American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of The Western States

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam' Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press
1901

OMAHA
THE TRANSCONTINENTAL GATEWAY
BY VICTOR ROSEWATER

NOW a city of 100,000 population, with prosperous suburbs that make it the business centre for 175,000 people, Omaha is the outgrowth of the Nebraska & Council Bluffs Ferry Company. This company was organized under the incorporation laws of Iowa, in 1853, to carry on the lucrative ferriage traffic for transcontinental pilgrims in quest of the gold fields of California that had been begun two years previously by a halted gold seeker, Brown by name, who saw more gold in paddling passengers across the murky Missouri than in washing the yellow sands near Sutter's mill.

As an adjunct to the ferry, the company staked out a claim adjacent to its west landing directly opposite Council Bluffs, and employed Alfred D. Jones, a young civil engineer, to lay out a town site which on pretentious paper was invested, without particular thought or design, with the name Omaha, from the tribe of Indians that was wont to camp upon the creek brushing its north boundary. The survey was conducted in June and July of 1854, and the adoption of the name was doubtless suggested by the fact that a month or more before the representative in Congress for the State of Iowa had prevailed upon the Post Office Department to issue a commission to Mr. Jones as postmaster at Omaha City, which at that time must have existed solely in his prolific imagination. Postmaster Jones carrying the post office around with him in his hat is a reminiscence founded on actual fact and not in fancy.

That the ideas of these early pioneers were of the expansible variety is readily gathered from the character of the plat prepared to mark the coming town site as the seat of a great and mighty city. On the broad plateau overlooking the river, building lots were staked out 66 by 132 feet, divided by streets 100 feet wide and alleys of 20 feet. There were 320 blocks in all, each comprising eight lots forming squares of 264 feet. Two squares were reserved, one in the business centre 264 by 280 feet, and the other on the top of the most conspicuous hill 6oo feet square, the latter designated as Capitol Square and the hill as Capitol Hill, and a broad avenue 120 feet wide leading to it as Capitol Avenue, all in foreordained honor of the magnificent structure to be erected when the newly born city should have achieved the distinction of the capital of Nebraska Territory. Omaha City was not organized as an incorporated municipality until 1857.

Looking closer into the history and geography of the spot where now run the busy streets of Nebraska's metropolis, lined with substantial business blocks and attractive residences, precisely as platted in that lonely summer of 1854, the conclusion is forced that it was not mere fortuitous chance that built a wonder city upon an empty ferry landing. The location was by nature destined to be a turningpoint on the great central transcontinental highway bridging the divide between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Lewis and Clark, who worked their way to Oregon up the Missouri Valley, were the first white men to leave a record of their visit. From their journal is taken the following extract noting their arrival and detention at the mouth of the Platte in July, 1804, whence they continued northward and passed over the ground now included in the city:

"July 27, Having completed the object of our stay, we set sail with a pleasant breeze for the northwest. The two horses swam over to the southern [western] shore, along which we went, passing by an island, at three and a half miles, formed by a pond, fed by springs; three miles further is a large sand island in the middle of the river, the land on the south [west] being high and. covered with timber; that on the north [east] a prairie. At ten and a half miles from our encampment, we saw and examined a curious collection of graves or mounds, on the south [west] side of the river. Not far from a low piece of land and a pond, is a tract of about two hundred acres in extent, which is covered with mounds of different heights, shapes and sizes; some of sand, and some of both earth and sand ; the largest being near the river. These mounds indicate the position of the ancient village of the Ottoes, before they retired to the protection of the Pawnees. After making fifteen miles, we camped on the south [east] on the bank of a high, handsome prairie, with lofty cottonwood in groves, near the river."

That the mounds referred to constituted the ancient Indian burial ground, remnants of which long remained in the lower part of the town as objects of curiosity to inquisitive observers, has been established to the satisfaction of historical critics, as also that the council held by Lewis and Clark with the Indians, from which Council Bluffs derives its name, took place in reality not on the Iowa side opposite Omaha but on the Nebraska side several miles farther up, in the vicinity of what is now Fort Calhoun.

A no less interesting historical chapter is found in the Mormon encampment that for a time promised to make Omaha the centre of its church establishment. It is needless here to state details of the Nauvoo persecutions and the early expeditions in search of the promised land. When the advance guard sighted the east bank of the Missouri, it took a stand on Miller's hill, so named after a Mormon elder, where the various companies into which the emigrants had been divided for their historic march across Iowa converged. It might have been called Miller's hill to this day had not just at that moment a call arrived to enlist a body of volunteers for the United States in its impending war with Mexico, followed by the prompt organization of the Mormon battalion under Colonel T. L. Kane, in whose honor the name of the halting place was changed to Kanesville. Kanesville it might have remained but for the fact that the post office at that point had been designated as Council Bluffs City, whither the last mail for the emigrants setting out over the great divide was regularly addressed; and to avoid confusion the name of Kanesville was dropped after two or three years and Council Bluffs left in undisputed possession of that corner of the map.

