Jesse James, a 'haunted' house and 'retreat for robbers' all part of Pries Lake's story

2 months ago Fremont Tribune

Pries Lake 1909.jpg

Outlaws aren’t known to keep diaries.

So forget about first-hand accounts of Jesse James’ time in the Ponca Hills.

But the stories about the James gang — fact and fiction — tie into Pries Lake, a summer resort in the hills, and a long-boarded up cave.

The first time James purportedly was in the area was summer 1865, according to J.R. “Bob” Kelly. In 1957 in the Omaha Community Newspapers (Omaha Sun), he related the stories he got from Frank James, Jesse’s brother, at the turn of the 20th century.

Kelly said the gang stayed in the area for an extended time while Jesse was recovering from a gunshot wound by Union Army raiders. It pierced his lung.

“Through the town of Omaha, across the land that is now North Omaha and on to the farm and horse ranch home of their friend, William Baton (a fictitious name used by Kelly), near Florence they found their way in a hearty welcome. Here again Jesse was made more comfortable in a pleasant room in the home and Dr. Harvey Link, a pioneer doctor who made the rounds calling on his patients on horseback, was called in consultation with Dr. Samuel (Jesse’s father) in treating Jesse.”

Kelly said Dr. and Mrs. Samuel were introduced as Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Howard. Jesse was Thomas Howard. Cole Younger was Henderson Coburn, Frank James was Frank Woodson. Those aliases for the James gang stuck.

Roy A. Swanson at Robbers Cave entrance, OWH 1930 clip.jpg

“As the days went on they all became relaxed and felt more secure,” Kelly continued. “Jesse gained slowly under the doctors’ and his mother’s care, and the others relieved of the strain rode about the countryside with two at a time making frequent trips into Omaha.

“It is possible that they saw the old cave near Florence but if so, no mention was ever made of it. (It is more probable that the old cave which has been called ‘Robbers Cave’ and ‘Jesse James Cave’ is the relic of an old coal mine shaft from which quantities of coal were taken during the early years of Florence settlement.)

“The four men — Frank James, Cole Younger, Oliver Sheppard and Jim Cimmins — enjoyed the work of helping William Baton with his horses and selling them to the great number of pioneers who were arriving at Florence by riverboats and outfitting themselves for trips to the West. “No thought entered the minds of the four horsemen as they then traveled around the present North Omaha land that they would ever ride this way again.”

Kelly said Frank James told him the gang did at least three more times in the subsequent 16 years — when they were plotting to hold up a Rock Island train carrying $100,000 in gold; when they were on their way to Northfield, Minnesota, for the famous failed bank robbery in 1876; and when they “raced back to the rendezvous near Florence” with Frank James severely wounded.

The “Baton” farm was near Pries Lake, which was between present-day Canyon and Calhoun Roads northeast of the Alpine Inn.

Frederick (Fritz) Pries (1845-1910) came to Omaha in the late 1860s. Trained in forestry — his father was a government supervisor of forests in Denmark — Pries discovered the wooded area with small streams running through two ravines while hunting. He and his brother bought about 35 acres of a school section, the purchase price ranging from $7.50 to $25 an acre, but by selling the surplus timber they paid for the construction of dams to form two lakes.

Their resort by 1879 included several boats for rowing, a bath house and picnic area. Wrote the Omaha Herald that year: “The Pries brothers are entitled to great credit having done so much to provide our citizens with so delightful a resort and deserve their patronage. They are men of superior character worthy honest and reliable. No intoxicating liquors are sold on the ground and with them a children’s pleasure party would be as safe as if that were accompanied by all the mothers in Omaha.”

Fritz Pries’ daughter, Ida, and her husband, Thor Jorgensen (1864-1916) bought Pries Lake in the early 1900s. She sold chicken dinners and dairy products. Carry-alls — one-horse carriages — ran between the end of the Florence car line to the resort.

