The Parks and Boulevards of Omaha, Nebraska
From: Omaha: The Gate City
and Douglas County, Nebraska
Arthur C. Wakeley, Supervising Editor
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, Chicago 1917

PARKS AND BOULEVARDS

At the time Omaha was surveyed in 1854, few cities in the country had given much attention to the establishment of public parks and pleasure grounds. Nevertheless, the founders of Omaha made some provisions for parks provisions that their successors failed to observe and carry out. The seven blocks bounded by Eighth, Ninth, Jackson and Davenport were reserved for park purposes, but this tract of ground was divided into lots soon after the town was incorporated in 1857, the lots sold and a portion of the proceeds used to aid in the erection of the Herndon House, as told in another chapter. In addition to this reservation, Washington Square, bounded by Fifteenth. Sixteenth. Farnam and Douglas streets, and Jefferson Square, bounded by Cass, Chicago, Fifteenth and Sixteenth streets, were also set apart for public parks. The former was afterward sold to the county for a courthouse site, so that Jefferson Square is the only one of the original parks left. Several attempts were made to divert this square to other uses, but they all failed.

In the fall of 1872 A. J. Hanscom and James G. Megeath gave to the cite a tract of fifty seven and a half acres in the southern part of the city for park purposes. on condition that $3,000 be expended in 1873 for improving it; $4,000 for each of the next three years; $5,000 in 1877 and the same amount in 1878. The gift was accepted by the city council and the tract named "Hanscom Park." It is bounded by Woolworth Avenue on the north; Park Avenue on the east; Ed Creighton Avenue on the south, and Thirty second Street on the west. For more than fifteen years after this donation, Hanscom Park and Jefferson Square were the only public parks or places of rest and recreation owned by the City of Omaha. Then came a change in the law that allowed greater freedom of action on the part of the municipality.

THE PARK COMMISSION'

The Legislature of 1889 enacted a law providing for a general system of public parks in all cities of the metropolitan class in the State of Nebraska. Omaha was the only city affected by this law, and as the system of parks and boulevards has been built up under its provisions the full text of the act is given below.

"Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Nebraska, That in each city of the metropolitan class there shall be park commissioners, who shall have charge of all the parks and public grounds belonging to the city, with power to establish rules for the management, care and use of public parks and parkways; and it shall be the duty of said board of park commissioners from time to time to devise and suggest to the mayor and council a system of public parks, parkways and boulevards within the city, and within three miles of the limits thereof, and to designate the lands and grounds necessary to be used, purchased or appropriated for such purpose; and thereupon it shall be the duty of the mayor and council to take such action as may be necessary for the appropriation of the lands and grounds so designated, and for the purpose of making payments for such lands and grounds, assess such lands and grounds as may be specifically beneficed by reason of the appropriation thereof for such purpose, and issue bonds as may be required in. excess of such assessment. Said board of park commissioners shall be composed of five members, who shall be resident freeholders of such city, and who shall be appointed by the judges of the judicial district in which such city shall be situated.

"Section 2. The members of said board shall be appointed by said judges, a majority of said judges concurring, on the second Tuesday of May, 1889, or on the second Tuesday of May following the creation of this act of any city of the metropolitan class, one for the term of one year, one for the term of two years, one for the term of three years, one for the term of four years and one for the term of five years; and after the appointment of said five members it shall be the duty of said judges, a majority concurring, to appoint or reappoint one member of said board each year on the second Tuesday of May.

"Section 3. A majority of all the members of the board of park commissioners shall constitute a quorum. It shall be the duty of said board of park commissioners to lay out, improve and beautify all grounds owned or hereafter acquired for public parks and employ a secretary and also such landscape gardeners, superintendents, keepers, assistants or laborers as may be necessary for the proper care and maintenance of such parks, or the improvement or beautifying thereof, to the extent that funds may be provided for such purposes. The members of the board at its first meeting each year after the second Tuesday in May shall elect one of their members as chairman of such board. Before entering upon their duties, each member of said board shall take an oath to be filed with the city clerk that he will faithfully perform the duties of his appointment, and in the selection or designation of land for parks and boulevards and in making appointments he will act for the best interests of such city and the public, and will not in any manner be actuated or influenced by personal or political motives.

"Section 4. The chairman of such board shall receive a salary of six hundred dollars per annum and the other members of said park commission shall receive a salary of two hundred dollars per annum.

