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The Department headquarters did not return to Fort Omaha but through the persistent pressure of Nebraska ’s congressional delegation no final decision on the future of the post was made until after General Crook reassumed command of the Department of the Platte in April 1886.  Crook wanted “soldiers fit for combat, not for parade” and “training in close approximation to campaign conditions.”27  The close confines of Fort Omaha were too small for such training.  With the support of the Army, Nebraska Senator Charles Manderson introduced a bill in Congress in December, 1887 which authorized the Secretary of War to sell the existing Fort Omaha and “to purchase suitable grounds of not less than 320 nor more than 640 acres for a new site within a distance of 10 miles of the limits of the city of Omaha, and construct thereon the necessary buildings for a ten company post.” President Cleveland signed this bill into law on July 23, 1888.28

The fort still fulfilled its mission despite its “lame duck” status.  Its garrison, the 2nd Infantry, was used to defend the Pine Ridge Indian Agency and to prevent further departures from the Dakota Reservation during the winter of 1890.  Following Wounded Knee , that regiment helped pressure the Sioux back to the agency.  During the Pullman strike of 1894 the 2nd Infantry assumed its share of the responsibility for the protection of the railroads located throughout the Department.

Depressed land values, coupled with the continuous occupation of the post and the perennial lobbying of Nebraska ’s congressional delegation, account for the non-compliance with the 1888 congressional directive to sell Fort Omaha .  Various schemes were concocted as alternatives to the sale.  A bill by which the federal government would have leased it to the state for use by the National Guard was vetoed by President Grover Cleveland on June 10, 1896.29  The President made it clear that the “valuable” post grounds should stay on the market so the federal government could reimburse itself to some extent “for the cost of the new military post."

The Secretary of War ordered the deactivation of Fort Omaha when the new post south of Omaha was ready for occupancy.  The 2nd Infantry, with the exception of a small detachment left “to dispose of public property,” departed on June 29, 1896.  Until 1905, except in 1898 for Spanish American War mobilization and demobilization activities, mother nature served as Fort Omaha ’s garrison.30  Company M of the 30th Infantry arrived on July 3, 1905 to protect the construction sites of new buildings for the soon to be established Signal Corps school.

In 1908 the Signal Corps opened a balloon gas plant at Fort Omaha .  Signal Corps Dirigible No. 1 first rose over Omaha on May 26, 1909.31  The airplane took precedence over the lighter-than-air craft in the ensuing years but the German use of the zeppelin for bombing shortly after the outbreak of war in Europe created a new significance for balloon activities in this country.  As a result, the United States Army Balloon School was reestablished at Fort Omaha on December 20, 1916.  During the war to end all wars, the post was the center of military balloon activity in this country.  New quarters and balloon houses were built.32  Balloons shuttled between the fort and Florence Field at 30th and Martin where additional balloon houses were built.

Swinging below a balloon at an altitude of one mile, two to five miles from the enemy's lines, Fort Omaha Balloon School graduates were able to make far more detailed, minute-by-minute analyses of the enemy's movements than could the pilot of a fixed-wing aircraft.  In addition to their sentinel duty, the balloon aviators, communicating by telephone, directed the fire of artillery batteries on to enemy targets.

The imposing balloons presented inviting targets for enemy aircraft.  The courageous balloonists had only pistols and parachutes for protection.  Their daring service provided an impetus for America ’s drive to world supremacy in air power.

The fort was continuously occupied through the lull of the 1920’s and the depression of the 30’s.  During World War II it served as a support installation for the 7th Service Command.  From 1947 until late 1973 the post served as a Naval Support Activity.  The senior and largest tenant was the headquarters of the Naval Surface Reserve whose commanding officer occupied the house built for General Crook.

Omaha has grown around and far north and west of the once rural setting of the post.  The muddy roads have disappeared and the saloons of the frontier soldier are gone but many of the trees planted in 1869 still surround the parade ground.  The training of soldiers has been supplanted by the education of citizens in the fort’s current role as the central campus of the Metropolitan Community College .

Although all of the original frame buildings were moved from the post or demolished following the deactivation of 1896, the brick buildings built prior to that deactivation have survived.33  The three buildings erected for the Department of the Platte during 1879 still stand.34  The house built for General Crook sits proudly just north of the northwest corner of the parade ground.  General and Mrs. Grant were guests in the house for three days in November 1879.  The interior retains much of its original character.  At the north end of the parade ground stands the Department headquarters, building 8.35  One of the first telephones in Omaha was installed for the Department's use upon completion of this building in September 1879.  After the Department headquarters moved back to Omaha in late 1881 it was used for a post headquarters, chapel and hospital.  The 1879 brick storehouse, building 536 is on the east side of the parade ground just north of the original main gate.