But the east bank of the river was not suitable for the Mormons' purposes. They crossed over and established themselves in Winter Quarters at a point about six miles north of what later became Omaha, making themselves as comfortable as possible in seven hundred and more hastily built log cabins and dugouts. The place was fortified with stockades, a tabernacle erected, and various workshops and mills were constructed to provide temporary employment. At Winter Quarters was held the annual conference of the church, April 6, 1847, attended by people from all parts of the country prepared for moving west. From Winter Quarters, on the 14th day of the same month, a party of about 150, all but four or five being men, set out, with seventy three wagons drawn by horses and oxen, under the personal leadership of Brigham Young, the expedition culminating in the famous founding of Zion in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. The excursion of apostles and pioneers returned to the Missouri for their families and friends, their arrival at Winter Quarters in October calling forth as an occasion for special joy and thanksgiving an elaborate celebration. The summer of 1848 saw the great body of Latter Day Saints following Brigham Young to the new Utah settlement, but Winter Quarters was maintained for years as the stopping point and outfitting station for the Mormon emigrants on their westward wandering. By 1856 the name had been changed to Florence and it is so referred to in the writings of the later Mormons. For years it remained the busy hiving place for the church converts moving on Zion from all quarters of the world. Today it is a quaint, old fashioned sleepy village, interesting chiefly for a few ancient landmarks, and visited on good weather Sundays by recreation seekers from Omaha in cart or on wheel.

The earliest history of Omaha is a chronicle of bitterly waged fights for the possession of the seat of government of the new Nebraska Territory. The proud privilege of advertising itself as the capital city was eagerly sought after not only by Omaha but by every other ambitious town site company along the eastern frontier. It should be remembered that the initial steps in the territorial organization were taken under the presidency of Franklin Pierce, who, although a Northern man, was almost completely under Southern domination. The position of governor was first offered to General William G. Butler of Kentucky, but unceremoniously declined, whereupon it was passed on to another Southern gentleman in, the person of Francis H. Burt of South Carolina. Governor Burt arrived at Bellevue in company with the secretary, Thomas B. Cuming of Iowa, in October, 1854, but. before he undertook in any way to exercise his official powers he succumbed to a fatal illness, leaving the succession by virtue of his office to Secretary Cuming. Governor Cuming in due time issued his election proclamation and called the territorial Legislature to convene at Omaha in January. In this connection it should also be remembered that Omaha was located and settled by Iowa promoters while the competing towns to the south looked on slave holding Missouri as the parent. Had the first capital designation been asserted by the South Carolina executive instead of by his fortuitous Iowa successor we may well doubt whether Omaha would have fared so fortunately.

The earliest territorial legislatures have been described by eye witnesses and participants as often bordering on an organized mob. To keep the capitol at Omaha was the watchword on the one side and to take it away the battle cry on the other. Money and town lot stock are said to have played an important part with members who seem to have anticipated later day legislative methods and yielded to "inducements" that overcame their local loyalty. While the Capitol building rose on Capitol Hill, Omaha had to contest for its retention at every annual session of the Legislature from 1855 to 1858, from which time it was left in undisputed possession until 1867, when with the investiture of Statehood a seat of government was carved anew on the virgin prairie to be christened Lincoln after the martyred President.

The great impetus that sent the infant Omaha forward by leaps and bounds ahead of its rivals in the Missouri Valley north and south came from two closely connected enterprises, the one the building of the Pacific telegraph, the other the construction of the first transcontinental railroad.

The Pacific telegraph assumed tangible form through the unquenchable energies of Edward Creighton. Still in the prime of sturdy manhood, invigorated by the Irish blood inherited from his ancestry, Creighton had come to Omaha in 1856 to visit his brothers, engaging for a time in the lumber business. In 1860 he built the Missouri & Western line from St. Louis to Omaha, but already a year before had evolved a plan for a telegraph from the Missouri River to the Pacific coast. With the encouragement and material assistance of men like Jeptha H. Wade, Ezra Cornell, and Hiram Sibley, whose confidence he earned and kept, his idea, originally received as a weird fancy, took shape in surveys, contracts, and actual construction, the first message transmission occurring in October, 1861, speeding on in an hour by electric current intelligence that would previously have required weeks and months to journey. The fortune sprung from this venturesome undertaking has given the name of Creighton a foundation lasting to the end of time. Edward Creighton died in 1874, leaving $1,500,000 to be bestowed eventually for educational and charitable purposes. The good work he began has been carried further by his brother, John A. Creighton, and the Creighton College, the Creighton Medical School, and the Creighton Memorial Hospital, not to enumerate smaller benef actions, all attest as enduring monuments the activity and foresight that paved the way for the electric fluid to flow unchecked from ocean to ocean.

