Colorado Gold Discovery Brought on New Boom; Railhead Rivalry Bitter
As Omaha City was founded because of the swarm of emigrants dropping down on KanesviUe following the California gold discovery in 1849, so the same city was to pull out of its critical slump by a new discovery of gold this time in Colorado. This was the Pike's Peak gold rush which lasted into the early 1860's.
The first discovery on Cherry Creek (Denver) caused a heavy tide of new fortune hunters. They swarmed into the Bluffs, crossed the river and planted themselves in Omaha to regroup and resupply themselves. Omaha merchants again found booming business from the heavy traffic. All of them had gold scales with which to weigh gold dust brought in by returning miners.
These returning prospectors who flaunted their tiny bags of dust had stories to tell of how fortunes could be found. Some were authentic; others were wild tales.
The news had reached Plattsmouth December 28, 1858, when A.G. Barnes had arrived with an eagle's quill containing a small quantity of gold which he had claimed he panned on the banks of the Platte three miles above the mouth of Cherry Creek.
In the spring, Omahans Francis Smith and Augustus Kountze sent a "scout" - William N. Byers, law partner of Andrew J. Poppleton - to the Rockies to prove or disprove the discovery - and if proving it to determine its possibilities.
Mr. Smith, a New Yorker who had come to Omaha in 1857 to check on the prospects of the new river town, had opened a bank in a one-story frame building on the south side of Farnam Street west of Twelfth Street. By the the panic had brought interest on money to 5 percent a month, and Mr. Smith's bank had been doing well lending $25 to $150 on watches, jewelry, diamonds, silverware or almost any other type of personal property as security.
Mr. Kountze had been banking up the Missouri River at Dakota City until the depression had forced him to close. Five per cent in Omaha had looked good, and by the miracle of redeeming the bank's entire circulation at par an achievement in those days of wildcat banks he had come down the river and had started a new bank In a small frame building next door to Mr. Smith's.
Thus these two business men took only such precautions as are typical with bankers and were not as some might have thought mere doubters about the possibility of wealth in Colorado.
Mr, Byers reported back to Omaha at the end of a six- week expedition.
"Smith, that gold discovery is O. K.," he said.
Mr. Smith lifted his eyebrows, not so much in skepticism as in surprise. "All right," he replied, "then come to my office and show me and my friends."
At the bank Mr. Byers dropped 40 small bags on the desk. Together the pouches contained gold dust worth 10 thousand dollars. It had been entrusted to him by miners who had requested that he ship it from Omaha to their relatives in the East,
This confirmation was enough to satisfy Messrs Smith and Kountze, and the exodus for Colorado soon began.
But the exodus did not affect adversely Omaha's part in this new emigration. Freighting across the plains increased to such proportions that during 1865 alone a total of 8,960 wagons, 14,260 mules, 59,440 cattle and 11,220 men were engaged in this traffic, transporting 54 thousand tons of freight from Missouri River outfitting points of Atchison, Kansas City, Leavenworth, St. Joseph, Plattsmouth and Omaha.
So fabulous was the demand of transients for supplies that a complete stock of groceries, whisky, shot, powder, picks and shovels, shipped by steamer from St. Louis for the opening of the city's first wholesale grocery house in 1859, was sold out before it could be moved into Jesse H. Lacey's and John McCormick's store at 1306 Farnam Street.
Next door west at that time was M. Tootle & Co. (earlier, Tootle & Jackson), wholesale dry goods, boots and shoes; next door east the wholesale liquor concern of J. C. Mackoy & Co. On the corner of Thirteenth and Farnam Streets, adjacent to J. C. Mackoy & Co., was Charles Beindorf's bakery, a long, narrow, frame, square-faced, pitch-roofed store which was soon replaced by a two-story brick structure first occupied in 1865 by the banking firm of J. A. Ware & Co. The State Bank of Nebraska (later to become the Merchants National) was the next occupant, followed several years after by-Pope Drug Co., which conducts business in the same building today.
This was but one of the thriving business blocks along lower Farnam Street in those years when all over town such leading merchants as James G. Megeath & Co., 0. P. Hurford, Milton Rogers, J. Ford, H. W. Tuttle, Vincent Burkley, Pundt & Koenig, M. Hellman & Co., Kennard Brothers and others were reaping a harvest of dollars.
More money coming in, however, did not cause prices to get out of line with the times. One emigrant wrote to his wife in the East that he obtained flour for $3.75 per cwt, Charlie got 57 lbs honey. We bot corn meal at 40 cts per bu, corn 35 to 40, oats 30."
In 1860, hotels, stores, markets, bakeries, restaurants and saloons began showing profits that continued to grow during the great decade ahead. Merchants, well stocked with all the necessary mining equipment, displayed picks, shovels, rockers and pans in their windows. Steamboats pushed their bows into the mudflats and unloaded their human cargoes and freight two to seven times a week.
A continent was on the move; and even as war ravaged the East and South, the great new West opened its spacious lands to the tide of advancing civilization. Telegraph lines reached Omaha October 5, 1860, from St. Louis, and thereafter dipped their way from pole to pole across plains and mountains, desert and forests to the far-off Pacific.
On the northeast corner of Ninth and Farnam Streets stood the Herndon House, then considered a hotel as "comfortable and modern" as could be found in any city of size in the young Midwest. It was a four-story brick, stopping point for Western Stage Company coaches and Wells Fargo Express. It was the scene of some of the city's most gala social affairs, hangout for business gatherings and stopping place for visiting notables.
The Herndon excelled in splendor for the Omaha of that day, with dining, music and dancing. Here was a formal
invitation of the Herndon in 1861:
The opening ball of the season, Thursday, December 12, 1861. Yourself and lady respectfully invited. Carriages at 6:30 p. m. Ladies' entrance on west side.
Carriages came early because there were only two in town and they needed time to gather up all the guests for the invariable grand march.
But while the hotel attempted to fulfill the standards expected of those in the East, it still did not have its own chefs or professional musicians. The ladies did the work of catering to the diners, and scattered musicians got together to form an orchestra. Many ladies sewed for weeks prior to the ball, making their own gowns.
The Herndon, named in honor of Navy Lieut. William Lewis Herndon who died in the sinking of the storm-battered mail ship Central America in 1857, was erected by George Bridge, Lyman Richardson and Dr. George L. Miller, partly on money borrowed from the city in scrip.
Its eventual eclipse by another establishment was born of a dispute between George Francis Train and James T. Allan, the latter one in the Herndon's succession of many managers. It was the Cozzens Hotel, thrown together with a whiff and a puff but with a flair for fancy architecture that distinguished it from other buildirigs of the period.
Mr. Train tells his version of the incident that brought about erection of the Cozzens:
"I had invited (to the Herndon) a number of prominent men representatives in Congress and others as I desired to present to them some of my plans. The breakfast was a characteristic Western meal, with prairie chicken and Nebraska trout. While we were seated (in the dining room), one of those sudden and always unexpected cyclones on the plains came up. Our table was very near a window in which were large panes of glass which I feared could not withstand the tremendous force of the wind. I called to a Negro waiter to stand with his broad back against the window...
"Allan, manager of the Herndon and a man with a political turn of mind saw in the incident an assault on the rights of the Negroes. He hurried over to the table and protested against this act as an outrage. I could not afford to enter into any quarrel with him at the time, so I merely said: I'm about the size of the Negro; I will take his place.' I then ordered the fellow away from the window, took his post, and stayed there until the fury of the storm abated. Then I was ready for Allan.
"I walked out in front of the house and, pointing to a large vacant square facing it, I asked who owned it. I was told the owner's name and immediately sent a messenger for him. He soon arrived and I asked his price. It was five thousand dollars. I wrote out and handed him a check for the amount and took from him, on the spot, a deed for the property.
"Then I asked for a contractor who could build a hotel. A man named Richmond was brought to me.
"'Can you build a three-story hotel in 60 days on this lot?' asked I. After some hesitation he said it would be merely a question of money.
"'How much?' I asked.
"'One thousand dollars a day,' he replied.
"'Show me that you are worth 60 thousand dollars,' I demanded.
"He did so, and I took out an envelope and sketched on the back of it a rough plan of the hotel. 'I'm going to the mountains,' I said, 'and when I return in 60 days I shall want this hotel, with 120 rooms, complete!'
"When I got back the hotel was finished. I immediately rented it to Cozzens of West Point, N. Y., for 10 thousand dollars a year. The Cozzens...was the show place of Omaha."
Subsequently, Dr. Gilbert C. Monell acquired the Herndon House and leased it to a Mrs. Bronson. Dr. Monell had founded the Rocky Mountain News in Denver before he settled in Omaha in 1857. He was also president of the first Board of Education in Omaha and was first president of the State Medical Society.
Dr. Monell was also father-in-law of Phineas W. Hitchcock, the Territory's first delegate to a Republican National Convention (Chicago, June 2, 1860) and later Senator for the new State of Nebraska in Washington. Senator Phineas Hitchcock was the father of Gilbert M. Hitchcock, founder of The Omaha World (now The World-Herald) and later Democratic Senator from Nebraska.
Later, the Herndon, which for a while went under the name of the International Hotel, was taken over by the Union Pacific Railroad as its headquarters. The U.P. finally enlarged the structure, adding one floor and a new north wing, and occupied it until moving into its present building at Fifteenth and Dodge Streets in 1911.
What few other "hotels" Omaha had in those years were close to being mere shacks among them the old Douglas,
the City Hotel and the Hamilton House. Not until 1868 did Omaha obtain a third "first-class" hotel when the Metropolitan was erected.
During this decade new wagon trains rocked and rumbled into the city, were outfitted for the dangerous journey ahead, then set out along the Oregon trail fording rivers, crawling through the Sand Hills, conquering the mighty Rockies, their people for months existing only through the comfort of a rifle in their hands and a Bible at their sides.
Most of these rugged travelers were bound for new homes in Colorado or California and Oregon. Others chose to settle on the rich prairies of Nebraska. But in the midst of this stream of humanity were men who were not heading west with their families. They were leaving them behind in Omaha to take up arms in the War of the Rebellion. And Nebraskans were well numbered in the battle lines. Omaha itself was heavily represented in the Union Army. The First Nebraska Infantry, under command of Gen. John M. Thayer, marched aboard a Missouri River steamboat at Omaha in July, 1861.
The First Nebraska was in continuous Civil War service from June 15, 1861, until it was mustered out in Omaha on July 1, 1866.
While Omaha grew in numbers and in area, entertainment took on a new quality in the intervening years. The Herndon's dining room was the "auditorium" for Omaha's first theatrical production. There was no background scenery for the setting, and no stage. A bolt of muslin was borrowed from Mr. Tootle's store to form a curtain. Julia Dean Hayne, an eminent actress of that day, was the leading woman in the play.
Other theatrical entertainment was staged in the Courthouse at Sixteenth and Farnam Streets, the first play there being "The Chamber of Death" by John Templeton's traveling stock company. The Courthouse was generally used for shows until Potter's Theater opened in 1865 in the second story 6f a building on the southeast corner of Fourteenth and Douglas Streets.
Mr. Potter held a reputation as an excellent producer and put on such plays as "The Lady of Lyons," "Pocahontas," "Road to Ruin" and "School for Scandal."
During the winter of 1866-67 a veteran theater man, Henry Corri, opened the Academy of Music in the center of the Caldwell Block. It was comfortable enough and well enough managed to put Mr. Potter's place out of business. The Academy continued to be Omaha's only real theater until 1881 when Boyd's Opera House went up on the northeast corner of Fifteenth and Farnam Streets.
Steamboats at this time were enjoying their final boom before the railroads across Iowa were to cut their river traffic. Great rivalry for passenger business existed between stage and steamboat companies.
Prior to completion of the Iowa roads, John R. Porter and Harry Deuel were the principal steamboat agents representing the St. Joseph Packet Line and the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad.
Mr. Porter possessed a flair for military tactics and as a sideline put his ability to practical use. He organized a volunteer cavalry company (home guard) and in the summer of 1864 kept his men busy campaigning against troublesome Indians.
Harry Deuel and Jim Read, traveling agent for the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad, carried the competition with stage companies to extremes.
In the summer of 1864 the two corralled a party of 50 mountaineers who had arrived from points up the Missouri and sold them through tickets by steamboat and railroad to New York by way of the St. Joseph Packet Line and the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad. The mountaineers were assured that a boat would arrive in half an hour from the time they bought tickets. They paid single fares of $43 each.
The boat didn't arrive until three days later because of time spent getting off a sandbar. During the intervening time the mountaineers were strongly urged to demand a refund of their fares and buy stage transportation across Iowa. Messrs Deuel and Read, hanging on to more than two thousand dollars of boat money, had taken to the tall timber, however, and remained safely holed up until the boat's late arrival.
At that time the Western Stage .Company was running its coaches into Omaha from the "end-of-track" terminus of the Chicago, Iowa & Nebraska Railroad (later the Chicago & North Western), which was still pushing its way across Iowa. A line of stages also ran to Fort Kearney, the connecting point with the Overland Stage for Colorado and California. Once the railroads came, Mr. Deuel got out of steamboating and joined the Burlington & Missouri (soon to become the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy), which was completed to the Missouri River in 1868.
The fight among Omaha, Bellevue and Nebraska City to obtain the eastern terminus caused the Pacific railroad project to suffer a long and troubled beginning.
In 1850 Missouri's Senator Benton introduced in Congress the first Pacific railway bill eight years after his son-in-law, John C. Fremont, had explored the South Pass.
Other expeditions investigating the feasibility of such a road followed, and several routes were surveyed and proposed. Only the Civil War saved Omaha from being bypassed in favor of a southern route.
In June, 1857, a commission visited Omaha to investigate a route by way of the valley of the Platte and South Pass. The commission recommended to Congress that land be granted and aid contributed to provide inducement to build the road along the north side of the Platte River.
A Pacific railway committee of the Thirty-sixth Congress in 1858 recommended a bill providing for donation of alternate sections of land on each side of the proposed road and $12,500 a mile which was to be advanced at the completion of each 25-mile stretch of track until a total of 25 million dollars had been spent. The appropriations were to be returned in mail service, transportation of men and munitions of war, 5 per cent of the issued stock, and the President of the United States was to receive bids and locate the road at some point between the Big Sioux and Kansas River.
The bill was killed in the Senate.
Another bill in the session of 1859-1860 suffered a similar fate. Between February 5 and July 1, 1862, a bill was jockeyed back and forth between the House and Senate and after a multitude of amendments was approved and made law.
The most important stipulation of this bill was that it named a large group of persons "to create a body corporate and politic, which would by law and deed be known by the name, style and title of 'The Union Pacific Railroad Corn-
pany.'" This legislation called for construction of a continuous railroad from a point on the one hundredth meridian between the Republican River and the north margin of the Platte Valley in Nebraska to the western boundary of Nevada.
Nebraskans named to this group were Dr. Gilbert C. Monell, Augustus Kountze, T. M. Marquette, W. T. Taylor and Alvin Saunders. Mr. Kountze attended the formal organization meeting in New York October 20, 1863 and was among those elected to the board of directors.
At that time the Burlington was in operation only one hundred miles west of Burlington, Ia.; the Mississippi & Missouri (later to become the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific) had reached Grinnell, and the North Western was running to Marshalltown.
