Horse Cars, Street Lights, RR Bridge Were Added by '73
'Wide Open Town' a Pioneer Policy; But Schools, Hospitals and Cultural Events Were Not Long in Coming
V. The Proud Era
Prior to 1870 Omaha had made slow progress toward the healing of raw sores Inflicted by its rough frontier days. But at the opening of the new decade the scars could be exhibited with pride. For they were the scars of experience evidence of growing maturity.
Omaha had sprouted many physical aspects that marked an expanding community of that time, but residences, business buildings and heavily-traveled streets do not suggest that a city has fully matured.
As the weather determined, streets by 1871 still were muddy or dusty. Planking formed the only sidewalks. Every block had its saloon, never closed. Thirteen faro banks, several keno games and numerous poker rooms ran every day and night.
A new invasion of grasshoppers at the start of the 1870's had brought a stream of wretched, beaten settlers into the city. Obviously, these bitter, disillusioned victims could not be controlled effectively in a town where liquor and gambling ran rampant especially by a police force comprising only 12 men!
Four of the 12 were on duty at night, when a policeman walking his beat was strictly on his own. The police station was at Sixteenth and Farnam Streets. There were no patrol wagons, and the cop on the beat had only his nightstick and a shrill whistle.
To get drunks and other disturbers carted off to jail, the best he could do was to give a blast on the whistle and commandeer an express or delivery wagon if one could be found. If not, his only choice was to drag his prisoner in bodily.
Policemen were supposed to work 12 hours, but on quiet nights they often slipped away about midnight to go to dances at the old Bohemian Hall on South Thirteenth Street. It was during this period of the 12-man force that shootings, robberies and assaults became so out of hand that a vigilance committee of 150 citizens was organized to restore respect for law.
Not until 1887 did the Legislature create the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners, setting up an efficient Police
department in Omaha.
Several conditions led to this. First, the Canada Bill situation had developed into such a "dynasty" that only the united action of aroused citizens was able to topple it. In addition, there was such a lack of respect for the law that vote-buying, bribery and "blind licensing" (the payment in court of "volunteer fines" on a regular weekly basis) was common practice.
Canada Bill made "wide-open" Omaha the headquarters for his notorious gang of three-card monte sharks, and his operations infested a population of 16 thousand. The organization was made up of sleight-of-hand card artists, tappers and confidence men each about the smoothest rascal in his trade.
One thing in their favor was their caution in attempting to "take in" Omaha citizens. Their customary sucker list generally comprised visitors or transients they could corral in their three-card monte trap.
Canada Bill, the chief manipulator, generally lounged around saloons or gambling dives to await the cappers' arrival with a customer. He was something of an actor. He impersonated a rube farmer, merchant, doctor, lawyer. Bill was the financier of the gang. His background was a mystery.
Omahans finally rid themselves of the Canada Bill mob in 1876, but the city for years continued to tolerate open gambling merely by requiring an occasional payment of light fines to the Police Court the familiar "blind license system."
The two most popular gambling dives in town during the 1870's were on the second floor of the Pioneer Block. Dan Allen and Stuttering Brown were the operators. Allen's room was connected with a pawnshop on the ground floor by means of a dumb-waiter, which had been installed for the use of players when they went broke. If they were cleaned, the players could lower their watches, diamonds or other valluables down to the palm-rubbing pawn broker, who would hoist the equivalent value in money back to the players. True to the old expression, many a player did lose his shirt and more and the pawn broker became rich.
Among the gambling element, however, were the so-called high-tone players, including many Army officers, who patronized Matt Harris's gambling room on the second floor of a building in the Caldwell Block. One of the patrons was the notorious Jack Morrow, frontiersman, freighter, trader and, by reputation at least, a dangerous gun-fighter. He was a handsome, mustachioed, goateed dandy whose flair for flashy dress came close to Wild Bill Hickok's.
Morrow, who owned a trading ranch near Cottonwood Springs in Lincoln County, was a former Government teamster who drifted into various trades some honest, others borderline, a few dishonest. One story says he engaged some Indians to stampede the stock of a westbound wagon train. Then he and his Indian friends rounded up the cattle and turned them into his own herd.
He gained a huge fortune and built a palatial home in Omaha where he lived high and mighty for a while, but he eventually lost himself to liquor and gambling.
One for the infrequency of police raids was lack of prosecution of the offenders. Occasionally, a few conscientious lawmen made an attempt to clean out the dives.
In December, 1873, Deputy Sheriff Frank Hanlon and his men made a series of raids under the state law on faro banks, while Captain Ryan of the city police led a raid on the keno rooms. The outcome of these raids was the usual minor fines of $5 upon the gamblers.
