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.[1] 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.

Advertisement, from Omaha’s Historic Prospect Hill Cemetery, ca. 1910.

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4]

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.

Entrance to Prospect Hill at 33rd and Parker St. ca. 1940. Image courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

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: 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.

Record for Prospect Hill Lot 277, Byron Reed Family. Courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society.

[1] Baumann, Louise, Charles Martin, and S. Jane Simpson. Omaha’s Historic Prospect Hill Cemetery. Prospect Hill Cemetery Historical Development Foundation. 1990.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

The first community settlement in the Florence area occurred in 1846, when it served as the Winter Quarters for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints traveling westward. At this time, over 3,000 Mormons stayed in the area for almost two years before continuing west. This constituted Nebraska’s first sizeable settlement, though the land had already been home to numerous trading posts as early as 1807.[1]

The village of Florence (named after Miss Florence Kilbourn, the niece of founder James C. Mitchell)[2] was incorporated on March 15, 1855, just one year after Omaha City. The new town saw very quick development in a variety of industries – an abundance of mills, building supply outfitters, and architects set up shop in the area, offering quality materials and services for affordable prices. The woods to the north of the village were a convenient and significant source of lumber, and thousands of feet were felled per day.[3]

The home of Florence founder James C. Mitchell. It is unclear whether he built the house after the Winter Quarters were abandoned, or if this house remained from the original settlement. The home was located at 8314 North 31st Street. Image courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

Inexpensive ferries along the Platte River ensured reliable transportation between Florence and Iowa. The Florence and Omaha Omnibus Line provided two daily round trips between the two new cities – the first left Florence at 7:00am and returned at 11:00, and the second l:00pm and returned at 4:00.[4] The village of Florence offered a wide range of necessities – dry goods, clock making, medical services, auctioneering. Other cultural pursuits began to flourish quickly as well, including musicians for hire and candy shops. Businesses in Council Bluffs, Crescent, and Omaha sought patronage from the population of Florence, as well.[5]

The Bank of Florence, built in 1856 at 8502 North 30th Street, is Omaha’s oldest extant building. One of the village’s most iconic and celebrated structures was the Florence Water Works. With its tall tower, ornate stone façade, and 5-acre landscaped grounds, it was a destination for social gatherings as well as a functional utility. It was constructed in 1879 for the privately-owned City Water Works Company, and supplied water to both Florence and Omaha City. Though it passed through several different companies in the following years, the water works remained a private venture until MUD was created to publicize the service in 1913. It was, in fact, this very transfer that brought about the town’s annexation.

Florence Water Works, ca. 1900. Image courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society

As a private business, the Water Works had been a huge source of tax revenue for Florence – about $162,000 annually in the 1910s.[6] When MUD finally acquired the service in 1916, the loss of this revenue was felt so sharply that the town was unable to pay off $3,000 worth of state-held school bonds. The town was essentially bankrupted, and many saw the opportunity to combine with Omaha as an opportunity to continue development and expansion in a community that held much promise. Unlike the previous instances of annexation in Omaha, a bill was passed that would allow for the annexation of Florence without bringing the issue to a public vote. The formal merger was signed and the town’s records were handed over relatively quietly in June of 1917.

[1] Miles, Marian G. “The Founding of Florence, Nebraska, 1854-1860.” Thesis, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 1970.

[2] Gannett, Henry. The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. 1905. p. 127.

[3] Miles, Marian G. “The Founding of Florence, Nebraska, 1854-1860.” Thesis, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 1970.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Municipal ownership bankrupts a town,” Public Service Magazine, 1916. Volume 20. p. 26.

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