"Section 5. For the purpose of paying such salaries, providing funds for laying out, improving or benefiting parks and public grounds and providing for the salaries and wages of employees of said board, the mayor and the council shall each year, at the time of making the levy of taxes for general city purposes, make a levy of not less than one and a half mills and not exceeding three mills on the dollar valuation on all the real and personal property within the corporate limits of such city taxable according to the laws of this state; and such fund shall be known as the park fund, the warrants thereon to be drawn only in the payments of accounts or claims audited by the said board of park commissioners."

Under the provisions of this act Judges Wakeley, Groff, Hopewell, Doane and Clarkson met on May 14, 1889, that day being the second Tuesday of the month, and appointed Alfred Millard, George B. Lake, Augustus Pratt, George W. Lininger and Dr. George L. Miller as the first board of park commissioners. The terms of these commissioners were from one to five years in the order named. On the day following their appointment the commissioners met and elected Dr. George L Miller president, and Guy R. Doane was chosen secretary. Letters were written to landscape gardeners in St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati, Minneapolis and St. Paul, asking suggestions for the establishment of the Omaha park system. The result of this correspondence was that H. W. S. Cleveland, of Minneapolis, was employed to prepare plans for the use of the commission, in the improvement of the parks and public grounds of Omaha. In June, 1889, the commissioners visited Chicago and Minneapolis to examine the public parks and gain information regarding the methods pursued in those cities. Upon their return, William R. Adams was engaged as park superintendent and the work of improving the two parks owned by the city was commenced, as well as a movement for the acquisition of new park lands. From the beginning thus inaugurated Omaha now has twenty public parks, to wit: Bemis, Bluff View, Clearview, Curtiss Turner, Deer, Elmwood, Fontenelle, Hanscom, Highland, Himebaugh, Jefferson Square, Kountze, Levi Carter, McKinley, Mandan, Mercer, Miller, Morton, Riverview and Spring Lake. The combined area of those parks is 980.33 acres, Levi Carter being the largest and Bluff View the smallest.

Bemis Park was the first to be acquired by the park commission after its organization. In the fall of 1889 the owners of a strip of land about two hundred feet wide and extending from Thirty third to Thirty sixth streets, a short distance north of Cuming, offered to donate the ground to the city for park purposes. As this strip consisted of a deep and narrow ravine, the park commission recommended the purchase of the land lying between that donated and Cuming Street. The first parcel of land was purchased in 1892, and the last in 1908, giving Bemis Park an area of ten and a half acres. The total cost of the lands so purchased was $45,522. Neighboring property owners also acquired some of the adjoining lots, in order to prevent erection of unsightly buildings thereon that would obstruct the view into the park. Little permanent improvements have been made in this park, but the natural features are such that in time it will doubtless become one of Omaha's beauty spots. It is connected with Hanscom Park by the Lincoln and Turner boulevards.

Bluff View, the smallest park owned by the city, contains but little over half an acre. It was acquired by donation in 1905 and since that time $2,500 have been expended in improvements. It is located two and three fourths miles north of the old postoffice building at the corner of Fifteenth and Dodge streets and is so named because of the commanding view.

Clearview Park, also called Hillsdale Park, was acquired by the city through the annexation of South Omaha in 1915. It is bounded by G, H, Forty second and Forty third streets and has an area of 422 acres. Having been the property of the city but a short time, no expenditures have as yet been made for its improvement, though it will doubtless come in for its share in the future development of the park system.

Curtiss Turner Park, of 7.58 acres, is situated about a mile west of the city hall and is bounded by Farnam, Dodge, Thirtieth and Thirty first streets. It was donated to the city in 190o and since then nearly four thousand dollars have been expended in its improvement by the park commission. On the south it is connected with Hanscom Park by the Turner Boulevard, and on the north with Bemis Park by the Lincoln Boulevard.

Deer Park is an irregularly shaped tract of land west of Riverview Park and contains 19.30 acres. It was acquired by purchase and condemnation proceedings in 1899, the cost of the land to the city having been $11,578.65. About two thousand five hundred dollars have since been expended in improvements and maintenance. The Deer Park Boulevard connects it with Riverview Park on the east, then runs westwardly from Deer Park, crosses the railroad tracks at the Vinton Street viaduct and connects with the Hanscom Boulevard.

Elmwood Park, the second largest of the entire system, is situated in the extreme western part of the city, about three and one fourth miles from the city hall. Its total area is 208.13 acres. Fifty five acres of this were donated in 1889 by Lyman Richardson, John T. Bell, Leopold Doll and one or two others. The lands thus donated are situated in the southeast quarter of Section 24. Township 15, Range 13, and the park board, realizing that a large and beautiful park could be made here, recommended the acquisition of the remainder of the quarter section: Between the years 1889 and 1892 the additional lands in the park were acquired, partly by purchase and partly by condemnation. These lands cost the city $135,110, and since then nearly one hundred thousand dollars have been expended in improvements and maintenance. The extension of the West Leavenworth Street car line to the main entrance of the park a few years ago brought Elmwood into greater popularity and since then it has been a favorite resort for picnic parties. One of the features of this park is the mineral spring, the waters of which contain silica, magnesia, soda and some other minerals.

