Omaha’s “real” history includes information you likely didn’t learn in school. Did you know the city was once run by a mobster? Did you know that Omaha’s first women’s hospital was a charitable donation by a former lady of the evening? These and other interesting facts can be learned during a tour of the Old Market with Nebraska Tour Company.
The tour company is in its first summer of offering hourlong walking tours around Omaha’s original retail center. The Old Market served as the main area for businesses to obtain their produce and other wares during the 1800s and early 1900s. Tours are conducted by knowledgeable guides, among the best historians in the area.
As you stroll along the Old Market’s brick-laid streets, you’ll notice overhangs. They are reminders that the buildings were used for selling fruits and vegetables. Some of the buildings still have their slanted entrances, which were used to move wheel barrows and wagons in and out of the doorways. Cast iron frames supported large windows and doorways.
As you walk a few blocks, the guide will stop and point put historical spots. Today, the Courtyard by Marriott stands near 10th and Dodge. More than a century ago, it was the home of Anna Wilson, Omaha’s madam to the elite. Wilson operated a brothel in downtown Omaha. While her employees “entertained” gentlemen callers – including city leaders, who had a secret entrance – she encouraged them to live their own lives. Sometimes, that meant working and saving enough money to return to their hometown. Some women wanted to stay in the business and run their own operation. She would help them set up in another city.
Wilson earned a lot of money over the years and invested well. She contributed to charities, often through intermediaries, since no one wanted to take money from a woman running a house of ill repute.
Wilson and a major businessman maintained a longterm relationship. He passed away before her and was buried in Prospect Hill cemetery. To ensure she would rest next to her love, she ensured her grave was filled with five feet of concrete after her funeral. This ensured no one could dig up her body and move it elsewhere.
Her house was then donated to serve as a women’s health facility, becoming Omaha’s first female-focused hospital.
Before Wilson became the Madam of Omaha, the city was selected as the area’s headquarters for Union Pacific railroad. The Burlington building at 10th and Farnam served as the railroad’s first office. The building – which was completed in the late 1870s – maintains it history while connecting with the present. The cast iron stairwell and old-fashioned cage elevator share a spot in the lobby with a Chihuly blown-glass art exhibit. A skylight illuminates the area with natural light, while adding a beautiful view of blue skies.
The early 1900s brought the mafia to Omaha. Tom Dennison – a political boss and mobster – ran the city’s prostitution, gambling and, later (during prohibition) bootlegging. He controlled who served as Omaha’s mayor. The only man to be elected mayor without his support nearly died during a race riot believed to have been started by Dennison’s men.
Dennison survived every court case he faced. He died following injuries he suffered in a car accident while traveling in California. More than 1,000 people attended his funeral.
The Old Market likely owns its own success to Sam Mercer and his family. Mercer traveled around the world. He returned to Omaha often. The Old Market bears reminders of his international travels, including British and French art décor on buildings.
Ghost signage can still be seen on buildings around the 10-square block Old Market. The faded business signs remind visitors of a significant piece of the city’s history.
Whether you’re new to Omaha or a native, Nebraska Tour Company offers a new way of viewing the Old Market. Who knows, maybe you’ll learn something new about the city. We sure have.
For more information on Nebraska Tour Company and its tours, please visit www.nebraskatourcompany.com.
Disclaimer: Thank you to Nebraska Tour Company for the complimentary tour. However, all opinions and views are ours.