Trolley takes Omahans on “Gritty City” stroll

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August 9th, 2011

Omaha, NE – Omaha’s underbelly of centuries past was exposed for all to see in a tour put on by the Durham Museum. Red light districts, political bosses and revolutionary architecture are all on the menu.

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Rolling around downtown in Ollie the Trolley, perhaps Omaha’s most nostalgic mode of transportation, Durham’s tour guide Molly Gruber, educated passengers of Omaha’s upstanding, founding gentlemen.

The corner of 16th and Harney Streets in Omaha, taken in 1938. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

“Those early businessmen, who came to Omaha to help us grow and prosper, weren’t actually the most legitimate of all citizens,” Gruber said. “They were raised on the three “R”s of ruthlessness, restlessness, and resourcefulness; not reading, writing, and arithmetic.”

Some of the most revered gentlemen of Omaha, including one of the Creighton brothers, had a few run-ins with the law, mostly for drunken misconduct, according to Gruber.

Bouncing along downtown, Gruber told about the earliest streets of Omaha–unpaved and unkempt, the streets overflowed with mud and sewage, so thick lace-up boots would be suctioned right off of the feet of the women who wore them.

The most exciting part of the tour began as the trolley rounded Riverfront Drive…

“Welcome to the Red Light District of Omaha,” said Gruber.

The red light district boomed with brothels in the late 1800’s, mostly ran by madams or what Gruber called “businesswomen.” Stopping near the Courtyard Marriott on 10th and Dodge, Gruber pointed out the former spot of perhaps Omaha’s most famous lady of the night, Anna Wilson. Wilson, who became known as the “Queen of the Underworld,” was a savvy businesswoman, who took care of her employees.

“Anna believed in the sanctity of marriage as well as true love,” said Gruber. “So if any of her girls found that, then she held the most elaborate weddings and receptions Omaha had ever seen. If the marriage ever fell on hard times financially, then Anna would help them until they could get back on their feet again. If the marriage failed for any reason, then Anna took that girl back, and got her back on her feet again doing whatever it was she possibly wanted.”

After her death in 1911, Wilson was buried a few feet above her business partner and boyfriend, Dan Allen, in the Prospect Hill Cemetery in north Omaha, but not without controversy.

“Prospect Hill refused to sell Anna Wilson a plot,” Gruber explained. “They said she should be buried in a pauper’s grave. They did not want Omaha’s most notorious madam buried in their cemetery.”

“She also bought plots at Forest Lawn Cemetery,” Gruber said, “And if Prospect Hill continued to have issues with her being laid to rest there, then she was to be moved, and any and all money she had willed to Prospect Hill was supposed to be reverted over to Forest Lawn. So Anna Wilson is still laid to rest at Prospect Hill Cemetery.”

In fact, Wilson was encased in nine feet of cement to avoid future excavation by disapproving citizens.

The tour rolled on with Gruber pointing out other brothels, gambling dens and hang outs, some standing and some long torn down. In fact, it was such a den of debauchery, one writer urged travelers to stay away completely, as Gruber explained, reading an excerpt of a poem published in an 1869 edition of Harper’s Magazine: “Where everything is overdone and everyone is underpaid. If not take heed to what I’m saying, you will find it just as I have found it, and if it lies upon your way, for God’s sake readers, go around it.”

The Gritty City tours runs again Sunday, August 21st and Saturday, September 17th at the Durham Museum.

One Response

  1. Torsten Adair says:

    The Burnt District
    The Sporting District

    Bristow, D. (1997) A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha. Caxton Press.

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