March 13, 2019 by

The Lone Tree Ferry Co. was one of the first businesses in the area to represent the tourism industry. The crew transported speculators from Council Bluffs across the Missouri River as early as 1850–four years before the city of Omaha’s founding. The owner of the ferry company, William D. Brown, had vision. Brown was the first pioneer to see the potential for a city on the site where his ferry dropped off speculators. The landing became a popular gathering site for the first settlers of the Nebraska Territory. Named after a solitary tree on the Nebraska bank of the river, Lone Tree Ferry became central to the founding and development of the city of Omaha.

As the territory grew, the company would become the Council Bluffs and Nebraska Ferry Co., and expand to include a steamboat that could bring visitors to Omaha from greater distances. Brown not only worked hard to get visitors here, he worked just as hard to make sure they felt welcomed once they arrived. Brown, with the help of 12 other investors, built the first building in Omaha, the St. Nicolas Hotel—a log cabin lodging house near 12th and Jackson streets. What Brown understood was that visitors meant business—lots of business.

Today, Omaha continues to offer some of the firsts and the bests in the tourism industry. Omaha’s EVEN Hotel, best known for providing exercise equipment in each of its rooms and offering unique fitness classes, was one of the first hotels of its kind built in the world. Omaha’s historic Blackstone Hotel is where the original Reuben sandwich was created. And Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium is recognized internationally as one of the world’s best zoos.

It is hard to tell how many people Brown employed at the ferry company and the hotel, most likely it was fewer than 30. Today, more than 17,280 people work in some aspect of tourism in Omaha. They are individuals with vision, creativity, and a sense of pride, and they are making great things happen to help grow this industry. They welcome visitors to our hotels, restaurants, and attractions, and they represent our city every day, 365 days a year.

According to the U.S Travel Association, a total of 15.6 million jobs in America are supported by tourism. Every year during National Tourism Week, the Omaha Metropolitan Area (OMA) Tourism Awards honor the best in tourism. The event is an opportunity to celebrate employees and volunteers from local attractions, hotels, restaurants, and retail shops for their outstanding contributions to the industry. If these awards had been around in the 1850s, the Lone Tree Ferry Co. would have been in the running. After all, this little tourism company played a big role in Omaha.   

The OMA Tourism Awards are a tri-county partnership between Visit Omaha, Sarpy County Tourism, and the Council Bluffs Convention and Visitors Bureau.


For more information, to nominate someone, or to purchase a ticket to attend, go to omatourismawards.com.

This column was printed in the April/May 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Keith Backsen

Keith Backsen is executive director of the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau