Fort Omaha
Omaha, Nebraska, USA

Historic Fort Omaha, located at 30th and Fort Streets in Omaha, Nebraska, entered into service in 1868.

The decision to place the fort in Omaha was not without debate. The U.S. Army, having decided to abandon posts along the Bozeman Trail, needed a new location at which troops could be temporarily housed before being moved to points west by rail and other modes of transportation. Omaha business leaders recognized that such a post could result in significant economic gain for the young city. To provide land for the new fort, business leaders purchased 42 acres of land from Omaha banker Augustus Kountze, which would, in turn, be sold to the United States government at a reduced price.

Construction of "Omaha Barracks" began in September 1868 and was completed three months later. As the tradition of the era dictated, the barracks were built around a large, central parade ground. Battery C of the 3rd U.S. Artillery from Fort Kearney, Nebraska, would be the first troops to arrive.

Wooden buildings, being less than desirable structures for the housing of troops, were eventually replaced by brick structures. While infantry and cavalry units initially occupied the fort, the Army Signal Corps and the Observation Balloon Corps also utilized the facility. The Navy occupied Fort Omaha from 1947-1974.

Omaha's Metropolitan Community College began using the facility in August 1975 for technical and other types of training. The facility is now a thriving community college that has preserved a historical focal point of north Omaha. Terms of use for Metropolitan Community College dictate that the historic parade ground and exteriors of brick buildings cannot be altered.

Fort Omaha served as departmental headquarters for the Department of the Platte, which was created in 1866 upon the recommendation of Lt. General William T. Sherman. It was from Fort Omaha that U.S. Army campaigns were coordinated against Native American groups, such as the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, Nez Perce and Ute. Soldiers also participated in the protection of construction crews and mail coaches as well as assisting with road construction, telegraphic services and mapping.

The homes of Fort Omaha's "Officer's Row" were constructed in 1906. The comparatively simple homes of Officers Row were built to specifications intended to satisfy the budget requirements that were dictated by taxpayer pressure at the time. Officers stationed at Fort Omaha were included among the social elite of Omaha. Visiting dignitaries often met with the officers of Fort Omaha.

The centerpiece of historic Fort Omaha and Officers Row is the Crook House. This property has been designated as a Nebraska State Historic Site. General Crook established his headquarters at Fort Omaha in 1879. His headquarters were later moved to a location in downtown Omaha in order to be closer to the Union Pacific terminal and warehouses.

In April 1909, Fort Omaha began its role as a training and testing center for the military use of hot air balloons for reconnaissance missions. As World War I neared, Fort Omaha was reactivated to house a Balloon School led by Captain Charles Chandler. Balloonists were trained in map reading and charting troop movements. This information would be communicated through an extensive switchboard system to troops on the ground. The Caquot, the best of the "captive" stationary balloons, utilized tail fins for stabilization and cables to tether the balloon to the ground.

During World War I, citizen groups thrived. The efforts of such groups provided the soldiers of Fort Omaha with opportunities for recreation. Organizations such as the YMCA and Knights of Columbus organized athletic and musical events. The Post Exchange and Gymnasium was constructed in 1907. Soldiers also appreciated the respite from military chow that was provided by the homecooked meals prepared by these organizations at the canteen.

In 1876, a time of significant activity for Fort Omaha, the area included four stables, corrals and a wagon repair yard. A nearby spur of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad connected Fort Omaha to the downtown Quartermaster Depot.

The Omaha Quartermaster Depot, while originally located at 13th and Webster Streets, was moved to Fort Omaha in 1879. The Quartermaster's Depot at Fort Omaha oversaw various supply lines to the Department of the Platte. Omaha provided necessary transportation links to the region. The depot was later returned to a location closer to downtown Omaha, 22nd and Woolworth Streets.

An ordnance magazine for Fort Omaha was completed in 1884. This building served as the storage place for various weaponry and ammunition. The Army Balloon School later used this building as a monitoring station for its Signal Corps.

Living conditions during the early days of Fort Omaha were often suspect. A wooden guard house was constructed in 1868. In 1883, the post surgeon reported that the building was too small, rotten and infested with vermin. Recognizing this fact, the Officer of the Guard and his assistant worked from a separate building in an effort to escape the harsh conditions. The wooden structure was soon replaced with a brick building. It was also determined, in 1869, that only two of the wells at Fort Omaha were providing safe drinking water. In 1879, the post surgeon declared that the base hospital was "totally uninhabitable" due to its poor conditions and lack of indoor facilities. The Army Signal Corps constructed completed a new base hospital in 1906. This hospital building would later serve as a recruiting center during both world wars.

In 1906, the Army Signal Corps also constructed a double barracks building to house its non-commissioned officers. The building served various purposes during wartime.

After an extensive remodeling project to convert it from a filtration plant, the Post Exchange Building was opened in 1923. The building housed the post switchboard as well as serving as the fire station. The Exchange Building was later converted to a residence for the Post Commander.

 

Entrance Gates of Fort Omaha

Bourke Gate entrance sign
Shiverick Gate
Shiverick Gate entrance sign

An excellent, self-guided walking tour of historic Fort Omaha begins at the northeast corner of the central parade grounds. Fourteen stops are designated by explanatory markers.

The markers that describe the tour of historic Fort Omaha have been placed by:
Metropolitan Community College
Historical Society of Douglas County
Nebraska Committee for the Humanities

While all photos that have been included in this essay were taken on 19 January 2002, the information and drawings that are presented are, in part, taken from the markers of the walking tour.

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