From The Archives: The Omaha zoo

Summer is over and everyone is settling into fall. It’s a great time visit the Henry Doorly Zoo, both physically in the present and visually in the past. Let’s take a look at the zoo’s beginning and early years.


New park signs were erected by WPA workmen at Omaha parks. At the bottom and top are carved wooden figures depicting all the activities at the park. Here is the first one installed in 1936. THE WORLD-HERALD


The zoo was founded in 1894 in Riverview Park and was known as the Riverview Park Zoo until 1963, when Margaret Hitchcock Doorly donated $750,000 and requested the zoo be renamed after her late husband.

A picnic at Riverview Park in the late 19th century. OMAHA PUBLIC LIBRARY

An undated photo of the monument of Johan Christop Friedrich Von Schiller at Riverview Park. The statue was donated by the German American Society around the time of the 100th anniversary Schiller’s death in 1805. It was placed near where the main gates of the Henry Doorly Zoo are now. The statue was thrown into a ditch during World War I by an angry mob, but it was later returned. It is now located at the German-American Society. THE WORLD-HERALD

An undated photo of the pavilion at the park. It was the last building from Trans-Mississippi Exposition and was built for the 1898-99 event. THE WORLD-HERALD


Riverview Park once had a swimming pool, which closed when the photo below was taken in 1940. The 1916 pool was buried in 1944. It was rediscovered in 1970, was reconstructed and became the Owen Sea Lion Pavilion.

To keep children out of the dangerous Riverview Park Lagoon, caretaker J.J. Opensky dug up a sprinkler pipe and placed it in the swimming pool, which hadn’t been used in years. THE WORLD-HERALD

Little Joe was a 450-pound lion sold to Omaha Parks and Recreation by Council Bluffs Poundmaster Chris Christensen. Joe didn’t like his cage and lunged at passers-by, sweeping his paw at the shadows of onlookers. He is shown here in 1950. JOHN SAVAGE/THE WORLD-HERALD


Here’s an interesting fundraiser for the zoo …

Ben Braasch paints a china turtle and a real turtle to start off drive for $15,000 in 1953. ROBERT PASKACH/THE WORLD-HERALD

Opening day and Kids’ Day at the Riverview Park Zoo in1956. The day was full of activities sponsored by the Omaha Zoological Society and the Junior Chamber of Commerce. Of the 500 children attending, 120 came from the Nebraska Children’s Home, Omaha Home for Boys, St. James Orphanage and the Creche. The two boys taking advantage of the free pony rides were not identified. THE WORLD-HERALD


Of course, there’s always some monkey business going on at the zoo. Read about the exploits of Tamba and Pedro in the story below the photo.

Chimps Tamba, left, and Pedro. Pedro was purchased from the Detroit Zoo as a mate for Tamba in 1958. YANO MELINGAGIO/THE WORLD-HERALD

November 22, 1959


Fill ‘er up and check the oil, please.

Charles Smick oils a monkey in preparation for the coming winter in October 1962. Oiling the monkeys retards mange in the fur and keeps the paw pads soft. YANO MELINGAGIO/THE WORLD-HERALD

Policemen Bill O’Brien and Ray Sorys check the wreckage of the miniature train at Riverview Park in 1962. The train derailed after children in the back rocked the section back and forth. Michael Smith, 15, was treated for cuts and bruises at Children’s Hospital. KEN ZIMMERMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

Johnnie Lion and his mate get ready to greet visitors during the 1963 season at the Riverview Park Zoo. YANO MELENGAGIO/THE WORLD-HERALD

Three-year-old Harry Doorly Koch is the chief groundbreaker at the groundbreaking ceremony for the first phase at the Henry Doorly Zoo on May 25, 1965. Family members in the background are, from left, his sister Katherine, his mother, Mrs. Harry A. Koch Jr., and his grandmother Mrs. W. Dale Clark. This photo was taken near 10th Street and Deer Park Boulevard. THE WORLD-HERALD


Remember those pesky goats?

Mrs. Tom Roach of Fremont appears unaware of the goat nibbling away at her coat at the petting zoo in 1968. RICHARD ANDERSON/THE WORLD-HERALD


Between 1,500 and 1,800 people took rides on the Omaha Zoo Railroad on the first day of public operation in 1968. The train is a model of a Union Pacific engine built in 1867 and scrapped in the early 1900s. THE WORLD-HERALD


Casey the Gorilla arrived in Omaha in 1968 from the Como Zoo in St. Paul, Minn. He was an instant hit.

Here he is shown in 1980. The caption read “The female gorillas have joined the corps of TV widows. Like a husband intent on boob-tube football, Casey, patriarch at the Henry Doorly Zoo, studies the sitcoms and soap operas on a tube outside of his cage. It’s part of an experiment, a zoo spokesman said. If the Nielsen ratings people called Casey, they would find he likes to see women, ‘The Flintstones’ and any other kind of action,” a staff member said. ROBERT PASKACH/THE WORLD-HERALD


Remember these?

