The city grew along the Missouri River, with the first settlement extending from the Lone Tree Ferry crossing from Kanesville, Iowa in the early 1850s. Omaha earned its nickname, the "Gateway to the West", because of its central location as a transportation hub for the United States in the mid-1800s. Along with transportation and jobbing, early industries that were important to the city through the mid-20th century were its railroads, breweries, stockyards and meatpacking plants.
Today the economy of Omaha is diverse and built on skilled knowledge jobs. The city is the home to five Fortune 500 companies: ConAgra Foods; Union Pacific Corporation; Peter Kiewit and Sons, Inc.; Mutual of Omaha Companies; and Berkshire Hathaway, the investment vehicle of legendary investor and so-called "Oracle of Omaha" Warren Buffett. In 2001 Newsweek identified Omaha as one of the Top 10 high-tech havens in the nation. Six national fiber optic networks converge in Omaha. The Gallup Organization, TD Ameritrade, PayPal and LinkedIn all have major operations or headquarters in Omaha. The city also is the home to three of the top 30 architectural and engineering firms in the world: Leo A. Daly Co., HDR, Inc. and DLR Group. Tourism in Omaha benefits the city's economy greatly, with the annual College World Series providing important revenue and the city's Henry Doorly Zoo serving as the top attraction in Nebraska.
The Joslyn Art Museum, the Durham Museum, the Holland Performing Arts Center, and the Omaha Community Playhouse, the country's largest, comprise important elements of the cultural background of Omaha. The city's historical and cultural attractions have been lauded by numerous national newspapers, including the Boston Globe and The New York Times. Music has always been important to the city, with North Omaha's music scene being historically significant. Currently the "Omaha Sound" defines an important trend across the nation. In 2008 Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine ranked Omaha the No. 3 best city in the United States to "live, work and play."
Since the 1600s, the Omaha, Pawnee, Otoe, the Missouri, the Ponca and Ioway all variously occupied the land that became Omaha. The word "Omaha" (actually UmoNhoN or UmaNhaN) means "Dwellers on the bluff". The Lewis and Clark Expedition passed by the riverbanks that would later become the city of Omaha in 1804. Between July 30 and August 3, 1804, members of the expedition, including Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, met with Oto and Missouria tribal leaders at the Council Bluff at a point about 20 miles (30 km) north of present-day Omaha. Immediately south of that area several fur trading outposts were built in succeeding years, including Fort Lisa in 1812; Fort Atkinson in 1819; Cabanné's Trading Post, built in 1822, and Fontenelle's Post in 1823, in what became Bellevue. There was fierce competition among fur traders until John Jacob Astor created the monopoly of the American Fur Company. The Mormons built a town called Cutler's Park in the area in 1846, and while it was temporary the settlement provided the basis for further development in the future.
Through 18 separate treaties with the federal government, Native American tribes in Nebraska gradually ceded the lands currently comprising the state. One treaty and cession directly affected the Omaha area. That occurred in 1854 when the Omaha Tribe ceded most of east-central Nebraska. Logan Fontenelle, chief of the Omaha, played an essential role in those proceedings.
Before it was legal to claim land in Indian Country, William D. Brown was operating the Lone Tree Ferry to bring settlers from Council Bluffs to the area that became Omaha. Brown is generally credited as having the first vision for a city where Omaha now sits. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 was presaged by the staking out of claims around the area that was to become Omaha by residents from neighboring Council Bluffs, Iowa. On July 4, 1854 the city was informally established at a picnic on Capital Hill, current site of Omaha Central High School. Soon after the Omaha Claim Club was formed to provide vigilante justice for claim jumpers and others who infringed on the land of many of the city's founding fathers. Some of this land, which now wraps around Downtown Omaha, was later used to entice Nebraska Territory legislators in an area called Scriptown. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled against numerous landowners whose violent actions were condemned in Baker v. Morton.
Many of Omaha's founding figures stayed at the Douglas House or the Cozzens House Hotel. Dodge Street was important early in the city's early commercial history; North 24th Street and South 24th Street developed independently as business districts, as well. Most early pioneers were buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery, next to soldiers from Fort Omaha, early European immigrants and African Americans. There are several other historical cemeteries in Omaha, historical Jewish synagogues and historical Christian churches.