Fontenelle Park, of 107.53 acres, is located in the northwestern part of the city, about three miles from the city hall In November, 1891, upon the recommendation of the park commissioners, the city council submitted to the voters a proposition to issue bonds to the amount of $400,000, the proceeds to be used in purchasing lands for park purposes. The proposition was carried by a large majority and the bonds were sold for a premium of $26,728. One of the tracts recommended by the board for purchase was that known as the "Distin Tract," lying immediately south of Ames Avenue and east of Forty Eighth Street. It was purchased in 1892 for $90,000 and was named Fontenelle Park in honor of Logan Fontenelle, the last head chief of the Omaha Indians. Some fifteen thousand dollars have been expended in improvements and maintenance. Fontenelle is connected with Bemis Park by the Northwest Boulevard.

Hanscom Park, mentioned in the early part of this chapter as the gift of A. J. Hanscom and James G. Megeath, is one of the handsomest parks belonging to the city. As it is the oldest park in the city, except Jefferson Square, it has naturally received more attention than some of the more recent acquisitions. Nearly three hundred thousand dollars have been expended upon this park. In the early years of its history the city was in financial straits at times and could not carry out the conditions attached to its acceptance by the donors. But both Mr. Hanscom and Mr. Megeath were fully cognizant of the situation and allowed the deed of gift to stand without insisting upon the burdensome restrictions. In this park the lake, the beautiful walks and drives, the flower beds and shrubbery, all combine to make it one of the most beautiful parks in the country.

Highland Park is one of the small parks in South Omaha. It is bounded by Twenty fifth, Twenty sixth, B and D streets and contains 5.88 acres. It is situated only about three squares south of the Deer Park Boulevard, with which it will probably be connected in the future.

Himebaugh Park, in the northwestern part of the city, about 2 1/2 miles from the city hall, was donated by Pierce C. Himebaugh in 1893, in the platting of Saunders & Himebaugh's addition. It contains only 1.10 acres and very little has ever been expended upon it in the way of improvement or maintenance.

Jefferson Square, the oldest park in Omaha, was set apart for park purposes when the city was first laid out in 1854. In 1858 a resolution was adopted by the city council authorizing the use of part of the square for school purposes. Later in the year it was proposed to sell the ground, but George I. Gilbert, then city attorney, to whom the matter was referred, reported that the council could not dispose of public grounds legally. The schoolhouse was then erected and used until its removal was ordered by the council in October, 1867. The following January J. L. Williams submitted a proposal to lease the square and erect a market house thereon. A committee of the council later reported that they had conferred with a number of property holders, all of whom were in favor of the market house, and recommended that Mr. Williams be granted the lease, the city reserving the right to purchase the market house at the end of six years, at a fair valuation. The report was laid on the table and the records of the council do not show that it ever' received further consideration. The school board then came forward with a proposition to lease the square for a term of twenty five years and the mayor was ordered to execute a lease, on condition that the school board would erect a brick building on the ground, "said building to be three stories high and to cost not less than $40,000, to be completed by October 1, 1869, and that at the expiration of the twenty five years said city shall either purchase, at a fair appraised value, the improvements on said square, or extend the lease on such terms and for such length of time as the parties thereto may agree upon, the choice of the alternative to rest with the city."

For some reason unknown this arrangement was not carried into effect, and in 1870 Lyman Bridges came forward with a proposition to build a market house on the square, which proposition was indefinitely postponed by the council. About that time the United States was looking for a location for buildings for the headquarters of the Department of the Platte and a special committee of the council was appointed to bring the matter before General Ord. then commanding the department, to recommend the purchase of Jefferson Square. This scheme failed and in 1877 the council submitted to the voters of the city a proposition to establish two market houses one on Jefferson Square and the other somewhere south of Farnam Street. A majority of the voters expressed themselves as opposed to the plan and in the spring of 1878 James T. Allan was employed by the council to sow grass seed, plant trees upon and fence the square. Hardly had this order of the council been carried out, when it was proposed to transfer the property to Douglas County for a site "upon which to erect, jointly with the city, public buildings for the use of the city and county, subject to the valuation as fixed by the city council, to-wit: $16,000, two thirds of which amount to be allowed to the city by the county for the privilege of the joint occupancy of said square."