Passage of the Slocumb Local Option Law in 1881 was the blow that knocked the saloons and liquor operators dizzy. The chief provision of this law was that it required a one-thousand-dollar license paid in advance, the giving of bonds for damages and closing of saloons on Sundays and election days.
There was as yet no Corrupt Practices Act to curb unethical politics, and on election days it was common for repeaters to go from one polling place to another, voting at each point without much fear of being discovered..
This system was directed from the notorious First Ward which from 1869 until 1888 was represented in the City Council by saloon keepers or their friends.
Votes were openly bought for $1 and up. The voter was escorted to the polling place and personally aided to make sure he deposited the correct ballot.
Faro bank gambles, keno games and other, vice, however, ceased to flourish as in the past and a gradual decline already was in progress when in 1884 a group of influential citizens convinced that the police were being paid protection money, started an investigation that resulted in the conviction of City Marshal Roger C. Guthrie for accepting bribes.
Guthrie received a two-year penitentiary sentence. The case against him was prosecuted by District Attorney Parke Godwin. Similar convictions and the boosting of the saloon and liquor license fees helped to strangle gambling and vice elements.
Omaha had not been alone. Other struggling, young frontier towns went through similar "growing pains."
The new railroad alone could not place the city in the grown-up class. Something more was needed that would be a source of inspiration to its peoplenot merely manufacturing plants, new stores and additional businesses, or extension of the first horsecar line that had been opened in 1867, or installation of gas lamps on street corners in 1869, or completion March 25, 1873, of the first railroad bridge across the Missouri River, or introduction of limited telephone service in 1878, the waterworks in 1881, the first electric lighting and the first practical street paving in 1883. Not even the Union Stockyards organization in 1884...
An "interior" of durable strength was needed: The mental advancement and cultural environment which provide a city with individuality and character. These still had been largely absent. But even with all its vice and corruption, this age was to earn for itself a reference called "the proud era," as industry and education took firm root to bring the city out of the doldrums of its hectic past.
As a community marched toward what oldtimers have referred to as Omaha's "golden years" the Gay Nineties the people turned more and more to the institutions which were to be the basic reasons for Omaha's improved personality its churches and its schools.
Children of pioneer parents had found it necessary to make the most of what meager facilities they had to gain an education. Until 1859 the few opportunities of learning that did exist had been offered only through private classes that lacked continuity and systematic organization.
A legislative bill in 1858 inaugurating a public school system in Omaha resulted in creation of the city's first School Board, but no real progress in organization had developed from it for several years. The first public school was conducted in a room of the old Territorial Statehouse on Ninth Street, where Miss Adelaide Goodwill's first private class had been held. This school had been established in November, 1859, by the new board which consisted of A. D. Jones, John H. Kellom and Dr. Gilbert C. Monell.
Miss Goodwill had undertaken the initial step to set up a system of teaching. She had been followed by other teachers whose inspiration came from a personal desire to give Omaha the cultural start it needed.
The first board had placed Howard Kennedy in charge of the first public school at a salary of one thousand dollars a year. By January, 1861, the growth of Omaha's school-age population had awakened the board to the urgent need for additional facilities.
To raise the needed funds, the board had. set up a small tuition fee for each pupil $1 to $3 a quarter, depending upon the subjects studied. Double rates had been charged for non-resident pupils.
During that time, a few private schools had continued in existence. In 1861 Prof. S. D. Beals, with Mrs. J. W. Van Nostrand assisting, had opened a private high school in the north half of the Statehouse. By fall of that year the high school had been moved to the Hamilton House on the south side of Douglas Street between Fourteenth and Fifteenth Streets, then a year later to the First Baptist Church across the street, then in 1863 to the southeast corner of Fifteenth Street and Capitol Avenue.
That same year Miss Celestial Parker had taught in a school in a building which had been temporarily located in the block known as Jefferson Square. Miss Cecilia Burkley had conducted a class in a parochial school at Eighth and Howard Streets.
Among the first public school teachers other than Mr. Kennedy were J. J. Monell, Mrs. Isabelle Torrey, Miss F. Seymour, Edward Kelley, H. Davis, Mrs. Mary P. Rust and Miss A. Hayes. Mr. Beals became principal of one of the public schools upon completion of the. grading system in 1872 and a year later was elected County Superintendent. In 1874, he became City Superintendent of Schools and six years later went back to teaching this time in the city's first-built high school on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Kellom was the instructor in the first standard high school whose first sessions had been held in the south room of a brick building on the southeast corner of Sixteenth and Chicago Streets. This school had been inaugurated by a board of trustees composed of A, J. Simpson, president; B. E. B. Kennedy, director; John Evans, treasurer; Ezra Millard, the Rev. H. W. Kuhns and Mr. Kellom.
In January of 1871, Edward Rosewater, a member of the lower house of the State Legislature, pushed through a bill consolidating Omaha into one school district. This bill brought about the organization on May 6, 1872, of a Board of Education which by law became the authority over all the schools. Members of the board were John T. Edgar, president; Thomas F. Hall, vice-president; Flemon Drake, secretary ; Theodore Baumer, Charles M. Connoyer, Vincent Burkley, Adolphus Boehme, C. W. Hamilton, Alvin Saunders, Howard Kennedy, Joseph Redman and James Creighton, a cousin of Edward and John Creighton. Under the new organization A. F. Nightingale became the first Superintendent of Public Schools in Omaha.
With the capital's move to Lincoln upon Nebraska's admission as a state in 1867, Omaha's Capitol Hill reverted to the city with the stipulation that the ground be used for school purposes only. The old Territorial Capitol then was razed and in 1872 the community's first public high school building was completed at a cost of 250 thousand dollars.
This building was an impressive, five-story structure of typical Victorian architecture with a tall, pointed clock tower which dominated the city's skyline from its high elevation above the old plateau. It was a comparatively young building, just 28 years old, when in 1900 the modern Central High School building was begun on the same site. In order to accommodate pupils and continue classes on schedule, the new high school was constructed around the old Omaha High School tower which was demolished gradually. Central High was completed in November, 1912, at a cost of $865,250.
The opening of the Good Samaritan (now St. Joseph's) Hospital at Twenty-fourth and Webster Streets gave the city its first hospital in March, 1870. Now one of the Middle West's largest hospitals, this institution began with only six rooms.
The Public Library's first home was on the top floor of Simpson's Carriage Factory at Fourteenth and Dodge Streets, the State Furniture Company building which burned down in April of 1954. Later it moved into a two-story, square, frame building at Fifteenth and Dodge Streets in 1877. This was the modest beginning of the Public Library that stands today at Nineteenth and Harney Streets on lots donated by Byron Reed.
Prior to this location, however, a public library had been incorporated in 1871 by John T. Edgar, Nathan Shelton and A. M. Henry, with T. E. Sickles, St. A. D. Balcome, Henry W. Yates, Herman Kountze, Dr. George L. Miller, Mr. Edgar, Ezra Millard, Albert Swartzlander, Mr. Shelton, C. H. Brown, P. H. Eallen and Mr. Henry as signers. The first officers were A. J. Poppleton, president; Mr. Shelton, vice-president; S. S. Caldwell, treasurer; Mr. Swartzlander, secretary, and Mr. Henry, corresponding secretary.
Mr. Edgar donated one thousand volumes to the library. Eight hundred more were purchased from a Fremont man, 0. E. Crosby. J. M. Pattee, the lottery man, made the library a gift of 2,600 books.
The year 1878 saw the opening of Creighton College in its stately building off Twenty-fourth and California Streets, the first structure on the present Creighton University campus. The building's commanding position made its tall tower visible from many points along the lower elevations of the city. It still stands, but with its tower removed and a new wing facing south onto California Street.
This great institution was made possible by the wealth of men who themselves had not enjoyed the educational advantages of those who now pass through its doors. The college was created on the request of Edward Creighton, who died in 1874, leaving instructions to his wife to endow a free college in Omaha for the education of youth without regard to creed or color.
Mrs. Mary Creighton fulfilled her husband's dying wish. Upon her death in 1876, her will provided for the establishment of the university, and the first college was incorporated by act of the Legislature in 1879, with power to "confer such degrees as are usually conferred by colleges and universities in the United States." In that year it was entrusted by Bishop O'Connor to the Fathers of the Society of Jesus.
John A. Creighton, who in the course of years had donated many thousands of dollars to Creighton University, supplied the young college with one of the most complete astronomical and chemical outfits in the West at that time. The John A. Creighton Medical College of Creighton University was his gift at a cost of 75 thousand dollars. Later, he presented the university, another 75 thousand dollars for extensive improvements. Mr. Creighton, one of the prime organizers of the Union Stockyards, gave liberally to private as well as public charities. Probably his greatest contribution to the city was St. Joseph's Hospital, which he erected at a cost of 150 thousand dollars as a memorial to his wife who died in 1888.
Concerts musicales and plays increased in number as the 1870's progressed. In those years Simpson's Hall on Fourteenth Street was a popular spot for musical programs. Concert-goers in 1872 heard a performance by an orchestra from the Royal Opera House in Vienna.
