HistoricOmaha.com Historical Walking Tour of Downtown Omaha
This 2 ½ - 3 mile walking tour begins on the steps of the Omaha Civic Auditorium (1) at 18th and Capitol Streets. The tour ends three blocks east of this point at 15th and Capitol Streets. Adequate parking is available on the street or at numerous commercial lots in the area.
Numbers that appear in bold throughout this tour designate points on the tour map.
Please use the following link to view a map of this tour:
HistoricOmaha.com Historical Walking Tour Map (203K)
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Omaha has not always been the town that you see before you. Muddy streets, inadequate sanitation, packs of wild dogs and a host of other problems that plagued many towns during the early days of development on the Great Plains were seen in Omaha.
The following poem, from an 1869 issue of Harper's Magazine paints a fascinating literary picture of life in early Omaha:
Hast ever been in Omaha,
Where rolls the dark Missouri down,
And four strong horses scarce can draw
An empty wagon through the town?
Where sand is blown from every mound
To fill the eyes and ears and throat-
Where all the steamers are aground
And all the shanties are afloat?
Where whisky shops the livelong night
Are vending their poison juice:
Where men are often very tight,
And women deemed a trifle loose?
Where taverns have an anxious guest
For every corner, shelf and crack;
With half the people going west,
And all the others going back?
Where theaters are all the run
And bloody scalpers come to trade;
Where everything is overdone
And everybody underpaid?
If not, take heed to what I say:
You'll find it just as I have found it;
And if it lies upon your way,
For God's sake, reader, go around it!
While Native American culture dates back considerably further, Lewis & Clark first explored this area in 1804. On July 21, 1804, Lewis & Clark passed the area that would become the city of Omaha and noted that it would be a good location for a trading establishment and military fortification.
Looking west from this spot in 1857 would have provided a fantastic view of the new Nebraska Territorial Capitol Building. The building now visible at the top of the hill is Central High School (3), completed in 1912.
Across the Street at 18th and Capitol Streets is Trinity Episcopal Cathedral (2). Trinity Cathedral was completed in 1883. The parish for which this church building was organized relocated to this site 1867. The cathedral, constructed of blue limestone from Illinois, is Nebraska's oldest church building still in use. Along with religious icons and symbols, the stained glass windows of the cathedral, which were installed when the cathedral was consecrated, depict area churches and institutions that were in place at the time of the construction of this cathedral. Early parishioners of Trinity Cathedral were Thomas Cuming, first Nebraska Territorial Governor, and J. Sterling Morton, Nebraskan and founder of Arbor Day. Trinity Episcopal Cathedral maintains an informative website at the following URL: http://www.brownell.edu/trinity/homepage.htm
Cross the street and walk along the south side of Capitol Street until you have reached 19th Street at the top of the hill. (This is the only uphill walk on this tour!) Turn left on 19th Street and walk one block to Dodge Street. Cross 19th Street and walk west until you have also crossed 20th Street. You are now on the campus of Omaha Central High School (3). The steep grade of Dodge Street was reduced from 12% to 7% in the 1920s. This work forever changed the face of the grounds surrounding Central High School.
Central High School, once known as Omaha High School, first held class in 1859. This former site of the Nebraska Territorial Capitol Building was, first, the location of a four-story building that was Omaha's first public high school. The building you see today was constructed around the old structure and completed in 1912. Two Nebraska state historical markers add to the story of this area. A marker entitled "Capitol Hill" is positioned at the southeast corner of the school campus at 20th and Dodge Streets, while a second marker, entitled "Central High School", is positioned a short distance west on Dodge Street. Walk up the steps that are in front of Central High School on the east side. For a view of the Omaha skyline, walk up to the circular patio area at the east entrance of Central. At this entrance to the school, you will also find historical markers to remind visitors of the Nebraska Territorial Capitol that was once at this spot and a second marker describing the first Nebraska State Constitution that was signed here. The battle to secure the state capital was a lively debate that once deteriorated into a fistfight. Further information regarding Central High School is available at the following URL: http://www.ops.org/central/
Continue around the sidewalk that is close to Central High School. The architecture of the building and landscaping of the area are reminiscent of what one would expect of a Capitol building. When you have reached the west side of the building, you will see a memorial honoring students of Central High School who were killed in the Vietnam conflict. This is also an excellent spot for viewing the Joslyn Art Museum (4). The Georgia Pink marble used to construct the museum provides a varied view, depending upon the position of the sun overhead.