Casey the gorilla wax statue from a Mold-A-Rama machine. This was from the machine at the Como Zoo in St. Paul, Minn., that came to Omaha with Casey.

In 1969, two boys, ages 10 and 11 were arrested for breaking in the petting zoo and killing more than 30 animals and injuring several more. One was a cereopsis goose, one of only about 300 left of that species. The animals were beaten, clubbed and hung. Zoo Director Warren Thomas, shown here, said it was “one of the most sadistic things I’ve seen.” THE WORLD-HERALD

Children at Jackson School collected donations to help rebuild the youth zoo after the Nov. 21 killing of 32 animals at the Henry Doorly petting zoo. From left, Margo Monjarez, 10, and Kimberly Mika, 9, both started collection donations, then brought them to school. They are collecting from Danny Kennedy and Craig Carlentine. THE WORLD-HERALD

Lisa Cordner, 5, and her mother were attacked by a year-old Sumatran tiger at the zoo in 1972. The tiger was agitated by another zoo visitor and leapt out of the tiger enclosure. Lisa is shown here with her parents, Mr. & Mrs. John Cordner.

Dr. Simmons views the tiger’s grotto; the line over the photo shows approximately where the tiger leapt. Trip wires are at left. THE WORLD-HERALD


The caption from Aug. 20, 1975 read “‘Artist’ Malika at work… Zoo keeper Marty Stumbaugh applies paint. Keepers Randy Rockwell, left, and Johnny Martinez, right, watch. The technique used by the pachyderm is firm, but not too forceful. The finished product (with frame added by World-Herald artist) is a mastodon masterpiece.” ED RATH/THE WORLD-HERALD


How many of you remember these?

A zoo key that unlocked stories of the animal at boxes placed outside the displays. Photo courtesy of Robin Santino. You may see other key styles on her Flickr page.


In 1978, Dr. Lee Simmons was in charge of the tiger breeding program at the zoo. He received a white tiger in 1978. Simmons was dedicated to improving the health of the white tiger gene pool. The current cat complex, built in 1977, is the largest cat breeding and management facility in North America. The world’s first test tube tiger was born at the zoo in 1990 and the world’s first artificially inseminated tiger followed in 1991.

Lee Simmons’ gamble with a poker-playing circus trainer paid off with the birth of two tigers, one a rare white tiger valued at approximately $60,000 in 1980. Simmons purchased the parent tigers when the circus animals were in town for a show and they needed medical attention. The circus trainer said the pair had given birth to a white cub before, but he lost it in a poker game. RICH JANDA/THE WORLD-HERALD


In 1984, a 70,000 gallon saltwater aquarium was added. It was closed in 1993 and construction began on the new aquarium, which opened in 1995.

A giant sea fan and coral for the zoo aquarium capture the attention of membership chairmen, from left, John Gottschalk, Mrs. James Quinlan, Mrs. Gary Thompson and Lee Simmons in 1984. ED RATH/THE WORLD-HERALD


This is my longest blog pst ever, and I still didn’t even begin to touch on all the photos we have. Click here to see even more zoo photos!

And click here for more on the history of the Henry Doorly Zoo.


Jolene McHugh

About Jolene McHugh

I was a graphic artist prior to coming to the Omaha World-Herald in 2007, and now I’m a photo imaging specialist, which means I prepare photos to print properly in the newspaper. I also have the incredibly fun task of restoring old photographs from our massive library. My favorite part of my job is getting lost in the history and stories behind the photographs. Many of the archive photos have little or no information attached, so I need to properly date and identify the people and places in them. Researching the stories is a bit like being on a historical scavenger hunt. The largest challenge I face is restoring photos we run in our books. Our newest book, “At War, At Home: The Cold War” is filled with hundreds of old photographs, and most of them small and in poor condition. I live in Omaha with my husband, one of my daughters and three very furry Maine Coon cats.
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  1. Jane says:


    You have the best job ever! You get to research and relive history through fabulous photos. I have often wondered why the zoo has not published a photo journal about the history of the zoo that is comprehensive. Thank you for re-publishing these photos. Congratulations!

  2. Dianna Eveland says:

    Nice. Brought back many memories for both Boyd & myself. Thanks.

  3. Michael Winchester says:

    I believe the third picture in the series is from Fairmount Park in Council Bluffs.

    1. Jolene McHugh Jolene McHugh says:

      The only info on the back of the photo was Riverview zoo and the name of the photographer who took a photo of a photo, so I have removed it, just in case.

  4. Gregg Moeller says:

    So many wonderful memories…and I’m glad someone still remembered Casey! He was the STAR of the zoo for many years…and we owned several of those plastic statues–the machine was posted right by his enclosure, and it was a thrill to see the plastic molds be made…until you grabbed yours too quickly, and you learned about hot plastic!

  5. Tom says:

    I was only 1/9th of the age that I am now when Casey the gorilla passed on. So, unfortunantly, I wouldn’t remember him. But, in the 30+ years ahead, I hope alot of u remember our current great gorillas such as Kijito, Tatu; & Tambo to name a few. Thank you, for posting the picture of Casey. May he rest in peace.