As the county commissioners at that time were already negotiating for the purchase of the square where the present courthouse stands, the proposition was not accepted. Two or three other schemes were advanced during the next decade to divert Jefferson Square from its original purpose, and in 1888 a strong effort was made to have the citizens select by their votes the square as a site for the city hall. Not long after this the square was one of the sites proposed for the new postoffice, but its location was considered as unfavorable. When the park commission was created in 1889 it took charge of the square and since that time nearly twenty thousand dollars have been expended in its improvement as a park.

Kountze Park, a beautiful tract of nearly eleven acres, was donated to the city in the year 1897, by members of the family whose name it bears. It is located north of the business district and is about two miles from the city hall Florence Boulevard passes north and south through the park, which is bounded by Pratt, Pinkney, Eighteenth and Twenty first streets. Since it became the property of the city the park commission has expended nearly forty thousand dollars in its improvement and maintenance.

Levi Carter Park, sometimes called Carter Lake Park, is situated about two and a half miles northeast of the city hall. This is the largest park owned by the city, containing 303.51 acres. lids also one of the newest parks of the system, the land having been donated to the park commission in 1908. One of the most popular features of this park is the lake, which is a favorite resort for boating in the summer season and skating in winter. About seventy five thousand dollars have been expended by the commission in improving and maintaining the park since it became the property of the city. Carter Boulevard connects the park with Florence Boulevard about half way between Kountze and Miller parks.

McKinley Park is one of the small parks that came into the city by the annexation of South Omaha in 1915. It is bounded by Jackson and Harrison streets on the north and south respectively, and extends from Twenty eighth to Twenty ninth streets. Its area is a little over four and one half acres.

Mandan Park is also located in South Omaha, in the extreme southeast corner of Douglas County, its southern boundary being the county line. It contains 10.90 acres and overlooks the Missouri River. Like all the South Omaha Parks, its acquisition by the City of Omaha is so recent that no steps have as yet been taken for its improvement.

Mercer Park, which adjoins Bemis Park on the west, is one of the most recent acquisitions to the city's park system. In 1910 some of the owners of the lands offered to donate the grounds on condition that part of the taxes accrued should be remitted and the city would undertake to make certain improvements within a given time. The offer was accepted and some of the adjoining lands were acquired by condemnation proceedings. The improvements stipulated by the donors were completed in August, 1914.

Miller Park, containing seventy eight acres, was purchased of the Parker heirs with part of the proceeds of the $400,000 bond issue authorized by the voters in 1891, the property being transferred to the city in 1893. The original purchase price was $75,000 and the park commission has expended about the same amount in improvements and maintenance. This park is situated in the northern part of the city and is bounded by Redick and Kansas avenues on the north and south, and by Twenty fourth and Thirtieth streets on the east and west Florence Boulevard runs near the east side of the park, and the southwest corner is only a little over a square from the grounds of Fort Omaha. Miller Park has a fine golf course and a pavilion with locker rooms and shower baths in the basement. Its lake, artesian well, fountain, beautiful walks and flower beds, open lawns and shady groves make it one of the finest parks of the city. It was named for Dr. George L. Miller, the first president of the board of park commissioners.

Morton Park is situated about half a mile southwest of the Union Stock Yards, its western boundary being the city limits. V and W streets form the northern and southern boundaries and Forty second Street runs along the east side. Its area is about two acres.

Riverview Park, situated about two miles southeast of the city hall, on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River, possesses all the natural advantages for a beautiful park. As its name indicates, one of the most commanding views about Omaha may be obtained here. It was acquired by condemnation proceedings between the years 1893 and 1899, the 111.57 acres costing the city $90,053.50. Since 1899 about one hundred and twenty five thousand dollars have been expended for improvements and maintenance. By means of Deer Park or South Central Boulevard, Riverview Park is connected with Deer and Hanscom parks, and Riverview Boulevard runs north to connect with Bellevue Boulevard.

Spring Lake, formerly known as Syndicate Park, was laid out by the South Omaha Land Company when the town of South Omaha was platted in the early part of 1884. It originally contained 108 acres, with fine springs and numerous shade trees. The land company expended about thirty thousand dollars in improving the park and after the law authorizing the park commission was passed a strong pressure was brought to bear to induce the commissioners to purchase the park, but as South Omaha was not at that time a part of the city the offers were declined. In October, 1892, the company built a high board fence around the park and placed persons in charge to keep trespassers from entering upon the premises, thus giving notice that the park was regarded as the private property of the company. Some influential property owners in the vicinity claimed that the surrounding lots were sold by the original owners with the understanding that this tract should be a park, and that such being the case it was unnecessary for the city to purchase it The matter was finally adjusted by part of the land being divided into lots and sold and the remainder (36.80 acres) being thrown open to the public as a park.