In 1873, when he was only 19, John Philip Sousa appeared at the Academy of Music. Young Sousa already had been leading orchestras in a variety of theaters for three years. When he next appeared in Omaha, directing his brass band in stirring martial music at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in 1898, his fame as a band leader had swept the country.
Numerous singing societies got their start in the 1870's organizations which continued through the 1890's. These groups were especially prevalent among the German residents but they existed also among the other nationalities which made up Omaha's growing cosmopolitan population.
The Union Pacific Band was one of the first brass bands in the city and was prominent as early as 1871.
Stage performances in this decade were showing prominent signs of a healthy, cultural growth in the city a trend that was to be even more rapidly accelerated in the "golden years" to come. All this was of a professional caliber far removed from the crude beginnings of Omaha entertainment.,
In 1881 Boyd's Opera House went up on the northeast corner of Fifteenth and Farnam Streets where the Nebraska Clothing Company store now stands. On opening night, October 24 of that year, Boyd's presented "The Mascot."
Along WITH the growth of Omaha's cultural standing there were those physical improvements that were beginning to put the city into a metropolitan class. By 1870, some 198 consumers were using gas and one hundred street lamps lighted the downtown corners. All this was the outcome of the organization of the Omaha Gas Manufacturing Company in the fall of 1868 by James E. Boyd, Dr. Enos Lowe, J. H. Kellom, Frank Murphy, Alvin Saunders; Joseph Barker and John McCormick. The first plant, costing 150 thousand dollars, was located at the corner of Eleventh and Jones Streets. It had gone into operation in 1869. In 1870 a stock company was organized to build "a creditable hotel," and a corporation was formed to carry out the plan. The total cost was estimated to be 150 thousand dollars. A limit of one thousand dollars was set on personal subscriptions which reached 130 thousand dollars before they fizzled out.
By 1871, the walls had been erected and the roof completed on the site at the southwest corner of Fourteenth and Farnam Streets. Then construction was halted for lack of funds. Two years were to go by before any further progress could be made. Then the problem of the Grand Central Hotel, as it had been named, was renewed and five men Edward Creighton, Thomas Wardell, A. J. Poppleton, Augustus Kountze and Henry W. Yates raised 50 thousand dollars. The amount still did not meet the requirements brought about by increased costs.
Seven men formed a syndicate, and its members S. S. Caldwell, Charles W. Hamilton, E. D. Pratt, Joseph Barker, Sylvester Wright, John I. Redick and Clinton Briggs bought a majority of the original stock at 10 to 15 cents on the dollar. The amount to finish the building was put in the treasury and a new election of stockholders was held.
The Grand Central was opened October 1, 1873, at a cost of 300 thousand dollars. George Thrall, the manager, furnished the hotel at his own expense.
Five years later, on the evening of September 4, 1878, a spark from a plumber's blowpipe ignited inflammable material and minutes later, the hotel was an inferno. The building was unoccupied, as it had been undergoing extensive remodeling under the new management of Charles W. and James B. Kitchen of the Kitchen Hotel Company which had only recently bought Mr. Thrall's Interest. Five firemen died in the blaze.
The Kitchen Hotel Company leased the recently-vacated Military Headquarters Building, Department of the Platte, which had been built by John Withnell in 1870 on the southwest corner of Fifteenth and Harney Streets. The Kitchens remodelled the building, installed all the new furniture they had purchased for the Grand Central and opened a hotel called the Withnell House.
The Army, meanwhile, moved into the new Federal Building. This housed the Postoffice and United States Courthouse at Fifteenth and Dodge Streets. The stone, monumental type of structure became known as the Army Building after the construction of the Postoffice at Sixteenth and Dodge Streets. A Federal office building occupies the old Army Building site today.
The Kitchens continued to operate the Withnell House as a hotel but meanwhile purchased the ground on which the Grand Central's ruins lay. In 1882, they constructed a new and far more impressive building on the Fourteenth and Farnam site and named ""the hotel the Paxton in honor of William A. Paxton who had donated five thousand dollars to add a fifth story to the structure.
The first Hotel Paxton was joined in that same year by the Millard Hotel which was erected at Thirteenth and Douglas Streets by the Millard Stock Company Joseph H. Millard, president; Jacob E. Markel, vice-president; Samuel Shears, secretary; and Thomas Swobe, treasurer. Like the Paxton, the Millard was a modern, first-class house of its day. More than a half a century later it suffered the fate of the Grand Central, the fire being one, of Omaha's most disastrous from the standpoint of firemen killed or injured.
