22 May 2013

Early History of Carter Lake and Levi Carter Park

Ravaging waters of a spring season along the untamed Missouri River had water forces which were creating a new oxbow lake along the Missouri River, just north of Omaha. High flows of the river waters would cut through a short section of floodplain land that would leave behind what had been a riverine channel.

First indications of a shift in the river channel change were obvious in March, 1877, because the event was occurring just north of Omaha, with its reportorial newspapers. By the end of July, the revision had occurred, where there was a shortened channel, and a new cutoff lake in North Omaha, which included land which had been along the western border of Iowa.

The former channel became Cutoff Lake, a horseshoe-shaped place among the soggy bottoms eastward of the bluffs of eastern Omaha and prominent along the river bend. There was also Florence Lake, nearby to the north.

Map of the Cutoff Lake area in 1879. Prepared by the Corps of Engineers.

Map of the Cutoff Lake area circa 1895. Prepared by the Missouri River Commission.

Once the lake was naturally created, it became the scene for various changes or so-called improvements, as reported on the pages of the local newspapers, especially the Omaha Bee.

A 1902 "High School Notes" column indicated that "A number of Mr. Benedict's pupils enjoyed an excursion to Bemis Park early Friday morning to study birds. Another excursion was held at Cut-off Lake Saturday." — Omaha Bee, May 19, 1902

In 1907, a "Careless Hunter Fined" article indicated that Phillippo Grace pleaded guilty in court to shooting and pursuing birds at Cut-off Lake. His fine was $6 and costs. "This was the first prosecution in Douglas county under the new game law." — Omaha Bee, April 18, 1907

The most significant event for the locale occurred in 1908, when Levi Carter Park was established. Mrs. Levi Carter (maiden name: Salina Coe; Levi Carter and Isaac Coe were partners in timber cutting in the west, and also initiated a cattle operation in central Nebraska, near Wood River in 1870) donated $50,000 to acquire more than 250 acres to establish the park, plus $10,000 per year for five years, which at the time was the largest ever donation to the city of Omaha to newly establish a park. The park was named for the then deceased Levi Carter, former president of the Carter White Lead Works. The "handsome gift" was detailed in a July 16, 1908 article in the Omaha Bee article.

"Mrs. Carter makes the gift as a memorial to her husband, the late Levi Carter, who she states in explaining the gift passed the land daily in going to and from his business and was among the first to see its desirability for park and boulevard purposes."

Additional comments were given which indicate the uniqueness of the park place, which would forever be named Levi Carter Park, according to the Parks Commission resolution accepting the donation.

"The lake covers 300 acres and being in the shape of a horseshoe it will furnish excellent sailings
no matter from what direction the wind comes. The new park will be the only one having level drives and affording boating, bathing, fishing and other aquatic sports. The lake and park are in plain view from the city hall, the high school, the hills extending from Sixth and William streets and tho new boulevard being extended east of Prospect hill cemetery.
"Nothing will add so much to the beauty of Omaha and the Omaha landscape as the Improvement of Levi Carter park," said Ed. P. Berryman, president of the Board of Park Commissioners. "Owing to the fact that all the other parks lie on broken and hilly ground, this new park will furnish a most pleasing variety. Its water effect will make it the most beautiful park possible in any city west of Chicago and south of Minneapolis, and the people of Omaha ought to be, and I know they will be, proud of it and thankful to the generous doner" [sic].

The park land was nearby the lead works in north Omaha, and the tract had originally considered including the bluffs west of the lake, and to 14th Street, where there a grand boulevard roadway was to be built.

The donation meant further improvements at the site, especially in 1909, which included 261.13 acres donated by Mrs. Carter, along with other acres taken from adjacent landowners.

In the spring, a dredge was to be used to deepen the "Salina Sea" which was supposedly to be the proper name for the lake, with the removed silty material to be used in "grading the low land in the park before trees and shrubbery is transplanted." The Salina Sea name was a designation that temporarily recognized the monetary contributions by Salina Coe Carter.

When the donation was made, "some 6,000 acres" in the vicinity were a floodplain setting, subject to flooding, channel changes, etc., according to the July 16, 1908 Omaha Bee article.

In the May 16, 1909 issue of the Bee, a seemingly full-page article titled "Summer Pleasures on the Waters of Cut Off Lake" indicated the excitement associated with the lake and its improvements, as issued on a page of the Omaha Bee.

A clue to the reason for the donation by Mrs. Levi Carter is conveyed by a bit of essential news in July, 1909. The widow of Levi Carter married E.J. Cornish, the president of Carter White Lead Works. He was also a member of the Board of Parks Commissioners for Omaha city, and had been for years.

In September 1909, the Omaha park board passed a resolution that Carter Lake be the "official" name of the lake, instead of Cutoff Lake.

In October, an article indicated that Fred Evans was representing the Omaha Rod and Gun Club as unwanted fish were being seined from Carter Lake. The "fish commissioners of Iowa and Nebraska" had provided permission to "take out the buffalo and carp," according to an October 30 article in the Omaha Bee. They were using a 600-foot net to accomplish their task. The four people responsible for the task had originally been arrested, because it was thought by the club that they were undertaking an illegal activity. This was eventually "straightened out" once a club member became a required part of the effort.

Another special focus article was issued in the Omaha Bee on April 23, 1911, titled "Carter Lake and Park to be Expanse of Real Beauty" which also included pictures of typical recreational activities, such as swimming and fishing.

The generosity of Mrs. Cornish continued. In December 1911, there was a donation of $20,000. Another newspaper report indicates Mr. and Mrs. E.J. Cornish donated $25,000 to 35,000 to help complete work to develop Levi Carter Park. In 1915, another $5,000 was donated to build a retaining wall around the lake.

Details of these particular events, as reported by the Omaha Bee, can be found by searching contents of this newspaper at Chronicling America.