Romance of Omaha, Chapter XXXI

No history of Omaha would be complete without mention of South Omaha, the "Magic City" that grew up almost overnight in the early 80s, and that until 1915 was a separate muncipality.

Because of its rapid growth and the swift development of the packing and livestock industry that made it thrive, South Omaha for many years was known as the "Magic City." The name clung to it until the consolidation with Omaha was effected.

Although South Omaha was not incorporated as a town until October 16, 1886, the birth of the city has always been regarded as May 8, 1884, the date that a land syndicate first promoted the new townsite.

The beginning of South Omaha is linked so closely with the founding of the Union Stockyards that the two go hand in hand. As the livestock and packing industry grew, the new town grew with them.

Four years after it was started South Omaha boasted a population of 8,000 persons, most of them men. Lots in the town sold rapidly to those who expected to find work in the packing houses and stockyards.

Sir Thomas Here

It was on December 1, 1883, that the Union Stock Yards Co. was organized. Soon after the Hammond packing house was opened. Sir Thomas Lipton was one of the next packers to enter business there. Armour, Cudahy, Swift, Morris and others came also.

For serveral months South Omaha was nothing more than a cornfield following its founding. Then W.G. Sloane, who later became the first mayor and the first postmaster, opened the first store in what historians describe as "a wilderness of cornstalks and Jimson weeds." Mr. Sloane was well equipped to supply the early residents. He carried drugs, groceries, dry goods, hardware and almost everything else.

He was followed rapidly by other business men, who opened stores in little frame buildings and even in sod houses.

Beginning in the summer of 1885 South Omaha began to grow in earnest. It was both "wild and wooly" in those days. There were only a few women in the town. As was the case in all towns of the time saloons were plentiful and ran wide open all the time. As a result the town was turbulent especially as the "law" was not present in any form.

Sunday School First

Early in the history of the city the women felt the need for religious services of some kind and in September, 1884, the Rev. Charles W. Savidge opened the first Sunday school.

The Sunday school antedated the first day school which was established in 1885. Churches came also in the 80s. First the Methodist, then the Baptist, Presbyterian and Catholic. Other denominations followed.

Because it was so near Omaha, then a city of quite some importance, South Omaha did not go through all the trial and tribulations of a frontier town. Its inhabitants could go to Omaha when they wished to visit a metropolis. Yet it was quite a journey. It was made either by horse and buggy or wagon or on dummy trains that ran over the Union Pacific railroad to and from Omaha. When the opera, a banquet, large dance or theater called to amusement lovers a special train would be chartered to make the trip to Omaha and return.

Business in South Omaha began to stand on a solid foundation as early as 1887 when the first South Omaha board of trade was established. The South Omaha Merchants association, a live organization, is its successor. The first telephone exchange was opened in 1888 and the same year electric light and power was supplied to the residents.

Rails Join Towns

Street car lines were laid from Omaha into the new town in 1887 and in December of that year the first street car made a trip over the lines. That established direct and easy transportation between the two towns and helped materially in the development of South Omaha.

One of the big events of early South Omaha, long remembered by those who took part in it, was the first Fourth of July celebration. It was held on Twenty-fourth street between J and K streets in what was then called Kavan's Garden, afterward known as Turner park. That was in 1885 and marked the beginning of social life in the new town.

When first established South Omaha, like its older sister, Omaha, was without paving or sidewalks. The streets were mud, deep and clinging. Women going to social affairs wore rubber boots and, lifting their skirts above the boots, would wade to their destination. Lifting skirts and petticoats above the knees and wading through mud was a feat in those days.

Many stories could be told of the early days in South Omaha. There was plenty of hardship and a great deal of work. Conveniences in the home were unknown and although Omaha had been settled for 30 years at that time the women who pioneered South Omaha were confronted with difficulties almost as great as those the pioneer woman of Omaha faced in the 50s.

Among the men who arrived in South Omaha in the days of its infancy and helped to build up the town were John Flynn, J.B. Watkins, George H. Brewer, Thomas Hoctor, J.C. Brennan, George Parks and James H. Bulla.

Political Battles

Politics in South Omaha were taken seriously and a city election in the old days was a lively affair. The first city election, held soon after incorporation, was marked by many battles and skirmishes between opposing forces.

As early as 1890 it was proposed that South Omaha be joined to Omaha and an election was held. South Omaha residents indignantly and by a large majority refused to submerge the identity of the "Magic City" into that of its larger neighbor.

Soon after Omaha laid claim to all that part of South Omaha lying north of F street and South Omaha prepared to do battle, in court or out, for its threatened territory. Omaha did not press its claim.

Steadily South Omaha grew. It spread north and south until it enveloped the packing and stockyards district. It joined Omaha to the north and for 30 years remained a separate city. Several times proposals were made for consolidation of the two muncipalities, but they were repeatedly rejected by South Omaha.

Outvoted by Omaha

During the legislative session of 1915 a bill was introduced in the legislature providing that Omaha, South Omaha and Dundee be made one. South Omaha protested vigorously and voted energetically against it, but the law was so drawn that the total vote in the three municipalities governed and as Omaha cast an overwhelming vote for consolidation South Omaha became a part of Greater Omaha. Soon after Florence and Benson were annexed and Omaha of today was formed.

Although South Omaha has been a part of Omaha for almost 14 years, the people of the "south side" have not lost their pride in the "Magic City." It is still called South Omaha and apparently always will be. Legally it is a part of Omaha, but in the hearts of its residents it remains what Henry C. Murphy called, "My beloved little city of South Omaha."

Chapter XXXII
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