The Creighton Family: Men and Women for Others

Dennis N. Mihelich

The lives of the members of the Creighton family exemplify the American Dream in its noblest form—personal success and material comfort, but also applying their talents for the good of their community and sharing their wealth with the disadvantaged. The American story began with Irish immigrants who became successful landowners and who instilled the values of hard work, fair play, duty to your fellow man, and the tenets of Catholicism in their children. Their lives also serve as an example of another premier American symbol: “the beacon on the hill,” whereby it’s guiding light illuminates the model for others to emulate.

Edward Charles Creighton, born in Belmont County, Ohio on August 31, 1820, began as a cart boy at age 14, delivering goods locally. In 1874, after four decades of arduous labor, he died the wealthiest and most prominent citizen of Nebraska. He accumulated his wealth from freighting, ancillary teamster activities such as street and railroad right-of-way grading, cattle ranching, banking, and telegraph construction. He acquired his acclaim from his good deeds, in support of his employees, the needy of Omaha, and the institutions of his adopted hometown.

Edward Creighton relocated to Omaha in 1856, in anticipation of the construction of the western link of a transcontinental telegraph (actually built in 1861). The thirty-six-year-old entrepreneur arrived with approximately $25,000 in hand. Some years later, a relative boasted, “From the time Mr. Creighton arrived in Omaha he was its leading citizen. Creighton had the greatest visions of any of the early settlers, and he had force behind him.” In 1871, a group of settlers in northeastern Nebraska validated that assertion by naming their community Creighton, claiming it conferred prestige that would guarantee the success of their town.

Teamster activities necessitated significant numbers of draft animals; in the East, Edward Creighton had to arrange for the penning and feeding of those animals, in the West, he is credited with creating the cattle industry on the northern Great Plains. He used the open range to raise oxen, cattle, horses, and sheep, and, in 1870, he organized the first drive of Texas longhorns to Ogallala, Nebraska, the site of a new cattle-loading facility on the recently completed transcontinental railway, the Union Pacific Railroad. He shared his success with associates; on several occasions he capitalized cattle ventures and conferred fifty percent interest to longtime, faithful foremen.

Edward Creighton displayed exemplary principles as a banker. He commenced that business activity in conjunction with the Kountze brothers in response to the Pikes Peak gold rush in 1859. Four years later, in Omaha, that partnership organized the fittingly named First National Bank, the first nationally chartered bank in Nebraska. Edward served as president of the bank until his death; during the Panic of 1873, he personally guaranteed the deposits of working people, which prevented a run on the bank (deposit insurance did not originate until 1933).

Catholic institutions also benefited from Edward’s generosity. He contributed money and lumber to build the house for the first priest in residence in Omaha and he supported St. Mary’s Convent and the original Mercy Hospital. Furthermore, he provided the largest contribution for the construction of the city’s first Catholic cathedral, St. Philomena’s.  His gifts included $2,000 for the lots, $13,000 for the building, and $4,900 (in his wife’s name) for the purchase of the marble main altar. Much more munificence would have been forthcoming had his life not been cut short in 1874, at the age of 54.

Moreover, before the creation of today’s welfare state and the array of organized charities, people in need commonly approached the wealthy directly. A contemporary declared that Edward “was accustomed every morning to put in his purse a bundle of small bills, which he would distribute during the day to the poor of the city.” According to another report, he provided $25 a day to his wife, Mary Lucretia (Wareham), for charity. To dispense it, she would ride in her carriage through the poorest parts of town. “Her pony, ‘Billy,’ was known throughout the city, and in that phaeton one was apt to find almost any article for domestic use—from a spool of thread to a small cook-stove.” All who knew “Lu” lauded her unpretentiousness and generosity. A family friend eulogized her, stating that “although possessed of ample means for the enjoyment of every earthly luxury, she had no taste for the fine mansions or for the gee-gaws that so often turn the heads and corrupt the tastes of the rich.”

 Mary Lucretia outlived her husband by a mere two years, succumbing to a “dropsical affection” (edema) in 1876. During her illness, she drafted a will that distributed the estate inherited from Edward among the relatives in both their families (there was no direct heir; their only son, Charles David, died in 1863, at age four). She also bequeathed $100,000 to establish Creighton College as a testimony to her late husband’s virtues and her affection to his memory. She did so because he had expressed a desire to establish an institution of higher learning. By the time the school opened in 1878, the bequest had doubled in value. Thus, her gift financed the construction and outfitting of the College for $53,000, and provided a $147,000 endowment that allowed the Society of Jesus to operate it tuition free until 1924.

John Andrew Creighton (1832–1907), the youngest of the nine siblings, adopted the school as his own progeny; eventually, the Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus proclaimed him a cofounder of Creighton University. He had started working for his brother in 1854, superintending street-grading crews. Subsequently, he served as a foreman of a pole-erecting, wire-stringing gang that helped construct the transcontinental telegraph and as a wagon master on long- distance freighting ventures to the Mormon settlement at Salt Lake City and to the mining camps in Montana.

For five years (1863–1868), he operated a retail general merchandise store in Virginia City, Montana that sold goods freighted there by Edward from Omaha (at oxen speed, the annual treks took about four months one way). While there, he also partnered in establishing banks and speculated in mining ventures (several washouts, but one strike that produced abundant profit). Although it was a short sojourn, John Andrew established himself as one of the leading citizens of the area; because of his contributions to the emerging state, the Montana Historical Society granted him an honorary membership.

