Revisiting early Omaha

Louis Bostwick's photos are an essential part of the Durham Museum collection. Together, the images tell the story of a city in the early decades of the 20th century.

By Michael O'Connor / World-Herald staff writer

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Louis Bostwick as a young photographer.

All photos courtesy of The Bostwick-Frohard/KM3TV Collection / The Durham Museum Photo Archive

Bostwick-Frohardt Collection

Named for: Louis Bostwick and Homer Frohardt, the photographers who took most of the images. Frohardt joined Bostwick’s Omaha studio in 1907. Bostwick died in 1943 and Frohardt in 1972.

Images in collection: 70,000

Dates of collection: 1850-1964 (Most photos from the 1800s were purchased by Bostwick)

How the Durham Museum acquired it: Bostwick died with no heirs. After his death, Frohardt continued to add to their collection until selling it to KMTV in 1963. KMTV still owns the collection, but in 1977 turned it over to the Durham on permanent loan.

Preserving history: The Durham Museum is continuing its push to convert its entire photo archive to digital images, including the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection. The collection’s negatives and prints, many more than 100 years old, are slowly deteriorating, and the museum doesn’t want history crumbling away.

Timeline: The digitization effort started in 2010 and should be finished in the next five to 10 years. The museum says that in some ways the effort will ongoing because the museum regularly receives photos for its collection.

Photos online: The public can now find more 135,000 photos on the Durham Museum website, www.durhammuseum.org/

Other photos in the collection: Photos by former World-Herald photographers John Savage and Robert Paskach are an important part of the museum’s collection, and their images also are available on the museum website.

Who was Louis Bostwick?

Louis Bostwick played an essential role in chronicling Omaha’s history from about 1900 to the early 1940s.

In a way, his images provide a “family album” for Omaha, said Bill Gonzalez, a Durham Museum staff member who works with the Bostwick collection.

Bostwick snapped photographs in an era when few people took pictures. His photos are known for their razor-sharp clarity, even though he used a bulky box view camera with 8-by-10-inch glass plate negatives.

Bostwick worked for Omaha newspapers then owned his own studio, turning his camera on buildings and homes that would eventually disappear. He loved taking pictures with a birds-eye view from atop buildings, offering expansive views of downtown in the days when it was the commercial heart of the city.

But he also trained his camera on people, ordinary citizens and some of the city’s most prominent families.

And he was prolific. When he died at age 75 in 1943, his studio contained 70,000 negatives.

Bostwick grew up in Illinois, one of four children of Charles and Cynthia Bostwick. His father was owner and publisher of the Mattoon (Illinois) Gazette.

Louis Bostwick attended Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois.

Newspaper articles attribute his photography career to a trip he took to Colorado when he was in his teens.

On the journey, he snapped a picture of Pike’s Peak, with clouds hanging low. The photo turned out so well he was able to sell it for postcards and other reprints.

In 1901, he came to Omaha for a job as a staff photographer for the Illustrated Sunday Bee. Four years later, he opened his own studio, taking pictures for insurance companies, railroads, local businesses and families.

Though he ran his own business, he continued working for local newspapers as a freelancer. Among his most powerful images are those taken following a devastating tornado that struck Omaha on Easter Sunday in March 1913; he earned $1,000 for his Easter tornado pictures.

Bostwick never married and for years lived downtown at the old Wellington Hotel. In photos he is always sharply dressed and was known for driving expensive and luxurious Packard automobiles.

Gonzalez said not a lot is known about Bostwick’s life, other than basic biographical details and highlights of his career in newspaper clips. Because he died without a family, there wasn’t anyone to keep his memory alive.

But Gonzalez said that through his photographs, Bostwick left Omaha a legacy.

“It’s heritage,” he said, “that belongs to all the people of Omaha.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-1122, michael.oconnor@owh.com







BUILDINGS, AERIALS



Bostwick loved taking pictures with a birds-eye view, offering expansive views from atop downtown Omaha buildings in the early 1900s.

Bostwick standing on the edge of the roof of the Union Pacific Railroad Company headquarters building in 1911.

Aerial view of downtown Omaha. Buildings include John Deer Flow Company, Hotel Keystone, Bemis Omaha Bag Company and Burkley Envelope Company. The Missouri River is in the background. Taken Southeast from Union Pacific Building at Northeast 15th and Dodge Street. Photo taken on June 30, 1913.

