There is probably only one famous quartermaster in history: The character Q from the James Bond books and movies, currently played onscreen by Ben Whishaw as a bedheaded computer nerd, previous played as tweedy arms specialists by actors including Desmond Llewelyn and John Cleese. Long John Silver, from the novel Treasure Island, was also a quartermaster, although the fact isn’t well-remembered.
Which makes the position of quartermaster sound somewhat marvelous, which it may be, but to simply describe the job sounds more quotidian: Quartermasters are responsible for distributing supplies and provisions in the military. There is an entire Quartermaster Corps in the U.S. Army, and besides general supplies, they are also responsible for Mortuary Affairs—identifying, transporting, and burying the deceased. The Quartermaster Corps actually predates the United States as it was established in 1775.
A grassy bit of train tracks runs through downtown, just off 13th Street, leading to part of this Corps legacy in Omaha: The Omaha Quartermaster Depot Historic District. This series of small, antiquated structures dates back to a rarely remembered Omaha institution: The Department of the Platte. Long headed by General George Crook, this department oversaw military support along the Oregon Trail and the building of the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1866, the Army built its first depot near 13th and Webster streets, nicknamed the Old Corral. Trains going from there took supplies up the Missouri River and transported them west.
The Old Corral quickly proved insufficient, and the current depot was built in 1879 in its current location at 22nd and Woolworth streets, which also became known as the Old Corral. Most of the buildings on the depot date back to 1886, and, amazingly, remain largely the same as when they were built. The depot provided supplies for the dwindling, tragic final years of the Indian Wars, culminating in the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee.
After this the depot went largely unused until the United States involvement in World War I, when the depot was responsible for moving enormous amounts of supplies. The site’s application for the National Registry of Historic Places estimates that during the 18 months of the war, about 278 million pounds of supplies passed through the depot.
The Quartermaster Depot has been offered for sale many times over its history. After World War I, it was unsuccessfully put on the auction block in both 1927 and 1932. Without a buyer, the Old Corral went through its most unusual period, housing people rather than supplies. During the Roosevelt administration, it was used as a transient shelter, and then, during World War II, it housed Italian prisoners of war.
After the war, the depot became a National Guard base, first for the Iowa-Nebraska National Guard and later for the 561st Support Group for the U.S. Army Reserve. The location also housed the Army Corps of Engineers during the 2011 floods.
The Quartermaster Depot was put up for sale again in 2013, although at the time its seller wondered who might be interested. Because of its historic landmark designation, new owners would be limited in what changes they could make to the property. It was purchased in 2014 by Monte Froehlich of Lincoln-based U.S. Property, with intentions to transform the depot into a facility with a variety of uses: An event center and restaurant, an outdoor concert venue, an auto repair shop, and a boxing club.
This is a perfect example of how flexible Omaha’s historic buildings can be: Buildings that once shipped supplies for the military and housed the homeless and prisoners can now house businesses and events. With a little vision and creativity, Omaha’s history can live on.
Visit douglascohistory.org for more information.