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Omaha, Nebraska

Omaha Skyline

Early Development of Omaha

The territory that would eventually become the city of Omaha, Nebraska, was acquired as a part of the Louisiana Purchase, which was completed by Thomas Jefferson in 1803. The open plains of the central United States were, at this time, uncharted lands which held uncertain potential for the developing nation.

Native American groups were the first inhabitants of the region. These groups included the Pawnee, Otoe and Sioux. By the early eighteenth century the Omaha Indians, a group of Indians who shared cultural traditions with the Pawnee, had moved into the vicinity of present-day Omaha. The word "Omaha" means "against the current." It is speculated that the Omaha Indians were referred to as such due to their earlier, northward movements against the current of the Mississippi River.

On July 21, 1804, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, passed through the area and noted that the territory would be a good area for the establishment of a trading and fortification outpost. The fur trade played a significant role in the early development of the region.

During their trek west, Mormons established the first non-Native settlements in the region at what would become known as Cutler's Park. This area served as temporary quarters for individuals as they moved west from June, 1846, until the Spring of 1848. Travelers suffered many deaths during their stay in the area due to the challenging climate, poor living conditions, lack of adequate food and resulting disease.

After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act on May 30, 1854, the land on the west bank of the Missouri River across from Council Bluffs, Iowa, was opened to settlement and quickly gained the attention of developers. Though the land was not legally surveyed until 1857, Alfred D. Jones surveyed the land for the Council Bluffs and Nebraska Ferry Company and plotted the land around present-day Capitol Avenue. Businessman Jesse Lowe selected the name of the city as "Omaha City." On July 4, 1854, a picnic was held on Capitol Hill (the present day location of Central High School) to celebrate the opening of the new territory. By July 11, the first resident of Omaha City, William P. Snowden, had built a crude log structure at Twelfth and Jackson Streets. The structure would eventually become known as the St. Nicholas Hotel and served as an early claim house for settlers. Omaha was officially incorporated by the state legislature on February 2, 1857.

Controversy surrounded the location of the territorial capitol, which would remain in Omaha until the first session of the Nebraska State Legislature in 1867. Citizens of Bellevue, Florence and Omaha, all recognized the potential for economic gain that would result from the seat of government. It was also speculated that such an area would be a prime candidate for the passage of the transcontinental railway.

Land speculation was the most significant industry during the early days of Omaha. The economic panic of 1857 resulted in the failure of all but one bank and significant losses for land speculators. Freight traffic developed slowly in the Omaha area. The freight industry was aided by the construction of telegraph lines through the Omaha area. Edward Creighton, an Omaha freighter, served as the contractor for telegraph lines through the Omaha area and, eventually, all the way to Salt Lake City.

Arguably the most significant event in the early development of Omaha was the passage of the Pacific Railroad Act on June 24, 1862. This act provided for the construction of a transcontinental railroad from an unspecified point on the Missouri River to a western terminus at Sacramento or San Francisco, California. During his campaign for the presidency, Abraham Lincoln visited Council Bluffs. He purchased, as an investment, a small plot of land where it was suggested that the rail line may eventually cross the Missouri River. On November 17, 1863, Lincoln declared that Omaha would be the eastern terminus of the new transcontinental railroad. On December 2, 1863, a groundbreaking ceremony for the railroad was held in Omaha and a celebration took place at Herndon House at Ninth and Farnam Streets.

Political and financial controversies surrounded the initial construction of the rail lines. On July 8, 1865, the first locomotive, the "General Sherman," arrived in Omaha. On July 10, 1865 the first rails were laid at Seventh and Chicago Streets. Track construction progressed at the pace of one-quarter mile per day at the beginning. The end of the Civil War, however, resulted in significant labor forces for the project. The transcontinental railroad was officially completed with the "Wedding of the Rails" at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869.

Omaha experienced a rail boom and an early culture supported by a majority male population, which fed the development of bars, gambling houses and brothels. Early industry in Omaha also included brick manufacturing, breweries, and smelting.

The need for infrastructure soon developed in the city as, besides the poor construction of many houses, the city lacked sewage, garbage collection, fire prevention and water delivery services. Many of the original streets of Omaha underwent significant grading to better serve the needs of business and transportation services. The coming of the Omaha Horse Street Railway System in 1867 was the first sign of Omaha's expansion westward. The line ran from Ninth and Farnam Streets to Eighteenth and Cass Streets. A cable car system was added in 1884, with the powerhouse located at Twentieth and Harney Streets. In 1889 the cable car system combined operations with the horse street railway. Omaha's first true suburb, Dundee, was added to the line in 1891. This arrival of transportation to Dundee increased the demand for lots in the area.

Wholesale industries, such as John Deere and the grocery supplier Lacey and McCormick, experienced significant growth during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries as the railroad supplied those individuals who had settled in the western United States. By 1900, goods in excess of US$62.5 million were sold by the Omaha wholesalers, whose operations were in the "Jobber's Canyon" district.

Omaha's first public school building was built in September of 1863. When Nebraska achieved statehood status in 1867, the land occupied by the former capitol building was given to the schools. In 1891, there were sixty-one schools employing 500 teachers.

The development of the stockyards spurred the growth of South Omaha. While the South Omaha stockyards were initially seen as a resting place for cattle on their way to larger markets, such as Chicago, the industry expanded into packing operations and was the nation's third largest stockyards by 1893.

In 1892, Omaha was at the center of Populist political movement in the country as the People's Party held their national convention here. The party, while short lived, received 8.5% of the votes nationwide in 1892. Supporters of the party's candidates included farmers and many urban workers in the east. Populist thought gained literary significance during this time with such works as L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. Ever wonder why "Omaha" was written on the balloon that the wizard escapes in at the end of The Wizard of Oz? While being a timeless work of children's literature, the book is also a thinly veiled allegory of Populist thought.

