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. 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.
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. 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. 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.”
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.
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: http://www.prospecthill-omaha.org/. 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.
 Baumann, Louise, Charles Martin, and S. Jane Simpson. Omaha’s Historic Prospect Hill Cemetery. Prospect Hill Cemetery Historical Development Foundation. 1990.