Jim McKee: George Miller 'The Father of Omaha'

Jim McKee: George Miller 'The Father of Omaha'

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Few today think of George Miller’s name except as connected to an Omaha park, school and street. But he was considered by many not only Omaha’s first physician and founder of an antecedent of its most popular newspaper but as the city’s “father.”

Although Aug. 18, 1830, is sometimes quoted, George Lorin Miller probably was born July 1, 1831, in Boonville, N.Y.

When he was about 16, his father sent him to work in a woolen mill, but when his family moved to Syracuse, N.Y., Miller joined them. In Syracuse, he studied medicine with a local physician, which was a common path to taking the state medical examination. Miller, however, also decided to study more formally and, at 21, enrolled in the New York City College of Physicians and Surgeons. On graduation in 1852, he returned to Syracuse and set up a private practice becoming the city of Syracuse physician.

Seeking the challenge and perceived opportunity of the new territory of Nebraska, Miller moved to Omaha in October or November 1854, when the Capital City had a population of less than 50. Being the first -- and for a time only -- doctor in Omaha, he found his first patients were not only settlers but Natives. Obviously having spare time, Miller also began clerking for the territorial Legislature’s Council or upper house. The same year, he was elected to the Legislature, where he served for three terms, concluding his last as Council president.

In 1857, Miller and two Omaha businessmen formed the Farnam Street Hotel Co. Their intent was to build a proper hotel on land given to them by the city. A portion of the land was sold to raise capital, while an additional $16,000 was given to them as city of Omaha scrip.

The hotel was begun as the south half of what  ultimately would become the Herndon House hotel on the northeast corner of Ninth and Farnam streets. Although the first $50,000 of Omaha scrip had been employed successfully in the construction of the Nebraska territorial Capitol, the panic of 1857 caused the initial portion of the hotel project to stop and bankrupt the corporation.

Hoping to establish a larger and more successful medical practice, Miller turned his practice over to medical school classmate Dr. A. Chapel and moved to St. Joseph, Mo., where he also wrote a number of well-accepted articles for the St. Joseph Gazette. In 1861, Miller was appointed post sutler at Fort Kearny, which usually meant he was not only a clerk and purchasing agent for the U.S. Army but sold goods to the local soldiers and travelers.

Emboldened by his success in the newspaper at St. Joseph, Miller returned to Omaha in 1864, where he partnered with Dan Carpenter, who had experience in the mechanics of producing a newspaper, in establishing the Omaha Herald. The Herald was an outspoken Omaha booster and promoter of the Democratic Party. Although Miller sold his half-interest in the Herald to John McShane, he continued as editor until March 1, 1887. The Herald then was purchased, in 1889, by Gilbert Hitchcock, who merged it with his Evening World as the Omaha World-Herald.

As the territory of Nebraska began to debate statehood, Miller, as a Democrat, took the anti-statehood position, with the primary objection being that statehood was more expensive and could not be acceptable economically. When statehood was voted in, Miller moved on, becoming a promoter of everything Nebraska.

When the Union Pacific Railroad began to investigate a site for its Missouri River bridge, Miller again pushed for Omaha over Child’s Point, even traveling to Washington, D.C., to lobby for his choice, which ultimately was adopted.

In the 1880s, Miller acquired a 460-acre tract in Ralston, which he named Seymour Park and where he built a mansion, though it stood for only a few years. Later, in the 1890s, he gave 25 acres of the subdivision to the Presbyterian Church for a Presbyterian theological seminary.

Other projects and accomplishments through the years included his organizing the 1st Nebraska Regiment; serving as an 1854 member of the Omaha Claim club, which insured property rights of members; incorporating the first, though short-lived, Nebraska Medical Society; serving as an agent for the Western Stage Co.; and furnishing the capital to establish Barkalow Bros. news agency and bookstore.

He also was among the first members of Masonic Capitol Lodge #3, was one of the incorporators of the Omaha Library Association, was president of the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1907 and  president of the remarkably profitable Trans-Mississippi Exposition of 1898.

Still, the man who some called “the father of Omaha” and a “master of political strategy” was not without his detractors. He often did not side with fellow Democrats, such as J. Sterling Morton with whom he carried on a longstanding feud, and William Jennings Bryan, whom Miller said was a radical and not a true Democrat. Republican Edward Rosewater’s Omaha Bee was eloquently anti-Miller, calling him a “cotton speculator … eating-house keeper … dishonest, unscrupulous and an unprincipled money grabber.”

Still, Dr. George L. Miller, who died Aug. 8, 1920, was admired overwhelmingly by virtually all Omahans. His name lives on in Miller Park, Miller Elementary School and George Miller Parkway.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com.

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