The year fire destroyed the Grand Central, Omaha's first fully organized Fire Department was only three years old. Had such a major blaze broken out in the city prior to 1875 there would not have been a command of the proper efficiency to handle it. The Grand Central had been a costly loss, but at least the fire fighters had succeeded in preventing the flames from causing heavy damage to neighboring structures.
Firemen were dangerously hampered. In those years, because Omaha had no city waterworks. Even at the time of the big hotel fire, the Fire Department was receiving its water from a series of cisterns at street intersections a system in which water was pumped from the river and then from one cistern to another. The problem of a city water supply had been almost wholly ignored until 1878.
But the city had not been totally indifferent to the need for an efficient fire-fighting organization. Delays in effecting such a system had been caused mostly by the community's dire financial position. Until the Omaha Fire Department was formed in 1875, three independent and ill-equipped companies of volunteers had assumed the responsibility of extinguishing Omaha's fires.
The first fire-fighting unit was Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, formed in May, 1860, on the suggestion of W. J. Kennedy. The following year this company was chartered by the Territorial Legislature under the names of Benjamin Stickles, J. S. McCormick, Henry Gray, Mr. Kennedy, Henry Z. Curtis, M. H. Clark, Phineas W. Hitchcock, J. W. Van Nostrand and Andrew J. Simpson. Mr. Stickles had been elected town Fire Warden.
This company headquartered in a small building on a lot the city had purchased from John I. Redick and Clinton Briggs at Twelfth and Douglas Streets for $215. The only fire-alarm bell was on the Lutheran Church near by (where the Millard Hotel later stood) and the Rev. H. W. Kuhns, the pastor whose parsonage was next door to the church, was the fire-bell ringer.
Voters in a special election on May 25, 1862, approved 34 to 1 a proposal that the city borrow eight hundred dollars to purchase a fire engine. But Omaha's credit standing had not been sufficiently established and the loan was not obtained.
Nothing more was done until March, 1864, when the City Council appointed a committee to "ascertain the cost of a fire engine and apparatus and a suitable number of cisterns to afford adequate protection against fire" all this without result.
A plan in September, 1865, to appoint a Council committee of three to solicit subscriptions to buy a fire engine also failed. So did a later attempt, authorized by the voters on October 14 of that same year, to make a loan of three thousand dollars for the purchase of a steam fire engine, hose and cart. But on the latter occasion it was the jittery Councilmen who scuttled the plan because of the money involved.
In March, 1866, however, frightened Omahans took their case to the Council with a petition bearing two hundred signatures, and by May the city had taken delivery of its first fire engine, the Fire King (a hand machine), which was purchased for $695 from the city of Davenport, Ia.
Thus Omaha's second company, the Fire King Engine Company No. 1, in 1867 finally settled down in its own engine house on the southwest corner of Sixteenth and Farnam Streets.
By 1870 Omahans could boast of a second-class rotary steam engine and a thousand feet of rubber hose bought by the city for the formation of Engine Company No. 2. With the change-over of the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company to Nebraska Engine Company No. 3 the foundation was laid for the consolidation of these three units in 1875 under the name of Omaha Fire Department. The organization now had a fire chief, engineers, drivers and stokers as paid firemen. The old practice of using volunteers as fire-fighters was continued only as circumstances required more man power.
The only remaining independent fire company following the consolidation was Union Pacific's Durant Fire and Hose Company, named for T. C. Durant and manned by U. P. employes for the protection of the railroad's shops. But this private unit still was subject to special call by the city in emergency.
Tje disastrous Chicago fire of 1871 had awakened Omahans to the need for adequate facilities for harnessing the waters of the Missouri for public as well as private use. The Grand Central Hotel blaze of 1878 startled the city into action. That year the Council passed an ordinance authorizing a contract for construction of a waterworks. An agreement was drawn up with S. L. Wiley & Co.
But like most everything that contributed to the city's advancement, this system could not get under way without wrangling. The Wiley Company and the Holly Manufacturing Company of Lockport, N. Y., were the principals in the waterworks fight. And Edward Rosewater, owner of the Bee, for a time was in the middle.
The dispute had its beginning when the Holly Company's agent, Dr. J. T. Cushing, proposed to build the waterworks on the direct-pressure plan which a majority of the 12 Councilmen favored. Mr. Rosewater, however, complained that Dr. Cushing was attempting to bribe members of the Council and had the man arrested.