For a short (or long) diversion, return to Dodge Street and walk west to the Joslyn Art Museum. The Joslyn, opened in 1931, was a gift to the city of Omaha by Sarah Joslyn in memory of her husband, George. Joslyn art museum features a variety of fine art, with a special emphasis on 19th and 20th century art from Europe and America. Complete information regarding the Joslyn Art Museum is available at the following URL: http://www.joslyn.org/
Return to Dodge Street and cross Dodge at 20th Street. Walk along the south side of the street for one block until you have reached 19th Street. Continue across 19th Street until you have reached the southeast corner of 19th and Dodge Streets.
You are standing at the entrance of St. Mary Magdalene Church (5), constructed in 1902. A plaque on the northwest corner of the church commemorates the first mass that was celebrated in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 14, 1855.
Turn right (south) on 19th Street until you reach Douglas Street. Cross Douglas Street and, then, face the opposite direction. To the northeast, you will have a good view of the Roman L. Hruska United State Courthouse (6), which opened in 2000. The courthouse was named for former Nebraska Senator Roman L. Hruska.
Turn left (east) on Douglas Street until you reach 18th Street. Before crossing 18th Street, stop for a moment to examine the murals of the World Building (7) (across 18th Street) that are just above street level. The ten historical murals, completed in 1967, depict Nebraska history from its earliest days to modern time. Three murals are on the Douglas Street side of the World Building, six on the 18th Street side, and one mural is between the World Building and the 30-story Woodmen Tower (8).
Cross 18th Street for a closer look at the murals and then continue one block east to 17th Street. Turn right (south) on 17th Street and walk for one block. To your right, after you emerge from under the overpass, is the Woodmen Tower, completed in 1969. From this point, the upper stories of the tower are not visible; however, you will see US Bank at street level.
Upon reaching Farnam Street, across the street is the Douglas County Court House (9). The courthouse, completed in 1912, features a considerable amount of stonework that is worth crossing the street for a closer look.
Once you have seen the courthouse, return beneath the overpass (north) on 17th Street to Douglas Street. Turn right (east) on Douglas Street until you have reached 16th Street. To your left is the 46-story First National Bank Tower (10), completed in 2002, Omaha's tallest building.
To your right, between 17th and 16th Streets, is the J. L. Brandeis and Sons Store Building (11). This building, once the flagship of Brandeis department stores, was completed in 1906. Two stories were added in 1921 to complete the building's current ten-story height. Jonas L. Brandeis achieved notoriety among those who profited from Omaha's early warehousing prominence. Don't forget to look up and take note of the stonework on the exterior of the Brandeis building.
Turn right (south) on 16th Street (12). This is one of downtown Omaha's prettiest areas, featuring stonework on many of the buildings that is nicely accented by the tree-lined, brick walks. Continue south for two blocks and cross Harney Street.
Across 16th Street, you will see the Orpheum Theater (13). Completed in 1927, the Orpheum is home to the Omaha Symphony, Opera Omaha, the Omaha Ballet and performance events of all kinds. If possible, take a moment to step in for a look at the lobby of the theater. Further information regarding events at the Orpheum can be obtained at either of the following URLs: Omaha Symphony, http://www.omahasymphony.org/ Opera Omaha, http://www.operaomaha.org/
Continue south for one block until you have reached Howard Street.
On the southwest corner of 16th and Howard Streets, you will see the Aquila Court Building (now a Sheraton Hotel) (14). The Aquila Court Building surrounds a central courtyard and, along with various commercial enterprises, has served as one of Omaha's finest hotels.
Turn right (west) and walk one block to the corner of 17th and Howard Streets. In front of you is Omaha's Flatiron Building (15), named for its unique shape. While originally constructed in 1912 as a hotel, the Flatiron is now used as office and commercial space.
Cross Howard Street at 17th Street and turn left (east). Walk along the south side of Howard Street. At 15th and Howard Streets you will pass by the Omaha Police Headquarters (16). The courtyard at the entrance of the police headquarters features a memorial dedicated to those officers who have been killed in the line of duty.
Continue east on Howard Street to 13th Street. Howard Street, between 13th and 10th Streets, is the center of Omaha's Old Market District (17). The Market District was an early retail center for area farmers, outfitters and other commercial interests. Don't forget to look up at the buildings as you walk along Howard Street. The building exteriors often provide evidence of their history.
If it is time for a rest or a meal, you have reached the right place. The Old Market offers a variety of restaurants and shopping diversions.
If you are touring on a Saturday morning from spring to early fall, turn right (south) at 11th and Howard Streets to see the Farmer's Market that begins ½ block ahead at the corner of 11th and Jackson Streets. A variety of local products are always available.
Continue east on Howard Street to 10th Street. Turn right (south) on 10th Street and walk one block to Jackson Street.
