James C. Dahlman
James C. Dahlman had lived a full and varied life even before he began the
first of seven terms as mayor of Omaha in 1906. Elected to the municipal
post at age 49, Mr. Dahlman was a popular figure both locally and nationally
during his 21 years in office.
Though he was sometimes blamed for Omaha’s rough and tumble reputation, Mr.
Dahlman won the admiration of friends and opponents alike. He was seen as
loyal, just, honest, compassionate and a friend to the common man — traits
that helped him win an unprecedented string of mayoral elections.
Socially liberal and fiscally conservative, the Texas-born former cattle
drover brought a practical and homespun style to Omaha politics. When
confronted about his lack of schooling during his first campaign, Mr.
Dahlman retorted, “No, I guess I’m not educated. But folks, if you elect me
mayor and any ordinance comes up that takes away one red cent unjustly, I’ll
just write, ‘Nothin doin’.’ Any sucker that can’t understand that ain’t as
well educated as I am.”
His status as “perpetual mayor” owed a heavy debt to political boss Tom
Dennison, the shadowy figure who ran Omaha’s underworld in the first three
decades of the twentieth century. But Mr. Dahlman won his first election
with little support from Mr. Dennison, defeating Erastus
May 21, 1906-May 13, 1918
May 17, 1921-January 21, 1930
Benson, the candidate of the “Law and Order League.” Mr. Dahlman favored a
hands-off policy toward the vice — mainly in the form of gambling and
prostitution— that flourished in the downtown area known as the Third Ward.
Boss Dennison responded by throwing his support behind “Cowboy Jim.” Since
1892 Mr. Dennison had been the middleman between gamblers, saloon owners
and brothel keepers on one side and police and politicians on the other.
Even after Nebraska went “dry” in 1917, liquor flowed through the ward,
supplied by Dennison-supported bootleggers.
Born in DeWitt County, Texas in 1856, Mr. Dahlman had little formal
education but had become a state horse-riding champion by age 17. His reason
for leaving Texas in 1878 is contested. The mayor stated that he had killed
his brother-in-law during an argument and came to Nebraska under an assumed
identity. Some historians say he was wanted by the Texas Rangers for cattle
Mr. Dahlman worked as a cowboy and ranch hand in Nebraska and Wyoming. He
became foreman at the N Bar Ranch near Gordon, Nebraska. He got his first
taste of politics serving on the Chadron City Council in 1884. He also
served as Dawes County Sheriff and later as mayor of Chadron. During those
years he forged a friendship with William Jennings Bryan and became
prominent in the Nebraska Democratic party. He became party chairman and
nominated Mr. Bryan for president in 1896.
He moved to Omaha in 1898 and took a job as a livestock commissioner. Along
with his wife, Abbie, and daughters, Ruth and Dorothy, Mr. Dahlman moved
into a modest house at 2901 Hickory. Though relatively unknown in Omaha, he
was approached by Democratic leaders to run for mayor in 1906. He was a
natural campaigner who drew large crowds; his lariat skills and frontier
tales were part of his appeal.
In explaining his popularity, Dahlman noted he had provided an honest,
economical, liberal administration. “Justice where justice belongs, not only
to the rich, but to the humblest man or woman.” Mr. Dahlman noted his heavy
use of pardons, forgiving some 8,000 people. He often gave in to wives who
pleaded for the release of their husbands.
Some contend that popularity was his greatest achievement and that he
accomplished little during his many terms. But Mr. Dahlman did push through
the state legislature a constitutional amendment that authorized “home rule”
in Omaha, allowing the city a measure of autonomy. The “home rule”
amendment was approved by voters in 1912. That same year the state
legislature also approved for Omaha the commission form of government.
Though his political opponents hoped it would unseat him, Mr. Dahlman
continued to win the mayoral seat through election by his fellow
He advocated public ownership of utilities, pressed for the construction or
railroad viaducts and oversaw the city’s burgeoning parks and boulevard
system. A lover of the city’s children, Mayor Dahlman organized both an
annual Christmas party and spring picnic for Omaha’s youth.
During Mayor Dahlman’s reign, the city grew from a town of 132,000 in 1906
to a metropolis with a population of 214,000 in 1930. South Omaha and Dundee
in 1915 and Benson and Florence in 1917 were added to the count through
annexation. Omaha strengthened its image as a leading grain, dairy and meat
packing center and had become home to an increasing number of factories and
heavy industry. Mayor Dahlman participated in countless social and
philanthropic organizations and entertained hundreds of dignitaries during
his time in office.
While preparing to seek his eight term, Mr. Dahlman died at Excelsior
Springs, Missouri, where he was trying to regain his health. His death on
January 21, 1930 came just 10 days after he had filed for reelection.
He died a poor man, so 15 funeral directors offered to cover all expenses
for the mayor’s burial. Seventy-five thousand mourners filed past his casket
in city hall. Said Bruce McCullough, editor of the Daily Journal Stockman,
following Mr. Dahlman’s death: “I don’t know any man who had more genuine
friends or who was more genuinely friendly.”
Mr. Dahlman is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery. His name was memorialized
through a school, park and avenue that were named for him.