The charge was dismissed, and the Council passed an ordinance favoring the Holly Company. Mayor Chase vetoed it. Prominent citizens then got up a petition, and an injunction was obtained restraining the city from further action in attempting any contract under the Holly ordinance. The Council, therefore, passed a new Holly ordinance over the Mayor's veto, this time striking out the word "exclusive" from the Holly franchise. Again the Holly project was tossed overboard, and once more a new ordinance was passed authorizing a contract with "any responsible party."
Holly finally gained a contract in 1880 without the Mayor's signature, but the spring elections put a lot of anti-Holly faces in the Council. The new Council repealed the Holly ordinance and declared the contract void.
The city next employed J. D. Cook of Toledo, 0., to plan a waterworks system, and the City Waterworks Company received a contract for building, maintaining and operating a water system for a period for 25 years. The first pumping station and settling basins were located near the river north of the smelter. Later, water was pumped into a reservoir on Walnut Hill, a method which combined a direct-pressure and gravity system. Water was released into city pipes in September, 1881.
The City Waterworks Company sold its stock in July, 1886, to a Boston syndicate, one of whose largest stockholders was Mr. Wiley. This man, who had made the first bid to construct the plant in 1878, was determined to carry out his original plan of locating the pumping station and settling reservoirs north of Florence.
The following year (1887) the American-Waterworks Company of Chicago took charge of the plant and built the Florence pumping house. The firm equipped it with the latest-type machinery and constructed a series of settling basins at a total cost of $1,500,000. The new works was formally opened August I, 1889 and after years of scrapping it was laid out all in accordance with the ideas of Mr. Wiley, the original bidder.
The Missouri River channel in that day had cut itself farther eastward than its present course. To reach the stream from the Nebraska side Omahans found it necessary to walk or ride over a sandy bottom. Because of the river's constantly changing course, the Omaha steam ferry landing place often was shifted to new locations also.
In 1871, the passenger landing was in a little bayou a short distance above the place the Union Pacific Bridge was being constructed. Passenger trains ran down to this landing. During the winter, depending upon the condition of the river, the ferry company often constructed an "ice bridge" across the Missouri, The Chicago & North Western, first railroad across Iowa to be completed to the river, ran its trains across this "ice bridge" to Omaha.
Construction of the first railroad bridga at Omaha was another great enterprise that didn't get under way without a fight. The dispute erupted over the question of whether "the bridge should be located at "the telegraph poles" or downstream at another point Called Childs' Mill.
The City of Omaha and the Union Pacific had agreed upon a plan under which Omaha and Douglas County voted 250 thousand dollars of 10 per cent bonds to pay for the railroad terminal, with the city donating the ground, providing the Union Pacific would build its depot in Omaha. This arrangement was no sooner completed than rumors were spreading far and wide that the railroad directors had no intention of building the bridge at Omaha.
The city hurriedly appointed a delegation consisting of Governor Saunders, Augustus Kountze, Ezra Millard, O. P.
Hurford, Ends Lowe, Dr. Miller and Francis Smith to go to New York to investigate.
In New York the delegation was promised a hearing but a day-after-day stall developed. The Omahans hotly demanded and finally received an audience.
As the delegates cooled their heels in the ante room, Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, chief engineer of the road, came out of the directors' office, looked over the group with a critical eye and casually announced:
"You gentlemen needn't wait longer, as the directors have decided to locate the bridge at Childs' Mill."
The Omahans stood with their feet virtually frozen to the floor, their jaws hanging open, their eyes popped wide.
Francis Smith seemed to be the first to recover from the shock. He confronted General Dodge.
"We haven't had a square deal, sir. We're entitled to a hearing."
At that instant a man named Sidney Dillon popped in and walked up to Mr, Smith. "Smith, why're you fighting so hard for Omaha?" he demanded.
"Because I believe in Omaha," replied Mr. Smith.
"Give up Omaha, Smith," Dillon persisted with an impatient wag of his head.
"Mr. Dillon," said Smith quietly, "you may rest assured that I shall never quit fighting for Omaha!"
Dillon clenched his teeth. He shook his fist In Mr. Smith's face,
"Damn you, Smith!" he sneered. "We'll make grass grow in the streets of Omaha before we're done with you!"
Mr. Smith didn't flinch. "I admire your confidence," he replied with dignity, "but whether it deflates your ego or not, Mr, Dillon, I assure you it'll take a bigger man than you, sir, to .make grass grow in the streets of Omaha!" He turned to leave. "Good day, sir." '
The sudden appearance of Jay Gould at that critical moment probably saved the Omahans' mission to New York from collapse. He interceded long enough to get an exchange of views, then promised another meeting of the directors the next day at 2 p. m. At that meeting, on March 26, 1868, the directors rescinded their resolution of the preceding day and passed a new resolution. Governor Saunders hurriedly telegraphed this message to the city on the Missouri:
"Sound the loud timbrel! Bridge located at Omaha!"
