Durham Museum tells Omaha history


Omaha, like most large cities in the day, had a union station downtown. It was a popular destination in the days when trains were the quickest mode of transportation.

Union Station was the starting point for dreams and adventures, such as a woman who is traveling on her own or military members coming or leaving home.

Omaha’s Union Station – opened in 1931 – eventually faded from prominence as autos and airplanes took over as the primary transportation choices for travelers. IMG_1163

As it became a run-down eye sore on the Omaha landscape, it faced a final goodnight through demolition.

But, in 1973, rather than destroy the building, Union Pacific donated the building to the city of Omaha. The city planned to open a museum.

In 1975, the Western Heritage Museum opened.

In 1995, Charles and Margre Durham – Omaha business and civic leaders – spearheaded a renovation project to improve and expand the museum. Two years later, the museum was renamed to honor the Durhams. It’s now the Durham Western Heritage Museum.

Today, it’s a major attraction in Omaha. We recommend it as a must-see to people coming to Omaha.

The upper level houses a great exhibit of an old railroad station.


Near the entrance is the gift shop, which looks like an old ticket booth. There are sculptures of a ticket agent and a woman traveler. Press a button and you can hear a recorded conversation between them.

IMG_5141Also, a sculpture of a man checking out the train schedule sits right inside one of the main doors.

IMG_5133When you look around the grand floor, you see benches. Sculptures are scattered about, representing travelers. There are a couple of military guys chatting while waiting for their trains.

IMG_5145Nearby is a couple. They appear to be waiting for the train to take him away to war. Are they newlyweds? Dating?

IMG_5149We came upon a statue of a young girl with a wrapped gift. It’s called “Anticipation.” She looks like she is waiting for Santa Claus. Or, maybe she is anticipating seeing relatives. It could be her first train ride.

You can create your own story around the “people” at the train station.

Just down the hall from this young lady is an old-fashioned soda fountain. It has an old-looking counter space, and two working soda fountain spouts. It’s pretty cool to check out. Maybe grab something to drink and sit on the swivel stools.

IMG_0982During the holiday season, a Christmas tree is erected in an open area on the floor, near the soda fountain. Choral groups perform during the weekends, and Santa Claus visits with the youngsters.

IMG_0945The upper floor is also home to the Swanson Hall, which can be used for parties, lectures, etc.

As you leave the lobby area for the lower level attractions, the museum has an interesting gallery of Union Station history. Items, such as an old barber’s chair, cameras and photos are on display. A couple of sculptures represent men traveling – looking to be in a hurry.

IMG_1015Once downstairs, you can’t help but see the train cars on display. An engine, passenger cars and a caboose await your investigation. Lisa’s uncle loves trains. When we visit the Durham with him, he has to go through the cars. He’s actually ridden a train across the Rocky Mountains. That would be fun!

IMG_1127There is a huge working model train display available for viewing. Trains of different scales run along tracks that are protected by glass.

The Durham has both special and permanent exhibits on display on the lower level.IMG_1020

Special exhibits are on display for a few months at a time. Some include “A T Rex named Sue” (a replica made from the fossils that are on display at Chicago’s Field Museum), Abraham Lincoln artifacts (including the Bible used by the 16th president and President Obama during their inaugurations), costumes used in movies, and photos of America during war (from the Civil War to the current campaigns).

Currently, there is the “Goose Bumps – the Science of Fear” and “Liberty on the Border – a Civil War Exhibit.”

Permanent exhibits focus on the history of Omaha and the area.

One exhibit covers the history of Omaha hosting the 1898 Trans Mississippi Expo. The exposition was located in an area a little north of our current downtown. In fact, when we looked at the intersecting streets, the middle school where a nephew and niece attend is on the grounds of the old expo.

IMG_1045The area was built with temporary buildings. Two spectacular looking buildings were constructed on opposite ends of a reflection pool. The model makes it look like something from ancient Rome.

More than 2.5 million people attended the Trans Mississippi Expo, which lasted about five months.

IMG_1077An old printing press sits alone in the gallery area. Can you imagine people having to use one today?

A tavern exhibit highlights Omaha breweries, including Storz. The Storz brand has recently made a comeback in Omaha as a craft beer and a restaurant.

A Native American earth lodge and tipi recognize the history of local tribes. There is also the late 1800s story Ponca Chief Standing Bear. He was forced off his land, but came back to Nebraska to bury a son. A trial later resulted in a landmark civil rights case that acknowledged Native Americans as human.

One of my favorite exhibits is the annual holiday tree display. About 7-10 small fir trees are decorated with ornaments that represent cultures from around the world. This year, there is a Native American tree, using dream catchers as ornaments. Dream catchers are supposed to protect the person as they sleep from negative dreams and allow positive dreams to filter through.

IMG_1160Another favorite is the Scandinavian tree. This highlights the Scandinavia region of northern Europe – Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. The Swedish Dala horse is one of my favorite ornaments. My dad was first generation Swedish-American.

A German tree is decorated with ornaments highlighting Germany’s culture. My daughters and their mom are of part-German descent.

An Omaha Business Hall of Fame highlights the successes of local business people, including the world-famous Warren Buffett.

The Durham is a great place to visit. It doesn’t get old, as new exhibits are on display throughout the year.

The Durham has gone beyond just being a railroad museum. It’s a living history museum of Omaha and the area.

For more information on the Durham Museum, please visit its website at www.durhammuseum.org.

Replica of uniforms worn by Lewis and Clark during their expedition in the early 1800s
Replica of uniforms worn by Lewis and Clark during their expedition in the early 1800s