The construction firm of Peter Kiewit Sons in Omaha has come a long way from its earliest building projects, which primarily were masonry projects, including sewer systems in Omaha and the original Lincoln Hotel at Ninth and P streets in Lincoln. Along the way, the firm became one of the largest construction companies in the United States.

In 1878, 16-year-old Peter Kiewit arrived in Omaha from Keokuk, Iowa, where his father, John, had immigrated from The Hague in 1857. John Kiewit, having operated a brickyard in his native land, brought his trade with him, building a new yard at 19th and Pierce streets.

After working for his father a number of years, Peter and his brother Andrew formed Kiewit Brothers Masonry Contractors in 1884, with one of their first jobs building a brick foundation for a house. Four years later, they expanded by building a masonry smokestack and brick sewer expansion project for the city.

In 1889, the partnership won the masonry contract for the Lincoln Hotel to be built on the southwest corner of Ninth and P streets, although the project itself was predicted to be “as unwieldy as an elephant.” The seven-story, 110-by-146-foot stone hotel, which cost an impressive $350,000, opened with 223 rooms (160 with baths) in Lincoln, which already had room for more than 2,000 guests.

Buoyed by its first major contract, Kiewit Brothers moved its offices to the New York Life Building in Omaha.

On Sept. 12, 1900, the second Peter Kiewit was born, and, like his father, he had no middle name or initial. In 1904, the original brothers’ partnership was dissolved, and in 1914, the elder Peter Kiewit died. The second Peter Kiewit, never known as the second or junior, graduated from Omaha Central High School in 1918 and, after attending Dartmouth for a year, returned to Omaha eager to enter the contracting business.

The firm, now known as Peter Kiewit Sons, got its first million-dollar contract to build the extant 10-story Livestock Exchange Building in South Omaha. Within months, its second million-dollar project, the still-standing Burlington Railroad depot in Lincoln, was begun as Peter Kiewit turned 24.

The current state Capitol was built over a number of years with a number of contractors. In 1926, the contract for the tower on the nearly completed quadrangle portion of the Capitol was awarded to Peter Kiewit Sons. That year also saw the construction of Morrill Hall on the University of Nebraska campus, and, needing someone to oversee the Capitol tower project, Walter Scott was hired from the nearly completed Morrill Hall to work on the Capitol. Scott was to work for Kiewit for the rest of his career, moving steadily upward in the firm.

In 1931, when Ralph Kiewit moved to California, the Omaha firm, with reported assets of $100,000, incorporated as Peter Kiewit Sons’ Co. With the Depression, the firm made the conscious decision to bid low, moving into highway construction, believing interest rates and their costs would decrease. This period also saw the establishment of its first district office in Wyoming.

A sea change point in the firm’s history came in 1939. The company won a U.S. government contract to build, literally from nothing, a military base at Fort Lewis, Wash. The initial $7.5 million contract was to build barracks for 48,840 men plus all support construction, including roads, in an almost unbelievable 90 days. As Kiewit put together a workforce of 10,000 men with 1,000 foremen, each to work a minimum of 10 hours a day, another surprise arrived from Washington.

With very little warning, the size of the project doubled, meaning 1,540 buildings to serve 98,000 troops had to be built -- but still all in the original 90 days.

Amazingly, the project was completed on time and although only a small net profit accrued, the public relations outcome was spectacular, allowing the firm to bid on an ever-increasing number of government contracts.

During the 1940s, Kiewit began a coal mining operation and successfully built military bases, bomber plants, airfields and even POW camps. Beginning in 1951, Kiewit began a 15-year project to construct a U.S. airbase at Thule, Greenland, and the following year, it began construction of a $1.2 billion uranium refinement facility at Portsmouth, Ohio.

During the 1950s and '60s, missile bases, dams, canals and work on the St. Lawrence Seaway were added.

In Omaha, as the city’s downtown waned, Kiewit became instrumental in forming a corporation to develop and build the Hilton Hotel. In 1959, Peter Kiewit was crowned King Ak-Sar-Ben LXV and was noted as “the most influential Omahan of his time, the city’s ultimate mover and shaker.”

In 1979, the Peter Kiewit Foundation was established with a $50 million endowment, and although Peter Kiewit died that year, the firm enlarged its scope into the fields of energy and communications.

At a recent point the construction company was No. 385 in the Fortune 500 with more than $6 billion in annual sales, having more than 15,000 employees in more than 70 district and area offices; it counted among its successes building part of the Eisenhower Tunnel, the Alaskan pipeline, the Martin Bomber Plant, Woodmen Tower, Crossroads Shopping Center, Joslyn Art Museum and literally hundreds of other major buildings around the world, even becoming the 10th-largest coal producer in the United States -- all headquartered in Omaha.

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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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