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Examination of Omaha’s Annexation History: South Omaha, the “Magic City”

This week, our focus is on yet another integral part of modern-day Omaha that began as an independent municipality. In addition to the annexation of Dundee to the west, 1915 brought the annexation of another even larger community. The incorporation of South Omaha into Greater Omaha marked the end of a tense, twenty-five year battle to this end.

South Omaha’s beginnings date almost exactly to the same period as Omaha’s founding. The land which became South Omaha was settled between 1854 and 1855 (Omaha City was incorporated in 1854), but it remained much less developed for some time. South Omaha’s first settler was John Begley – he arrived on August 1, 1854 and established his homestead at what is now 33rd and F Streets.[1] Farming was the main trade until early 1883 – at that time, only about fifteen families had settled the area.

Several Omaha City businessmen had an eye turned toward this undeveloped land to the south, and began discussing the possibility of building a stock yards in 1882. At this time, Omaha had a number of small packing houses, and the location seemed a prime resource. In May of 1883, Cornelius Shaller purchased the first plot of land (280 acres) for this purpose. By August, a total of ten plots (1,875 acres) had been acquired for the sum of $327,048.43.[2] The northern edge of the land was half a mile from Omaha’s southern limit.

The original plan had been to name the community New Edinburgh in honor of Scottish investors who had shown interest in the project. When they backed out, Omaha investors were tapped for support and the name “South Omaha” was chosen as a sign of gratitude to these early stakeholders. The project moved very quickly – the stock yards opened on August 1, 1884, and the first cattle arrived on August 13. The first shipment of 531 cattle came in 25 cars over the Union Pacific rail. The first hogs arrived on August 27. The first Stock Exchange building was a ten-room frame building located near the site of the larger building that would come later in 1926.[3]

Once the stock yards were established and the population had reached a steady incline, a majority of South Omaha’s residents (which were by now about 1,500) submitted a petition in July 1886. They wished to organize into a municipality. Several Omaha-based businessmen were not pleased at the thought of the stock yards gaining municipal status, but the County Commissioner’s Office declared South Omaha a village in October. The only ways to get to Omaha were by train (there was a little U.P. station at “N” Street) or to walk to 16th and Vinton Streets, where you could pick up one of Omaha’s horse-drawn streetcars at the end of its line. By December 1889, the interurban streetcar ran to 24th and N, connecting the two municipalities.

Development by late 1886 was so rapid that South Omaha gained the nickname the “Magic City”. Buildings were popping up quickly, especially along 25th and 26th Streets. Soon, the South Omaha waterworks with its standpipe at 23rd and G proved insufficient, so the American Waterworks Company extended their mains from Omaha to South Omaha. Highland High School was built at 25th and L Streets in 1887 for the cost of $11,000.  A larger building was rebuilt on the same site in 1905 for $125,000. Today’s Omaha South High stands at the same site.

Postcard, ca. 1909. Image Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

South Omaha saw the birth of several more packing houses in addition to those in Omaha: George H. Hammond built the first in 1885, followed by the Fowlers Bros. in 1886 (later the Omaha Packing Company), Sir Thomas J. Lipton (1886), G.A. Swift (1887), and Oberne and Hoosick (1888). Over the next few years, many of these smaller organizations would combine with one another and with other Omaha-based companies.

The question of annexation was first raised in 1890, and a vote was held in May of that year. This was a tumultuous campaign, as many investors and packers were in favor of annexation for financial reasons. Packinghouse laborers, however, were strongly opposed to giving up their community as they had built it. In response to accounts of voter intimidation by corporations, South Omaha City Treasurer Tom Hoctor and City Clerk John Flynn made house-visits to packing house workers the night before the election, and the proposal was defeated by 98 votes (727 in favor, 825 against).[4]

Postcard, ca. 1911. Image Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Another attempt in 1905 took a different approach, this time introducing a bill in the state legislature to provide for the annexation of South Omaha without putting the issue to a popular vote. The sheer amount of upheaval from South Omahans of both political parties – an estimated 500 protestors arrived at the state capital and a petition opposing annexation collected 3,000 signatures – caused the bill to be withdrawn.

This didn’t stop the subject from being raked over continuously in the local press. John Flynn wrote in the World-Herald in 1907: “ … It is ample time to turn over the control of our affairs to others when we need relief or are being hurt. The centralization of capital and property interests is the boon of the strong and the bane of the weak. The brains of the nation are being worked overtime to protect those same weak, and yet we as a city, or some of us, would jump into the cauldron without knowing how to get out.”[5]

Another attempt at forced annexation was made in 1907. Tom Hoctor, now the mayor of South Omaha, declared February 27 a city holiday, and over 1,000 South Omahans boarded a special train to Lincoln to march at the capital in protest. Several prominent South Omahans spoke against forcible annexation and persuaded several representatives to support their cause. In March, this third bill was struck down.

Yet another bill was brought in 1912 that provided for the annexation by Omaha of any municipality that received utilities from Omaha, and this time was approved. In 1915, Senate Bill No. 2 was introduced. It, too, called for a vote on the question of annexation, but an amendment specified that votes from the two affected areas would be combined, and the majority vote would be drawn from this pool. The combination of these two pieces of legislation made annexation something of a foregone conclusion by 1915. The final vote counted 11,428 in favor of annexation and 1,585 against.

