May 27, 2016

A History of the Belt Line Railway in North Omaha

The thick red line indicates the route of the Omaha Belt Line Railway through North Omaha.

Almost a decade ago, I stumbled across stories of a railroad that looped around Omaha. Different sources told crazy realities, including conflicting ownership, court cases, and the rise and fall of several neighborhoods in North Omaha. I was fascinated that I saw this track all the time when I was growing up, but I never knew its story, so I started researching. I read articles and pamphlets, books and maps. After that, I started an article on Wikipedia to share what I'd found.

Well, as you know, that's never enough for me. With some recent encouragement from John Peterson, a fine Omaha history writer, I am going to expand here on what I've researched and learned about the Belt Line Railway in North Omaha.

Big Dreams in the Old Days

The Webster Street Station at North 15th and Webster around 1940. The North Omaha Railyard extend northwards beyond the Nicholas Street Viaduct.

A lot of African Americans and European immigrants came to Omaha to work for the railroad, or to work for industries that depended on Omaha's railroads, including the stockyards and smelters. In North Omaha, many people worked in small warehouses and light industry scattered across the city. Moving up from the South, African Americans worked on the railroads as porters and in maintenance positions. European immigrants got work as gandy dancers, sometimes working themselves up to being secondman, length runner, or boilerman.

All of these men wanted to live by their jobs, which were generally stationed at either the Union Pacific shops or the Union Station. The closest neighborhood for many was the Near North Side, which was established and built between 1860 and 1870. So many African American train workers lived on two blocks there that it was referred to as Portertown. The railroads, including the Union Pacific, the Burlington, the Missouri Pacific, and others made money, and there was an air of prosperity in Omaha in the late 1870s and early 1880s.

Big dreams came from this era. One of them belonged to Jay Gould. Gould was a renowned robber baron and one of the richest men in America. In the late 1850s, he began throwing money into New York railroads and got tied up with the notorious Tammany Hall. By 1879, Gould controlled several western railroads, including the Missouri Pacific Railroad. He was an extremely wealthy man.

Glamorous Omaha

An engine with passenger cars roars northwards from the Webster Street Station circa 1920.

Like all robber barons of the Gilded Age, Gould wanted to become richer. He thought he could wind his Missouri Pacific Railroad around Omaha and make a buck doing it. However, instead of doing it himself he bamboozled the Union Pacific Railroad to build it for him. Using materials from both railroads along with Union Pacific labor, the tracks were laid quickly and without a lot of issues. Historians still don't know exactly how Gould pulled this off!

What we do know is that Gould knew his railroad only had access to downtown Omaha from the south by using Union Pacific tracks, and saw that he needed to get direct access to downtown Omaha for his own company. However, they weren't funded well, and the Union Pacific was. Somehow, Gould pitched the Union Pacific on what they should do and they did it.

In 1883, Gould created a new company called the Omaha Belt Line Railway and stacked the board of directors with his Omaha friends and allies. While they appeared loyal to the Union Pacific project, they did the bidding of Gould. Guaranteed there was some paper used to grease those wheels!

Out of these shenanigans, the Belt Line was born. It was a 15-mile long railroad that went around what were Omaha's outskirts in 1885. Carrying passengers and cargo, it was operated by the Missouri Pacific Railroad. Not coincidentally, the Missouri Pacific line merged with the Belt Line in South Omaha, leading that railroad directly into downtown Omaha. Mail, passengers and freight travelled around the city with ease for more than 20 years.

However, as a passenger railroad it didn't really work. Turned out that people from the Near North Side neighborhood didn't want to visit Walnut Hill very often, and people in Rockbrook just weren't that connected to the people in Florence.

Building Neighborhoods with Railroads

Between Talyor and Sahler was a street called Boyd. In this 1946 pic, we're looking at a crossing for the Belt Line tracks over streetcar tracks on North 24th Street. There are warehouses built here just to capitalize on the railroad's presence. Several stand there still today.

The Belt Line essentially started at the Webster Street Station at North 15th and Webster Streets. From there, the route went through the Missouri Pacific North Omaha rail yards along the bluffs where North 15th Street would be. It went northwards underneath the Locust Street viaduct to cross the trestle at North 16th and Commercial Avenue, and crossed Commercial north of Sahler Street. From there it went west and south to cross North 30th Street, then angled south and west towards North 31st and Sprague. Then it went south to North 40th and Lake, to Military Avenue and Hamilton, and then and southwest to hop Cuming Street across a trestle towards the Saddle Creek and California area, where it continued south and west towards Dodge. From there it went southward. Way back at Nicholas Street, there was an alley spur that went due west between Izard Street and Nicholas Street for several blocks.

Starting at Webster, the Belt Line went through the Nicholas Street Historic District; north through unnamed railroad land; east through the Saratoga neighborhood; south into the Druid Hill neighborhood and toward the Walnut Hill neighborhood. It then relied on the Saddle Creek neighborhood before it crossed Dodge.

In all those neighborhoods, the Belt Line built light industry and big ambition. Starting with the main yard at Nicholas Street, small businesses popped up along the way. They manufactured all kinds of goods and provided a variety of services. Along the length of the line, the Belt Line also crossed a lot of other railroads and created more business that way, too.

Through junctions with the Union Pacific; the Chicago and Northwestern Railway; the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railway, also called the Omaha Road; and the Illinois Central, the Belt Line provided ample opportunity to move passengers and freight easily across Omaha, throughout Nebraska and across the United States.

Passengers generally stopped using the Belt Line for around-the-city service by the 1890s, if only because streetcars went everywhere they wanted to by then. With the advent of personal car ownership by the 1920s, passengers were gone entirely. However, for the next 50 years, the Belt Line hauled a variety of freight around Omaha, moving products easily from North and central Omaha to the mainline railroads downtown, and out into the world from there.

The Omaha Towel and Linen Service warehouse at North 24th and Boyd Streets was one of many warehouses built along the length of the Belt Line to capitalize on the convenient rail service.

Stations and Depots

The Missouri Pacific Railroad logo.

By far, the most important station associated with the Belt Line Railway was the Webster Street Station, located at North 15th and Webster Streets. It was used by four railroads, including the Missouri Pacific; the Sioux City and Pacific; the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley; and the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railroads.

However, there were several other depots for the Belt Line across North Omaha. They were:
  1. Webster Street Station, North 15th and Webster Street
  2. Nicholas Street Freight Depot, North 15th and Nicholas Street
  3. Oak Chatham Depot, 4351 North 22nd Street  
  4. Druid Hill Depot, North 32nd and John Creighton Boulevard
  5. Lake Street Depot, North 40th and Lake Street
  6. Nicholas Street Depot, North 43rd and Nicholas Street
  7. Walnut Hill Depot, Military Avenue and Hamilton Street

Each of these varied in size and purpose. However, originally, all of them carried passengers. The Webster Street Station served multiple railroads too, allowing passengers to move easily from the Missouri Pacific to all points nationwide. 

The Demise of the Railroads

The Webster Street Station showing cars waiting for loads and exchanges immediately north and below the station.

By the 1960s, gas was cheap and big rigs ruled the interstates. The fate of railroads seemed to be doomed, and the industries that relied on the Belt Line quit using the railroad. by the growth in long-distance trucking from the 1960s, the Belt Line was abandoned in the 1980s, leaving a wide swath of underutilized space cutting through the city.

The line was abandoned and removed piecemeal throughout the 1980s and 1990s as freight customers moved to bigger facilities away from the rail line and public transportation service in Omaha became less popular and dominated by an inefficient bus system. Today a portion of the Belt Line has been turned into the MoPac Trail (MoPac being the age-old nickname of the Missouri Pacific Railroad), also known as the "Field Club Trail", a recreational trail in Omaha. A small portion of the Belt Line Railway is still in use on the extreme south end of the line, which now serves as a "spur"(a dead end railroad track that provides access to one or more industries) to several South Omaha industries near Dahlman Avenue. It is operated by the Union Pacific Railroad.

The corridor now perfectly aligns many of the region’s most important new centers of education, transit, health, and employment with the city’s core, where jobs and services are concentrated along east-west corridors. A local nonprofit called Emerging Terrain was founded a few years ago, and promoted repurposing the Belt Line to become a modern light rail route coupled with a pedestrian and bike path. Their work was ahead of its time, and the project died young.

