Omaha was a territorial capital wallowing in streets of mud, stewing in political intrigue and echoing with whistles of riverboats and railroad locomotives when Nebraska steamed toward statehood in early 1867.
The city’s crude and undeveloped appearance was striking. It was a typical frontier outpost in the Old West, said David Bristow, editor of Nebraska History magazine at the State Historical Society. Boardwalks linked businesses. Residents pumped water from private or community wells and answered the call of nature in back-door privies.
“When you look at photos of that period, Omaha looks like it somehow just plopped down on the prairie,’’ Bristow said.
But it was a time of tremendous growth. Omaha-dominated Douglas County started the decade of the 1860s with 4,300 people. The population was 20,000 by 1870. Change was constant.
Statehood arrived two years after the end of the Civil War, but the Indian war across Nebraska continued to flare. By the end of 1867, the Union Pacific Railroad completed track across Nebraska and rolled into Wyoming Territory on its transcontinental push. Land seekers taking advantage of the federal Homestead Act swelled Nebraska’s population.
Henry Stanley — the same Henry Stanley of the famous, “Mr. Livingston, I presume,’’ encounter in Africa — grumbled in his diary about 1867 Omaha.
He wrote that “no town on the Missouri River is more annoyed by moving clouds of dust and sand — when the wind is up — than Omaha. It is absolutely terrific. The lower terrace along the river is a waste of fine sand, which is blown about in drifts, and banked up against houses like snow in a wintry storm. For two or three days, people have been obliged to shut themselves up in their houses for protection from the sand.’’
Dust storms were merely one of the plagues early Omahans endured. Others included mud, stray animals (both dead and alive), garbage and sewage, as historian Bristow chronicled in his book, “A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha.’’
When Omaha was laid out in 1854, it had streets of native prairie grass. Horse hooves and wagon wheels quickly wore away the grass and exposed bare dirt that endured for years. The city made its first attempt at pavement in 1877 when a few blocks of Farnam Street were covered with a crushed-rock surface called “macadam.’’
Omaha did not impress Grant Marsh, who would become a noted steamboat captain, when he saw the town for the first time a decade before statehood. Marsh’s biographer’s description of 1857 Omaha: “It was a veritable mud hole, consisting of two wretched streets straggling along the river bank and lined with flimsy frame and log structures of a people too eagerly bent upon the pursuit of success to squander time or expense on the niceties of civilization.’’
Even two years after statehood, in 1869, the editor of the Omaha Daily Herald (a forerunner of today’s World-Herald) wrote:
“There is not a citizen of Omaha who does not feel ashamed of the condition of our streets. From the deluges of the passing season for weeks together they have been well nigh impassable for teams and most uncomfortable for pedestrians. Ditches, holes and unfathomable mud have been the rule, an eyesore to ourselves as well as to strangers, and an expensive inconvenience to business men.’’
Another news clipping from the era:
“Yesterday afternoon an express wagon containing the driver and a lady sitting in it and a horse hitched to it were going at a rapid rate down Farnam street when suddenly the horse plunged into a deep mire near Eleventh street. He became detached from the wagon and at once made a break for the stable, leaving the wagon, lady and driver in the mud to paddle their own canoe.’’
And another clipping:
“Near the corner of Twelfth and Douglas streets yesterday there stood in the mud hole a white-washed barrel upon which was painted in large letters, ‘No bottom! Trains leave daily for China and intermediate points.’ ”
Bristow writes that, as late as 1880, Farnam Street reportedly had mud holes that could sink a horse belly-deep.
As Omaha grew in the early years of statehood, its dog population expanded, too. City ordinances requiring the fencing or muzzling of dogs were generally ignored. Countless strays, often moving in packs, roamed streets and alleys, fighting, eating, excreting and reproducing, Bristow writes.
By 1876, an exasperated Omaha Herald editor wrote:
“Men and women of Omaha: Your dearest liberties are being taken from you! Unless you rise up in honest indignation and kill off a few thousand dogs, the blessed privilege of going out at night without a corporal’s guard will be taken from you.
“When the fire alarm sounded yesterday morning, and the clattering engines rushed to the fire, five thousand dogs rushed out and pursued, and came very near eating up everybody who rushed out on the street to see whose house was on fire.
