The Fourth of July 1898 was quite a day for Omaha. The Trans-Mississippi Exposition opened its doors about a month earlier, and it would continue until November. Omaha’s own World’s Fair drew 2.6 million people to the city while attempting to tell the story of the taming of the American west. The legendary event attracted presidents and criminals alike: William McKinley traveled from Washington, D.C., while the iconic Everleigh Sisters set up a brothel across from the festival, allowing them to raise enough money to relocate to Chicago, where they became the city’s most notorious madams.
This July 4 was special, and not simply because it was Independence Day—although the town celebrated with patriotic events, such as a large parade featuring a menagerie of wild animals, including a float with a seated lion at the front and a snake charmer at the rear; and a Devil’s Dance concession, featuring a marcher dressed as “His Satanic Majesty,” chased by a group of angels.
The day also marked the opening of one of Omaha’s grandest buildings, one that has been empty until very recently: The Burlington Train Station at 1001 South 10th St. The building boasts one of Omaha’s best-known architects: Thomas Kimball, who also conceptualized St. Cecilia Cathedral, the Omaha Public Library building on Harney, and the Burlington Headquarters Building that stands at one corner of the Gene Leahy Mall.
The station was built for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, whose passengers bestowed on it an impressively brief nickname: The Q. In Nebraska, the rail line carried mail and farm equipment as well as transporting passengers and freight. The Burlington Station awed its visitors, featuring an enormous lobby and a circular staircase descending to the tracks, where a canopy protected soon-to-be passengers.
While the original building exhibited a restrained, elegant Italianate style borrowing from the design vocabulary of the Renaissance, the Burlington later found itself in competition with a flashier building: The Union Station, a ziggurat immediately declared a masterpiece of the then-fashionable Art Deco style.
Union Station opened in 1931 opposite the Burlington, and, as a result, the older building underwent extensive remodeling, making the structure both simpler and bolder. Workers removed 24 columns. (They reappeared in Lincoln standing between Memorial Stadium and the Coliseum, where they can be seen to this day.) Gilded medallions bordered the walls while massive lanterns, each weighing one ton, hung inside the building.
The Burlington continued on for decades, much of it marked by a long, slow decline as passengers abandoned rail travel. In 1971, riders were moved to a nearby Amtrak station—small and functional, decidedly lacking in the ambition and grandeur of the nearby glamour-huts.
Union Station reveled in a second life in 1973, when the Durham Museum (then the Western Heritage Museum) took control, but the Burlington labored on for decades, finding occasional use for one-off events (it housed several plays and seasonal haunted houses) along with infrequent and doomed redevelopment plans.
The neighborhood is at the start of a revival, and, so, too, is the Burlington. Hearst Television purchased the building in 2013, and the structure is now home to KETV (Channel 7). The idea of placing a television station next to a railroad track is rather extraordinary, and it may be impossible to muffle the sounds of the passing trains. Then why mute them? Omaha is a rail town, and it seems somehow appropriate to get our news with the whistles and rumble of trains calling out in the background.
1870: The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad first enters Omaha.
1890: A temporary station is erected at 1001 S. 10th Street.
1898: The temporary station is replaced with the current Burlington Station, designed by Omaha architect Thomas R. Kimball.
1908: The Chicago Record declares the Burlington Station to be “The handsomest railway station ever seen.”
1929-1930: The station is extensively remodeled to compete with the new Art Deco Union Station, which would open in 1931.
1954: The station is remodeled again to add a parking plaza.
1971: Passenger service is moved to Amtrak, which will build its own station in 1974 and cease passenger operations at the Burlington.
1985: The building is gutted by an architectural salvager, who removes all interior fittings.
2004: The building is purchased by investors planning to transform the space into private residences. A downturn in the economy halts these plans.
2013: Hearst Television announces a plan to renovate the building for use as the broadcast facility for KETV.