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Omaha’s Hidden History

August 3, 2006

By Jane Palmer, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

Aug. 3–You’ve seen the Ford Birthsite. The Joslyn Castle. Girls and Boys Town.

You’re heard about Father Flanagan and about Edward Creighton, whose fortune founded a university.

That’s Omaha’s pristine past.

Now you can take a look at the city’s darker side, through Gritty City tours offered this summer by the Durham Western Heritage Museum.

Trolley tours of downtown Omaha highlight sites where brothels, illegal alcohol stills and backroom gambling used to be — what tour guides call “the sporting district.”

In Omaha’s early years — from the 1850s to the 1930s — working men spent their paychecks in the district on food, gambling, alcohol and prostitution. Tour participants get a feel for life in the city’s wild young days, including organized crime and the infamous lynching of 1919 that led to a fire at the Douglas County Courthouse.

The museum staffers who guide the tours point out how these sites relate to such historical landmarks as the ferry landing where early citizens first arrived and the early business and warehouse districts.

Guide Molly Gruber offers details from the lives of the madams and the political bosses. Underground tunnels, for example, allowed these colorful characters and their dark business enterprises to survive, Gruber says.

“All the tunnels served basically the same purpose,” Gruber tells tourists. “They led from hotels to less reputable institutions such as the brothels, the gambling houses and the Gayety (burlesque) Theatre.”

Shady Ladies

Anna Wilson operated a brothel at 912 Douglas St. At her death, she donated the three-story, 25-room building to the city for use as a charity hospital. The city removed or covered up some of the racier artwork in converting it to a hospital. The site now is a parking lot for the Marriott Courtyard hotel. Wilson assumed the role of a parent if one of her “girls” married, paying the wedding expenses. At the time of her death in 1911, she had $250,000, and her will directed most of the money to charity and to the city.

Another Omaha madam, Mae Hogan, operated a brothel near 16th and Jackson Streets. She was known to be protective of her “girls” and orphaned street urchins. She paid for the care of indigents at St. Joseph Hospital.

Gayety Theatre burlesque club — now the site of a parking lot — operated for many years across the street from the north side of the Orpheum Theater.

Colorful Characters

Tom Dennison, arrived in Omaha in 1891 and became an influential political boss. He directed the activitiesof Jim Dalhman, who served eight terms as Omaha mayor.

Dennison made his money in the mining towns of Colorado and arrived in Omaha in 1891 to become a political boss for 25 years. People said there was no crime he didn’t know about before, during or after it was committed. He had several offices scattered downtown and connected by tunnels. He installed family members in city departments and offices all over Omaha.

Dahlman served eight terms as Omaha mayor under Dennison’s direction.

Dan Allen came to Omaha in the 1860s and opened a pawnshop. Above the shop he ran a gambling hall. When gamblers ran out of money, they could pawn their valuables by using a dumbwaiter that ran from the gambling hall to the pawnshop.

Mobsters running from the law in Kansas City, Mo., Chicago and St. Louis often found refuge in Omaha at the Flatiron Building, 1722 St. Mary’s Ave., which was a safe house in the 1920s and ’30s.

Infamy, History

Douglas County Courthouse, 17th and Farnam Streets, was the site of a lynching and riot in the summer of 1919. Will Brown was accused of assaulting a woman. A mob looted downtown and set the courthouse afire, burning some records. The mob also stripped Brown, riddled him with bullets and hanged his body.

Lone Tree Landing, now the site of Rick’s Cafe Boatyard near the Qwest Center Omaha, was where the ferry docked and where Omaha’s early residents arrived in the 1850s. It continued to be an important landing through the remainder of the century.

Central High School was later built on the site of an 1854 Independence Day picnic, where some of Omaha’s earliest citizens imagined a new town.

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Copyright (c) 2006, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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