So he designated his own hat as a repository for any mail which might by chance be addressed to “Omaha City.”

The first legislative session in Nebraska was held January 18, 1855, in a brick building in Omaha on Ninth Street between Farnam and Douglas. A room in this building was used for the first school taught in Omaha, beginning on July 1, 1855. Adelaide Goodwill was the first teacher of 40 pupils.

The new town flourished more than its founders had anticipated. This is from the Omaha Times of June 7, 1857:

“1855, June — Number of inhabitants 250 to 300. Best lots sold at $100.

“1856, June — Number of inhabitants about 800. Best lots sold at $600.

“1856, October — Number of inhabitants 1,600. Best lots sold at $2,500.”

In 1857 Governor Izard approved an act of the Legislature incorporating the City of Omaha. Jesse Lowe was elected Omaha’s first mayor on March 2, 1857. He wasted no time in calling for the board of aldermen to convene on March 5. At that meeting notices were given that at an early date several ordinances would be introduced. Among them:

1. To prevent hogs from running at large;

2. To establish a city pound for stray animals;

3. To regulate billiard rooms and bowling alleys;

4. To regulate the sale of intoxicating liquors; and

5. To suppress gambling and gambling rooms.

In 1860 Edward Creighton completed the first telegraph line from St. Louis to Omaha. Hotels, stores, markets, restaurants and saloons sprang up along lower Farnam Street. By 1860 Omaha’s population was 1,883. The telegraph line between Omaha and San Francisco was completed in 1862.

By 1865 Omaha’s population had grown to nearly 5,000. The only police officer was the city marshall, but on March 22, 1866, the city council adopted an ordinance that established a police force of four: John Logan, John Morrissey, Patrick Swift and Thomas Welch. The ordinance provided that the “captain of the city police shall place his men on their beats from 8 o’clock until sunrise.” Two more patrolmen were appointed a few weeks later.

Nebraska was admitted into the Union as a state in 1867. In the 1870s Omaha flourished with streetlights, rail lines, and several large buildings. The name of the post office was changed in 1871 from “Omaha City” to “Omaha.” In 1872 the first train crossed the Missouri River on the Union Pacific bridge. (See article “Nebraska Historic Bridges” in My Portfolio.)

In 1875 an Omaha fire department was formed and professional fire fighters were employed. Creighton College was founded in 1876 and the first Omaha telephone directory was published in 1879, listing 141 subscribers. Between 1898 and 1908 more than 20,000 telephones were installed.

By 1880 Omaha contained over 5,000 dwellings, a dozen large business buildings and 28 churches. Its population was now over 30,000, and more than one third of the people were European immigrants. In 1882 the first asphalt pavement in Omaha was laid on Douglas Street, from Fourteenth to Sixteenth Streets. By January 1, 1916, Omaha had 218 miles of paved streets and alleys.

A warehouse district was developed in the 1880s and J. L. Brandeis opened a large department store. Gilbert Hitchcock founded the Omaha World-Herald in 1885.

In 1893 the Commercial Club (later to become the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce) was founded to improve Omaha’s economy.  The Trans-Mississippi Exposition was held in Omaha in 1898 and marked the beginning of the “Golden Age” for Nebraska farmers. The first horseless carriage appeared on the streets of Omaha.

The Riverpark Zoo began in 1894. Thanks to a $750,000 donation (several million in today’s dollars) by Margaret Hitchcock Doorly in 1963, today’s Henry Doorly Zoo is nationally renowned for its leadership in animal conservation and research. The Zoo includes several notable exhibits. It features the largest cat complex in North America; “Kingdoms of the Night” is the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit and indoor swamp; the Lied Jungle is one of the world’s largest indoor rainforest, and the “Desert Dome” is the world’s largest indoor desert, as well as the largest geodesic dome in the world. The zoo is Nebraska’s number one paid attendance attraction and has welcomed over one million visitors per year.

Otto Bayesdorfer built a vehicle he called the Ottomobile in 1899 and became the first of nearly a dozen Omaha car manufacturers. The Ottomobile weighed 265 pounds, had two cylinders, and could achieve a speed of fifteen miles per hour. However, it could not climb Omaha’s hills.

In 1900 Omaha’s population was 102,000. The University of Omaha was incorporated in 1908. South Omaha, Florence, Benson and Dundee were annexed to the city in 1915 and, in 1917, Father Edward J. Flanagan founded Boys Town. That year Fort Omaha became the site for a World War I army balloon school.

The first traffic light in Omaha in 1924 caused so much confusion that STOP and GO were painted on the appropriate colors.

The Joslyn Art Museum opened in 1931.

By 1948 Omaha had become the nation’s leading meat supplier, generating annual business in excess of $5 billion.

In 1950 new industries came to Omaha and its population was over 300,000. Mutual of Omaha became the nation’s leading accident insurance company, and the College World Series came to Omaha.

Omaha received the “All America Cities Award” from the National Municipal League in 1957.

Omaha’s exciting history has been well preserved, thanks to the dedication of hundreds of volunteers.

The colorful history of the Union Pacific Railroad comes to life at the Union Pacific Historical Museum. Located at 200 Pearl Street in Council Bluffs, the museum gives visitors a fascinating view of Union Pacific from pioneer days to the present.

The Douglas County Historical Society is located in the 1879 General Crook House at Fort Omaha, now the north campus of Metropolitan College at 30th & Fort Streets. The Historical Society’s Library/Archives houses an impressive collection of documents including the complete clipping files of the Omaha World Herald—nearly five million clips. Also available is virtually every newspaper ever published in Douglas County.

The Durham Museum (formerly known as the Western Heritage Museum) is housed in a building which is a monument and museum in itself. For forty years (1931-1971), Omaha’s Union Station at 801 South 10th Street was a busy hub of railway transportation. Today it is the nation’s first restored Art Deco railway station, an Omaha landmark and one of the city’s major tourist attractions.

The museum’s permanent and temporary exhibits tell the story of Omaha’s past. In the Byron Reed Collection one will find some of the most unusual and valuable coins in existence. An internationally recognized Archival Photography Collection documents Omaha from its beginnings in the mid-1800s.




  1. Never realized the zoo’s history when back that far, though I have been going there for almost 30 years!

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