A brief — but fruitful — stop in Omaha: September 27-30, 2010

Having been delayed by the “Mitchell Incident,” our time in Nebraska was cut short for this year. We were expected in eastern Missouri in mid-September to pick up a new rescue pup and had to push that back to early October. We had also expected to be in Omaha around Labor Day to meet up with a friend who splits her time between northern Virginia and Omaha, where she grew up. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, she’d headed back east.

But we made excellent use of the time available, as the following stories and pictures will attest.

There was a dearth of campgrounds close in, but we found a KOA in Gretna, about 25 miles west on the road to Lincoln. It was a nice place, but KOA’s generally offer a lot more than we need and charge a lot more than we’d like to pay.

Our first adventure started locally. Practically within view of the campground was one of the most spectacular architectural visions we had ever seen: The Holy Family Chapel. Located along the highway, in the middle of stark grassy fields overlooking the Platte River, the chapel is at the same time very Catholic and very universal. Over 25,000 people of all (or no) faiths stop in each year, many to seek refuge.  It opened in 2002, and while it operates under the area diocese, it is self-supporting.  The wood and glass structure is simply too incredible to describe in words – the pictures below will tell a better story. Between the chapel itself and the main building is a walkway divided by constantly flowing water, auguring re-baptism.  The etched glass mural above the altar is simply exquisite. We spent an inspiring hour there.

Then it was off to downtown. Over a two day period, we covered a lot of ground.

The Mormon Presence
A bit of divertissement is required. We had superfluous knowledge of Mormonism but found ourselves confronting a learning curve about the movement for both this and our next stop. I suspect that many of you are more familiar with this movement than we are.  It’s incredibly convoluted, to say the least. But I would like to take a few minutes to review what we understand about the chronology of it, because it influenced our view of visits to multiple venues.  It is dangerously oversimplified, and it intentionally avoids any opinion or judgment, since this is a journal of our trip, not a moral proclamation!
Joseph Smith, Jr. who is the undisputed originator of the faith, developed his vision in Palmyra, NY and then moved it, with his family, to Kirtland, Ohio.  From there, he sent followers to western Missouri to establish a “holy city” of Zion.  Ohio, meanwhile, grew fearful of him, and he fled Ohio to join followers in Far West, Missouri, only to subsequently confront an ostracism of his organization — now the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — from that state. They moved to Nauvoo, Illinois where, after five equally unsettled years, Smith was arrested for trying to declare martial law against the state and was subsequently killed by a mob before trial.
While there were constant schisms, the major one occurred here, as Smith’s successor was sought.  Brigham Young led the call for governance by Twelve Apostles and eventually prevailed. He led the majority of the followers to Winter Quarters in the Omaha area, where they suffered immensely from severe weather. Nevertheless, they persevered and a party pushed on to Salt Lake City the following year. Young then returned to Winter Quarters to bring the rest of his followers to their eventual resurrection.
Smith’s widow and her son, Joseph Smith III, took a smaller group of followers to the previous Missouri site in what is now Independence. There, the NLDS, New Latter Day Saints, were formed and now survive as the Community of Christ with about 250,000 members. A minor segment of the Nauvoo organization, under the initial leadership of Granville Hedrick, co-exists in Independence at the original temple as the Church of Christ (Temple Lot). Its faithful number is fewer than 3000.  The core LDS, headquartered in Salt Lake City, numbers many millions.
Again this fraction of one percent of Mormon chronology is presented to support the places we visited and the history we’ve touched.
LDS Winter Quarters in Omaha
Young and his followers left Nauvoo too late to avoid the scourge of everything winter on the plains could deliver. They settled west of the Missouri in a tent city (Cutler’s Mill) until a dispute among Native American tribes caused them to move to the banks of the river to what is now the Florence section of North Omaha. Erecting sod houses and even a grist mill, they still were decimated by malaria, consumption and scurvy. The site today is marked by the Florence Cemetery, a statue to the pioneers, and a lovely temple dedicated in 2001.
The temple was one of our first stops in the city; we were greeted and escorted on an historic tour tracing the hardships and victory of the movement that eventually created the dominant presence in Utah.  Our escort was a sister in training from California. Encouraging us to ask questions and take pictures, she graphically told the story of this first leg of the journey.  She also gave us a copy of the Book of Mormon but would accept no donations for the Church. Already feeling the depth of the hardship, we didn’t venture across to the cemetery.

