Inventors, racers fill Omaha’s automotive past

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May 21st, 2012

Omaha, NE – The history of the automobile in Omaha is being presented in a new exhibit from the Douglas County Historical Society.

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Emil Brandeis was well-known in Omaha, the son of Jonas Brandeis who founded the Brandeis Department Store. He was also an auto enthusiast, and an advocate of steam-powered engines. He died at sea, after setting sail from Europe aboard the Titanic in 1912. (Photo courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society)

Omaha’s AUTO-Biography is really an intensive look at the development of Omaha through one industry,” said Cassandra Novotne, the Guest and Administrative Coordinator at Douglas County Historical Society. On a windy afternoon at the downtown Heartland of America Park, she pointed out the Historical Society’s latest exhibit: a walkway of old photographs and newspaper articles installed along the boat docks that tell the stories of Omaha’s automotive history.

“What I found particularly fascinating is that auto row initially started out downtown here on Farnam Street,” she said. “And there was a big Ford manufacturing plant on 16th and Cuming. So downtown was really vibrant with these car services.”

As she spoke, an appropriately-timed train whistle rang out, reminding us that Omaha is not known as an auto-town. The city is generally considered railroad country: home to Union Pacific and a long history of rail-based business. But, Novotne said, its automobile history is quite remarkable too.

Notable Omahan Emil Brandeis touted clean steam-powered motors as he drove his White Steamer around town in 1896. Others drove early electric cars, while another notable Omahan, Otto Baysdorfer, built one of the earliest gas-powered vehicles in 1897. Baysdorfer and his two brothers were pioneering inventors and mechanical tinkerers, who also happened to invent a flying machine they dubbed The Comet in 1908.

Omaha was once home to a popular race track, the Sunset Speedway. Driver Steve Kinsway cruised to victory in this 1982 photograph. (Photo credit Lee Ackerman/Midwest Racing Archives)

“We (were) coming out of the Victorian times, where gadgetry and inventions were hugely popular,” Novotne said. “People wanted to have the next best greatest thing. So to have these early inventors kind of latch on to that idea in Omaha with cars is a pretty big deal.”

Novotne said Omaha’s cultural history is also tied in to the automobile. The city was home to Sunset Speedway, a popular racetrack that opened in the late 1950s. Novotne said the racetrack, along with drive-in movie theaters and the family-owned auto operations shaped much of the cultural landscape of Omaha – as automobiles themselves shaped the physical landscape.

“What we had to take into consideration, and in fact, what became kind of apparent after cars became more affordable,” she said, “is that there were no rules or regulations or even street signs to help people find their way throughout Omaha.” Novotne said, at first, orange markers on street corners were the only direction tool for drivers to use as they meandered through the city. And as orange markers became street names, the city’s web of streets and its continuing westward stretch began.

Omaha’s AUTO-Biography will be on display at the Heartland of America Park through April 2014.

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