Omaha was geographically suited to become the objective point of these roads, and on December 2, 1863, a telegram informed the Union Pacific's chief engineer, Peter A. Dey, that President Lincoln had fixed the new railway's initial point on the "western boundary of the State of Iowa, opposite Omaha opposite section 10, in township 15, north of range 13, east of the sixth principal meridian, in the Territory of Nebraska."
Omaha citizens didn't wait to plan an official celebration and ground breaking. Less than an hour after Mr. Dey had received the telegram, a committee of arrangements was appointed: Augustus Kountze, Enos Lowe, John McCormick, Andrew J. Hanscom, B. F. Lushbaugh, Andrew J. Poppleton, John I. Redick, Ezra Millard, E. Estabrook, E. B. Taylor, George M. Mills, W. F. Sapp, Jesse Lowe; 0. P. Hurford, Edward Creighton, J. J. Brown and George B. Lake. The committee named Mr. Hanscom president of the day and hastily arranged a program for 2 p. m.
The weather was ideal for the occasion: Clear sky, bright sun, the thermometer standing at 46.
The ceremonial beginning of the transcontinental railroad was on the mudflats near the ferry landing which, always subject to change because of the shifting channel, at that time was near the foot of Capitol Avenue a spot long since washed away. According to Union Pacific maps, however, the railroad's actual construction began at the "initial point" along the river almost as far north as Locust Street. One of the Western Stage Company's coaches carried some of the more prominent Omahans to the ceremonial scene, including Edward Creighton, Governor Saunders, George Francis Train and Joseph Shepard, division superintendent of express and afterwards general superintendent of the United States Express Company.
The Rev. T. B. Lemon opened the exercises with a prayer. Governor Saunders, Omaha's Mayor B. E. B. Kennedy and Council Bluffs' Mayor Palmer turned the first earth for the roadbed, with U. P. Chief Engineer Dey, Augustus Kountze and Mr. Train assisting. Two brass six-pounders on the river banks fired a salute, then a deafening roar of cheers arose to signify the start of the project.
Governor Saundters read a message from Col. John Hay, private secretary to President Lincoln, then Mayor Kennedy read a dispatch from Mayor Opdyke of New York. Speeches by Dr. Monell and Messrs A. V. Larimer of Council Bluffs, Lake, Train and Poppleton completed the bill.
Mr. Poppleton had experienced the kind of early existence on the plateau which caused him and others like him to attach more importance to this beginning of a railroad than the late-comers present. Born in Troy, Mich., he had obtained his law degree in 1851 at Schenectady, N. Y.
His arrival in Nebraska from Birmingham, Mich., in 1854 was the beginning of a distinguished career that was to see him in the course of years as a member of the Territorial Legislature, General Attorney of the Union Pacific and General Councillor for the City of Omaha. His first Omaha home had been a 10-by-14-foot sod house which he built himself on a Tenth and Farnam Streets lot secured from the ferry company and paid for by giving an Omaha chieftain, White Crow, $10 for the privilege of occupying it.
In his memoirs, Mr. Poppleton writes of his marriage in December, 1855, to Caroline Laura Sears who had come to Omaha the preceding year with her father from Canton, N. Y.
"For me," Mr. Poppleton relates, "the most fortunate day of my life was that which brought the health and strength and sunshine of her nature into my own darker and more desponding life." The marriage brought the Poppletons four children.
His speech at the Union Pacific ground-breaking reflected his pride at being a part of such a historic ceremony, and he dwelt mostly upon his first impressions of the city and upon the prosperous future he knew it would have.
"On that day the wolves and the Omahas were the almost undisputed lords of the soil," Mr. Poppleton told his listeners. "Today at least four thousand radiant faces gladden our streets... Then it took 60 days for New York and California to communicate with each other. Today...iron and steam and lightning are daily weaving their destinies more closely with each other and ours with, theirs... It is natural, therefore, that you should lift up your hearts and rejoice... To us, it (the transcontinental railroad) means prosperity. To the nation and all its people, it bears a significance...."