The Joslyn Castle (Lyndhurst)

Joslyn Castle

Joslyn Castle

The Joslyn Castle was the home of George and Sarah Joslyn. Married in 1874, they moved to Omaha in 1880 after George had “bootstrapped” himself from a menial job at an Iowa syndicated newspaper supplement company to appointment as manager of the company’s new Omaha office. With little further ado, he eventually gained control of the company, created a national expansion, and made the Joslyns the richest people in Nebraska. In 1903, they befitted their status by engaging architect John McDonald to design them a 35 room, four level home and gardens to be built in what is now the Gold Coast Historic District of the city and today valued at nearly $10 million. The building, set on 5.5 acres, is almost 20,000 square feet in size.

The Joslyns gave generously to the University, the poor, the elderly, children and animals. The property was twice ravaged by vicious weather, and now much of the garden and greenhouse areas are compromised.

George died in 1916 at the young age of 68. Heartbroken, Sarah created the ultimate memorial for him by endowing the Joslyn Art Museum. Also designed by McDonald, its Art Deco manifestation is constructed from 38 different marbles from all over the world. It was dedicated in 1931 and contains collections from antiquities to the present day. Sarah survived until 1940.

We didn’t realize that the house was not open for touring that day, but when we wandered to string of offices behind it, we were greeter cordially and given the opportunity to explore on our own with a floor plan. Only the first and second floors are available for viewing, but this was more than enough to fully absorb the grandeur of the place. Like the Holy Family Chapel above, pictures tell more of a story than words. One of the most interesting concepts was the Music Room, a later addition just off the foyer about half a flight below the first floor. Significant restoration is going on. The Castle today is used frequently for both private and public functions.

Kenefick Park
If we had entered Nebraska via Rte. 80 from the east, through Council Bluffs, Iowa, Kenefick Park would have been the first dramatic thing we saw. As it was, we got the back end view first. Following the GPS down Durham Street, we came to a landscaped parking lot with a large building to its left. I wandered in and looked around, and it turned out to be Lauritzen, Omaha’s extensive botanical garden.  I exited and looked around, scratching my head, and then saw a hefty set of steps on the opposite side of the lot. This was it, the climb to the monument of all railroad monuments.
At the top of the major flight was a snaky ribbon of stainless steel on the walkway, displaying the great western expansion of the railroads from what was to become its major hub. From this display, one walked up a semicircular ramp, lined with etched images of various historical tidbits. Then wow! Framing the plaza at the top were two of history’s most famous engines. To your left sits Big Boy 4023, the next-to-last of the twenty five locomotives of its class built for Union Pacific.  Designed to move a 4600 ton load from Ogden to Wasatch, Big Boys are considered to be the largest successful steam locomotive ever built. To your right sits Centennial 6900, the first of 47 diesel locomotives built by GE for UP from 1969-71. Nineteen inches short of 100 feet long, they remain the largest single unit diesel locomotive ever produced. They are actually two engines on a single, united frame.  All but one is out of service, and most have been scrapped.  These two shining behemoths herald the key to the development of the breadth of our nation. One of the pictures is an etching of the view of the park from Rte. 80.
John Kenefick, a Princeton graduate who cut his vocational teeth in railroading, served as President of Union and Vice chairman and CEO of the Union Pacific Corporation from April 1971 until his mandatory retirement on December 31, 1986. This exhibit, opened in 2005, supplanted an earlier one.  Kenefick died in 2011, at age 89.

