A Short History of the Early Development of Omaha, Nebraska


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.

Political scandals were rampant in the growing city at this time and during the Great Depression. Omaha's frontier tradition of gambling and prostitution combined with the underground economy which arose from prohibition, resulted in a volatile mix of entrepreneurism and greed.

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.

- Jess Peterson


For a decidedly more detailed examination of Omaha's history, I recommend the following books:

The Gate City: A History of Omaha, Lawrence H. Larsen and Barbara J. Cottrell. Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Publishing Co., 1982, University of Nebraska Press,1997.

History of Omaha: From the Pioneer Days to the Present Time, Alfred Sorenson. Omaha: Gibson, Miller & Richardson, 1889.

Union Pacific Country, Robert G. Athearn. Chicago: Rand McNally & Co., 1971.

Omaha & Douglas County: A Panoramic History, Dorothy Devereux Dustin. Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, 1980.

A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha, David L. Bristow. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Press, 2000.

Articles contained in the official publication of the Nebraska State Historical Society, Nebraska History, are also an invaluable source.

return to HistoricOmaha.com homepage