“Constantinople obtained a world-wide reputation on account of the number and worthlessness of her dogs. Omaha, proportion to her population, has more dogs than Constantinople.’’
Then there were stray farm animals, including hogs that took shelter beneath Omaha’s wooden sidewalks in winter. Sometimes they died there. Bristow writes: “Come spring, the result was ... unpleasant.’’
Not until 1881 did city government create the job of “city scavenger” to remove dead animals from public property. The scavenger was paid $1 for each horse, mule, cow or other large animal removed. Pigs, goats and calves brought 25 cents. Chickens, ducks and dogs brought a dime apiece.
Omaha’s original garbage collectors were hogs, naturally. The city had no garbage collection and no sewer system during its first few decades of existence.
With no sewer system, Omahans relied on the outdoor privy — a hole in the ground covered with a little shack for privacy. Privies eventually filled up and had to be cleaned out. Most Omahans, however, avoided the chore, according to historian Michael Harkins.
He wrote in 1975: “To avoid cleaning privies, Omahans usually provided openings in the rear of the outhouse and allowed waste to freely run out. The fecal matter found its way into alleys, streets and eventually into the local water supply.’’
Hotels added to the mess when their cesspools backed up.
The City Council proposed a sewer system in 1878, but it wasn’t fully developed until 1895. Not until 1945 did the city outlaw privies and cesspools, but they continued to exist in some parts of the city into the 1970s.
There weren’t many brick structures in 1860s Omaha, but one of them was the Omaha Daily Herald building at the corner of 13th and Douglas Streets — precisely where the 16-story Omaha World-Herald Building stands today. The office of the Democratic Party-leaning newspaper was above a billiards saloon. The Republican Party headquarters was five doors up the street. Neighbors included a restaurant and shops that sold clothing, cigars and carriages.
Other Douglas Street neighbors included at least three saddle and harness shops. An ox yoke and nails store also sold threshing and reaping machines. Empire Bakery and Confectionery advertised fresh bread, cakes and crackers. George T. Hoagland and Son operated Omaha Lumber Yard across the street.
There were grocers, a jeweler, a gun dealer, stables and corrals. Two blocks up Douglas, bonnets could be “altered, bleached and pressed in the latest styles” at Miss A. McAusland’s millinery.
The city’s landmark structure was the Capitol on the hill now occupied by Central High School.
Omaha had many of the institutions of a city. There were hotels and a 170-acre poor farm. An Odd Fellows lodge had organized, and there were congregations of Catholics, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and others. Prospect Hill Cemetery had been in business since 1858.
Omaha’s prosperity was linked to railroads, particularly where the Union Pacific Railroad built its bridge across the Missouri River from Iowa. George L. Miller, editor of The Daily Herald, a tireless Nebraska booster, advocated for roads and bridges to make Omaha “the future chief city of the Missouri Valley.’’
When in New York City in 1867 to push for Omaha as the location of the railroad bridge across the river, he filed a dispatch to his newspaper:
“A gentleman of good standing, speaking of Nebraska yesterday in Broadway, inquired, ‘How far is Nebraska from Omaha?’ This is fact. Besides illustrating Eastern ignorance of Western affairs, it has a good deal of meaning. It shows that even with otherwise intelligent men Omaha, as a town, has greater reputation than Nebraska as a state.’’
Union Pacific’s first tracks were laid in Omaha in 1865, but Omaha would not necessarily get the river bridge. Options included a site three miles south of Omaha at Child’s Mill and another farther south at Bellevue. An early railroad decision to build at Child’s Mill was viewed as a death knell to Omaha. The obvious result of the decision, Miller wrote, was that “Council Bluffs would be the Great City and Omaha would be a farm.’’
A state and city delegation, including Miller, traveled to New York to appeal. They won.
When Miller, the city’s first physician, arrived in Omaha in 1854 — the year Nebraska Territory officially opened for settlement — he was among the first wave of men and women who shaped the destiny of the state and city. His dream was to help “build Nebraska into a great agricultural state, and Omaha into a great commercial city.’’
For better or worse, Omaha’s fate wasn’t to be a farm.