The Riverfront and NPS Lewis and Clark Exhibit
The downtown park at the Missouri River waterfront featured a gazebo commemorating the L&C passage in 1804. On July 27, Clark led a small expedition in this exact area and described a series of mounds in the area – but neglected to opine whether they were natural or Native American earth lodges. Six days later, the two captains held what is considered their first council with the native residents and named their meeting site “Council Bluffs.” The lobby of the National Park Service building on the waterfront served as an exhibit hall for L&C’s passage through the area. It contained several cases of artifacts but was mostly dominated by a mural on the wall that told the story of their relationships with the Native Americans there, especially the first Council with the Otoes and Missouris. Conspicuous by his absence was Little Thief, the chief of the Otoes. At the Corps’ urging, the chief met with them two weeks later and pledged his support. Then, in 1805, Little Chief and a delegation from both tribes met with President Jefferson in Washington. A garden outside included informative plaques, and beyond it was a dramatic footbridge that crossed the river.


 The waterfront also  hosts a giant statue entitled Labor, which salutes the contribution of the men and women who built the city and heralds the formation of local and national unions. The five human figures in the monument are each eight feet tall, and the memorial overall weighs 271 tons!


The Durham Museum
The Durham Museum is housed in the old Union Station, an art deco masterpiece designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood and originally opened in 1931. Closed in 1971, it survived the wrecker’s ball and was donated to the city by Union Pacific in 1973. Charles Durham, an Omaha businessman and philanthropist, whose firm was instrumental in the architecture of the city today, provided extensive contributions of both time and money for its restoration/renovation. It led to the reopening of the building as the Durham Western Heritage Museum in 1997. He died in 2008, and by that time, both a lecture hall and a gallery were completed. The “Western Heritage” was removed from the name that same year.
I wish I had room to include all of the 85 pictures I took inside. There was simply that much to see. The main floor Great Hall was much as originally purposed, with waiting room, ticket booths, restaurant and the like. Several galleries and a museum shop are also there. One of the special features of the Great Hall is the presence of bronze likenesses of traffic from its earlier era – ticket buyers, businessmen servicemen and other passengers. Restoration has been thoroughly and beautifully done.

The lower level houses the “heritage” exhibits.  As you descend the stairs, you’re first greeted by actual railroad and other transportation equipment, including cars, trucks and trollies.


Among the exhibits are the Cornhusker Car, attached to Harry Truman’s whistle stop train to carry journalists from Nebraska to Idaho. The 30,000 mile coast-to-coast tour is widely credited with securing his full-term reelection. It was also used throughout the years to transport thousands of servicemen and Cornhusker fans from Omaha to Lincoln.

Wall exhibits and memorabilia collections take you through the growth of Omaha from its territorial roots to almost the present. Omaha was officially founded in 1854, and the capitol of the territory was moved to Lincoln in 1867. The region was occupied by the Pawnee, Oto and Ioway until taken over by the powerful Sioux-based Omahas in the late 18th century. They effectively controlled the trade corridor until disease virtually wiped them out, and once the Euro-American culture was became dominant, they were eventually relocated to a reservation in Thurston City. Omaha was a major fur trading center in the early 19th century and later a packing/slaughter house hub. While Council Bluffs was originally to be the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad, Omaha beat it out because it avoided the necessity to bridge the Missouri River.