Before his Montana hiatus, John had met and had become enamored of Emma (Sarah Emily) Wareham, a younger sister of Mary Lucretia (they both changed their first name upon arrival in Omaha; easily accomplished in an era before Social Security, driver’s licenses, and credit cards). Upon his return to Omaha, he and Sarah married and took up residence in the large, but modest, home that Edward had recently built. Their familial living arrangements lasted less than a decade because of the untimely deaths of Edward and Mary Lucretia. Eventually, in 1884, John and Sarah Emily built a three-story, seventeen-room house at 20th and Chicago streets, on the north slope of Capitol Hill, below Omaha (Central) High School. Unfortunately, Sarah enjoyed her new home for only a few years, succumbing to a “pulmonary affection” on September 30, 1888.

During her twenty-five years in Omaha, Sarah Emily lavished her attention on Catholic institutions. She developed a close relationship with Creighton University. (In 1879, for legal and business benefits, the school incorporated as a “university” although it only consisted of the one undergraduate arts college.) As the number of Jesuits increased, she convinced her husband to build them a residence attached to the College, radiating to the south (it opened posthumously, in 1889). She had a “rich alto voice” and she sang regularly at Masses at St. Mary’s Church, the Convent of the Poor Clares, and the Creighton University chapel, (at the time, located on the top floor of the College). She became the driving force that convinced the Jesuits to build St. John’s Church adjacent to the College and she purchased Mary’s side altar in memory of her mother. Poignantly, six months after it began ministering to its collegiate flock, it hosted her funeral Mass. Having inherited money from her father and sister, she had an estate independent of her husband. From it, she bequeathed Creighton University a large, income-producing piece of property in downtown Omaha. She also willed $50,000 to the Franciscan Sisterhood of Nebraska to construct a new St. Joseph’s Hospital. In her memory, John Andrew contributed an additional $150,000 to build the Creighton Memorial St. Joseph’s Hospital at 10th and Castelar streets that opened in 1892.

The impressive facility became the teaching hospital of the John A. Creighton Medical School of Creighton University he established that same year. For three years the Medical School held classes in the old St. Joseph’s Hospital; then, in 1895, John Andrew financed the construction of a new facility at 14th and Davenport streets (closed in 1963, due to the construction of I-480 and the Criss complex). Despite some setbacks due to the Panic of 1893, John Andrew continued to accumulate wealth from investments, cattle-raising, the Union Stock Yards, the Stockyards Bank, First National Bank, the Creighton Orpheum Theater, and substantial real estate holdings. He transferred a prodigious amount of those assets to Creighton College, which transformed it into a five-school university.

He built an Observatory (1885) and created a science department for the College, as well as erecting an auditorium (1888). He constructed additions to the main building that transformed it into a “W” shape (1899), and in 1902, he tucked a library into the space between the south and central arms of the letter (today’s Registrar’s Office). He built the Edward Creighton Institute at 210 South 18th Street to house the schools of law (1904), dentistry (1905), and pharmacy (1905), whose establishment he financed. In 1905, he paid for the construction of the first dormitory, St. John’s Hall. In 1907, he erected a pharmacy building attached to the Medical School, as well as an adjacent medical research facility. Pope Gregory XIII rewarded this magnificent munificence by knighting John Andrew as a Count of the Papal Court.

 The Count, as he enjoyed being called, did not, however, put on airs—“he delighted in being a common man.” He made weekly visits to St. Joseph’s Hospital to distribute candy to patients as “sugar pills,” he entertained 50–60 children at Christmas and provided them with gifts, and the matron of the city jail alerted him to incarcerated individuals in need of help. A neighborhood friend researched indigent cases and petitioned John Andrew on their behalf; he became a “veritable St. Vincent De Paul Society,” before the existence of organized Catholic charities. His and Sarah’s only daughter, Lucretia (Lulu) died at eleven months of age in 1870; childless, he adopted Creighton students as his offspring. Beyond the bricks and mortar, he established a personal relationship and provided for them handsomely, in the form of special entertainments, academic prizes, support for the athletic teams and the band, the music groups and the theater troupe.

As a testament to his stature, work in the Omaha area virtually ceased during his funeral, attended by thousands. Not just Creighton University, but the City of Omaha mourned the passing of the man who chided a tight-fisted acquaintance that new funeral furnishings no longer had pockets on the shrouds because people were not supposed to take anything with them. John Andrew also delighted in telling the story of the miserly Irishman who died and at the pearly gates St. Peter asked him what he had done for his fellow man. The deceased said he had once given five cents to a widow and five cents to a poor man peddling matches and five cents to a cripple. St. Patrick walked by and St. Peter asked him what he should do about his fellow countryman. St. Patrick replied, “Give him back his fifteen cents and tell him to go to Hell.” Surely, John A. Creighton went in the opposite direction to a just reward, to join Sarah Emily, Edward, and Mary Lucretia, all of whom had led exemplary earthly lives. It was a family composed of men and women that acquired the American Dream, that shared their talents and wealth, and that established a model for those who would serve others.

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