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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.

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