As is true of much of the land in the American West, Omaha sits on a piece of President Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. However, the history of Omaha proper begins just across state lines in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Though only about 1/7th the size of modern Omaha, Council Bluffs considerably predates its Nebraskan sister. An 1804 meeting between the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Otoe tribe gives Council Bluffs’ its name. Ironically, the meeting took place west of the Missouri River, about 20 miles north of present day Omaha. Council Bluffs was settled slowly over the next decades, with illegal land speculators staking out land in the Omaha area as early as the 1840s.
Following a treaty with the Omaha tribe, whose name means “Dwellers on the Bluff,” the Nebraska Territory was created as a part of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the city of Omaha founded on July 4, 1854. A celebratory picnic was held on Capitol Hill, the present day site of Central High School, though not everything would be so joyous for Omaha.
Without much law enforcement in its formative years, the Omaha Claim Club brought an early style of vigilante law to the area, supporting the land claims of squatters. They were later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and disbanded for their violent tactics. Omaha also had to survive the Panic of 1857, a sudden economic downturn and series of bank and business failures that hit the young city especially hard.
Despite these setbacks, and the loss of the state capitol to Lincoln, Omaha emerged in the 1860s and 70s as a Midwest industrial hub, chosen as the point for Western expansion of the transcontinental railroad. A ground-breaking ceremony for the railroad was held at Herndon House at Ninth and Farnam Streets, and the onetime hotel would eventually serve as the headquarters of the Union Pacific Railroad from 1869 to 1911 before its demolition in 1922.
An entrepreneurial spirit, still alive today, was evident in the creation of the Jobbers Canyon industrial complex, so named for the way the towering, closely packed buildings over red brick streets resembled a canyon. The Omaha Stockyards, various beer breweries, and numerous packinghouses were also built in Omaha during the late 1800s. Housing areas, like Sheelytown in South Omaha, sprung up to accommodate the influx of new workers, and industry grew so quickly that the town acquired the nickname “Magic City.” A rough and tumble elite emerged in Omaha, characterized by political boss Tom Dennison and eight-term mayor “Cowboy Jim” Dahlman. Many of these unsavory figures are buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery today.
With the founding of Omaha University in 1908, the city began to shed its image as a place of vice and corruption, and by the 1930s and 40s, the Omaha Stockyards became a leader in meatpacking. The city further capitalized on its growing reputation when it became the home of Offutt Air Force Base (built in 1918 but in use by the Air Force since 1948) and US Strategic Command. Its reputation in meatpacking continues today, albeit in a diminished role, but it was the construction of Rosenblatt Stadium in 1950 that really put Omaha on the modern map. The College World Series has been held there ever since, claiming over 6,000,000 fans to date.
Unfortunately, Omaha was not immune to the racial tension that characterized the country during the Civil Rights movement. Having already endured a bitter race riot in 1919, with the rise of suburbs and highways in the 1950s, traditionally diverse neighborhoods became ethnically concentrated, and poverty became a common feature of many neighborhoods. Middle class suburbs sprung up around West Omaha, but recent efforts to revitalize Downtown and Midtown have done much to bridge the economic divide of the past.
The city survived a tornado in 1975, the costliest in American history, and also had to endure some opposition to the continued revitalization of its historic buildings. The brick warehouses of Jobbers Canyon, for example, were torn down in 1988, making way for the headquarters of ConAgra Foods and the city’s Heartland of America Park. This represented the demolition of the largest nationally represented historic district in the country.
Today, more than 432,921 people call Omaha home, making it the 42nd largest city in the United States. Its metro area comprises some 837,925 residents, good for 60th in the country. Numbers alone can’t tell the city’s story, and whether it is the frontier spirit that first brought residents, or the entrepreneurial spirit that inspires that city’s most famous citizen, world’s richest man Warren Buffett, there is something in the air in Omaha: a guiding spirit sure to lead future Omahans to continue the preservation of their city’s past, the revitalization of its present, and the innovation of its future.