Looking southwest from 16th & Douglas St. in 1917. In the center is the new Brandeis Store and on the right is the Old Brandeis Boston Store. To the right of it is the F.W. Woolworth Store. Diagonally behind the Brandeis Store, you can just see the tower of the old City Hall, and on the left is the Omaha National Bank building. Many of the buildings have flags flying on top. A smoky haze covers the downtown area.

Looking northeast from the Bekins building at 16th and Leavenworth Street towards downtown. In the center of the right side is the old Civic Auditorium at 15th and Howard Street. Photo taken in 1908.

A view of 16th and Douglas Streets on July 2, 1924. Notable buildings include The Brandeis Store.

Taken in March 1919, this is one of the earliest aerial photos of Omaha. Carter Lake is at the top and downtown is right-center. The photo shows the city south to Pierce Street, or 12 blocks south of Dodge. Omaha’s population was more than 120,000 in 1919, the year the Fire Department replaced its last piece of horse-drawn equipment with a motorized rig.


THE PRESIDENTS



They carried names such as Roosevelt and Wilson, and arrived in Omaha and the region for speeches, tours and meetings with local politicians. Louis Bostwick captured images of as many as a half dozen sitting or former U.S. presidents during his four-decade career chronicling life in Omaha. Most of those years he ran his own photo studio, but he still worked as a freelancer for local newspapers. His collection includes photos of presidents in Omaha for events big and small, speaking from the caboose of a special train or in the middle of a grassy lawn.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt addressing a crowd from an outdoor stage in Council Bluffs. Photo taken in 1910.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt addresses a crowd at the Omaha Field Club in September 1910. Roosevelt stayed busy during his Omaha visit, with The World-Herald headline proclaiming: “Theodore Roosevelt Puts In One of His Most Strenuous Days in Omaha Friday.” The story noted Roosevelt’s famous toothy smile and reported that his visit included an “eleborate breakfast” at the Omaha Club. He also addressed a crowd of 400 during a luncheon at the Field Club and then spoke briefly on the club’s lawn to veterans. The 26th president (he left office the year before this appearance) gave an evening speech at the Civic Auditorium to a crowd estimated at 5,000 to 8,000. He emphasized the need for a strong navy and called the Panama Canal “one of the greatest feats of modern times.”

Former President Theodore Roosevelt addressing a crowd at the Omaha Field Club in 1910.

President Wilson and his wife, Edith, standing on a platform in front of Douglas County Courthouse for a celebration of Nebraska's 50th Anniversary in 1916.

Father Flanagan and boys’ band standing on steps around President Calvin Coolidge in Rapid City, South Dakota. Flanagan traveled with the boys to not only recruit boys but also to promote the work done at Boys Town. A year later, the touring Boys Town band again met Coolidge, this time in Superior, Wisconsin, and the President remembered some of the boys.

President William H. Taft Banquet at City Auditorium at 15th & Howard Streets. Photo taken in 1908.

Left side of panorama of Aksarben Grandstand and field for President Harding's memorial service. Photo taken in 1923.

President Woodrow Wilson waves his hat to a large and enthusiastic crowd gathered outside the old Woodmen of the World building at 14th and Farnam Streets on Oct. 5, 1916. Wilson made a one-day stop in Omaha to attend a pageant marking the 50th anniversary of Nebraska statehood. One headline proclaimed: President’s Every Mention of Peace Greeted With Tumultuous Applause. The newspaper account said women rushed his motorcade, hoping to get a presidential kiss for their children. During a speech to 8,000 people gathered that evening at the old Civic Auditorium, Wilson said: “There is as much fight in America as in any nation in the world. But she must know what she is fighting for.” Seven months later, Wilson went before a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany.

President William Howard Taft, seated in the back of a car at Omaha’s Union Station, speaks to former Nebraska Gov. George Sheldon in September 1909. Taft traveled to Omaha for dinner at the Omaha Club with the Ak-Sar-Ben board of directors. The World-Herald reported that he was “exclusively the guest” of the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben. The story — which said Taft insisted his visit not include “speech-making” — described the president’s drive through Omaha and suggested that he did not receive an enthusiastic welcome. Taft’s driver took him west through downtown where, a news story said, larger crowds have turned out to see a “first-class circus parade.” The story said Taft did receive a good response from students gathered along the route, including two girls who tossed a bouquet of flowers into his car as it drove past.

President Herbert Hoover made a brief stop at Omaha’s Union Station on Nov. 6, 1932. The 31st president is shaking hands with W.E. McDonell, a truck driver for Fairmont Creamery. Hoover stopped in Omaha for about 45 minutes on his way to California to vote in the presidential election. Hoover, who had become a scapegoat for the Great Depression, was defeated by a wide margin by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The World-Herald reported that Hoover spoke briefly to a crowd of between 8,000 and 10,000. “My friends in Omaha. ... I can well express to you my appreciation for such a greeting. This welcome is evidence of real friendship. I do appreciate the encouragement of your presence. I take it as a tribute to the flag I represent.”