Two blocks to your right (west), at 12th and Jackson Streets (18), is the site at which Omaha City's first resident, William P. Snowden, completed construction of the city's first building during July, 1854, a crude log structure that would be known as the St. Nicholas Hotel. The St. Nicholas, completed nearly three years before Omaha was officially incorporated by the territorial legislature on February 2, 1857, served as an early claim house for settlers.
Looking south over the 10th Street Bridge, you will see a cream-colored, stone building on the left (east) side of the bridge. This is the Durham Western Heritage Museum (19). This museum is the restored Union Passenger Terminal, which was completed in 1931. The museum features historical artifacts from Omaha's history, an extensive coin collection and various special exhibits. If you have time to see the museum, the Main Waiting Room is worth the price of admission alone. At Christmas time, the museum is a must see for the annual "Christmas at Union Station" celebration. Further information regarding the museum is available at the following URL: http://www.dwhm.org/ .
For a short diversion, walk out on to the bridge for a better view of the Omaha Rail and Commerce Historic District (20). The rail connections and warehouses of this district once served the commercial and warehousing enterprises in Omaha while they were at their height of operation from the late-1800s to the mid-1900s. The buildings of this area are now used as apartments, artist studios and other commercial enterprises.
Just south of the Durham Western Heritage Museum is the Burlington Station (21). This building is not open to the public, though various proposals have been made to utilize the facility. The Burlington Station was completed in 1898 and underwent extensive renovation in 1930.
Return to 10th and Howard Streets (north) and cross 10th Street. As you cross 10th at Howard Street, you will be in front of the Embassy Suites Hotel. Turn left (north) and walk along 10th Street on its east side. On you right side is ConAgra (22), which is involved in the preparation and sales of many familiar food products.
Continue walking for two blocks until you have reached 10th and Farnam Streets. One block to you right (east) at 9th and Farnam Streets (23) is the former site of the Hearndon House. The Hearndon house, completed in 1857, was regarded, at the time, as the largest and most elegant hotel west of Chicago. The four-story, brick structure later served as the headquarters of the Union Pacific Railroad. The Hearndon House was demolished in 1922.
Cross 10th Street at Farnam. The white building in front of you is the Burlington Headquarters Building (24). Though the building is now used as office and residential space, it once served as headquarters of the Burlington & Missouri (Chicago, Burlington & Quincy) Railroad. An original three-story building was completed in 1879, while the fourth floor was added in 1886.
Continue west on Farnam. Just past the west side of the Burlington Headquarters Building are stairs that will lead you into the Gene Leahy Mall, named for former Omaha Mayor Eugene A. Leahy (1969-73). Walk down the steps until you have reached the northwest corner of the Burlington Building. You will see a circular sidewalk (25) leading to the edge of the pond that is the showpiece of the mall. Walk out onto the path and look to the west for one of the most picturesque views of the Omaha skyline. Nice place for a picture!
Walk back up the steps to return to Farnam Street. At the top of the steps, turn right (west) and walk west until you have reached an archway (26). This archway is the former entry arch of the United States National Bank building that was located at 12th and Farnam Streets, one block west from this point.
Enter the Gene Leahy Mall on the paved path at the left of the arch. You will see a steel bridge with wooden planks that will allow you to cross the water. As you cross the bridge, take time to enjoy the sites of the mall and, once again, a view of the Omaha skyline.
Cross the bridge to exit the mall on the north (Douglas Street) side. Turn left (west) on Douglas Street.
Stop to see the pioneer statue display (27) that is close to the point at which you exited the Gene Leahy Mall.
Continue along Douglas Street until you have reached 14th Street. Across the street is the W. Dale Clark Library (28), the main branch of the Omaha Public Library. If you are interested in seeing the library, the first floor usually features a historic or literary display.
Turn right on 14th Street and walk one block to 14th and Dodge Streets (labeled World-Herald Square). The building on the right side of street is the former production facility of the Omaha World-Herald (29) newspaper. Continue for one block on 14th Street to see the Freedom Center (30), the new production facility for the Omaha World-Herald that was opened in September, 2001. The glass windows on the west side of the building enclose the 272 foot press hall, where the main presses print approximately 75,000 newspapers per hour.
Turn around and return to Dodge Street along 14th Street. Turn right on Dodge Street. The buildings to your right and left are the Union Pacific Railroad Headquarters (31). The historic building to the right was constructed in 1910, while modern additions were added in 1957 and 1969. The building to your left was completed in 2004.
Turn right on 15th Street and walk one block to 15th and Capitol Streets. Look left (west) for a view of Central High School on Capitol Hill (3).
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