The Trans-Mississippi Exposition was held in Omaha in 1898. The exposition was held, in part, as a response to the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, which showcased the advances of mainly eastern companies. The Trans-Mississippi Exposition, which opened on June 1, 1898, publicized the economic, industrial and cultural achievements of 28 of the then 45 states in existence. States represented were mainly those west of the Mississippi River. Structures of the exposition were temporary. The exposition's initial run lasted six months and attracted 2.6 million visitors. President McKinley spoke at the exposition on October 12, 1898, to an audience of nearly 99,000 people. The exposition closed on October 31, 1898, with 61,000 people in attendance.

Jess Peterson, www.historicomaha.com

The City of Omaha Moving Forward

The establishment of the Union Stockyards and the great packing houses in the 1880s invigorated the Omaha economy and drew to the city immigrants from Southern Europe and an assortment of colorful individuals who figured prominently in the city's growth. After a flood in 1881, residents relocated to the other side of the Missouri River, triggering another real estate boom. Fifty-two brickyards were by that time in operation, producing more than 150 million bricks each year. Omaha's first skyscraper, the New York Life Insurance Building (renamed the Omaha Building in 1909), dates from this era.

The Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben (Nebraska spelled backwards), Omaha's leading civic organization, was created in 1895 to promote the city; they organized the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in 1898, bringing more than one million people to a city of less than 100,000 in a year-long event. The Omaha Grain Exchange was established at the turn of the century, helping the city develop as a grain market. Agriculture has proved to be the city's economic base, augmented by insurance.

The Father Edward J. Flanagan founded Boys Town in the Omaha area in 1917 with 90 dollars he borrowed and with the philosophy that "there is no such thing as a bad boy." This internationally famous boys' home, which was incorporated as a village in 1936, is located west of the city and now provides a home for boys and girls alike. After World War II, Omaha native and aviation pioneer Arthur C. Storz, son of brewing giant Gottlieb Storz, lobbied to have Omaha designated the headquarters of the U.S. Air Force. Today, Omaha's Offutt Air Force Base serves as headquarters of the Strategic Command, or USSTRATCOM.

During the 1980s, while other cities were trying to attract industries, Omaha began a highly successful campaign to attract telecommunications companies. Promoting advantages like cheap real estate, comparatively low wage and cost of living, and its educated and reliable work force, Omaha succeeded to the point that by 1991 its telecommunications jobs were more than twice the number of meatpacking jobs. Omaha is also home to several of the nation's largest telemarketers.

Omaha's community leaders have addressed the need for growth within the city by implementing a $2 billion downtown development plan including condominiums and town-houses along with considerable business growth. A new Hilton Hotel accompanied the expansive Qwest Center Omaha that opened in 2003. The commitment to Omaha's healthy business environment is reflected in several recognitions such as Expansion Management magazine's third-place ranking for "Best Place to Locate Your Company" in 2003 and its inclusion on Entrepreneur magazine's 20 best cities for small business.

Nearly half a million people currently reside in the Omaha area. Omaha continues to enjoy its rich, frontier heritage, while experiencing continued economic and cultural advances.

Did You Know?

  • Omaha ranked 1st on the list of mid-sized "Best Cities for Relocating Families" (Primacy Relocation & Worldwide ERC - 2008)
  • Omaha is ranked as the 2nd "Best Bargain Markets in 2008" (MSN Real Estate - 2008)
  • Omaha ranked 2nd among the "Best Concert Markets" according to a study by The Media Audit, (Radio Advertising Bureau - 2008)
  • Omaha ranked 3rd among the "Top 10 Best Cities in 2008" (Kiplinger's Personal Finance - 2008)
  • Omaha ranked 3rd on the 2008 Salary Value Index among the "Best Cities to Build Personal Wealth" (Salary.com - 2008)
  • Omaha ranked 8th among the "Best Cities for Jobs in 2008" (Forbes - 2008)
  • Omaha is 8th for "Best Places to Live for Affordable Housing" (CNNMoney.com - 2008)
  • Omaha ranked second among mid-size "Top Metros of 2007" in terms of landed economic development projects (Site Selection - 2008)
  • Omaha is 15th in the "Top 20 Cities with the Most Educated Workforce"(Business Facilities - 2008)
  • Omaha is in the top five mid-size "Best Cities for Mid-Career Professionals" (Richard Florida - 2008)
  • Omaha ranked 9th among "Best Cities for Data Centers" (The Boyd Co./Information Week - 2008)
  • Omaha is ranked 22nd for "Best Places to Live and Launch a Business" (Forbes Small Business - 2008)
  • Omaha ranked as the 34th "Best Place for Business and Careers" (Forbes - 2008)
  • Omaha is listed as one of the top four locations that "may well be your artist's paradise" for appreciation of the arts and hospitality to artists (Artist’s Magazine - 2008)
  • Omaha ranks among the "Top 20 Best Places to Raise a Family"TODAY.msnbc.com - 2008)
  • Omaha was one of the seven cities worldwide highlighted in a Wall Street Journal Special Report on "Economic Development Success Stories" (Wall Street Journal- 2008)
  • Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo was selected as Parents' Pick "Best Day Camp for Big Kids" (Nickelodeon's - 2008)
Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau Omaha Chamber of Commerce
City of Omaha Omaha NEbraska.com
City-Data.com Omaha on Wikipedia
Historic Omaha Douglas County Historical Society