THE TORNADO



Among Louis Bostwick’s most powerful images are those snapped following a monster tornado that struck Omaha on a warm Easter Sunday in March 1913, killing 103 people and injuring 350. More than 2,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in the storm — now catagorized by the National Weather Service as an F4/EF4 tornado with 166-to-200 mph winds. Ten churches, five schools, three convents and a hospital were damaged or destroyed. Electrical, telephone and telegraph lines, streetcars and railcars were toppled. Fires from broken natural gas lines or upturned wood-burning stoves threatened widespread blazes. In the colorful style of early 1900s journalism, The World-Herald wrote: “The wind demon came careening over the prarie from the southwest and drove a diagnonal course through the residence district in the northeast, finally crossing the river near the Illinois Central bridge and wreaking its half-spent fury on the city of Council Bluffs. With almost every tick of the clock the name of another vicitm was added to the appalling list of the dead and injured.”

The March 23, 1913, storm reduced the densly populated, ethnically diverse working-class neighborhoods of north Omaha to rubble. Sixty lives were lost in this area alone; the death toll citywide was 103. The area near 24th and Lake, visible here, was among the hardest hit. Rescue, relief and recovery campaigns started immediately after the storm hit. Nebraska Gov. John Morehead activated five companies of the National Guard and traveled to Omaha by train after midnight. “This is enough like my conception of hell to suit me!’’ the governor said during his tour. “It’s awful. Awful.’’ No warning system existed in 1913, so Omahans were unaware the big storm bearing down on them. Hospitals overflowed with the injured. At one point, morticians locked doors to keep out people seeking information about friends and relatives.

A mother, father and daughter stand outside their damaged Miami Street home with salvaged belongings: a screwdriver, chair, picture frame and rug. Their home was in the 24th and Lake area that suffered massive damage and a high death toll. This photo was taken two days after the tornado, when a light snow had fallen. During the tornado they clung to their piano but were still blown from their home, though not badly injured.

A Leavenworth Street relief station for tornado victims. Soldiers and citizens stand near tents surrounded by tornado debris. Martial law was declared to stem looting, and soldiers exchanged gunfire with suspected burglars near 38th and Cass Streets three days after the storm. President Woodrow Wilson sent Mayor James Dahlman a telegram offering federal aid. The Commercial Club, a forerunner of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, advised Dahlman against accepting, saying it would tarnish the city’s self-reliant image. Dahlman wired Wilson: “We all deeply appreciate your offer of aid, but I believe we can handle the situation.’’ Once the severity of the situation became clear, however, Dahlman and the club came under a withering criticism from storm victims and others.

The tornado damaged or destroyed virtually everything in its path, hitting Farnam Street (these houses were on Farnam at 42nd) after crossing Leavenworth Street east of Saddle Creek Road. Before hitting Farnam, the tornado passed near Holy Sepulchre Cemetery at 48th and Leavenworth Streets, lifting a 50-pound tombstone and dropping it four miles away.

Alvin Hill, 8, and Lyn Hill, 4, sit in a wagon loaded with a saddle, mattresses and bedding. The boy holds a dog. Relatives were helping their aunt, Minnie Swan, whose house was destroyed. The children lived at 2611 N. 19th Ave., but it was not clear where the aunt lived.

A woman stands in a yard looking at a destroyed house near 26th & Patrick Ave.

Furnishings and household items are piled in the front yard of a partially collapsed home at 4212 Farnam St. Rescue, relief and recovery campaigns started immediately after the storm hit. Army Maj. Carl Hartman at Fort Omaha — a veteran of rescues after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake — sent Signal Corps troops. Gov. John Morehead activated five companies of the National Guard.

A group of men look for storm victims in the ruins of the Idlewild Poolhall at 24th & Lake. Two policemen in long uniform coats stand nearby. People look on from a nearby sidewalk.

A large group of men is marching down the street near 24th and Lake Streets. They are apparently helping in storm cleanup. An American flag is atop a flagpole in the background.

Interior damage to a house at 48th and Burt Streets. Roof and walls are missing. Debris litters the ground.

House with half the roof missing from the tornado.

