Byron Reed

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Omaha’s First Public Libraries

In 1857, just three years after Omaha was officially incorporated, the young city established an Omaha Library Association. They disbanded before they were able to open a facility, and it wasn’t until twelve years later, in 1872, that a public collection became available to Omaha’s population. It was small, but it was a start – the first library was housed on the second floor of the A.J. Simpson Carriage Factory located at 14th and Dodge Streets.[1]

The A.J. Simpson Carriage Factory, ca. 1870. Image courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Over the following years, the library board became more established, and the collection was re-located around the city on several occasions. It wasn’t until seventeen years later that the city was able to provide a permanent facility, following a land donation by real estate man Byron Reed. In addition to the large lot at 1823 Harney Street, he gave much of his personal book and coin collection.

The young architect Thomas Rogers Kimball had recently returned to Omaha from Boston, and his firm Walker & Kimball submitted designs for the library, competing with about seven other local architects.[2] Walker & Kimball was awarded the contract in 1892. It was one of Kimball’s earliest projects in Omaha, and is still standing today (used as offices).

The plans for the Harney Street library were displayed at that year’s World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but rather than being credited to Nebraska development, they were showcased as “representing the best work of Massachusetts architects.”[3] (Kimball had attended – but did not graduate from – MIT.)

Omaha Public Library, 1823 Harney Street, ca. 1904. Image courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

There were some delays experienced in the construction – the sandstone used for the building’s exterior was purchased at bargain rates from a new quarry near Hot Springs, SD, and it wasn’t until some time later that the quarrymen discovered they’d miscalculated how difficult it would be to get the right quality of stone from the quarry. They also discovered that the quarry was located inconveniently far away from the railroad, and it took lots of extra time and effort to transport the stone by wagon.[4]

Despite those delays, the building was opened on schedule and very well-received: “Great credit should attach to Mr. Kimball and his partner, Mr. Walker, not only for their successful production, a beautiful architectural design, perfect and appropriate, but also for their economy in the use of money at the board’s disposal, and the prompt execution of the work.[5]

Thomas Kimball spoke of the finished product in somewhat more measured terms…speaking with a World-Herald reporter, he said of his design: “I wish that you would say as little as possible about the style of architecture. As a matter of fact it is the Italian Renaissance, but what we have attempted to build is a square, honest, sensible building, adapted inside and out to the purpose to which it is to be devoted. And I believe we have succeeded. … Of course we have had to sacrifice many of the things we wanted to have, and about all that can really be said of our work is that we have provided a handsome outside protection for the books. The amount appropriated barely sufficed to do what we have done, and as I said, we have had to sacrifice many of our ideals.”[6]

Omaha Public Library Circulation Department, ca. 1900. Image source:


[1] “From the Archives: Happy 140th, Omaha Public Library!” The Omaha World-Herald. October 15, 2019.

[2] “Plans for the Library.” The Omaha World-Herald. March 26, 1892, p. 4.

[3] “The New Library.” The Omaha World-Herald. February 12, 1893, p. 2.

[4] “Laying the Corner Stone.” Omaha World-Herald, August 5, 1893, p. 5.

[5] “Omaha’s Public Library.” Omaha World-Herald. June 24, 1894, p. 11.

[6] Ibid.

Omaha’s Prospect Hill Cemetery

In observation of this weekend’s holiday, today’s focus will be on Omaha’s oldest continuously maintained cemetery.

For as long as people have been living on this land, people have been dying on it, too. Well before the city of Omaha was established, native tribes had buried their deceased in the area. The Mormons who established their Winter Quarters in present-day Florence in the 1840s had buried their own at the Quarters site and near Cutler Park to the west. The first documented burial in the city of Omaha occurred in 1854 – the same year that the city was ruled open to legal settlement. This grave was dug by pioneer William P. Snowden for a Native American woman near the 500 block of south 10th Street.[1] Then followed some years of individual burials on both private and public property all around town before the Prospect Hill Cemetery opened for business in 1858.

Advertisement, from Omaha’s Historic Prospect Hill Cemetery, ca. 1910.

Omaha’s first mayor, Jesse Lowe, applied to the territorial legislature for the use of 40 acres (owned by himself) to become the town’s official burial site. Operation of the cemetery was turned over to real estate giant Byron Reed. The grounds sat on a relatively undeveloped hill on the north side of town, overlooking the new city. Under Reed’s management, the cemetery was well-landscaped and hailed as one of the finest in the West. However, it did begin losing money in 1885.[2] The city was also growing rapidly, and Prospect Hill now lay inside the city limits – a direct violation of city law. The solution was Forest Lawn Cemetery, about five miles north. Byron Reed seized the opportunity to offer the Prospect Hill land to the Forest Lawn Cemetery Association, who accepted, but it quickly became clear that more people were purchasing lots in Forest Lawn, and that Prospect Hill was no longer a worthwhile operation.

By 1888, the grounds had fallen into neglect, and an article in the Omaha World-Herald reportedly told of cows and other animals running rampant through the un-fenced cemetery.[3] Angry Omahans with family members buried at Prospect Hill formed a committee to see to the grounds’ perpetual care, electing several officers and directors to oversee the cemetery’s management, and hiring a groundskeeper “to be at the cemetery from 7:00am until dark daily, including Sunday, at a salary not to exceed $60.00 per month.”[4]

Another scandal broke in 1907 when the Omaha Daily News ran headlines accusing staff of burying multiple bodies in one plot, and of re-selling old gravestones to new customers. During the hearing, it was determined that these claims had been exaggerated – the reality was that the record-keeping during the cemetery’s early days had been so poor that there were “practically hundreds” of bodies buried in unmarked places around the grounds. So it was not at all uncommon to come across anonymous remains when a new grave was being prepared. As a result, new rules were established that would allow the cemetery to continue functioning, but also respect the burials that had already occurred.

Entrance to Prospect Hill at 33rd and Parker St. ca. 1940. Image courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

If you haven’t been out to Prospect Hill, it really is worth a visit, and what a great time of year for it! There’s a walking tour with historical markers next to several significant graves, and information can be found at: Many early Omahans whose names are prevalent today are buried there, including Byron Reed, Ezra Millard, A. J. Poppleton, A.J. Hansom, James Woolworth, and many others. Our collection houses the cemetery’s original records, including burial records, plot maps, purchase records, and some biographical information on individuals.

Record for Prospect Hill Lot 277, Byron Reed Family. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

[1] Baumann, Louise, Charles Martin, and S. Jane Simpson. Omaha’s Historic Prospect Hill Cemetery. Prospect Hill Cemetery Historical Development Foundation. 1990.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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