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Pospisil: History of extreme poverty in North Omaha Bottoms goes back to 19th century

Pospisil: History of extreme poverty in North Omaha Bottoms goes back to 19th century

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A generation of Omahans — and newcomers to the city — likely are unaware that Peony Park, the major amusement spot from the 1930s through 1994, was at 78th and Cass Streets.

Stu Pospisil

Stu Pospisil

A homeless encampment in the North Omaha Bottoms has awakened the memories of one of the city’s poorest areas.

Entwined in its history are the beginnings of the Union Pacific Railroad, a centenarian pipe-smoking woman and a childhood home of Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers.

Where are the Bottoms? It’s the area between downtown and OPPD’s North Omaha Station, below the bluffs that begin east of 16th Street until the street crosses them near Ames Avenue, and then the bluffs are to the west of 16th. Sections of the Bottoms were dubbed Vinegar Flats, Squatter’s Row (or Town) and Blind Pig Alley (Blind Pig being a reference to liquor sold without a license).

From the 1938 Works Progress Administration guidebook to Omaha: “Originally this lowland was a swamp, but serving the city as a dump for many years, the land has been built up by the addition of tin cans, automobile fenders and rubbish of various sorts. Squatters have occupied the higher ground of the reclaimed tract since the early years.”

The lowland was a swamp because it was an old Missouri River bed at the time of Omaha’s platting in 1854. The Bottoms, when compared to the townsite plateau west of Ninth Street, led Union Pacific to break ground at Seventh and Davenport Streets for the transcontinental railroad in December 1863. The railroad later located its shops in the Bottoms and built a railyard at the base of the bluffs as industry flourished in the flats.

Squatters were there, too.

The first showdown was in 1890. U.P. sought the removal of 30 families who occupied a 50-foot strip between Locust and Nicholas Streets. Many acquiesced and moved their dwellings to Cut-Off Island (Carter Lake). But one woman, it was reported, threatened to shoot a deputy U.S. marshal.

A decade later and a little farther north, 13 squatters were served notice to vacate the area that was below the tract for the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition and the Sulphur Springs reserve. The squatters fought back. They hired a lawyer to contest their rights on the grounds of 10 years of unmolested residence — squatter’s rights. They fenced in six of the 30 acres in dispute — the land was jointly owned by J.M. Woolworth and the heirs of A.J. Poppleton — in hopes of retaining that portion. One of the dwellings was a sod house that was on display at the exposition.

Poppleton’s son, W.S., said, “During the last 10 years we have moved over 50 squatters from these premises and we are simply having another cleaning out, such as most large holders of Omaha real estate are obliged to have once in so often to protect their possession.”

In December 1906, the Omaha Sunday Bee devoted most of a page to “Life in the North Omaha Bottoms Where Christmas Never Comes.” It said about 1,000 people lived in the 2-mile stretch.

“To be sure it is all not a wilderness,” the Bee wrote. “There are some bright spots in the way of comfortable, frugal homes that have tarried behind in the general exodus of the more prosperous population that made room for the encroaching railroad tracks, but in the main the district is poor — poor in the fullest, most inclusive sense of the term.”

The majority of the dwellings were constructed from odds and ends of lumber, discarded tin roofing and whatever else was found in the dumps. Others were little more than caves in the bluff with a shack built over the front — dugouts — that had as their only advantage being sheltered from winter’s cold winds. Sanitation was poor.

Another squalid area adjacent to the Bottoms was the Winspear Triangle from Cass to Grace Streets and from Fifth to Eighth Streets at its widest point. For years, the ownership of the Winspear Triangle’s 30 acres was in dispute between the city and the railroad. The city eyed the strip as early as 1918 for a Port of Omaha as barge traffic was increasing. But squatters again thought the land was theirs, making sales and giving deeds. About 1924, one squatter decided to sell all the land and made out a deed. The other squatters went to court.

Some deed descriptions were novel, The World-Herald reported in 1937, such as “a piece of land on the river bank about Third and Nicholas Streets, about 150 by 200 feet more or less, lying east of land retained by grantor and south of land owned by two colored men known as George and Rice” and “a piece of land … bounded on the east by the land of Mr. Rice and on the west by Crazy Charlie’s lot.”

The Gallup campus sits on some of the Winspear land today.

West of Winspear is where the centenarian pipe-smoking woman enters our story. She was Cornelia “Granny” Weatherford, who lived at 1004 Nicholas St. She and her Civil War veteran husband moved from Illinois to the South Sioux City area by 1870, then farmed for a time north of Hummel Park. He died in 1876, and she lived on his military pension.

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Cornelia “Granny” Weatherford, shown here on her 107th birthday in 1938, lived at 1004 Nicholas St. She had been in the tiny house on Nicholas for 40 years when the city sought to evict her because she was a squatter on the right of way for 10th Street.

She had been in the tiny house on Nicholas for 40 years when the city sought to evict her and another widow because, it said, they were squatters on the right of way for 10th Street, which was to be opened to a plant. Their houses were in the middle of what would be 10th Street, the World-Herald reported, “if the weeds were cut down and the sand dunes removed and the tin cans carted away.” The other widow had been given an official permit a decade earlier to build her small bungalow, with morning glories climbing a picket fence. Granny Weatherford, a feisty gal who smoked a pipe since she was eight, had no permit for what was now a run-down cottage.

Omaha’s oldest woman pointed out that when the railroad shops were built, she was paid $750 for a small strip of her squatter land after standing guard over it with a shotgun to defy strong-arming fence builders. Granny won her appeal to the City Council. The other widow did not.

Granny’s family included George Green, who was left with her when he was an infant. Green made money operating public and private dumps in the Bottoms for more than 30 years.

Granny lived to within days of turning 109 in 1940. She would grant interviews on her post-100th birthdays only if the reporters paid her tribute with bottles of beer.

The Bottoms were also where Johnny Rodgers spent part of his childhood. In his 2016 autobiography “10 Minutes of Insanity,” he wrote that he was 3 when he moved there with his mother into a house his grandfather built. The house lacked running water and electricity — remember, this is in the early 1950s — and a story he tells in detail is about being attacked by a rooster while walking to the outhouse. A couple years later, the extended family moved to a much nicer dwelling out of poverty.

That’s the hope, too, for the homeless in the North Omaha Bottoms.


Stories of Omaha's history by Stu Pospisil

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