Ghosts and a “haunted house” added to the lake’s lure. “The ghost made an appearance Tuesday evening,” reported the Florence Items weekly in 1907. “Two men watched for the ghost all night long, but when the ghost finally made his appearance he got scared of the gun and flew away up in the clouds before the men on watch could get a crack at him.”

Former Omaha mayor Jim Suttle’s father, also named Jim, in 1979 recalled the haunted house: “We weren’t supposed to go past the lake at night, because that’s where Coal Oil Johnny’s gang was.”

A fleeting proposition could have turned Pries Lake into the Coney Island of the Midwest. Seriously. In 1907, owners of the Luna Park amusement park in New York approached the Jorgensens for a 99-year lease for a second Luna Park. But Thor Jorgensen was at the baths at Hot Springs, Arkansas, recovering from an illness. His wife told the Omaha Bee she knew nothing about it, and it went nowhere.

A month later, the Jorgensens put the resort on the market for $20,000. The next interested party for 20 acres, The World-Herald reported, was St. Louis brewer William J. Lemp. The company eyed a large observation tower among its improvements. It didn’t pan out, either.

Thor Jorgensen kept dreaming about his beauty spot. He thought about turning it into a “Poor Man’s” country club — no golf, just summer cottages for members. Then a chicken ranch. Then capitalizing on a West Shore railroad between the Ponca Hills and the Missouri that never made it off paper. And turning it into a tuberculosis colony and sanitarium.

The Jorgensens finally gave up in 1909. They traded Pries Lake (now valued at $12,500) to F.P. Kirkendall, receiving five frame houses on the southeast corner of Park Avenue and Mason Street. Kirkendall, owner of Kirkendall Boots, shut the resort and made it his summer home, Kirkwood. He built a concrete dam, stocked the lake with bass and crappie and turned the steepest of the 25 acres into a fenced deer park. By the time it was sold again, the lake went dry.

To the northwest of Pries Lake was the cave, origin debatable. The Florence Items weekly in 1903 noted that the cave was 500 feet in the ground, large enough to walk in and had a temperature of 45. “It is said to have been a retreat for robbers and horse thieves a good many years ago.”

Many of the cave’s supposed myths — buried gold, use on the Underground Railroad, trees planted by Brigham Young, secret exits, the haunted house — were included in a 1930 World-Herald feature, when the cave and land were owned by Omaha mortician Roy Swanson. His wife, when she was 15, explored the cave with older brother Vaughan Bacon. They found a number of unexploded .44 shells and a string of amethysts. No gold.

The legend of Robbers/Jesse James Cave didn’t dry up as soon as the lake. Fritz Pries’ granddaughter, Olga Strimple, in 1968 told World-Herald columnist Robert McMorris that it was all a hoax.

Her version has it that the cave was on property to the west owned by a family named Erickson. They kept bees, and she said they dug the cave to provide winter storage for the hives. When the Ericksons sold the land to John Tiedeman, “he fabricated the story that horse thieves would go over to Iowa and steal a bunch of horses, then ‘swim’ them across the Missouri River and hide them in the cave. It was just something he made up.

“I remember very distinctly hearing Mr. Tiedeman talking about it. He said one time, ‘Wouldn’t the Ericksons think this was funny if they knew we were making a robbers cave out of their old cave?’”

Posting signs on the walls of the lake’s dance hall, “Come See Robbers’ Cave,” Tiedeman gave her and her brother Victor 10 cents for each group of tourists they persuaded to come from the lake to the cave. Tiedeman then charged 10 cents admission fee. But she maintained that Tiedeman never tied Jesse James’ name to the cave.

In 1957, almost 80 years after Fritz and Adolph Pries opened up the Ponca Hills to tourists, the entrance to the cave was sealed with concrete. A dog had fallen in a 46-foot shaft and was trapped for almost two weeks.

There is so much more about the Pries family, in life and death, that they will be the subject of next week’s column.

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