In 1877, after an ice gorge and large spring runoff flooded the Missouri River, it created an oxbow lake northeast of downtown. People referred to it as “Cut-Off Lake.” A tall, grey-bearded man walked by the eastern lakeshore among the sunflowers in the 1890s while on his way to work in East Omaha. He often stopped to chat with men and boys fishing on the lake, asking about their families and providing badly needed nickels and dimes. Levi Carter’s widow, Selina Carter-Cornish, donated $50,000 to buy land on the lake’s edge and improve it. She insisted that the city name the park after her late husband, Levi Carter.
Born in 1830 on a New Hampshire farm, Levi Carter was the seventh of ten children. Both grandfathers fought in the Revolutionary War. His parents were Levi Carter and Polly Piper, a daughter of a revolutionary solder. Carter attended a rural school district and went to an academy until he was 20. After his schooling, he decided to train as a carpenter. He searched for opportunities in Wisconsin and Illinois. In 1857, he moved to Nebraska Territory, and invested his savings in a freight company.
Beginning in 1867, Carter moved to Omaha and remained until his death. Carter, William A. Paxton, C.W. Mead, and S.E. Lock established the Omaha White Lead Company in 1878 at 20th Street near the Union Pacific tracts. It had fifteen buildings built on a one-acre tract of land adjoining Union Pacific Railroad sidings. The main plant included five buildings, including a mill and corroding room. The company manufactured 1,000 tons of white lead that sold for $150,000. The company employed only 20 people.
Carter bought the Omaha White Lead Company in 1885. One of his first purchases was the Adams 1874 patent that improved the commonly Dutch process in 1885. The Dutch process spanned three months as large plates of pig lead, unrefined lead, in vats corroded. The Adams’ patent used a method of refining lead in three days. A large furnace melted 95-bars of pig lead and subjected it to heated steam. The steam blew out glandular lead placed in corroding vats. The process added carbon dioxide and acetic acid to the cylinders to start the oxidation process. When the corrosion process finished, white lead was washed in water and grinded up into a powder mixed with linseed oil.
In 1885, the price of lead plummeted, and the plant closed. During this time, Carter bought out the other owners and put money into the company to produce 4,000 tons a year. Even with unit prices dropping, the increased output produced a profit. They advertised with strips of ten hanging from barbwire fences throughout the city with the slogan, “Use Carter’s White Lead.”
On June 14, 1890, a fire reduced the Carter White Lead Company building to ashes. At 10:10 pm., a firefighter onsite saw “sheets of flames leaping up in the blow room.” The fire’s origin was unknown, but most thought the cause were sparks or coals igniting particles in the blow room. Carter received the news by telephone at his 1908 Davenport Street residence, and quickly went by cab to the scene. At least 20,000 people gathered to watch, “huge columns of flames as they shot heavenward, and listen to the falling of timbers and walls as they gave way to the raging sea of fire.” Insurance only covered $130,000 of the $150.000 loss.
Carter quickly began the process of rebuilding his plant. The East Omaha Land Company sold industrial tracks in East Omaha separated from Omaha by Cut-Off Lake. Located on 21st and Locust, it consisted of 21 fireproof buildings, covering $15,000 square feet. In 1881, the company’s profit was $52,587. In 1893, Carter shipped more than half of its output to the eastern part of the United States. He decided to build another plant in Chicago, Illinois. This increased sales to 1 million per year. The Chicago plant became the largest white lead producer in the world.
Carter died in his apartment at the Paxton Hotel in Omaha on November 7, 1903. Carter was ill with bronchitis and acute Brite’s disease. He was still the president of Carter White Lead Company of Omaha and Chicago. He left a widow and no children with an estate ranging from $500,000 to $1,000,000 that included real-estate holdings. His family held Carter’s funeral in the Paxton Hotel’s parlor.
Selina Carter-Cornish donated money to the city to establish a park named after her husband Levi Carter. He owned the Carter White Lead Company that produced thousands of pounds of lead each year for lead-based paint. He also loved the lake known as Cut-Off Lake. Every summer, many people enjoy that same lake that today bears his name. Carter Lake is Levi Carter’s true legacy.
“Levi Carter Pioneer Capitalist and Philanthropist” (19 July 1908), Omaha Sunday Bee, pg. 19.
“Levi Carter—One of the Fortunate Few” (28 Nov. 1965), Beatrice Daily Sun, pg. 9,
Mark D. Budka, “The White Lead Industry in Omaha, Nebraska,” Nebraska History 73 (1992), pg. 92. https://history.nebraska.gov/sites/history.nebraska.gov/files/doc/publications/NH1992White_Lead.pdf
ibid. pg. 92.
“Levi Carter Pioneer Capitalist and Philanthropist,” pg. 19.
Budka, pg. 92.
“Levi Carter—One of the Fortunate Few,” pg. 9.
“White Lead Works Burned” (15 June 1890), Omaha Daily Bee, pg. 2.
“A White Lead Plant Burns” (17 June 1890), The Kearney Daily Hub, pg. 1,
“Rebuilding With A Rush: The Carter White Lead Works Arising from their Ashes” (20 June 1890), Omaha Daily Bee, pg. 5.
Budka, pg. 93.
“Levi Carter Passes Away” (8 Nov 1903), Omaha Daily Bee, pg. 5.