In 1954, this crowd of Omaha businessmen hopped onto a Missouri Pacific Railroad train at the Webster Street Station to tour the Belt Line Railway as a promotion for the space available to build along the tracks around town. Notice the Storz Brewery smokestack and Mother's Best Flour ad in the background.

Special thanks to John Peterson, Anne R. Trimble and Dick Ryker, Richard Orr, Michele Wyman, and everyone else who contributed directly and indirectly to this article.

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  • "Belt Line" by Emerging Terrain. An enormous and excellent vision for the potential reuse of the Belt Line Railroad, including light rail, trails, and an excellent community-based planning process to engage Omaha. 
  • Omaha's Flirtation with the Belt Line. An article remorsing the loss of the Belt Line vision fostered by Emerging Terrain.


This 1892 pic of an Omaha Street Railway electric streetcar shows it parked outside the Webster Street Station. Note the signage to the right.

This is the Belt Line crossing at Bedford Avenue in the Druid Hill neighborhood near North 36th Street.

The red line here is the path of half of North Omaha's Belt Line Railway. Courtesy of Emerging Terrain.

North 16th Street, Commercial Avenue and Sprague Street all merge near the former Belt Line overpass pictured here in the 1970s.

This is the Missouri Pacific Railroad freight depot at North 15th and Nicholas in 1929. It was demolished in 1986. 

This is a 1910 map of the Omaha Belt Line Railway map.

A History of the Mormon Tree in North Omaha

This is the Mormon Tree in Florence, circa 1920.

The Mormon Tree, also called the Brigham Young Tree, has loomed over my studies of Florence history for a decade now. I've seen mentions of it in old newspapers and heard stories about it from older people. However, I couldn't find anything about it all this time.

Until last month. Finally, after all these years, I wrote the Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters to ask about the Mormon Tree.

They wrote back to say that the Mormon Tree was a cottonwood tree in Florence Park at North 30th and State Streets. Older people in their church used to say it was planted by Brigham Young and they called it his tree, but that can't be verified. 

When it was cut down, the age of the tree was confirmed to be dated back to the 1840s. Several stories sprouted about the tree which seem to be more rumor and folklore than fact, including that people were healed and cursed there. 

In 1947, the tree was very large and weakened by age and insects, and was trimmed back to a height of 15 feet. In 1950, that stump was removed because people thought it would be a hazard to park patrons. Today, there are no traces of the tree left.

What are YOUR stories about the Mormon Tree in Florence?

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Special thanks to the Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters for researching and sharing this information with me! 

May 10, 2016

A History of North Omaha's Miller Park Duplex Historic District

Immediately after World War II, there was a rush of soldiers flush with government money that allowed them to buy homes and build families right away. A lot of North Omaha finished in-filling during this period, with houses constructed in just a few months and selling a lot quicker than that. Spread across a few streets in the Miller Park neighborhood, one set of these homes created an architecturally distinct area that should be designated as a historic district and preserved quickly.

Built in 1944, this duplex is at 5813 North 27 Street.

Homes for the Troops

A housing shortage led developers to get creative in some parts of the community. In the Miller Park neighborhood, they created several blocks of multi-family duplexes surrounding shared parks. These homes, which I'm calling the Miller Park Duplex Historic District, are located on Laurel Avenue and Himebaugh Avenue, between North 27th Street and 24th Street.

5819 North 27th Street was built in 1947.

Over these two blocks, there are more than 20 duplexes, each designed with slight variations from the other, with one-and two-story units. All of them were built in the 1940s.

In the two-story units, each side has three bedrooms and one bathroom. There are concrete stoops on them, and some have porch roofs. The single story duplexes have two bedrooms and a bathroom.

This is 2450 and 2452 Himebaugh, built in 1944.

I grew up a block away from these duplexes, and I remember being mystified by the central parkland between them. When I was young, this area was overgrown and unpleasant. It was also made known that we shouldn't go back there. However, that led some friends and I into the space in the early 1990s. We found rusted playground sets and wood on the ground, and nothing that would indicate anything of significance.

2579 Laurel Avenue was built in 1944.

Talking with the older people at Pearl Church when I was in my late teens, I was told there had been gardens and picnic tables in the open space. It was never really developed though. At some point after their construction, many of the duplexes did have detached garages built in their backyards; few survive today.

