Sunday, May 10, 2009

River City Tours - The Magic City

Last Tuesday the Durham museum started River City History Tours and we were on the first one. There are four tours and the first was the Magic City. We entered our trolley decorated bus and immersed ourselves into the history of South Omaha.

First the name of the tour. Omaha, like many cities, have nicknames. New York has the Big Apple. Chicago has the Windy City. Omaha is sometimes referred to the River City being on the west shore of the Missouri River. South Omaha was called the Magic City. Magic City was coined to described how fast South Omaha was growing. At one point it was well on it's way to be as big or bigger than Denver or Kansas City.

The Magic City tour concentrates on South Omaha, an independent city until 1915 when it was annexed by Omaha. South Omaha was dominated by the stockyards. The stockyards, slaughter houses, and packing plants surpassed those of Chicago in 1955. That same year the Omaha stockyards had a record one day run of 53,000 head of cattle. In the 60s and 70s the stockyards and packing plants fell victim to stricter Environmental Protection Agency rules and more efficient cattle slaughtering methods. The newer, smaller packing plants were located closer to the ranchers and they could process meat so quickly that stockyard holding pens were no longer needed. The Omaha stockyards were done in by the environment and more efficient killing.

Surrounding the stockyards of South Omaha were the immigrant neighborhoods. Our tour guide, Gary, of Polish ancestry, pointed out the locations of businesses and homes of Polish, Irish, Lithuanian, Bohemian, Mexican, and many other ethnic groups who once lived there. The old ethnic neighborhoods are mostly gone as most of the ethnic groups moved to western Omaha. After the stockyards closed and the various ethnic groups scattered, a lot of South Omaha became desolate until the 90s when the next wave of immigrants, the Latinos, moved in and filled the void, helping revitalize parts of South Omaha.

Gary was a pretty good guide. You could feel his love for South Omaha and his interest in the history of the city. He was full of stories and anecdotes that brought that history alive. Over the hour and a half tour, which took me through areas I had already walked through and a few I hadn't, I learned quite a bit. Who knew that at one time Omaha had more bars per capita than any other city. We were on the bus the entire time so my camera went unused.

I'm looking forward to the other three tours and I'm sure I will post about them.

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