Elmwood Park is an oasis of green in the heart of Omaha. It is a place for pick-up baseball and ultimate frisbee, picnics, barbecues, and 18 holes of golf. There’s a grotto and historic pavilion available to rent near a public swimming pool, playground, and more. The park is a favorite for family reunions, was the longtime home of a Swedish folk festival, and has hosted annual productions of Shakespeare on the Green since 1987.
Elmwood Park was named the “Best City Park” in Omaha by public voting in the 2019 Best of Omaha contest. Looking back in history, the park could have easily met a different fate—paved for a parking lot—as in the famous 1970s environmental anthem by Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi.”
The “delightful shady retreat” was officially christened Elmwood in June 1890 as the name for the “new park on West Leavenworth,” reported the Omaha Daily Bee on June 25, 1890. According to the book Omaha and Omaha Men by John T. Bell, the park began with 55 acres of donated land. Bell, Henry M. Hurlbut, and Henry B. Wiley gave 20 acres, while Lyman Richardson, Leopold Doll, and William Snyder combined in offering “35 acres as I remember it,” Bell wrote.
Within three years of opening, Elmwood grew to 215 acres. It was Omaha’s largest park, planned as “the principal park of the system.” The Elmwood Park pavilion was built in 1909 and is now 110 years old. In 1895, the Nebraska State Fair grounds opened under the auspices of the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben just south of the park. The illustrious and backward (in spelling) Nebraskans only added to Elmwood’s prominence.
The tremendous growth of automobile traffic flowing across the country during the 1920s brought about a “tourist camp” located at Sunset Point in Elmwood Park. The new facilities were designed by the Omaha Automobile Club with plans for “telephones, laundry service, benches, gas, and electric lights and attendants.”
For three years, between 1933 and 1936, Elmwood was home to several rhesus macaques enclosed on “monkey island.” Escaped primates and lackluster maintenance made the short-lived monkey island a source of ridicule for city officials.
Elmwood got a new neighbor in 1936 after the University of Omaha purchased 20 acres from John Potter Webster to relocate its campus. By 1952, a brief notation in the university’s Tomahawk annual referenced the notorious lack of parking and how cars from campus “overflow into Elmwood Park.” That situation only worsened with the university’s growing enrollment as a parking permit came to be seen as more of a hunting license (rather than a guarantee of a parking spot).
The future of Elmwood Park came into question during the effort to integrate Omaha’s municipal university into the larger Nebraska system in the late 1960s. Nebraska Gov. Frank Morrison suggested Elmwood as a possible place to expand in 1967, but he quickly backpedaled by claiming it was his own idea and had never been brought up by the university or the University Merger Committee. In November 1967, the Friends of the Parks committee agreed to support the merger as committee co-chairman Rachel Gallagher claimed the park’s preservation for public use was “assured” by a 1951 ruling of the Nebraska Supreme Court.
The University of Omaha would be no more, having become the University of Nebraska-Omaha—but the parking problem and prospect of campus expansion remained. Omaha City Councilman Lynn Carey proposed in May 1969 that the city should buy Ak-Sar-Ben “for park use as part of a chain reaction to replace Elmwood.” Another effort to deal with the university’s growth was presented in September 1969 by Omaha City Planning Director Alden Aust. This plan was formulated by three architectural students who had interned at the planning department and called for the “construction of four, four-level parking buildings in the Elmwood Park ravine” with space for 1,120 vehicles at a cost estimated at $2.24 million. There were approximately 12,000-12,500 students that year, and the first day of classes found police issuing “more than 250 tickets for illegal parking” in just three hours, mostly for parking in the grass at Elmwood Park. A parking pass cost $12 a semester but “many students complained” they still couldn’t find a place to park on campus.
The simmering parking controversy corresponded with protests against the Vietnam War. On Oct. 15, 1969, UNO students and Omaha citizens gathered at Elmwood Park and marched north to Memorial Park for the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam (a nationwide event involving protests at college campuses). The rally at Elmwood was originally canceled due to weather, but the Omaha-World Herald estimated the turnout at Memorial to be 300-400.
Then came the protests after Omaha instituted a curfew in Memorial Park just across Dodge Street. Drug use and complaints by neighbors led to the curfew, protests, and a few arrests in August 1970. The next year, in July 1971, those protests grew violent and spread onto the university campus and into Elmwood Park. That summer there was taunting, truncheons, and tear gas after fireworks were thrown onto Dodge Street. Two policemen and a photographer were injured while one police car was pushed down the ravine adjacent to campus. More than 100 were arrested or treated at hospitals due to confrontations between Tuesday, July 6, and Friday, July 9. Free rock concerts were organized in Elmwood as an attempt to calm youths angry about the Memorial curfew.
In February 1971, park advocate Rachel Gallagher filed suit against the city and the Nebraska Board of Regents over their plans for parking at Elmwood Park. That lawsuit reached all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court, which ruled in February 1973 that the joint-use agreement between the university and the city failed to meet the standards to change the park’s specific use. Instead of finding parking, university students that fall would find in Elmwood a six-hour rock concert featuring Luigi Waites, Eclipse, and Froggy Beaver. Instead of Elmwood Park, the university would turn to the stately neighborhood west of campus to find additional parking.
Then, in more recent years, the university’s south campus developed parking, student housing, and buildings over the site of Ak-Sar-Ben Race Track and Coliseum on the former state fairgrounds. Even into the 21st century, university-linked parking problems linger in Elmwood Park. In November 2017, the city announced it would make efforts to enforce parking regulations at Elmwood, mostly aimed at university students.
Visit bestofomaha.com for the full list of winners in the 2019 Best of Omaha contest, including “Best City Park.”
This article was printed in the March/April edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.