5805 North 27th Street was built in 1944. This picture doesn't do its current appearance justice - its been painted bright pink!

To think of these spaces in the 1950s, packed with young families and aspiring parents! Flowers and gardens in the mornings, sandboxes and swing sets abounding during the day, and picnics and fireflies mixed at evening times. Kids shooed off to Miller Park School in the fall, and ice skates carried to the Miller Park Pond in the winter. Walking to the grocery store at North 24th and Laurel, or pulling into the Phillips 66 at North 24th and Himebaugh to gas up for a Saturday morning drive...

Local or National Landmarks?

I'm taking the privilege of naming these homes the Miller Park Duplex Historic District. There are 19 buildings comprising 38 homes clustered on two blocks with a shared park in between the duplexes.

Built in 1944, this duplex sits at 2426 and 2428 Himebaugh Avenue.

The Omaha Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission says that they may qualify for to be designated as Omaha Landmarks, which would make wreckless redevelopment a little harder. One report suggests, "An intensive evaluation of the area would assist in assessing integrity and determining historic boundaries. This collection of duplexes does not appear to meet the criteria for listing in the National Register as a historic district."

This is 5809 North 27th Street, which was built in 1944.

For years, many of these homes have provided Section 8 housing, and their condition is shady at best. However, as other deteriorated historic properties in Omaha have shown, money fixes everything and these homes could be great again.

This is an aerial comparison of the Miller Park Duplex Historic District in 1930, 1950 and 2016. Green indicates contributing properties.

Contributing Properties

There are 19 duplexes in the Miller Park Duplex Historic District. They are:
  1. 5816 and 5818 North 24th Street
  2. 5810 and 5812 North 24th Street
  3. 5802 and 5804 North 24th Street
  4. 2408 and 2410 Himebaugh Avenue
  5. 2412 and 2414 Himebaugh Avenue
  6. 2418 and 2420 Himebaugh Avenue
  7. 2426 and 2428 Himebaugh Avenue
  8. 2430 and 2432 Himebaugh Avenue
  9. 2438 and 2440 Himebaugh Avenue
  10. 2442 and 2444 Himebaugh Avenue
  11. 2450 and 2452 Himebaugh Avenue
  12. 5801 and 5803 North 27th Street
  13. 5805 and 5807 North 27th Street
  14. 5809 and 5811 North 27th Street
  15. 5815 and 5817 North 27th Street
  16. 5819 and 5821 North 27th Street
  17. 2585 and 2587 Laurel Avenue
  18. 2581 and 2583 Laurel Avenue
  19. 2577 and 2579 Laurel Avenue

There is a lot of potential for historic preservationists in Miller Park's residential areas, and these duplexes show one reason why. As historic preservation is embraced by Omahans, its essential that the City steps up and meets people where they want to be - in historic homes like these!

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This may be 5801 North 27th Street, built in 1944. Its at the corner of North 27th and Himebaugh Avenue.

May 9, 2016

A Short History of Technical High School in Omaha

Omaha Tech High School Trojans mascot from a school yearbook. Image from the Omaha Tech High alumni facebook group.

Judges, teachers, decorated veterans, actors and singers, an Olympian and a Heisman Trophy winner are among its alumni. After opening in 1923, the last graduates were in 1984. Omaha Technical High School, called Tech High, was located at North 30th and Cuming Streets. This is a short history of the school.

Before Tech High

The Fort Street Special School for Incorrigible Boys at North 30th and Brown Streets in 1916. Photo courtesy of the Durham Museum.

In 1914, the Omaha school district established a unique facility among the 50 schools that were open then. The Fort Street Special School for Incorrigible Boys was located at North 30th and Brown Streets in the Miller Park neighborhood. As a school for boys who "had no interest in school at all," the challenge was to teach them lifelong learning skills in engaging ways. Installing a printing press, machining tools and drafting equipment, the students received a career and technical education that schools are striving to provide for learners today. However, after packing the building full, in a decade the Fort Street School was closed and the students were sent to a new school. The year was 1923.

The Commercial High School at South 17th and Leavenworth Streets in 1920. Photo courtesy of the Durham Museum.

