Trans-Mississippi Exposition

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Omaha’s Hanscom Park

Omaha’s Hanscom Park
Natalie Kammerer

Omaha’s oldest remaining park was formed in November 1872, when land developers Andrew J. Hanscom and James G. Megeath donated 57.6 acres near Park Avenue and Woolworth Streets to the city of Omaha. The land was part of their 400-acre development called “Hanscom Place,” but was too hilly to be used for residential construction.

 

The acceptance of land for the site of a city park. In the coach, left to right: Joseph H. Millard, mayor; Harry P. Deuel; Byron Reed. Standing, left to right: W. J. Connel, Dr. V. H. Coffman, General J. C. Cowin, and James Stephenson. Atop the coach, left to right: Alfred Sorensen, W. Gallagher, Judge J. M. Woolworth, Count John A. Creighton, Captain W. W. Marsh, and Colonel Hooker. Original photo taken by Herman Heyn. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

 

The park was named after Andrew Hanscom, as he was the majority landowner. Hanscom was born in Detroit in 1828. After serving in the Mexican-American War, he set off to take part in the California gold rush. Along the way, he stopped in Council Bluffs, built a mill, and established a mercantile business. He practiced law for a while, then moved to Omaha in 1854. Here, he took part in politics, holding positions on the school board, city council, and territorial legislature, where he served as speaker of the Nebraska House of Representatives. His primary business was real estate.
Hanscom’s partner James Megeath was born in Virginia in 1824. He also followed the gold rush to California, opening a store in Calaveras County. On a trip home in 1854, he decided to settle in newly-established Omaha City. He and his brother Samuel opened a store at 14th and Farnam in 1858, which served to outfit Mormons emigrating west. He also took part in politics, serving on the city council, the Douglas County Board of Commissioners, and the Territorial House of Representatives, where he was elected speaker in 1866. He also worked as a forwarding agent for the Union Pacific Railroad.
At the time of the donation, no official city agency existed to care for the land. Indeed, aside from Hanscom Park, there was only one other active park in the city—Jefferson Park located between 15th and 16th Streets and Chicago and Cass. It was demolished in the 1960s to make way for I-480. In 1888, a controversy arose when Hanscom and Megeath threatened to sue the city for the possession of the land on grounds of neglect by the city. They argued that the city had not executed the improvements stipulated in the conditions of the donation. The city quickly began installation of a sewer system and agreed to re-grade the streets around the park, making them more easily navigable by residents of the neighborhood. In 1889, the State Legislature created a new charter with a provision to form a Board of Park Commissioners to control the city’s public grounds and parks, establish rules for management and care of the sites, suggest a system of public parks and boulevards, and designate lands to be acquired for park purposes.

Jefferson Square Park at 15th and Chicago Streets. No date. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

As one of only two extant parks, Hanscom received a lot of attention and funds in the years following. Early features of the park included two lagoons and a cascade, and it boasted fifty-one species of trees. In 1890, the Board of Park Commissioners erected a bandstand, greenhouse, and a “wooden pavilion, slender and graceful, built in the Moorish style, with rounded arches, a pitched roof two stories high, and dormer windows” designed by Louis Bourgeois. This first pavilion burned on a February night in 1893, but was replaced the next year by another. Before it too was destroyed by fire in 1927, it was often a gathering place for local meetings. The park was recognized as one of the most beautiful places in the city, and it was runner-up for the location of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in 1898.

Hanscom Park’s second pavilion, ca. 1905. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

Additional greenhouses were built to house the Joslyn family’s conservatory after the greenhouses at their estate on 39th and Davenport were destroyed in the 1913 tornado. That building was deemed unsafe and demolished in 1968, but today large greenhouses on the grounds are still used to raise the plants used in parks, boulevards, and other city properties.

Hanscom Park flower beds with Joslyn Conservatory in the background, ca. 1915. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

 

Another controversy arose in 1946 when then-park commissioner Roy Towl proposed filling in the lagoon. In response, Omahans formed the Hanscom Park Improvement Club, which fundraised enough money to clean the lagoon and refill it with fresh water, as well as build a new rock wall around the water’s edge, thereby saving the lagoon, which still sits at the southeast end of the park.

Ice skating on one of the lagoons at Hanscom Park, ca. 1900. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.