In a later telegram, the Governor added more details:
"The bridge is located at the train table. Omaha pledges 250 thousand dollars. Council Bluffs pledges 200 thousand dollars. Ground and right-of-way will be condemned."
The decision of the railroad directors on that fateful day in New York was what without a doubt made Omaha not Bellevue the metropolis of Nebraska.
Omaha's pledge of 250 thousand dollars was paid, but the company claimed it never received the bonus promised by Council Bluffs.
The Bloomer Bridge Company of Chicago, which received the contract for $1,089,500, was to have completed the span by November 10, 1869. This company's delays and inability to sink the first cylinder before March of that year, however, prompted the Union Pacific to annul the contract and the railroad itself completed the structure March 25, 1873, at a cost of $1,450,000.
On February 29, 1872, while the span still was under construction, this item appeared in the Nebraska Herald published at Plattsmouth:
"Twenty-five cents is charged for the privilege of walking over the great railroad bridge at Omaha."
Bad luck, however, struck the span only four years after its completion. On August 25, 1877, an early-morning tornado swept down the river and destroyed the two east spans. The bridge parted at the third pier from the Iowa side and when the two spans fell southward they wrenched the massive columns from their anchorages, snapped the heavy wooden sleepers as if they were matchsticks. The rails were twisted like wires.
John Peterson, bridge watchman at the east end of the span, commandeered a skiff and rowed across to the Nebraska side to sound the alarm and save a passenger train from plunging into the river.
Union Pacific trains were rerouted across the Burlington Bridge at Plattsmouth until the two spans could be replaced. The old bridge was substituted, in 1886 and 1887, by a larger steel structure at a cost of 900 thousand dollars a double-track bridge which also was to have had a wagonway on either side and a walk for pedestrians. These, however, were never completed.
The first Union Pacific depot had been put up at Ninth and Chicago Streets near the south entrance of the Union Pacific Shops. Built in 1866, it had been merely a shack - not much better than a wayside shelter but it had served rail travelers until 1869 when another station was built on the south side of Leavenworth Street between Ninth and Tenth Streets. It was from this depot that trains were run down to the river to connect with the ferry boats. On completion of the bridge, the move to Tenth and Marcy Streets was made.
By 1875 Omaha rated its first real depot, but it was more of an eye-sore than an accommodation. The building was nothing more than a giant wind tunnel a long, shed-like structure with brick walls, peaked roof and open ends. Everybody called it "The Cowshed." It covered six tracks but regardless of the roof it gave no protection against wind and cold,
This station was all the city could point to for a train depot until a new and larger brick building replaced it on the same site at Tenth and Marcy in 1900, But it was a great improvement over what Omaha had prior to 1875.
By the time Omaha had ended its thirty-first year residents could point with pride to a 15-year era beginning with 1870 that had produced visible evidence of a cultural and physical growth. Among the most notable achievements:
The first smelter in 1870; first packing plant in 1871; the new Army Building at Fifteenth and Dodge Streets and the Omaha High School building in 1872; opening of telephone service to 150 customers in 1878; addition of two modern hotels, Paxton and Millard, In 1882; expansion of the city's first crude street railway system; donation of a beautiful park to the city in 1879; the first electric illumination and the first practical street paving in 1883; organization of the Union Stockyards in 1884; the opening of Omaha's second Douglas County Courthouse in 1885 and the various moves toward developing a more efficient police force.
Meat-packing, insignificant at the start, gradually developed into Omaha's greatest industry. Although its early existence and later success were largely dependent upon the city's emergence as a railroad center, this industry contributed more to Omaha's growth, wealth and importance than any other enterprise.
Meat-packing had its beginning under somewhat adverse circumstances in October, 1871, when Giesselman & Potter started Nebraska's first plant with a capital of two thousand dollars. The state in that year hardly raised enough hogs to supply the struggling plant.
The first season this small packer handled about 5,200 hogs at a cost. of 52 thousand dollars. The second season the output crawled upward to 5,700 hogs. The largest number of hogs purchased from any one Nebraska farmer in 1873 was 45. But that year Mr. Giesselman died, and Omaha's pioneer packing plant died with him.
James E. Boyd in 1872 opened a small packing house near the river bank, a short distance south of where the Union Pacific Bridge was under construction. His first season saw four thousand hogs killed, making the outlook so bright that Mr. Boyd enlarged his plant. In his second season he killed 13,450 hogs.
