Romance of Omaha, Chapter XIX

For thirteen years after Omaha was founded there were no street cars, water mains, gas, or electric lights in the new but growing town.

The people depended upon their own foot power or upon horses and carriages for their transportation.

They used tallow candles and oil lamps for lighting purposes.

One one occasion when Omaha citizens wished to make a brave night display, the windows of the old capitol on Capitol hill were each illuminated by a dozen large candles.

The brilliancy of the modern electric light was not even dreamed of, and the gas stove, modern bathroom and other conveniences, now accepted as a matter of course, were not in existence.

For several years after being founded Omaha was a town without a bath tub.

Baths an Adventure

Saturday night ablutions in the old wooden tub in the center of the kitchen floor were no uncommon thing. Or the hardy seekers after cleanliness took a dip in the river. The Saturday bath was an institution not lightly given over to modern changes.

Women carried water from well or cistern, except when they could induce their husbands to carry it for them, and the old wood cook stove, and later on the base burner, were to be found in every home.

The first agitation for a city water works system was started as early as 1857.

Several times in the following 20 years the question of a water system was brought up without any action being taken. An artesian well system was the favorite with the early settlers. They looked askance at the Missouri river water.

Cisterns in Streets

Before the water plant was built, large cisterns were constructed in the middle of the street intersections in the business district.

Water was pumped from those cisterns when a business building caught fire. They proved better than nothing, but at that were far from satisfactory.

Although the water supply question was discussed for years before people even thought of a gas plant, the latter was the first to be installed.

It was in 1868 that a group of Omaha men formed a gas company and in the spring of 1869 work was commenced on the system. By November, 1869, there were 198 users of gas in the city and 100 street lamps were providing public illumination. Before that time Omaha was in darkness at night and the folks out after dark had to carry their own lanterns or take their chances.

Now 49,000 Gas Meters

When gas was first turned into the mains, the company charged $3 a thousand cubic feet for it. Omaha took to gas rather slowly, but at the present time there are 49,000 gas meters in use in the city, transmitted through 465 miles of mains. Omaha consumes one and a quarter billion cubic feet of gas each year.

Apparently tired of walking or riding horseback or in carriages, Omaha turned to street cars in 1867.

The Omaha Horse Railway company was the pioneer concern. It built tracks from Ninth and Farnam streets to Eighteenth and Cass streets.

At first the fare was 10 cents each way or eight rides for 50 cents. In 1872, fare boxes were installed and the fare was reduced to 5 cents a ride. Four years later the lines were extended up St. Mary avenue.

Straw in Street Cars

All cars were drawn by horses. In winter straw was strewn on the floor of the cars to help keep the passengers' feet warm.

By April, 1889, Omaha had 30 miles of street railway, with an investment of $1,000,000. In 1888 the line to Council Bluffs was finished and the Douglas street bridge was opened to traffic.

Cable cars followed the horse cars, the power being furnished from a cable that ran underground in the middle of the track. When the installation of overhead wires was proposed the citizens objected seriously and even went to court about it, but failed to block the wheels of progress.

Third on the list of public utilities to be installed in Omaha was the waterworks.

Waterworks Arrives

The system was opened in 1881 with 17 miles of pipe.

Omaha's first big municipal scandal developed in connection with the waterworks agitation. A prominent citizen was charged with bribing a councilman, but the charge was not substantiated.

On August 1, 1889, the Florence waterworks was opened and a big day it was. Speeches were made and a banquet was served at what is still called the Minne Lusa pumping station.

Omaha now has about 50,000 water meters in use.

During this time, or up to the early 80s, Omaha was satisfied with gas. Gas lights, gas stove and gas street lights were being installed and everyone considered them the last word in illumination.

The old, flickery, unstable and yellow gas flame that flared out of the "jet" burner was so much more satisfactory than candles or oil lamps that no one criticised it until the advent of the electric light.

Electricity's Advent

The first electric light company was formed in 1883, and about that time the first electric lights were turned on in Omaha. It was a big day, not only in Omaha, but in all western cities and towns when electric street lights were first turned on. Everyone was down town to see them.

Gradually the electric street light forced out the old street gas lamp, and the school boys, who earned quite a little sum turning on and off the gas lamps on the streets, lost their jobs.

Service given by the old Omaha waterworks company was not the best in the world and agitation for municipal ownership of the plant started as early as 1896. United States Senator R.B. Howell was the prime mover in the fight to take over the water plant.

City Buys Plant

The city eventually bought the plant on July 1, 1912, for $6,319,000, a rather stiff price. In 1920 the city acquired the gas plant for approximately $4,600,000. Some time previously a municipal ice plant was started.

At the present time the municipal plants, water, gas and ice, represent a total investment of more than $25,000,000. The original cost was approximately $11,600,000.

The additional investment has been made from the profits of the three plants. Prices have been reduced several times. The latest reduction in gas takes effect January 1, 1929.

Omaha is fortunate in having not only well managed municipal plants, but also a well managed street railway system and electric light plant.

Light and power rates in Omaha are lower than are those of any city in the country similarly situated.

The net rate on residential lighting is 5½ cents a kilowatt hour, one of the lowest rates in the United States.

The street railway system, recently granted a new 30-year franchise, is rapidly being improved. The total investment in all Omaha public utilities is more than $55,000,000.

Chapter XX
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