Sewer Excavation Turns Up Pieces of Omaha's Glorious Past


The lagoon and grand court of the exposition ... It's difficult for some to believe that this was Omaha in 1898.

World-Herald, Rudy Smith

Urban archeology in Omaha... Mrs. Callaway and Peters hold top of Ionic column; Jensen scrapes dirt in background.

Sewer Excavation Turns Up Pieces of Omaha's Glorious Past

By Michael Kelly

World-Herald Staff Writer

Vince Saverino was digging a sewer trench in Kountze Park when he came across the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition.

Pieces of it, at least.

Saverino, a foreman for the Charles Vrana and Son Co., notified his superiors. Before long, the word had spread among a few historic preservationists.

"I'm just amazed," said David Murphy, survey architect for the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Parts of buildings from the exposition — the biggest celebration Omaha ever had — were exposed a few feet below ground level.

City Planner Bob Peters said Friday that it was a surprising find.

"We didn't think any of the remains existed," he said.

The exposition was a world fair that drew 2.6 million visitors, including President William McKinley, during its five-month run.

The main tract was bounded by 16th, 24th and Binney Streets, and Ames Avenue. In all, the fair covered 184 acres. When people see pictures of the exposition for the first time, they commonly ex-press disbelief. This was in Omaha? Part of the reason for their surprise is that the magnificent-looking buildings no longer exist.

"They were up for two years," architect Murphy said. "They were meant to come down."

The white exteriors of the structures were made mostly of plaster of Paris andhorsehair. After a secondary fair was completed in 1899, the buildings were torn down.

Murphy and Richard Jensen, preservation archeologist for the historical society, came Friday from Lincoln and poked around in the dirt for two hours.

They said they would like to come back and search some more, but a decision would have to be made later by the historical society.

"Part of the problem," Jensen said, "is that we don't know how much is here."

The top of an Ionic column was uncovered. Murphy said it would be especially interesting if diggers could find some of the fair's "figure sculptures," or statues. Photographs show that there were many.

"I've never heard of them turning up anywhere," he said.

The exposition had a lagoon nearly a half-mile long, which ran east and west. A bridge with ornate railings crossed the water at the present-day Florence Boulevard.

Spreading a map of the fair in the dirt, Murphy pinpointed where the diggers were Friday — at the south end of the bridge. A large section of concrete unearthed at the site was probably a pier for the bridge, he said.

"If they used the lagoon for a fill area, we probably could find parts of the main buildings," he said.

Among those at the site Friday were City Councilman Leo Kraft and Bertha Calloway executive director of the Great Plains Black, Museum.

"I really think it would be a fun project to cut an experimental hole," Kraft said.

Mrs. Callaway said she would be willing to request that CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Agency) assign five to 10 youths from its summer employment program to help with further digging.

The state representatives said they would research the matter further and confer with Marvin Kivett, director of the State Historical Society.

Whether a full-scale dig is made in the park would depend partly on the cost. Planner Peters said the project might qualify for funding if it could be shown that the results might produce unique information.

While it might not be possible, Peters said, it would be fascinating if part of a building could be reconstructed.

"It would give some idea of the scale and majesty," he said. "The exposition had to be almost a magical fantasy."