Fort Omaha

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1918 Influenza pandemic

Douglas County has endured the tragedy of a pandemic multiple times since its beginning in 1854.  Records provide some idea of how the influenza pandemics of 1889, 1899, 1957, 1968, and the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 1997 affected our community. The catastrophic pandemic of 1918 became the single greatest natural catastrophe since the Black Death in the 1300s.

Of course, these records do not tell the personal stories of those who lived and died during these terrible times in our County’s history. I urge you to share your stories of the current pandemic by using the links below, calling our office to schedule an interview, or writing it down and mailing it in.  Our stories are critically important history.  I’ll start by sharing a couple of personal stories.

In February of 1957, the H2N2 virus emerged in China.  It claimed 116,000 lives in the United States.  One of those lives was my older brother, just a toddler. No statistics on the number of deaths in Omaha in November of 1957 begin to describe the pain.  This year, our family has been looking forward to two weddings!  My nephew and his fiancée made the prudent decision to move their June 2020 wedding to June 2021.  I hope and pray my son’s wedding in September will be able to go forward as planned.  We have all been affected by this pandemic.  Together we can document stories, photos, and statistics for future generations to have a better idea of what it was like.  Statistics are not enough.

Omaha in 1918 had a population of around 180,000.  In September of 1918, the Omaha Daily Bee began to publish some articles about an influenza outbreak.  The big news story for all newspapers was the end of World War I. The outbreak of illness that was primarily concentrated on the military did not make major headlines.  This biological invasion of the world was known by various names; in the U.S., the Spanish flu, Japan – “wrestlers fever”, England – “Flanders grippe”, Germany – “Blitz Katarr”.

The first wave began in the spring and summer of 1918 and was present in the U.S. in military Midwestern outposts and spread to numerous states. Europe was affected during the same period. For the most part, the civilian population was spared.  Once the virus mutated and re-emerged in the U.S. in September it was a different story.  Between late August and early January, 22 million lives were lost worldwide.  The U.S. lost 600,000 people, both young and old.  The hardest-hit age group was 20-40 years old.

Just as now, the virus spread across all demographics. Political leaders including the Kings of Spain and Great Britain, The Emperor of Germany and President Wilson suffered from the virus.

In the U.S., health departments closed theaters, churches and places of public assembly for weeks. While at the same time, cities conducted rallies and parades for Liberty Bonds, aiding the spread. Medical professionals were short-handed. At Fort Omaha, buildings were converted into makeshift hospitals to accommodate soldiers stationed there and those coming through Omaha by train.  A variety of measures were attempted to treat and prevent the spread including injections of blood plasma from survivors, concoctions of graham crackers, egg punch and sanitizing drinking fountains with blowtorches. Gauze masks were handed out, telephones were sanitized with alcohol. People were required by law to carry a handkerchief.  Anti-spitting ordinances were in effect along with curfews. Morgues were over-flowing, especially on the East coast.

The Aksarben festival, a week’s worth of activities, went on as scheduled.  The first Omaha death attributed to the flu was October 3rd. The 35-year-old pastor of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rev. Siefke S. deFreeze lost his life. Many died within 48 hours of contracting the virus.

On October 3rd, Omaha’s Health Commissioner, Dr.  Ernest T. Manning, issued the following precautions:

  1. Avoid crowded streetcars, rooms, etc.
  2. Gargle the throat and spray the nasal tract with a normal salt solution
  3. Keep the bowels free.
  4. Keep a state of high individual resistance by hygienic living
  5. Some physicians recommend inoculations with the grippe vaccine

On October 4th schools, churches, theaters, dances lodge and labor meetings and Red Cross workshops were closed.  Streetcars were required to leave their windows open. Quarantine was issued at Fort Omaha. There were no reported cases at the Fort on October 4th by the end of the day on the 5th, there were 200.  The Fort hospital added curtains between the beds to prevent spread. Medical personnel was required to wear white caps, gowns and gauze face masks.

