Jim McKee: Walsh, Putnam helped build city of Lincoln

December 16, 2018

After the new capital of the state of Nebraska was born in 1867, it experienced amazing growth in its first years, attracting entrepreneurs, politicians and businesses, some of which are remembered today. Others, seemingly very successful at the time, have simply been forgotten along with their businesses, buildings and homes leaving no extant traces.

Homan J. Walsh was born in 1834 in Ireland and immigrated to the U.S. with his parents when he was a child, while Israel Putnam was born in 1834 in German Flats, New York, where his father was a Presbyterian minister. Both men moved to the barely 2-year-old Lincoln in 1869; Putnam after his Pike’s Peak gold rush freighting business waned.

The first city directory shows them as Walsh & Putnam real estate agents and brokers, with Putnam living at 36 O Street and Walsh residing on 10th Street between R and S streets. Not much is recorded of their personal lives, but Walsh’s obituary shows him as a city councilman, though he is not listed on official records. Putnam’s daughter, Florence, was born in 1879, two years before Israel Putnam died at the age of 45.

Walsh & Putnam’s first major business began in June 1872, when they formed the Lincoln Gas Lighting Co. with a capitalization of $60,000. Production of gas distilled from crude oil began on Dec. 14, 1872, at their plant at Second and N streets. The city then granted them a franchise to sell illumination gas for $5 per 1,000 cubic feet. The first two years were not a success, but as use increased and production switched from oil to coal, profits began. By 1876 the two, with a majority ownership, agreed on payment terms of $700 the first year, $800 the second year then $1,000 per year for 23 years, at which point “all improvements would revert to the stockholders.”

The gas works sat on several acres of land between Second and Sixth on N Street and occupied three brick buildings and two gasometers with a capacity of 250,000 cubic feet of gas. In 1882 the gas works were “perfected” at a cost of $52,700, which brought production capacity to 85,000 cubic feet of gas per day. In 1891 they reported having 100 employees and 45 miles of mainly wooden pipe as the firm’s name changed to Lincoln Gas & Electric Co.

In 1872-73 two buildings were completed by the firm; the three-story Walsh & Putnam Block on the southwest corner of 10th and O, and the 75-by-90 foot, three-story Academy of Music Building on the southwest corner of 11th and O. The Academy of Music Building’s 600-seat auditorium was called Lincoln’s most imposing theatre, the “finest hall in the state with kitchen, banquet rooms, and dressing rooms.”

In the 1870s Putnam urged creation of a board of trade, and in 1880 the firm began plans for a street railway system. In the 1880s the Academy of Music’s hall was renovated with the auditorium converted for use as a courtroom for the Second Judicial District. Although the board of trade did develop, Putnam’s death ended the street railway concept.

In 1880 the Walsh and Putnam families both showed residences on the southwest corner of 12th and H, but Putnam had hired Grand Rapids, Michigan, architects Sidney Osgood and George Waddell to design a house on lots he had acquired at 501 S. 12th St. Putnam however was not to see the house completed before his death. When finished, the nearly $20,000, two-story, brick, 12-room, slate-roofed mansion on the southwest corner of 12th and K was called “the most perfectly planned dwelling in Nebraska.”

The Walsh family moved to 1332 J St. about 1890, while Amanda Putnam lived in the mansion until her death in 1921, when it was briefly converted to three apartments. In 1927 it became Alpha Delta Pi, and three years later, the Alpha Rho Alpha sorority. By 1935 it was the residence of Alba Brown and his mortuary, then the office of the Nebraska National Life Insurance Co. until razed in 1950.

Walsh’s name was resurrected at his death when it was discovered that, as a youth, he had flown a kite over the Niagara River carrying a string which was then tied to a wire, pulled back across again and again with ever-increasing sized cables ultimately, making possible the first suspension bridge at Niagara Falls. He was also credited with being vice president of Capital National Bank, president of Western Manufacturing, director of Lincoln Savings Bank and president of the Episcopal Worthington Military Academy, “a monument that will live forever” but which sadly blew up only a few years later.

The Walsh & Putnam Block was razed for the Terminal Building, and the Academy of Music became the site of Gold’s Building. The mansion at 12th and K is now a parking lot.

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