Stenography and typewriting. Imagine going to a school where those are seen as primary subjects, and the rest of the classes are built around them. That was the vision of the Omaha school district when they opened the original Commercial High School. Opened before 1900, the school offered classes in carpentry, printing, auto mechanics, mechanical drawing, the gas engine, electricity and more. Commercial High was on the cutting edge when it opened because they had the district's first committed Domestic Science teacher. Originally operating in several buildings downtown, a school was eventually built at South 17th and Leavenworth Streets. However, in 1923 it closed and students were sent to a new school. 

After it was closed, in 1923 the building that housed Commercial High was re-opened as Washington School. It was demolished in 1926.

Welcome to the New School

The original entrance to Tech faced Cuming, and is shown in this 1924 pic. Photo courtesy of the Durham Museum.

In 1920, the Omaha Board of Education was excited to solicit bids to build a grand new Commercial High School between Cuming and Burt, from North 30th to North 33rd Street. The architect, Jack Wyman, created the designs over three years starting in 1917. However, the initial designs for the Technical and Commercial High School weren't accepted by the Board.  Instead, it was redesigned and renamed to reflect its more specific mission as Technical High School.

The original lobby at Tech, as pictured in 1924. It is intact today. Photo courtesy of the Durham Museum.

Omaha's Tech High opened on October 15, 1923, with nearly 2,400 pupils at 3215 Cuming Street. It was a five-winged building with a huge football field large athletic field that covered on three city blocks.

A 1921 conceptual drawing of the new Technical High School by Helen M.Weary. Image courtesy of the Durham Museum.

The Most Modern School

When it opened in 1923, Tech High was named the largest and most advanced high school west of Chicago. 

The school board intended to combine the knowledge taught at Commercial High School with the skills taught at the Fort Street School, and then pack the building with excited learners who were driven to become successful students. To do that, they packed the building with the latest learning tools, including an entire floor of dedicated home economics classrooms, extensive wood and metal shops, and highly advanced science classrooms that were unparalleled in the district and across the entire Midwest. There was also a well-equiped greenhouse and two large gymnasiums. There was also a deck with a canopy on the roof of the building that housed an outdoor exercise area. 

The illustrious and rare Tech High swimming pool in 1924. It was the only one of its kind for decades. Photo courtesy of the Durham Museum.

Tech High also had the only swimming pool in any Omaha public school for decades.

There were 124 rooms. By 1940 enrollment had reached 3,684 students, with more than 200 teachers. Developed with high academic standards the school was a forerunner to today's vocational education in high schools by offering students that largely choose not to continue on to college the opportunity to learn a trade or profession. 

The KFOX radio station pictured in 1926. This was one of the finest broadcasting facilities in the city when it opened. Photo courtesy of the Durham Museum.

There was a high school radio station at Tech in the 1920s, whose call letters were KFOX. Originally called the Quadrant, the Tech High yearbook was also called Liongate and the Reflector

There were hidden tunnels and staircases throughout the building, a grand marble lobby and even an underground stream.

The Tech High auditorium pictured in 1924. It was home to the city's finest acoustics for years, and many popular performances happened here. Photo courtesy of the Durham Museum.

Throughout the years, many popular performers appeared in the school's renowned auditorium. In 1928, John Philip Sousa's marching band performed, and in 1926, The Metropolitan Opera Company of New York played there. A famous period actress Cornelia Ottis Skinner made her first high school appearance there in 1930, with other actors including Helen Hayes and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. performing there, too.

Leaving a Mark on History

Throughout its history, the school graduated more than approximately 25,000 students. Its most important graduates included military officers including Captain Alfonza W. Davis, a Tuskegee Airman; and Brigadier General Kenneth Walker, US Army Air Corps, posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor in World War II, and pioneer in military aviation. Several politicians graduated from Tech, including Roman Hruska, former US Senator; Johnny Rosenblatt, former Omaha mayor; James Dworak, former Omaha mayor; and Sen. Ernie Chambers, the longest-serving ever member of the Nebraska State Legislature.

The school also graduated many of the 20th century's most important Nebraska athletes, including Bob Gibson, Baseball Hall of Famer for the St. Louis Cardinals; Louis Hartz, former American political scientist; Jim Houston, national rodeo champion; Johnny Rodgers, former college football superstar and Heisman Trophy winner; Bob Boozer, a college and professional basketball player and Olympic Gold Medalist in 1960;  Jack Urban, former professional baseball player (Kansas City Athletics, St. Louis Cardinals); Les Webster, college and professional football player for the Cincinnati Bengals; Lucille Wilson, 3x United States women’s track team in the Olympics; Phil Wise, college and professional football player; and Ron Boone, a professional basketball player.

