Editor's note: This article originally was published on June 13, 2004.
Think about traveling west on Dodge Street from 10th Street.
Once you pass 15th Street, the road begins to rise. Imagine that just past 17th Street, it really begins to rise.
Look left at the north wall of St. Mary Magdalene Church at 19th Street.
See the door at the top of the fire escape? That was the church's main entrance before 1920.
The ground was that high.
Since Omaha's earliest days, six steep hills near present-day 20th Street vexed residents. City leaders knew that if the hills weren't conquered, there would be no development directly west of downtown.
So they began a series of projects from the 1880s until 1920 to remove the hills – rather than cut roadways through them.
Over those years, some people sold their houses and businesses and moved to other parts of the city. Those unwilling to sell often found their properties condemned.
Members of the Omaha Club, the city's wealthiest organization on one of the hills, complained about how much they were being assessed for the work. Others shushed the complainers, telling them to think of how the overall city would benefit from the changes.
As the projects went on, again and again, buildings were jacked up, the land beneath them cut away and the buildings lowered to their new settings.
In the case of St. Mary Magdalene, a new portion of the church was built downward. Its original main floor was converted to a balcony overlooking a new main floor that was 18 feet lower than before.
The Omaha West Dodge and Pacific Railroad had three steam engines and about 40 dump cars that ran on special train tracks – just for the purpose of removing the dirt dug out by steam-powered shovels.
Every workday, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., amid the noise and stink of cinder-spewing steam engines, bits of the hills disappeared, their dirt filling low areas in Omaha and Council Bluffs.
Finally, in 1920, the work was done and the portion of Dodge Street near 20th Street lay 36 feet lower than it had in 1880.
After all the work was done for a sum of $4 million, the Dearborn Independent newspaper reported that the city saved 10 times that amount by being able to move west.
Photos: Downtown Omaha's St. Mary Magdalene Church through the years
St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in downtown Omaha turns 150 in 2018. Over the years the church has seen a lot, including the lowering of Dodge Street in the early 20th century, renovations in the late 1990s and the long-awaited addition of a steeple in 2007.