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Omaha’s Worst Traffic Jam

Here at the Historical Society and General Crook House, we’ve spent the last few months knee-deep in Omaha’s streetcar history for our annual exhibition “The Nitty Gritty on a Streetcar City”. The exhibition officially opens next week on July 15, and we can’t wait to share all the information and intrigue we dug up!

One story that we didn’t have the space to tell in the exhibition was published in the Sunday World-Herald Magazine in 1964. Its author, Sebi Breci remembered a particularly stressful day on the job “as though it happened yesterday.” Before becoming a photographer for the Omaha World-Herald, he served as a streetcar conductor for the city of Omaha in the first years of the 1900s.

By 1900, Omaha had converted all its streetcar routes to electric lines. This meant an overhead cable ran above the line delivering power to the car, and steel rails embedded in the street kept the car on its track. In our “Life Disrupted” section of the exhibition, where we highlight some of the complications that came with the streetcars, we mention that it was a common occurrence for the pole transmitting power from the cable to the car to get jostled off, in which cases the driver would reach out and set it back into place.

This was what people thought had happened at rush hour on a snowy winter evening when Mr. Breci was running the line on 16th St. south of Dodge. When he arrived at Dodge Street and turned to head west, the car came to a stop in the middle of the intersection. Passengers and drivers on the street soon became impatient at the hold-up, then exasperated when it became apparent that there would be no quick fix. When Breci stepped out of the car, he discovered that snow or ice had interfered with the track switch – the front wheels were lined up on the west track as they were supposed to be, but the rear wheels were stuck on the northbound track. No amount of backing up would solve the issue. As Breci told it, hundreds of pedestrian onlookers and angry drivers were crowded closely around the car in the heavy snow, and he started to get “the feeling they might [attack] me at any moment.”

This photograph appeared in Breci’s article published on October 21, 1964

 

Finally a company official arrived, disgruntled passengers were transferred to a streetcar that was already on Dodge to the west of the incident, and Mr. Breci was sent back to the carbarn to get a new car and run a different route for the rest of the evening. Heavy machinery was used to lift the car back onto its proper track.

Since the 1950s when the Omaha streetcar ran its last route, groups have been working to bring them back in some form, and conversations have seen renewed interest in the past few years. Hopefully technology has advanced enough over the last hundred years to avoid more issues like this…

Photographer-writer-streetcar conductor Sebi Breci, pictured at right.

Natalie Kammerer