More than 130 years after Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman ordered it built, the Army is giving up the “Old Corral.”
Administrators from the General Services Administration — which buys, sells and leases federal property — toured the historic site known as the Omaha Quartermaster Depot in preparation for selling it.
They looked through several of the nine brick buildings arrayed around a parking lot and parade grounds on the 7-acre triangle southwest of downtown Omaha. Freight trains chug along the Union Pacific tracks along one edge of the property. Woolworth Avenue and 22nd Street mark the other boundaries.
“It's just a neat little military installation,” said Tom Buecker, curator of the Museum of Nebraska History in Lincoln. “Omaha was the most important military town in Nebraska.”
Army Reserve logistics units occupied the complex as recently as 2010, said Marc Helm, the Reserve's facility operations specialist for Iowa and Nebraska, but the depot's heyday was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was the hub for the Army in the latter days of the Indian Wars.
After Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley in Kansas, it was the longest-used military post west of the Missouri River.
“This is part of American history,” Helm said. “It is a unique property in Omaha.”
The Army built its first depot in 1866 at 13th and Webster Streets, on a site that is now part of TD Ameritrade Park. Custer's 7th Cavalry soldiers were supplied from that site before the massacre at Little Big Horn.
The military quickly outgrew that site, and Sherman — the Civil War hero who was then general of the Army — ordered the construction of a new depot a mile to the south on the Union Pacific line on land purchased for $3,000.
Engineers built 17 buildings on the site by 1881. Two of those, the Post Headquarters and the Engineering Building, are still standing. Historians consider those and five other buildings constructed between 1889 and 1938 to be historically significant. The depot has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979.
The Army's Department of the Platte pushed millions of pounds of food, lumber and tools out to smaller frontier forts from the Quartermaster Depot until the department folded its flag in 1898.
The depot saw its greatest activity, though, during World War I. Over 18 months in 1917 and 1918, 278 million pounds of goods passed through its gates, fueling 150,000 troops at three Midwestern Army posts as well as National Guard units from seven states.
During the Depression, the Roosevelt administration quartered a Civilian Conservation Corps detachment there and built a truck garage. During World War II, it served as an ordnance school for officers and an automotive training center. Italian prisoners of war were held there for a while.
After World War II, the National Guard and later the Army Reserve called the depot home, until the Reserve moved to a new facility in Elkhorn. The Army Corps of Engineers occupied it for a time during the 2011 floods.
Now, though, the site sits empty and unwanted, the arched brick doorways and windows boarded up with plywood.
Jason Klumb , the General Services Administration regional administrator, led a small group Tuesday around the grounds and through two of the largest and oldest buildings on the site, the headquarters building and the giant storehouse that abuts the railroad lines.
They admired the stately Italianate brick exteriors. Inside, the drab blue-gray interior walls, dangling fluorescent lights and mottled white tiles suggested 1960s institutional style. But in the cellar, painted brick pillars and 12-inch support beams show the sturdy construction.
“No one's going to build a building like this anymore. They couldn't afford it,” Helm said. “But someone could come in, refurbish it and have a building with a huge amount of character.”
Klumb said the General Services Administration is working to unload as much property as possible from the federal ledgers. Since 2010, the GSA has sold 400 properties for $145 million. In Omaha, the former federal building at 15th and Dodge Streets was sold in 2009 for $1.3 million, he said, and has been refurbished as a Residence Inn.
“The president has made repurposing surplus property a federal priority,” Klumb said.
Twice before, the government tried unsuccessfully to sell the Quartermaster Depot, in 1927 and again in 1932, said Jeff Barnes, author of “Forts of the Northern Plains.”
It's not clear who might want it now. The depot's historic designation would limit what changes could be made to the exteriors, while the interiors would require extensive — and expensive — remodeling.
According to federal rules, the site must first be offered to other U.S. government agencies or made available for the homeless. There were no takers.
Now, the GSA is shopping it to others who might want to use it for public benefit, perhaps a nonprofit. If no one comes forward, then it will be sold to the highest bidder.
“We're hoping there's some great public re-use,” Klumb said.
In his dreams, Barnes sees a deep-pocketed donor building a museum at the depot dedicated to the Indian Wars of the late 1800s.
“I'd love to see that become some sort of regional historical center,” he said. “(But) it would take a lot of money.”
Barnes' biggest fear is that Omaha's proud Old Corral will just sit and rot.
“(Anything)'s better than the alternative of just dying of benign neglect,” he said.