Dr. Manning assured people that it was fine to attend all outdoor events.  The Red Cross asked the public to sew 1,000 face masks.  The Visiting Nurses Association made an urgent plea for all women, regardless of medical training, to help assist with the number of flu patients.

By October 7th, Omaha had over 2,000 cases of influenza reported. VNA made nearly 12,000 visits to sick Douglas County residents. The spreading continued.   Nearly 1,200 workers from packing plants had the virus. Without a clear understanding of how the virus was spread and no effective treatment, efforts to contain the disease were seriously crippled. By mid-month City officials made a public announcement that restrictions could be lifted within a week.  Instead by October 17th, there were 9,500 cases in Nebraska with 5,000 of them in Omaha. Finally, by October 21, the state issued closures of schools, theaters, movies, and public gatherings both indoors and outdoors.  It even canceled Nebraska versus Notre Dame football game!

Omaha defined public gatherings as 12 or more people.  Attendance at funerals was limited to relatives and all businesses had to close by 4:30. The county and federal courthouses were shut down.  Complaints poured into the health department reporting people who were not in compliance with the restrictions.

There was a discussion of whether whiskey aided in the recovery of the disease. Despite Nebraska’s prohibition law, 500 gallons of whiskey were turned in at hospitals to treat patients.

Dr. Manning formed a joint research committee with UNMC and Creighton University.

On Friday, November 1st the restrictions in Omaha were lifted. Douglas County lost 442 residents to the pandemic.  Some of the changes affecting residents after the pandemic were; dropping the practice of drinking out of a common communion glass, theaters were fumigated and guests were encouraged to occupy every other row in the theater, vaudeville acts were forbidden to make fun of the flu, streetcar companies were encouraged to not overcrowd the streetcars.

Fort Omaha lifted its month-long quarantine on November 2, recording 47 deaths. Some cases continued into November.  On December 20 the State Board of Health declared influenza a quarantinable disease. Every household containing one or more flu patients was placed under strict quarantine and no member of the family was allowed to leave or enter the house. In Omaha, blue quarantine cards were printed and tacked on those homes that contained flu patients.  Approximately 1,000 houses were ”closed”. The penalty for violation ranged from $15 to $100 and physicians were required to report all new cases.  The restriction applied until four days after the patient’s fever subsided.  Dr. Manning was not in favor of the state’s guidelines. Omaha’s Chamber of Commerce made a formal protest to Nebraska’s State Board of Health. They contended that if the order were allowed to continue, businesses would become seriously demoralized, and firms would go bankrupt.  The general order by the state was lifted on December 30th.

The spring brought a third wave of the disease, which was not as severe.

Please share your stories of how this pandemic is affecting your life.  Together we can paint a realistic picture of the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic and its effect on Douglas County.

Kathy Aultz


Help us create a record of the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic by sharing your photos and stories with the Douglas County historical Society. You can share your photos in our community folder here:

You can also share your stories on our website or contact us to schedule an interview:

Metropolitan Community College’s Telecommunication Tower

On June 27, 1991, Metropolitan Community College (Metro) broke ground on a controversial 199-foot telecommunications tower on the northwest corner of the Fort Omaha campus. The tower’s purpose was to support the distance-learning program so that students could take a class offered on another campus at a closer campus. Two other Metro campuses had distance-learning before it came to the Fort.[i]  After battling the Belvedere Point Neighborhood Task Force and others over the tower destroying the historical landscape, the Education Department approved the tower and funding for it.