Actor John Beasley also graduated from Tech.

A study hall or classroom pictured in 1923. Photo courtesy of the Durham Museum.

White Flight Closes Tech

Housing equality became a primary issue in the late 1950s for the civil rights movement and redlining and forms other discrimination had to end. White people in North Omaha generally didn't want to live near African Americans. So, from Cuming northward to Ames and from 40th east, North Omaha emptied out of white families rapidly in part of a nationwide trend called "white flight." Race restrictive covenants that were signed by a lot of middle class homeowners became illegal to enforce, and white people didn't want to live by African Americans.

Becoming a de facto segregated “black school,” Tech also became Omaha Public Schools' center for mentally handicapped students. The pressures drove school performance down, further pushing away students.

By the mid-1960s, Tech's student population was down to 800 students. As part of its desegregation plan, the district implemented a magnet school program in the 1970s that brought students back. In 1972, the Omaha school board approved an extensive renovation of the school. It featured new science labs, a radio/television center, painting and more in the classrooms and halls, along with new light fixtures and new classroom furniture. By 1974 the population was back up to 1,500. 

However, even with all the money and promotion, it wasn't enough to sustain a mixed race student population and white students left Tech en masse again. By 1983, the student population hovered around 700, with African American students making up at least 60% of the student body. The district didn't want to maintain a segregated school, so it closed. After graduating thousands of students over 60 years, the school was permanently closed in 1984. 

Opening TAC

It was later repurposed, with architects refurbishing and restoring much of the building in the early 1990s. The original lobby features polished marble and ornate moldings. During renovations, Omaha Public Schools converted the football field into a parking lot and moved the main entrance to the building to the east side, with a three story atrium greeting guests. Architects used the high ceilings in the two original gymnasiums to create two floors of office space, while leaving the original auditorium and other features largely intact.

A view of the exterior of TAC today from the original cafeteria. Photo courtesy of Jay Katz.

Working over a decade, alumni restored the building’s 2,200-seat auditorium, and it was re-opened in 2014. The original lobby, which has been preserved, is an elegant structure of polished marble and ornate moldings. The main entrance to the building is now on the east side. Stone steps to a former second story entrance were removed and a new first floor entrance was built for easier access. A three story atrium is featured inside the east entry. Architects used the high ceilings in the two original gymnasiums to create two floors of office space in this area.

New Schools in the Old Tech

Today there are three parts of the former Tech High. At the east end is the Teacher and Administrative Center area, or TAC. In the central part of the building is the auditorium which hosts a variety of public events now. On the west end is the Career Center, where more than 700 high school students learn technical and career skills. 

A 2014 picture of the Teacher and Administrative Center. Photo courtesy of Omaha Public Schools.

In 1996, the Skinner Magnet Center, named for Tech graduate and the first African American school leader in Omaha Eugene Skinner, opened in the former Tech High. Focusing on performing arts, technology and math, it hosts a small cadre of students from across the district in a small section of the building. 

In the late 1990s, the Omaha Public Schools Career Center opened at Tech High. Offering a variety of skilled and technical sciences courses, it is a modern version of the original purpose of the building. Courses include automotive technology; automotive collision repair and refinishing; construction; electrical systems technology; construction; electrical systems technology; motor sports repair; welding; professional services; commercial design; culinary skills; digital video production; photography; health science; emergency medical technician; and health occupations. There are also innovation partnerships at the Career Center that have resulted in the University of Nebraska Medical Center High School and the Zoo Academy, in partnership with the Henry Doorly Zoo.

This history is dedicated to the memory of Omaha Technical High School, 1923-1984, including all the students and adults who ever shared its halls. Photo from the Omaha Tech High alumni facebook group.

The future of Tech High continues to reveal itself, and with the leadership of the Omaha school district's board and staff, the building should live long into the future.

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The demolition of the Commercial High School at 17th and Leavenworth in 1923. Photo courtesy of the Durham Museum.

The original 1920 architectural sketch of the Technical and Commercial High School submitted to the Omaha Board of Education. It wasn't used. Image courtesy of the Durham Museum.