The economy of Omaha boomed and busted through its early years. First the jobbing and wholesaling district brought new jobs, followed by the railroads and the stockyards. Groundbreaking for the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1863, providing an essential developmental boom for the city. The Union Pacific Railroad was founded in Omaha in 1867. Equally as important, the Omaha Stockyards were founded in 1883. Within twenty years of the founding of the Stockyards in South Omaha, four of the five major meatpacking companies in the United States were located in Omaha, and by the 1950s half the workforce was employed in meatpacking and processing. Meatpacking, jobbing and railroads were responsible for most of the growth in the city from the late 19th century through the early decades of the 20th century.
Immigrants soon created ethnic enclaves throughout the city, including Irish in Sheelytown in South Omaha; Germans in the Near North Side, joined by Eastern European Jews and black migrants from the South; and Little Italy and Little Bohemia in South Omaha. Beginning in the late 1800s, Omaha's upper class lived in posh enclaves throughout the city, including the south and north Gold Coast neighborhoods, Bemis Park, Kountze Place, Field Club and throughout Midtown Omaha. They traveled the city's sprawling park system on boulevards designed by renowned landscape architect Horace Cleveland. The Omaha Horse Railway first carried passengers throughout the city, as did the later Omaha Cable Tramway Company and several similar companies. In 1888 the Omaha and Council Bluffs Railway and Bridge Company built the Douglas Street Bridge, the first pedestrian and wagon bridge between Omaha and Council Bluffs.
Gambling, drinking and prostitution were widespread in the 19th century, first rampant in the city's Burnt District and later in the Sporting District. Controlled by Omaha's political boss Tom Dennison by 1890, criminal elements enjoyed support from Omaha's "perpetual" mayor, "Cowboy Jim" Dahlman, nicknamed for his eight terms as mayor. Calamities such as the Great Flood of 1881 did not slow down the city's violence. In 1882 the Camp Dump Strike pitted state militia against unionized strikers, drawing national attention to Omaha's labor troubles. The Governor of Nebraska had to call in U.S. Army troops from nearby Fort Omaha to protect strikebreakers for the Burlington Railroad, bringing along Gatling guns and a cannon for defense. When the event ended there was one man dead and several wounded. In 1891 a mob hanged an African-American porter named Joe Coe after he was accused of raping a white girl. There were several other riots and civil unrest events in Omaha during this period, as well.
In 1898 Omaha's leaders, under the guidance of Gurdon Wattles, held the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, touted as a celebration of agricultural and industrial growth throughout the Midwest. The Indian Congress, which drew more than 500 American Indians from across the country, was held simultaneously. More than 2,000,000 visitors attended these events, located at Kountze Park and the Omaha Driving Park in the Kountze Place neighborhood.
With dramatically increasing population in the 20th century, there was major civil unrest in Omaha resulting from competition and fierce labor struggles. In 1900 Omaha was the center of a national uproar over the kidnapping of Edward Cudahy, Jr., the son of a local meatpacking magnate. The city's labor and management clashed in bitter strikes, racial tension escalated as blacks were hired as strikebreakers, and ethnic strife broke out. A major riot by ethnic whites in South Omaha destroyed the city's Greek Town in 1909, completely driving out the Greek population. The civil rights movement in Omaha has roots that extend back to 1912, when the first chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People west of the Mississippi River was founded in the city. The Omaha Easter Sunday Tornado of 1913 destroyed much of the city's African American community, in addition to much of Midtown Omaha. Six years later in 1919 the city was caught up in the Red Summer riots when thousands of ethnic whites marched from South Omaha to the courthouse to lynch a black worker, Willy Brown, a suspect in an alleged rape of a white woman. The mob burned the Douglas County Courthouse to get the prisoner, causing more than $1,000,000 damage. They hung and shot Will Brown, then burned his body. Troops were called in from Fort Omaha to quell the riot, prevent more crowds gathering in South Omaha, and to protect the black community in North Omaha.
The culture of North Omaha thrived throughout the 1920s through 1950s, with several creative figures, including Tillie Olsen, Wallace Thurman, Lloyd Hunter, and Anna Mae Winburn emerging from the vibrant Near North Side. Musicians created their own world in Omaha, and also joined national bands and groups that toured and appeared in the city. After the tumultuous Great Depression of the 1930s, Omaha rebounded with the development of Offutt Air Force Base just south of the city. The Glenn L. Martin Company operated a factory there in the 1940s that produced 521 B-29 Superfortresses, including the Enola Gay and Bockscar used in the bombing of Japan in WWII. The construction of Interstates 80, 480 and 680, along with the North Omaha Freeway, spurred development. There was also controversy, particularly in North Omaha, where several neighborhoods were bisected by new routes. Creighton University hosted the DePorres Club, an early civil rights group whose sit-in strategies for integration of public facilities predated the national movement, starting in 1947. Following the development of the Glenn L. Martin Company bomber manufacturing plant in Bellevue at the beginning of World War II, the relocation of the Strategic Air Command to the suburb of Bellevue in 1948 provided a major economic boost to the area.