Three other brick buildings erected in 1884 still serve.  Just south of the original main gate is building 4.  This structure and the garage behind it were originally just one, a guardhouse.  After the reactivation of the post, the rear or east wing of the guardhouse was used as a hose house and about 1914 the corridor joining the wing to the main building was removed.  The Magazine, building 9,37 located south of the southeast corner of the parade ground, was used to store the Navy’s small arms ammunition until they departed.  Building 11A38 a double set of officers’ quarters, was built at a cost of $11,000.  It is the first building north of General Crook’s house.

Fort Crook :39

By February 1890 a 545 acre tract of grassy farmland had been purchased adjacent to Bellevue , just south of Omaha .  The plateau chosen for the new Fort Omaha slopes slightly from north to south and from east to west.  On March 3, 1891 President Harrison signed the first of two Army Appropriation Bills which increased the total allocation for the post from an initial $200,000 to a whopping $700,000.40  This legislation also directed the new post to be named Fort Crook instead of Fort Omaha in honor of the recently deceased Major General Crook.

Under the watchful eye of Major Charles F. Humphrey, who later served as Quartermaster General of the Army, the plateau underwent an amazing transformation.  An eyewitness gave this account of the progress:

The Missouri Pacific has built a pretty little station at the west entrance to the grounds, and it [Fort Crook] is a half mile walk across a grassy plain and along shaded lanes from Bellevue on the east, which is reached by the B&M Railroad.  From this side [east] the visitor will come suddenly out . . . into a great clattering of hammers and hatchets, trowels and planes.  Between 200 and 300 men are at work in all lines of the building trade, and under their hands the plans of the architects are beginning to assume form . . . .

All the buildings are grouped about and face the parade ground, an oblong piece of level ground several acres in extent.  The officers’ quarters are on the west, the barracks and non-commissioned staff officers on the east, the hospital on the north and the other regimental buildings on the south.

The most imposing building on the grounds is the barracks which when completed, will have a frontage of nearly 800 feet.  It commands a view of the parade ground and the officers’ quarters beyond and the Papillion Valley in the distance.  It consists of a central building three stories in height from which rises a heavy, square tower, an east and west wing two stories high and a rear extension for the kitchen and boiler room.

The palatial quarters of the Army mule is on the west side of the reservation, built of pressed brick, . . . and in every way calculated for the comfort of their occupants and the convenience of their attendants . . . .41

In June, 1896 the order was given for the 22nd Infantry to take station at Fort Crook.42   The men of the 2nd Infantry at Fort Omaha had expected to be transferred to the new post but instead were distributed across the posts of Montana and the Dakotas .  From these same posts the men of the 22nd Infantry streamed into Fort Crook .  It was the first time in its thirty year history the regiment had been assembled as a unit.  One of the first arrivals said enthusiastically, “There are more trees on this reservation than there are in the whole state of Montana !”43

Immediately after its arrival the regiment plunged into a peace-time garrison routine; continuous field training, constant drill and parades.  Once winter enveloped the post there was little to relieve the monotony; a visit to one of the saloons in Crooktown just west of the main gate, a weekly 10-12 mile march which was rarely canceled despite the severe weather, or an occasional trip to Omaha via the railroad.  The Fort Crook soldier could purchase a ten-ride ticket for only a dollar.

The only battle fought was the annual “Battle of Hospital Hill.”  The culmination of a series of mock skirmishes was the enlisted men's charge north up hospital hill which was defended by the post’s non-commissioned officers.  The NCO’s dug trenches for a defensive position for the first battle.  In the greatest tradition of practicalness the trenches were not filled in by the NCO’s but were left for future battles.  These trenches and ricocheting bullets from the small arms range east of the hospital were the primary source of casualties at the post.

The sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor provided Fort Crook ’s garrison with a real test of their fighting skills.  A month after the sinking, the 22nd Infantry received orders to move by train to Mobile , Alabama for preparation for their landing on Cuban soil.  The regimental history describes the June 21, 1898 landing on the southern coast of Cuba :

Enthusiasm ran high; rousing cheers burst from transports to be unloaded later; regimental bands played; out at sea the navy cannonaded the wooded mountains that rise from the beach.  The water was alive with little boats that tossed and raced for the shore.  Shells screeched overhead and burst far up on the heights.  Tugging launches puffed and whistled.  Near the dock a wall of surf reared an angry welcome, then broke in swamping torrents.  Boat bumped boat, was dashed against the piles, then stranded by the outgoing wave, swept forward again and caught by a line from the dock.  Out scrambled the regiment, tossing blanket rolls ahead of them, but carefully handing rifles to helping comrades--a surf drenched, panting regiment that caught its breath again and cheered as their colors unfurled, the first on Cuban shore.44

The regiment exhibited extreme courage, endurance and the skills learned on the western frontier during the drive toward the city of Santiago de Cuba .  While moving toward San Juan Hill on July 1st, the regimental commander Colonel Charles Wikoff was killed while crossing the "bloody ford."45  Following the Spanish surrender the regiment spent a month in quarantine in New York before it returned to Fort Crook on September 20th.  Its respite was short, four months later the regiment was ordered to the Philippines for occupation duty.

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Ó Fred M. Greguras
All Rights Reserved
1977, 1999, 2000