The grasshopper plague put Mr. Boyd's business on a temporary slide in 1874 and 1875, but in the following yea blessed by a favored summer for Nebraska farmers - he was once more able to enlarge his facilities to a capacity of 40 thousand hogs butchered per season. In the fall of 1879, he packed 60 thousand. On the following January 18 fire destroyed his plant.
He built a still larger plant and during the year of 1881 some 112 thousand hogs were slaughtered. By 1886, Mr. Boyd's plant was handling about 120 thousand. His sugar-cured hams made his name famous, and in 1887 he retired a wealthy man and devoted his fortune to promoting other enterprises contributing to the growth of Omaha.
Alongside the Union Pacific main track, Harris & Fisher in 1878 built a packing plant. These partners ran a meat market on Dodge Street in downtown Omaha. Bob Harris, the chief partner, attempted expansion by going to San Francisco late in the 1880's to establish a big packing house there. It was a failure.
John A. Smiley made the first attempt to establish a stockyards in Omaha. He organized a Union Stockyards Company in 1876 and deeded to the corporation a tract of land north of the city. Failure to recruit enough support, however, caused abandonment of the project.
Two years later, a new firm incorporated under the name of the Omaha Stockyards Company, with A. P. Nicholas, H. K. Smith, S. R. Johnson, J. F. Sheeley, C. F. Goodman and E. Estabrook as signers. Then on May 4, 1878, William A. Paxton, W. J. Broatch, W. C. B. Alien, J. L. Lovett, Frank Murphy and Herman Kountze formed the Union Stockyards Company, taking the name of the collapsed Smiley enterprise.
These organizations provided only a shaky foundation for the great industry that was to come. The two firms shared a four-year lease on a 40-acre tract of Union Pacific-owned land southwest of the city and in a year were skidding rapidly and deeply into the red. In. 1879, Mr. Nicholas turned his Omaha yards over to Union Pacific, and Mr. Paxton moved his Union yards to Council Bluffs. He soon had 100 thousand dollars of his money invested in the Council Bluffs stockyards, which by then had sound backing by a Chicagoan, Nelson Morris.
But Omaha seemingly had a destiny, located as it was in the center of the corn-producing belt, and it was a Wyoming cattle king, Alexander H. Swan, who impressed the fact upon Omahans. He was a member of Swan Brothers of Cheyenne, whose vast herds roamed Wyoming ranges. Mr, Swan came to Omaha in the summer of 1883 to try to convince Omaha cattle men that this city would be a more convenient livestock-shipping point than Chicago. He was invited to address a select audience interested in the stock-yard problem.
"I have learned," the cattleman told the group, "that there are more than two thousand acres of land that can be secured in one body for stockyard purposes and upon which an option can be obtained. Now do you men want to develop a great industry at this point? If you do, here is your opportunity. If you gentlemen will go in with me and organize a company I believe that I can bond the land and induce my friends in Scotland to take the bonds."
Omaha men rushed to sign up, secured options on the land, and then stumbled over that old barricade money. Mr. Swan appealed to William A. Paxton in December, 1883.
Mr. Paxton knew a man of keen business judgment when he saw one and Mr. Swan's bearing was enough to convince him that with the Wyoming cattle baron as one of those in the driver's seat the Omaha company was destined to eclipse the growing Council Bluffs concern. He and his associates sold their Bluffs yards to the Omaha company and took stock in the new organization.
Soon two separate corporations were formed the South Omaha Land Syndicate and the Union Stockyards Company, with Messrs Swan, Paxton and Murphy, C. W. Hamilton, Thomas Swobe, M. A. Upton, L, M. Anderson and P. E. Iler as officers of the Syndicate and Messrs Paxton, Swan, Murphy, Iler, Swobe, John H. Donnelly, B. F. Smith and John A. McShane as officers of the stockyards company.
Mr. McShane and J, H. Bosler in March, 1887, bought out the land syndicate and formed the South Omaha Land Company with Mr. Paxton as president, Mr. Bosler Vice- president, Mr, Iler secretary, John A. Creighton treasure and Messrs Paxton, Bosler, Iler, Creighton, McShane, Smith, Kountze, Nelson Morris and J. M. Woolworth as directors. The new organization issued a million dollars in stock and canceled the syndicate's bonds which had been issued to pay for the land. .
New stockholders were added to. the list when the capital of the Union Stockyards Company was increased to two million dollars as the industry rapidly developed. Original capital had been 500 thousand dollars.
On April 8, 1884, work was begun on the new yards, and by August 25 of that same year thpy were open for business.
Omaha's greatest Industry had begun.
End Installment V
Omaha's First Century - Installment VI
Omaha's First Century - Introduction