After surpassing Chicago in meatprocessing by the late 1950s, Omaha suffered the loss of 10,000 jobs as both the railroad and meatpacking industries restructured. The city struggled for decades to shift its economy and workers suffered, losing jobs and hardwon gains in wages. Poverty became more entrenched among families who remained in North Omaha. In the 1960s three major race riots along North 24th Street destroyed the Near North Side's economic base, with recovery slow for decades. In 1969, Woodmen Tower was completed and became Omaha's tallest building and first major skyscraper at 478 ft (146 m), a sign of renewal.
Since the 1970s, Omaha has continued expanding and growing, mostly to available land to the west. West Omaha has become home to the majority of the city's population. North and South Omaha's populations continue to be centers of new immigrants, with economic and racial diversity. In 1975 a major tornado, along with a major blizzard, demolished more than $100 million in damage in 1975 dollars. Downtown Omaha has been rejuvenated in numerous ways, starting with the development of Gene Leahy Mall and W. Dale Clark Library in the late 1970s. In the 1980s Omaha's fruit warehouses were converted into a shopping area called the Old Market. The demolition of Jobber's Canyon in 1989 led to the creation of the ConAgra campus. Several nearby buildings, including the Nash Block, have been converted into condominiums. The stockyards were taken down and the only surviving building is the Livestock Exchange Building, which was converted to multi-use and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Around the turn of the century several new downtown skyscrapers and cultural institutions were built. One First National Center was completed in 2002, replacing the Woodmen Tower as the tallest building in Omaha at 638 ft (194 m). The creation of NoDo included the construction of the Qwest Center and the Slowdown/Film Streams development at North 14th and Webster Streets. New construction has occurred throughout the city, with important developments throughout West Omaha and on the site of the former Ak-Sar-Ben arena.
The 2008 United States Olympic Team Trials were in Omaha held from June 29 to July 6. Two people in each individual discipline participated, along with up to six people for the 4x100 freestyle relays and 4x200 freestyle relays. The event was a highlight in the city's sports community, as well as a showcase for redevelopment in the downtown area.
Omaha is home to the Omaha Community Playhouse, the largest community theater in the United States. The Omaha Symphony Orchestra and its modern Holland Performing Arts Center, the Opera Omaha at the Orpheum theater, the Blue Barn Theatre, and The Rose Theater form the backbone of Omaha's performing arts community. Opened in 1931, the Joslyn Art Museum has significant art collections. Since its inception in 1976, Omaha Children's Museum has been a place where children can challenge themselves, discover how the world works and learn through play. The largest urban artists' colony in the world, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, was founded in Omaha in 1981, and the Durham Western Heritage Museum is accredited with the Smithsonian Institution for traveling exhibits. The annual Omaha Blues, Jazz, & Gospel Festival celebrates local music along with the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame.
In 1955 Omaha's Union Stockyards overtook Chicago's stockyards as the United States' meat packing center, and this legacy is reflected in Omaha's renowned steakhouses. These include Gorat's and the recently closed Mister C's, and the retail chain Omaha Steaks.
The Henry Doorly Zoo is widely considered one of the premier zoos in the world. The zoo is home to the world's largest nocturnal exhibit and indoor swamp; the world's largest indoor rainforest, the world's largest indoor desert, and the largest geodesic dome in the world. The Zoo is Nebraska’s number one paid attendance attraction and has welcomed more than 25 million visitors over the past 40 years.
The Old Market is a major historic district in Downtown Omaha listed on the National Register of Historical Places. Today its warehouses and other buildings house shops, restaurants, bars, and art galleries. Downtown is also the location of the Omaha Rail and Commerce Historic District, which has several art galleries and restaurants as well. The Omaha Botanical Gardens features 100 acres (40 hectares) with a variety of landscaping, and the new Kenefick Park recognizes Union Pacific Railroad's long history in Omaha. North Omaha has several historical cultural attractions including the Dreamland Historical Project, Love’s Jazz and Art Center, and the John Beasley Theater. The annual River City Roundup is celebrated at Fort Omaha, and the neighborhood of Florence celebrates its history during "Florence Days". Native Omaha Days is a biennial event celebrating Near North Side heritage.