A significant event of the nineteenth century: In 1878, General George Crook arrested Ponca chief Standing Bear and numerous followers for leaving their reservation. He did so under orders of the Interior Department, but his sympathy for the group, especially because of the miserable conditions under which they were held, led him to take their story to Thomas Tibbles of the Omaha Daily Herald. The wide publicity resulted in pro bono representation of Standing Bear, who sued the government for a writ of habeas corpus. The government continued its argument that Native Americans were not people. While his attorneys spoke for him, Standing Bear was allowed to make a statement before the final decision was made. “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I prick it, the blood will flow, and I shall feel pain,” he said. “The blood is of the same color as yours. God made me, and I am a man.” The judge agreed; yet it was 45 years before Congress declared that Native Americans are equal citizens and gave them the right to vote.  Standing Bear toured for a number of years espousing Native American rights. Among his interpreters was Susette LaFlesche, an accomplished Native American author and bride of Thomas Tibbles.  Susette’s sister, Susan LaFlesche was the first Native American woman to graduate from medical school and to receive federal scholarship funds. Both of the sisters, along with five other well-educated and successful siblings, were children of Joseph Iron Eyes LaFlesche, the last Chief of the Omahas.
In 1948, Elizabeth Davis Pittman was the first African American woman to graduate from Creighton University and to establish her practice in Omaha.

Television came to Omaha in 1949 and featured a 15 minute daily program hosted by native son Johnny Carson.

The Cecil B. DeMille blockbuster, Union Pacific, brought DeMille, Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea and dozens of other Hollywood celebrities to the film’s world premiere at the Omaha Opera House in 1939.

The Byron Reed Collection was donated to the City of Omaha upon his death in 1891. Reed was the first real estate developer in the Nebraska territory and its largest through the land grab era and beyond; his donation included not only the collection but the money to build a public library to house it. His collection included coins, medals and tokens of every stripe, books, autographs and city documents. Exhibited in the library until the 1970’s, it was moved to a vault to protect it from repeated thefts and break-ins. The exhibit was integrated into the Western Heritage museum, and approximately 5,000 pieces in less mainstream categories were sold at auction to endow the permanent exhibit after the 1997 restoration. The Byron Reed Company survives today.


In 1898, Omaha hosted the Trans-Mississippi Exposition. Over 100 blocks were dedicated to it, and numerous huge but temporary buildings were constructed. A diorama of the scene is on display, and here are a few choice models.

There is an extensive Sports exhibit which holds, among other things the story of Marlin Briscoe, the first African American quarterback in the NFL as well as Heisman trophy winners Johnny Rodgers and Eric Crouch and other superheroes like Gale Sayers and Ahman Green.
A photo display depicts the complex Art Deco motifs designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood and executed by Swiss craftsman Joseph Maag, who came to Omaha in 1905 and whose work is visible in other Omaha buildings.

The Union Pacific Museum
It wasn’t easy to find. In 1903, the city of Council Bluffs received a grant to build a Carnegie Library. It served the city well until 1998, when it faced demolition as the library moved on to larger quarters. But a tripartite deal saved it. Enter the Friends of the Union Pacific. They raised the money to restore the building and lodged their museum in the lower level. They staff the effort, while the city provides UP with a favorable lease for the space. UP also pays operating expenses. When you drive by, it still looks like the library!
The museum was very comprehensive and devoted its efforts to teaching you the history of UP and, to a larger extent, railroading in general. The first exhibit you meet is a full size dispatch facility. Next is a virtual booth where you have an opportunity to be an engineer in several different environments. There are ten exhibits – wall graphics coupled to memorabilia and hands-on demos – that show you, with an almost industrial flair, everything you need to know about what makes a train operate, what it’s made up of, and how it’s put together to transport the thousands of tons of cargo it carries every day. Beyond this are major displays on subjects such as Pullman and his sleeping accommodations, the opulence attached to dining, and the life of the porter.

Also, in a room of its own is displayed the compartment furniture from the car that carried Abraham Lincoln home after his assassination.



The road west to Lincoln gave up two additional attractions in Ashland. One was the Strategic Air and Space Museum, which unfortunately was closed.  All we got is this outside shot.  The other was the Wildlife Safari, and that was not only open but a fun drive-thru.

Though we haven’t seen much of Nebraska, we did our best to absorb its easternmost extreme!

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