S.J. Henderson looks over belongings and his insurance policy. The paper in his hand reads: Standard Tornado Policy, The Insurance Company of North America. Total storm damage was estimated at $8.7 million, the equivalent in 2015 of more than $206 million. Some of Louis Bostwick’s photos of tornado damage were for insurance companies processing claims. A year after the storm, a World-Herald story said many who rebuilt used concrete and brick to replace frame homes.

Area of 42nd & Dewy Ave. A house is completely tipped over on its side and possibly leaning up against the next-door house. Five boys are standing in the front yard. Debris all around.

Kounzte Park area. Two women are standing next to a destroyed home. They are wearing hats, long winter coats and have fur hand muffs. Four men are behind them looking at the piles of debris. Two galvanized washtubs full of salvaged items are in front of them. Houses behind them show heavy storm damage.

Bostwick in 1940.

Bostwick standing with a Graflex camera.

Photographers and a solider near 38th and California Streets. Photographer Louis Bostwick is on the far right. The men are standing in front of Bostwick’s 1912 Packard. Bostwick came to Omaha in 1901 for a job as a staff photographer for the Illustrated Sunday Bee. Four years later, he opened his own studio, taking pictures for insurance companies, railroads, local businesses and families.

Bostwick’s camera

Known as a view camera, it was a type common in his era.

The camera was shaped like a box, made of wood and came in different sizes, such as the 5x7 he’s holding in this undated photo. It weighed about 10 pounds.

It worked by inserting glass plates — coated with photographic chemicals — into the camera. The plates served as film, capturing the image when the shutter was opened.

Photographers often draped a cloth over their head and much of the camera as they peered through the viewfinder. The cloth darkened the inside of the camera, sharpening the contrasts and making it easier to focus the lens.

EARLY OMAHA BY THE NUMBERS



Louis Bostwick photographed Omaha from about 1900 until his death in 1943, a period of big growth in the city.

Omaha’s population

1900: 102,000
1940: 224,000

Omaha milestones and events during Bostwick’s era, 1900-1940

1902
Buffalo Bill Cody visited Omaha
The governor of Nebraska appointed a new police board for Omaha and ordered the closure of all illegitimate enterprises.

1906
Benson was incorporated as a city

1909
“Uncle Billy” Snowden, Omaha’s first settler, died at the age of 83
Construction started on the Douglas County Courthouse, 17th and Farnam Streets

1911
The Creighton University basketball team played its first season.
A style show took place in Omaha for the first time.

1913
President Gerald Ford was born Leslie King Jr. in Omaha.

1918
The sale of World War I Liberty Bonds began in Omaha.

1919
The first Mass was celebrated at St. Margaret Mary parish and Dundee Presbyterian Church was dedicated.

1922
5,000 railway workers went on strike in Omaha.

1923
Harry Houdini performed in Omaha.

1926
Benson High School opened at 52nd and Maple Streets.
Al Jolson performed in Omaha.

1929
The $1.5 million Paxton Hotel opened at 14th and Farnam Streets.

1930
The first night baseball game was played in Omaha.
A gymnasium, auditorium and band room were added to the north side of Central High School.

1933
Omaha felt the full force of the Great Depression. Between 1929 and 1933, bank deposits dropped from $115 million to $83 million.

1935
Omaha voters approved the sale of liquor by the drink.
The worst dust storm on record hit Omaha.

1938
The world premiere of the movie “Boys Town” was held at the Orpheum Theater, with Father Flanagan and stars Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney in attendance.

1940
The cornerstone was laid at the Mutual of Omaha headquarters site, 33rd and Farnam Streets.
George Burns and Gracie Allen performed at the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum.

Sources: Douglas County Historical Society; U.S. Census




THE PARADES



Farnam Street in downtown Omaha often was the scene of military and patriotic parades during the Great War. People would line the street – flanked by such government landmarks as the Douglas County Courthouse and the then-City Hall – as soldiers, bands and citizens marched with flags and banners; the crowd at war’s end was said to be so large that you couldn’t tell “where the sidewalk left off and the street began.” The City Hall building is gone, but the courthouse remains at 17th and Farnam. During WWI, Fort Omaha conducted Army training in the use of military balloons and Fort Robinson was a calvary training center.

Soliders march in formation during a military parade on Oct. 3, 1918. View is to the west on Farnam from 17th Street. Omahans would gather on the same street the next month for a huge, jubulint parade celebrating the end of World War I. More than 55,000 Nebraskans and 114,000 Iowans fought in the war. More than 1,500 Nebraskans and 3,500 Iowans died in it.