Spring Lake Park, as thus reduced in size, is a triangular shaped body of land a little southwest of Deer Park. Twenty second Street forms the western boundary and Hoctor Boulevard runs along the southern and northeastern sides. A project is on foot to connect this park with Riverview by a boulevard. From this stretchy of boulevard, when it is completed, can be seen practically all the City of Council Bluffs and a large section of the surrounding country, while on the south can be seen Childs' Point and the country beyond almost as far as the eye can reach. That it will fie a favorite drive goes without saying, and, coupled with the natural scenery of the park, Spring Lake is destined to become one of the city's popular pleasure resorts.

THE FINANCIAL SIDE

In one sense of the word, public parks are a luxury, their acquisition and maintenance costing large sumps of money. But practically every city of the country has in recent years, come to look upon parks as a necessity and the people have rarely failed to respond to the demand for funds to purchase land and make the necessary improvements for a more or less elaborate system of parks. In their annual report for the year 1911, the board of park commissioners gives the following account of how Omaha's parks were built up:

"The first park lands acquired were paid for by bonds issued by the city. All the later improvements have been acquired by condemnation proceedings; the funds to pay for the same being created by the assessment of property specially benefited. Since the latter system was adopted, the city has acquired lands for parks and boulevards at reasonable prices. Probably no parklands in the world, not donated, have been acquired at as nearly their market value as the lands that have been acquired by the City of Omaha in the manner stated.

"The system of raising funds to pay for the lands so acquired is unique. Districts benefited by the improvement have been created. A relatively large proportion of the cost of improvements has been assessed against the abutting lands on the assessed value thereof, exclusive of improvements. This has been scaled back the rate Of assessment growing less as benefits from the improvement were less, until they cease at the boundary of the district.

"This system, original to Omaha, has worked so satisfactorily that out of about six thousand pieces of property assessed less than six hundred protests have been filed with the board of equalization, only three actions have been commenced to resist the assessment, of which but one has reached the Supreme Court of the state, where the system was approved. Besides being a very equitable system of taxation for the purpose, this system has been advantageous in another way. No lands have been acquired unless the people who would have to pay for the same believed their acquisition desirable. Log rolling has been prevented. The people who had to pay for the land were the best judges of the value of the lands acquired, and willing assistants to the city officers to prevent excessive awards. We attribute the fair prices at which lands have been acquired to this system of raising funds with which to pay for them. So much land has been acquired under this system that it would be unjust and a double taxation to depart from it in the future."

The commissioners might also have added that, as the several parks comprising the system are located in different parts of the city, the burden of assessment has not fallen upon any particular district or portion of the taxpayers. practically every citizen of Omaha having been called upon at some time or another to bear his share of the cost of the park system. And the fact that the assessments have been paid with so few objections or protests speaks well for the public spirit of the people. A few years more and Omaha will have a system of parks and boulevards that will excite the admiration, if not the envy, of her sister cities. With twenty parks and about thirty five miles of boulevards and park drives, it will not be necessary to acquire a great quantity of additional land, so that the funds of the park department in future can be used to beautify the grounds and make permanent improvements. Already this work has been commenced. A new golf course has been recently laid out at Elmwood Park; Mandan Park is to have a new pavilion in 1916; several miles of new boulevard have been projected, and a large number of trees and shrubs are to be planted in the parks during the season of 1916.

PRIVATE PLEASURE GROUNDS

Besides the public parks, there are a number of private clubs, or other associations, that maintain pleasure grounds. Before the introduction of the park system, the grove known as "Redick's Park," on what is now the West Central Boulevard, was a famous resort for picnic parties. The Omaha Country Club has a beautiful tract of ground bounded by Hancock, Polk, Fifty Second and Fifty Sixth streets, upon which is a beautiful club house of the bungalow style, with broad verandahs inviting rest and comfort, while the golf links offer an opportunity for those who enjoy the game.

Just north of the country dub grounds is Krug Park, extending north to Bedford Avenue. This park is private property, but is open to picnic parties, etc., who desire greater exclusiveness than can be obtained in a. public park belonging to the city.

West of Dundee are the grounds of the Happy Hollow Club, which can boast one of the finest golf courses in the country. About 1910 the city extended one of the boulevards to pass the Happy Hollow Club grounds, to connect Elmwood Park with the general park system.

At the intersection of Woolworth Avenue and Thirty Sixth Street, just east of the county hospital, are the club house and grounds of the Omaha Field Club, and there are some other private parks and grounds of lesser note about the city.


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