Religious institutions reflect the city's heritage. The city's Christian community has several historical churches dating from the founding of the city. There are also all sizes of congregations, including small, medium and megachurches. Omaha hosts the only LDS temple in Nebraska, along with a significant Jewish community. There are 152 parishes in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha, and several Orthodox Christian congregations throughout the city.
Omaha's Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium is home to the Omaha Royals minor-league baseball team (the AAA affiliate of the Kansas City Royals). Since 1950, it has hosted the annual NCAA College World Series men's baseball tournament in mid-June. There are plans to move the CWS downtown to a new stadium, and for the Royals to leave the city.
Named in tribute to Omaha's meatpacking past, the Omaha Beef indoor football team plays at the Omaha Civic Auditorium. The Creighton University Bluejays compete in a number of NCAA Division I sports. Baseball and soccer are played at Morrison Stadium, while basketball is played at the Qwest Center. Ice hockey is a popular spectator sport in Omaha. The two Omaha-area teams are the Omaha Lancers, a USHL team that plays in the neighboring city of Council Bluffs at the Mid-America Center and the University of Nebraska at Omaha Mavericks, an NCAA Division I team that plays at the Qwest Center. Omaha has a thriving running community and many miles of paved running and biking trails throughout the city and surrounding communities. Chief among these is the Keystone Trail. The Omaha Marathon involves a Half Marathon and 10K race that take place annually in September.
Omaha is the birthplace of numerous important historical and modern sports figures, including 1960 Summer Olympics Gold Medalist and NBA star Bob Boozer; Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson; 1989 American League Rookie of the Year Gregg Olson; NFL Running back Ahman Green; Heisman Trophy winners Johnny Rodgers, and Eric Crouch; Pro Football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers; and champion tennis player Andy Roddick.
As of the census of 2000, there were 390,007 people, 156,738 households, and 94,983 families residing in the city. The population density was 3,370.7 people per square mile (1,301.5/km²). There were 165,731 housing units at an average density of 1,432.4/sq mi (553.1/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 78.39% White, 13.31% African American, 0.67% Native American, 1.74% Asian, 0.06% Pacific Islander, 3.91% from other races, and 1.92% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 7.54% of the population.
There were 156,738 households out of which 30.0% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 43.8% were married couples living together, 13.0% had a female householder with no husband present, and 39.4% were non-families. 31.9% of all households were made up of individuals and 9.4% have someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.42 and the average family size was 3.10.
In the city the population was spread out with 25.6% under the age of 18, 11.0% from 18 to 24, 30.8% from 25 to 44, 20.7% from 45 to 64, and 11.8% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 34 years. For every 100 females there were 95.0 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 92.2 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $40,006, and the median income for a family was $50,821. Males had a median income of $34,301 versus $26,652 for females. The per capita income for the city was $21,756. About 7.8% of families and 11.3% of the population were below the poverty line, including 15.6% of those under the age of 18 and 7.4% of those ages 65 and older.
Native Americans were the first residents in the Omaha area. The city of Omaha was established by European Americans from neighboring Council Bluffs who arrived from the Northeast United States a few years earlier. While much of the first population was from the northern tier and of Yankee stock, over the next 100 years numerous ethnic groups have enriched the city. Irish immigrants in Omaha originally moved to an area in present-day North Omaha called "Gophertown", as they lived in dirt dugouts. That population was succeeded by Polish immigrants in the Sheelytown neighborhood. Most immigrants were recruited for jobs in the Omaha Stockyards and meatpacking industry.
The German community in Omaha was largely responsible for founding its once-thriving beer industry, including the Metz, Krug and the Storz breweries. Mexicans originally immigrated to Omaha to work in the rail yards. Today they compose the majority of South Omaha's Hispanic population and many have taken jobs in meatprocessing.
In the early 20th century, Jewish immigrants set up numerous businesses along the North 24th Street commercial area. It suffered with the loss of industrial jobs in the 1960s and later, and the shifting of population west of the city. The commercial area is now the center of the African Americans community, concentrated in North Omaha. Omaha's first Italian enclave grew south of downtown, with many Italian immigrants coming to the city to work in the Union Pacific shops. Scandinavians first came to Omaha as Mormon settlers in the Florence neighborhood. Czechs had a strong political and cultural voice in Omaha, and were involved in a variety of trades and businesses, including banks, wholesale houses, and funeral homes. The Notre Dame Academy and Convent and Czechoslovak Museum are legacies of their residence.