Crowds disperse after a military parade during what would be the final month of World War I. Photo is looking west on Farnam Street from 17th Street. The Bee Building and the old City Hall are on the right at a spot now home to the Woodmen Tower. The World-Herald reported in October 1918 that nearly 4,000 soldiers from Fort Omaha, Fort Crook and Camp Dodge marched in the parade. A dozen bands participated and “a large part of the Omaha Fire Department, entirely motorized,” joined the parade.

Omahans celebrate the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918. The view is to the east on Farnam from 18th Street; City Hall and Omaha Bee newspaper are visible where the Woodmen Tower stands today. The next day’s headline: “Greatest Parade Ever Seen Here Stirs All Omaha; Democracy Rampant As Throngs March.” The story said: “Omaha’s official celebration of the German capitulation, the pent-up outburst of popular enthusiasms that found but inadequate expression in twelve hours of informal scattered noisemaking, broke loose at 1:35 o’clock this afternoon.” The account said people blasted horns and shotguns; others drove cars with tin cans and metal wash tubs trailing behind. Crowds grew so big you could not tell “where the sidewalk left off and the street began.” Confetti fell from upper floors of downtown buildings and employees emptied out of businesses to join the parade. More than 1,000 Brandeis store employees marched behind a sign that read: “The news was so good we closed the store.” About 55,000 Nebraskans and 114,000 Iowans went to war; more than 1,500 Nebraskans and 3,500 Iowans died.

May Day parade in 1919. Nurses march down the street passing the reviewing stand in front of the old City Hall. Large crowds stand on both sides of the street.

In this Sept. 7, 1918, parade, a group of men show their distaste for Germany and support for the U.S. The coffin has several skulls on top and a sign declaring the last of the ruling Hohenzollern family. One of the men in uniform wears a German helmet.


THE PEOPLE



Louis Bostwick captured countless news events on film, but he also was known for his photos of landscapes and people. He owned a photo studio, so he snapped portraits for customers. He also worked as a freelancer, taking photos for Omaha newspapers. But a Durham Museum staff member who works with the Bostwick collection believes the photographer also took many photos for his own enjoyment. For example, his collection included photos of Elmwood Park in winter, a scene that likely wouldn’t have had much commercial value. Like anyone who loves photography, Bostwick probably turned his camera on people and places simply because it was fun.

Golfers at Elmwood Park Golf Course in June 1925, the same year the Dundee Theater opened and bus service was started in Omaha to supplement the streetcar system. Golfers still play Elmwood, although usually not in knickers.

Little is known about this portrait other than the name of the young woman pictured: Leonora Hedendahl. But a society page notice in 1898 — which fits the era of this photo — offers a hint: “Miss Leonora Hedendahl, who has been attending Knox Seminary in Galesburg, Ill., was home for the holidays.”

Couples dance in June 1916 for the first movie made in the city, “One Summer in Omaha.” The Kountze family made the “society movie,” starring prominent residents and their homes, as a benefit for Child Saving Institute. Read more about the movie

Girls prepare for a swim at Morton Park pool in July 1921. Kids today can still cool off at the South Omaha park, but now they do it in a sprayground. The new Morton setup opened in 2014, replacing the pool that dated to 1917.

Boys fish at the Kountze Park lagoon in June 1930. The park was the site of the Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition in 1898, known today as Omaha’s world fair. Attendance was more than 2 million people and President William McKinley paid a visit. The fair boasted such attractions as a miniature railroad, an exhibit of “horseless carriages” and food and clothing from around the world. People cruised this lagoon in gondolas during the fair.

Children play at a small tree in this undated photo. One child is handing an apple to the other. Photo might have been a portrait Bostwick took for a customer.

A woman in a prom dress holding a large bouquet of flowers in 1924.

Children stand on the 11th Street viaduct in April 1912. The two-lane bridge opened in 1887 to carry traffic over the railyards. The structure was removed in 1984 when Abbott Drive was upgraded between downtown and the airport.

Orphans in the care of Child Saving Institute are pictured at 619 S. 42nd St. in June 1936. The photo is among historic photos displayed at the institute’s office today at 4545 Dodge St. Because it captures the agency’s early history and spirit of its mission to care for children, it also has been used in awards presented by the organization.

A mother and her children sit down for breakfast in a Union Pacific dining car in September 1935, posing for what likely was a publicity shot for the railroad. The full-service spread even featured a doily with the placesetting.

Interior of Hayden Brothers shoe department during a shoe sale in 1934.

Large group of school children in front of a school on Farnam Street and Park Avenue in 1914.

Debut of Miss Marjorie McCord in 1915.

Two women stand on a dock and hold fish at Lake Okoboji in 1928.

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