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.

Like much of the rest of the Omaha area, Millard’s early origins date back to the mid-1850s. At this time, the “development” consisted of a small handful of farms along the Papio Creek about twelve miles southwest of Omaha. By the 1860s, the Union Pacific Railroad ran through the area, and in 1870, Millard was laid out near the tracks. The developer was Ezra Millard, the current mayor of Omaha (1869-1871). A Canadian-born Iowan who arrived in the Omaha area as a young man in 1857, he quickly established himself as a founding partner of Barrows, Millard, & Co., a banking firm dealing in real estate. He would later serve as President of the Omaha National Bank. He also served in the Territorial Legislature in 1860, and helped establish the Omaha Horse Railway Company in 1867. [1]

Ezra Millard, ca. 1875. Image courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Millard was officially incorporated as a village in 1885, and the population was approximately 400 by 1900. The area was settled predominantly by first-generation Germans immigrants. As late as the 1900s, store clerks had to read German in order fill the shopping lists written by German-speaking housewives.[2]

Millard’s first school was built at the site of modern-day 144th and L Streets, which was not actually within the town’s boundary at that time. In the early years, the school’s population consisted of about 4 or 5 pupils. Before the mid-1930s, local schools only went to 10th grade, so those who wanted to complete 12th grade had to go to Omaha to attend either Central or Tech High. Which resulted in a significant loss of the town’s young population. During the Great Depression, the population dropped to 315. A change of fortune came in the late 1930s when railroad work brought large numbers of laborers who used Millard as a base camp.[3]

Originally along the OLD (Omaha-Lincoln-Denver) Highway. Only a couple of streets were paved by the mid-1940s, and Mayor Harry P. Andersen began a campaign of improving the city with the goal of retaining and growing the population. By the late 1960s, the population had risen to over 7,000.[4]

On August 8, 1967, Omaha moved to annex Millard. Following the precedent set with the annexations of South Omaha, Florence, and Benson in the 1910s, Nebraska law states that metropolitan cities (cities with a population of over 100,000) may expand their boundaries by ordinance of the city council – without a public vote – to annex any village or city of up to 10,000 inhabitants (it’s worth noting that no other state had such a law at the time)[5]. A petition rejecting annexation was signed by over 900 Millard inhabitants and several voices spoke out against annexation by Omaha, raising concerns that annexation would threaten Millard’s infrastructure and that Omaha only wanted to take over Millard to raise the city’s tax revenues and to gain control of a Western Electric plant north of Millard.[6] In response, Omaha asserted that the separate existence of Millard stifled Omaha’s growth, and took over the city in 1971.

[1] Wakeley, Arthur Cooper. Omaha: The Gate City, and Douglas County, Nebraska. S.J. Clarke Publishing Co, 1917.

[2] Speech by Mayor Harry P. Andersen of Millard. Omaha, NE: Douglas County Historical Society, 1973.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Drozd, David and Jerry Deichert. “Nebraska Historical Populations.” Center for Public Affairs Research, University of Nebraska-Omaha. 2018.

[5] “Peril of losing W.E. ‘One Man’s Opinion.’” Omaha World-Herald. November 29, 1967.

[6] Ibid.

Close filters
Products Search
Products Price Filter