The telegraph was but the forerunner of the railroad. With Omaha the initial point of the Pacific telegraph lines, it enjoyed a marked advantage in the competition for the eastern terminus of the Pacific Railway. Up to that time, all transportation had been by steamboat up the Missouri River or in wagon and coach overland. The race of the iron horse across Iowa had been interrupted, first by the financial crash of 1857, and then by the war of 1861, so that the first locomotive to carry its train to the Missouri River arrived January 17, 1867, bearing the escutcheon of the Chicago & Northwestern. Within two years four railroads converged at the river opposite Omaha eager to share the through transcontinental traffic already in sight.

The history of Omaha and of the Union Pacific is inseparably linked. It is not necessary to weigh the conflicting claims to credit for suggesting the railroad to the Pacific slope. The war demonstrated the military necessity of a rail connection with the coast States and forced Congress to take the steps that made its immediate construction possible. Without the subsidy offered in the Acts of 1862 and 1863 the road certainly would not have been built for years, and the development of the whole western country would have been long retarded.

At the recommendation of the chief engineer, Peter A. Dey, the eastern terminus was fixed "on the western boundary of the State of Iowa, opposite Omaha," an event so auspicious as to provoke a responsive demonstration from the enthusiastic inhabitants of the young city, who made the master stroke of their celebration the actual breaking of the ground for the newly projected road. This occurred December 2, 1863, with the thermometer hovering close to the freezing point.

The work of construction was pushed with all possible rapidity, but with the best expedition it was May 10, 1869, before the juncture of the two roads heading for one another from east and west was effected, in the presence of a distinguished body of spectators, by the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Point, girding the continent with bands of steel. According to all accounts the celebration at Omaha of the completion of the Union Pacific was on a scale commensurate with its importance to the commercial and industrial position of the city.

If Engineer Dey was the central figure in the initial, work, Thomas C. Durant, as First Vice President and General Manager, had more to do with its successful completion than any other one man. While many names have since shown bright in the progress of this epoch making enterprise, those of Dey and Durant must form the base stones of the arch that has raised this great railroad to its eminence, and carried it through stress and storm.

The prestige acquired by Omaha as a railway centre in those early days has been constantly maintained, until today the steel rails radiate in every direction, while three magnificent bridges span the Missouri where Brown's lonely ferry formerly transferred victims of the gold fever from one bank to the other.

With a firmly established industrial foundation, the progress of the city has gone steadily forward. Commercial expansion, it is true, has been broken occasionally by bursting realestate booms, grasshopper plagues, drought stricken crops or general financial depression, but in material welfare and ever widening public activity the community takes rank with its most wide awake competitors. Besides its extensive jobbing interests, its manufacturing development has been along the lines of silver smelting and refining, linseed oil mills, white lead works, machine and locomotive shops, and the great live stock market and meat packing establishments that have formed the nucleus of the magic city braced against its boundary under the name of South Omaha, and sure, sooner or later, to be one with it in corporate existence, as it is already in life and business. Although not yet past the fiftieth anniversary, Omaha boasts of all those advantages that make an attractive living place, good. schools, well stocked free libraries, substantial churches, art galleries, well paved streets, with water, light, and rapid transit, fine public parks, imposing public buildings. Above all, it is a city of homes and home owners, thick with modest dwellings though only meagrely supplied with palatial mansions. Omaha's contribution to the world of science, art, and literature is perhaps small, but it has given two presidents to the American Bar Association in James M. Woolworth and Charles F. Manderson, the latter also having filled the position of President pro tem. of the United States Senate; in banking circles Herman Kountze and Joseph H. Millard are known throughout the country; Edward Rosewater and his newspaper, The Bee, occupy a place in the front rank of American journalism; the art gallery of George Whininger is classed among the best private collections on this side of the Atlantic; and the benevolence of John A. Creighton has received recognition in the title conferred on him of Count in the Holy Roman See.

The Trans Mississippi Exposition of 1898 constitutes Omaha's crowning achievement of recent years. Projected in the period of densest industrial gloom and executed in the face of the war with Spain, the enterprise proved an unexpected and unprecedented success, returning to the stock subscribers ninety per cent. of the money they had advanced. The financial success was, however, subordinate to the success in other directions. A white city of such architectural perfection could not fail to afford an aesthetic stimulus in itself of wonderful educational effect. Participated in by. all the transMississippi States and Territories as an exhibition of the resources and products of this vast region, the Exposition served to open the eyes of visitors from both at home and abroad to the limitless possibilities there spread before them. The Indian Congress alone, including as it did representatives of nearly all the remaining tribes of aboriginal inhabitants gathered together under the direction of the Indian authorities of the Federal Government, formed an ethnic object lesson the like of. which had never before been presented. No fitter culmination could have been prepared than the Peace Jubilee, in its closing month of October, attended by President McKinley, members of his Cabinet, and heroes of the armed conflict just concluded, all uniting in acclaiming the end of war typified in the Exposition as a towering triumph of the arts of peace.

Historic towns of the Western States

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