He then read a telegram from Gov. Richard Yates of Illinois, saying in part: "'...When completed, it will be an enduring monument of the enterprise and patriotism of our common country, firmly uniting the two extremes of the nation, and rendering them indissoluble for all time to come.'"
"Standing here...in this third year of our Civil War," Mr. Poppleton went on, "let us devoutly pray that the hour which witnesses its completion may behold a rebellion overthrown, a union restored, a Constitution unimpaired, civil liberty and the pursuit of happiness the inalienable birthright of the weakest, the poorest and the lowliest citizen in all our borders. Then with full hearts and bounding pulses we may renew the strain: .
"'Great God, we thank Thee for this goodly home,
This bounteous birth-land of the free,
Where wanderers from afar may come
And breathe the air of liberty...'"
George Francis Train followed Mr. Poppleton. His speech was less sentimental. He told his listeners:
"The great Pacific railroad is commenced... The enterprise is national... America possesses the biggest head and the finest quality of brains in the phrenology of nations.... America is 21 years of age. She should discharge the wet nurse (Great Britain). I despise a toady. Let us build up a mother country of our own... When they spoke of our national debt I asked them what right England had to monopolize the entire national debt of the world. I told them....that one of these days we would roll up a national debt that would make them ashamed of themselves!"
Edward Rosewater, the future founder of the Omaha Bee, telegraphed an account of the speeches to eastern newspapers and that evening the Herndon House was host to 150 guests at a railroad banquet and ball.
Mr. Train, a man of energetic bearing whose blue eyes, prominent nose and gray-streaked, dark, curly hair gave him a certain distinction all his own, was among the guests. Congratulations went the rounds, and the city that night brilliantly aglow with torches turned its face to the Pacific!...
Nebraska City's and Bellevue's fight to gain the eastern terminus, for their respective towns, however, even after the ground-breaking, delayed the actual beginning of construction until July 10, 1865.
But as rails were laid westward, Omaha's growth almost could be noted from month to month. The Union Pacific constructed car-and-engine houses and machine shops, spending a quarter million dollars a month in the city. More new buildings went up rapidly, one brick block costing 100 thousand dollars,
During that great decade, the continent drained through Omaha almost prismatically. As novelist Owen Wister once wrote in his "The Virginian": "Chinese, Indian chiefs, Africans..Austrian nobility, wide females in pink..."
By 1870 the population was 16,083. Whisky shops, gambling houses ran wide open day and night. There were 61 houses of ill-fame and squaws with papooses stood on the corners and begged.
But along with its lawlessness, the city gave evidence of industrial development which promised to be lasting. From frontier-day freighting, outfitting and trading businesses, civic leaders began to give special attention to the building of shops and manufacturing plants.
And by the time Nebraska became the thirty-seventh state.in the Union in 1867, industrial employment in the city was well on the road toward metropolitan standards. The Omaha Smelter, begun in 1870, was the first plant of size to employ a large number of men. Closely behind it came the pioneering meat-packing houses, iron foundries, carriage works, wholesale houses, grain elevators and mills.
Climaxing this great decade was the news telegraphed from Promontory Point in Utah on May 10, 1869, that the dream of the transcontinental railroad had at long last been realized.
Omahans spared nothing in celebrating the junction of Union Pacific and Central Pacific. A general holiday was proclaimed. Private homes and public buildings were draped with bunting flags, festoons, banners and mottoes. A telegraph line was run to "a building on Capitol Hill for direct communication with Promontory Point.
And as the spark crackled, "The Pacific railroad is completed!" one hundred guns boomed a salute in rapid succession on the banks of the Missouri to say to the world:
"The last rail is laid! This is Omaha, State of Nebraska - crossroads of the nation!"
Ring out, oh bells! Let cannons roar
In loudest tones of thunder,
The iron bars from shore to shore
Are laid, and nations wonder.
End Installment IV
Omaha's First Century - Installment V
Omaha's First Century - Introduction