In 1909 mob violence force the Greek immigrant population to flee from the city. Around the turn of the 20th century, violence towards new immigrants often erupted out of suspicions and fears. Six years after the Greek Town Riot, in 1915, a Mexican immigrant named Juan Gonzalez was killed by a mob near Scribner, a town in the Greater Omaha metropolitan area. The event occurred after an Omaha Police Department officer was investigating a criminal operation selling goods stolen from the nearby railroad yards. Racial profiling targeted Gonzalez as the culprit. After escaping the city, he was trapped along the Elkhorn River, where the mob, including several policemen from Omaha, shot him more than twenty times. Afterward it was discovered that Gonzalez was unarmed, and that he had reliable alibi during the time of the murder. Nobody was ever indicted in his case.
Today the legacy of the city's early European immigrant populations is evident in many social and cultural institutions in Downtown and South Omaha. The African-American community has maintained its social and religious base, while it is currently experiencing an economic revitalization.
A growing number of African immigrants have made their homes in Omaha in the last twenty years. There are approximately 8,500 Sudanese living in Omaha, comprising the largest population of Sudanese refugees in the United States. Most have immigrated since 1995 because of warfare in their nation. Ten different tribes are represented, including the Nuer, Dinka, Equatorians, Maubans and Nubians. Most Sudanese people in Omaha speak the Nuer language. Other Africans have immigrated to Omaha as well, with one-third from Nigeria, and significant populations from Kenya, Togo, Cameroon and Ghana.
Omaha is the historic and modern birthplace and home of notable politicians, actors, musicians, business leaders, sportsmen and cultural leaders. Numerous actors, including Gabrielle Union, Montgomery Clift, Fred Astaire and Adele Astaire, Dorothy McGuire, Marlon Brando and Nick Nolte, were born in Omaha. Academy Award winner Henry Fonda also grew up in Omaha. Marlon Brando's mother encouraged Henry Fonda to pursue acting at the Omaha Community Playhouse. His son Peter Fonda also briefly lived in Omaha. Mrs. Brando had helped found the playhouse. His family's home still stands on South 33rd Street, a few blocks from the site of the first home of Gerald Ford. Tennis player Andy Roddick, former ATP ranking leader, was born in Omaha. Omaha's rich musical history produced legends such as Wynonie Harris, Preston Love, Buddy Miles, Calvin Keys, Eugene McDaniels and others. Members of 311 and Bright Eyes are part of the modern music scene. Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller began in and still headquarter out of Omaha.
According to USA Today, Omaha ranks eighth among the nation's 50 largest cities in both per-capita billionaires and Fortune 500 companies. Major employers in the area include Alegent Health, Omaha Public Schools, First Data Corporation, Methodist Health System, Mutual of Omaha, ConAgra Foods, Nebraska Health System, Offutt Air Force Base, and the West Corporation. With diversification in several industries, including banking, insurance, telecommunications, architecture/construction, and transportation, Omaha's economy has grown dramatically since the early 1990s. Omaha's most prominent businessman is Warren Buffett, nicknamed the "Oracle of Omaha", who is regularly ranked one of the richest people in the world. Four Omaha-based companies: Berkshire Hathaway, Union Pacific Railroad, Mutual of Omaha, and Kiewit Corporation, are among the Fortune 500.
Omaha is the headquarters of several other major corporations, including the Gallup Organization, TD Ameritrade, infoUSA Werner Enterprises and First National Bank. Many large technology firms have major operations or operational headquarters in Omaha, including Bank of the West,First Data, PayPal and LinkedIn. The city is also home to three of the 30 largest architecture firms in the United States, including HDR, Inc., DLR Group, Inc., and Leo A. Daly Co. Despite this progress, as of October of 2007, the city of Omaha, the 42nd largest in the country, has the fifth highest percentage of low-income African Americans in the country.
Tourist attractions in Omaha include history, sports, outdoors and cultural experiences. Its principal tourist attractions are the Henry Doorly Zoo and the College World Series. The city has been a tourist destination for many years. Famous early visitors included British author Rudyard Kipling and General George Crook. In 1883 Omaha hosted the first official performance of the Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show for eight thousand attendees. In 1898 the city hosted more than 1,000,000 visitors from across the United States at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, a world's fair that lasted for more than half the year.
Research on leisure and hospitality situates Omaha in the same tier for tourists as the neighboring cities of Topeka, Kansas, Kansas City, Missouri, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Denver, Colorado. A recent study found that investment of $1 million in cultural tourism generated created approximately $83,000 in state and local taxes, and provided support for hundreds of jobs for the metropolitan area, which in turn led to additional tax revenue for government.