South Omaha still didn’t let go easily – an attempt was made to spend as much of the city treasury’s money as possible, hiring additional police officers and paying for streets to be cleaned multiple times a day.[6] When Omaha Mayor Jim Dahlman attempted to seize the city records, South Omaha Mayor Tom Hoctor turned him away, telling him to get a court order. That wasn’t long in coming, and the documents were collected a few days later, thus bringing an end to a decades-long battle. Flags were hung at half-mast in South Omaha, and some descendants of the original “anti-annexers” continued to lower their flags on the anniversary of the 1915 vote for years thereafter.[7]

24th and N Street looking North. South Omaha’s Business District, 1914. Image Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.


[1] Breen, Joseph J. Pioneer Historical Society. “South Omaha, Nebraska 1884-1909.” 1909.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hoctor, Emmett C. “Tom Hoctor in the ‘Magic City’: The Ascendancy and Eclipse of South Omaha Sovereignty.” In Journal of Nebraska History. Summer 1983. pp. 256-292.

[5] Omaha World-Herald, Evening Edition. January 16, 1907. p. 6.

[6] Hoctor, Emmett C. “Tom Hoctor in the ‘Magic City’: The Ascendancy and Eclipse of South Omaha Sovereignty.” In Journal of Nebraska History. Summer 1983. pp. 256-292.

[7] Ibid.

Examination of Omaha’s Annexation History: Dundee

Shortly after the wave of annexations that Omaha saw at the end of the 19th century, the city was looking to expand again. Omaha’s population had tripled between 1890 and 1910,[1] but found that it was boxed in by the river to the east and smaller towns and villages to the north, west, and south. So began another three-year frenzy that would see Omaha’s borders extend to envelope three sizeable towns (and increase the city’s population by 50,000 in ten years).

Most people who have spent time in Omaha consider Dundee as a charming historical neighborhood in the heart of Omaha, but this was not always the case.

In 1870, John Nelson Hayes Patrick purchased 800 acres of land west of Omaha’s city limits and built a sprawling mansion at what is now the intersection of Happy Hollow Boulevard and Underwood Avenue. (The house would later be used as the Happy Hollow Club.) In the 1880s, Patrick hired a Kansas City firm to build six more houses on his land in the hopes of attracting wealthy Omahans to live in an exclusive new suburb run by the Patrick Land Company. The Dundee Place development sat on the land that is now 48th to 52nd Streets and Dodge to Cuming Streets.

The rules were strict: only residential properties could be built, homes must have a minimum value of $2,500, they must sit 25 feet from the street, and no alcohol or other “immoral business” would be permitted.

Advertisement for Dundee Place, Omaha World-Herald. November 1888. Image courtesy of Omaha Public Library.

By 1893, real estate developer Walter L. Selby had built his own grand house at 4808 Davenport Street, but he was one of very few people who had shown interest in the fledgling community. Much of the land was being used for farming. Only about ten residential homes had been built, and the landscape was rather barren. In order to provide the village with fast-growing greenery, Selby and Patrick purchased over 2,000 maple trees to be planted along the village’s streets. Around the same time, contracts with the street railway company guaranteed residents quick and affordable transportation into the city, and construction on Dundee’s commercial district was underway. In 1905, developers offered free lots to families that promised to build a home, then paid out $500 bonuses if they stayed more than a year.

J.N.H. Patrick House at Happy Hollow Boulevard and Underwood Avenue, ca. 1899. Image courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Walter L. Selby House at 4808 Davenport Street, ca. 1899. Image courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

By 1900, Dundee’s population had grown to 400, then ballooned to over 1,000 in 1910. It began to expand to accommodate the newcomers, annexing land to Hamilton Street to the north and Howard Street to the south. The residents were affluent, the properties were grand, and the streets were quiet. Though Dundee was largely self-sufficient with its own pharmacy, shops, church, and school, the infrastructure that kept the village running (streetcar and utilities) came from Omaha.

In 1915, the city of Omaha proposed the annexation of Dundee village, citing benefits to business interests in both communities. The village of Dundee was staunchly against the idea. A flyer distributed in January 1915 read: “Dundee is opposed to annexation to the city of Omaha…People chose their homes in Dundee because of its form of government, location, environment, and promising future. Dundee, if left alone, will become a village, the beauty, progressiveness, morality, and patriotism of which the state will be proud. Dundee pleads to be left alone.”

When it became clear that the annexation would be decided by a vote, there was an attempt to declare the bill unconstitutional due to the great disparity between the populations of Omaha and Dundee (Omaha was approximately one hundred times larger).

Nevertheless, the vote was held in early June 1915. Of the 380 votes cast by Dundee residents, 301 opposed annexation, but Omaha’s 9,769 pro-annexation votes (out of 10,283 total votes) called for annexation to become effective June 5, 1915.[2] The village board of Dundee lobbied for Omaha to bankroll several improvements, including “paving, sewering, and lighting of the finest description.”[3] This caused some grumbling from Omaha taxpayers, but their voices in June’s vote had fused Dundee’s fate with the city of Omaha.

For the past hundred years, Dundee has remained a picturesque part of Omaha, and has become one of the city’s most iconic historic neighborhoods.


[1] Drozd, David and Jerry Deichert. Nebraska Historical Populations. Center for Public Affairs Research

University of Nebraska at Omaha, 2018.

[2] “Greater Omaha Voters Strong for Annexation.” Omaha World-Herald. June 2, 1915.

[3] “Many residents fought annexation.” Sun Newspapers. Oct. 9, 1980.

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