Bellevue, Nebraska—a trapping settlement named for its view of the Missouri River—almost did not become a city. Growing into a frontier town that flirted with greatness, the community narrowly escaped oblivion before finding its place in history. Today, Bellevue is a robust city of 50,000 people on the banks of the Missouri River, eight miles south of Omaha, Nebraska. Widely recognized during the 1850s as an important commercial hub, Bellevue was the obvious choice as the first territorial capital, prior to statehood. Unfortunately for this proud community, the governor died, and the new governor moved the capital to the fledgling town of Omaha.
Bellevue survived, and thrives today, largely because it offered the army inexpensive land during the 1890s. The army accepted, establishing Fort Crook and securing the town’s existence. Offutt Air Force Base now occupies the property, which has remained in military hands since the 19th century. The base’s most notable mission was as the factory that produced the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II. Tourists can see part of the aircraft by driving 28 miles to view the permanent exhibit at Ashland’s Strategic Air & Space Museum, one of the best things to do in the Bellevue area.
The early days are in evidence as well at historical attractions in Bellevue, from an 1830s log cabin to an 1869 railroad station. The cabin, composed of hand-hewn cottonwood, is reputed to be the oldest structure in Bellevue, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Just around the corner from the log cabin is Bellevue Pioneer Cemetery, the final resting place not only for early pioneers, but also for an Omaha chief named Big Elk.
A little more than a mile and a half south of the cemetery is the Omaha and Southern Railroad Depot. Sitting next to the Sarpy County Museum, this charming old building retains original equipment, such as its Morse Code telegraph station and pot-belly stove. The Sarpy County Museum is among the top historical attractions in Bellevue. Exhibits include a collection of Native American artifacts and another devoted to Fort Crook. Two other sites worth checking out are the 1856 Fontenelle Bank building, which later served as county courthouse and then city hall, and the Presbyterian Church, which is Nebraska’s oldest church structure. The National Register of Historic Places lists both the bank building and church.
Bellevue’s setting reflects a longstanding respect for the great outdoors. Area businessmen and scholars jumped into the conservation game in 1913, eight years before Nebraska established its system of state parks. The Bellevue group organized to preserve a wilderness area next to the Missouri River, and then set about acquiring the land. The result is Fontenelle Forest, to the northeast of the city. Highlights of this forest include a mile-long boardwalk along the river’s edge and educational hikes. Spending a day here is one of the top things to do in Bellevue.