See those little shelves on the sides? This is the Tech High library, where apparently a lot of studying and reading happened! Photo courtesy of the Durham Museum.

A 1923 report card from Omaha Technical High School. Image taken from ebay.

This is a hallway at Tech High. A hallway. Photo courtesy of the Durham Museum.

The Tech High auditorium set up for a performance in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Durham Museum.

The approach to Tech High School going west on Cuming in 1924. The fence surrounds the football field, with its bleachers showing over the top. Photo courtesy of the Durham Museum.

Eugene Haynes is on the right with an early 1980s Tech High Trojans basketball team. Image from the Omaha Tech High alumni facebook group.

Eugene Haynes is to the right with an early 1960s Tech High Trojans basketball team. Image from the Omaha Tech High alumni facebook group.

The cover of the 1951 Tech High Reflector yearbook. Image from ebay.

May 7, 2016

A Short History of the Carnation Ballroom

Located at North 24th and Miami Streets, the Carnation Ballroom was a highpoint in North Omaha's nightlife for a decade. This pic was taken in 1967 after the Carnation had closed. The building still stands today.

There was an era in Omaha history where so-called Black music wasn't allowed on the same radio stations as so-called white music. Black students weren't allowed to attend white schools. African Americans weren't allowed to stay in the same hotels as whites, eat at the same restaurants as whites, or hold the same jobs as whites. Almost every story in the main Omaha newspapers about African Americans painted people in a belittling, demeaning and derogatory light, so Black newspapers were essential too. There weren't laws to enforce these restrictions; instead, they were generally unspoken rules that were enforced through intimidation and violence.

Because of this reality, African Americans stepped up to create community for themselves. Since Blacks weren't allowed to move away from the Near North Side neighborhood, that's where the community arose. Black churches, restaurants, clothing stores, and entertainment venues filled the North 24th Street strip from Cuming north to Lothrop Streets, and along Lake Street too.

Mildred Brown Breaks Into the Scene

In the early 1950s, Omaha Star newspaper publisher Mildred Brown knew she had to get into the scene. In the previous decades she'd seen popular adult clubs like Jim Bell's Club Harlem and the Aloha Club come and go. She watched as the Dreamland Ballroom packed in crowds to dance along to Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, but was concerned about the booze that flowed too easily and the crowds of teens gathered outside to catch an ear full of music, with the allure of music and romance on their minds.

So Ms. Brown opened her own club. Buying the former Forbes Bakery at 2711 North 24th Street, she opened the Carnation Ballroom in the late 1940s.

For a decade into the 1950s, the Carnation Ballroom was a popular, fun and safe place for North Omaha to relax, dance and have a great time. It was a liquor-free venue that held a lot of all-ages shows. Leveraging her newspaper's power for promoting their shows, Ms. Brown was effective at drawing in a lot of big name talent, too. Some of the giants who played at her club included the young James Brown, Otis Williams and several others.

The Carnation Ballroom was located at 2700 North 24th Street.

Many Things to Many People

The Carnation Ballroom was also a social hall of sorts, providing space for civic organizations, private parties and other events throughout the years.

By the late 1950s, the economics of show business were changing and Ms. Brown decided not to run her club anymore. Today, the building still stands. It operated as an auto shop for decades, and today is a warehouse.

The North Omaha is missing some of the excitement, some of the glamour and some of the energy given to the Near North Side neighborhood by Ms. Brown's Carnation Ballroom. However, we shouldn't forget the things she shared there; instead, we should be inspired and move forward.

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Roy Brown and His Mighty Might Men Unite played the Carnation Ballroom in 1954. Picture courtesy of the UNL History Harvest.

Johnny Ace and His Orchestra played the Carnation Ballroom in 1956. Picture courtesy of the UNL History Harvest.

Eddie Boyd and His Orchestra played the Carnation Ballroom in 1953. Picture courtesy of the UNL History Harvest.

The Sepia Trio played the Carnation Ballroom in 1952. Picture courtesy of the UNL History Harvest.

James Brown played the Carnation Ballroom in 1957. Picture courtesy of the UNL History Harvest.

Otis Williams and The Charms played the Carnation Ballroom in 1958. Picture courtesy of the UNL History Harvest.