The State Historical Preservation Office issued a “no-effect” verdict for the proposed tower built on the northwest corner on the Fort Omaha Campus. They applied the criteria outlined in 36 CFR part 800.9 (a) and (b). Preservation Architect Michael Ridone argued that television towers were temporary; therefore, they do not cause permanent damage to the site. “The Fort,” he said, “has been compromised so much, it doesn’t matter what you do to it.” Using the example of Jobber’s Canyon destruction, he continued that, “Omahans don’t care about their history anyway.”[ii]

The Planning Board approved the tower in an, “undeveloped,” corner of the Fort as the “greatest good for the greatest number.” The college performed a 5 years study and consulted 50 experts looking for alternative technologies and locations to put the tower.[iii] Metro argued that the site was the cheapest, and they could not afford to put it anywhere else or use any other method.[iv] The college maintained that the tower presented the, “least possible impact for the fewest number of people at a price that the taxpayer can afford.”[v]

The Belvedere neighborhood group, a neighborhood located northwest of the Fort, tried to stop the tower. The neighborhood taskforce included Warren Flearl, Al Allen, Tom Zimmer, Jeanne Jones, Craig and Kathryn Reisser. A member told the press that, “We’re not just a bunch of weirdo radicals. Maybe because we live in the neighborhood we know a little bit more or care a little bit more about what goes on down there.”[vi] They utilized section 106 of the National Historical Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) that ensures federal agencies consider preservation values on historical properties.[vii] They argued that the tower would destroy a historical landmark, a religious landmark, and other viable options existed.[viii]

Fort Omaha’s historical district sits on 80 acres with several historical buildings constructed between 1870 through 1920. In the early 1900s, it housed the Signal Corps and the Balloon School during World War I. The Fort eventually went to the Navy. In 1974, the federal government bestowed national landmark status on the area. The federal government turned the buildings over to Metropolitan Community College in 1975. The location for the tower was right next to the historic Crook House, one of the most famous buildings at Fort Omaha.[ix]

The location was also on the spot where Standing Bear went to pray and gave his farewell speech. To Native Americans, the area was sacred and considered, “Holy Ground.”[x] Standing Bear was a prisoner and could only go where he pleased on the Fort. Ponca tradition requires that Native Americans seek out the highest place to pray. The highest place on the Fort was the hill where the college wanted to build the tower. In historical documents refer to this spot as the, “little hill.” Putting a tower in this location would alter permanently a sacred Native American site. [xi]

They argued that Metro could put the tower on the south end of campus and use Benson High’s or KMTV’s tower as a relay. A tower built on the south end at 270 ft. would provide the same coverage as the proposed northwest corner. Landscaping and painting the base green would not mitigate the adverse effects of the tower. Metro argued that the cost of lights would make the tower cost prohibitive.[xii]

In 1991, Metro got their telecommunication tower. The Belvedere neighborhood association effectively got their point across. They did not stop the tower, but they made it known that Fort Omaha was first the people’s fort, representing an important part of Omaha history. The fight for protecting historical landmarks from progress is a battle fought every day in the United States.

[i] Keith Faur, “Metro Breaks Ground for Tower” (27 June 1991), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 15.

[ii] Nes Latenser, “Letter to Mr. Jerry L. Rogers, Associate Director, Cultural Resources,” 16 November 1990.

[iii] Katheryn Reisser, “Letter to James A. Hanson, Director of Nebraska State Historical Society,” 6 February 1990.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Rick Ruggles, “Neighborhood Group, Metro Tech at Odds Plans for Ft. Omaha Tower Still Under Siege” (8 January 1990), Omaha World-Herald, pg. 9.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Cassie Keener, “The Basics of Section 106 Review” (1 July 2014), National Trust for Historic Preservation,, accessed 13 February 2020.

[viii] Rick Ruggles, “Neighborhood Group, Metro Tech at Odds Plans for Ft. Omaha Tower Still Under Siege.”

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Katheryn Reisser, “Letter to Manuel Lujan, Secretary to the Department of the Interior,” August 25, 1990.

[xi] Rick Ruggles, “Neighborhood Group, Metro Tech at Odds Plans for Ft. Omaha Tower Still Under Siege.”

[xii] Ibid.