Cut-Off Lake | Iowa PBS Explores

A piece of Iowa land a little over two square miles sits snugly in Omaha, Nebraska. 

Learn the colorful, confusing history involving floods, legal battles, and cessation of Carter Lake, Iowa.


This is Iowa.

And this is Nebraska.

And separating these two states is the Missouri River. A Perfect natural boundary. Everything on the eastern side is Iowa. And Everything on the western side is Nebraska. Simple. Clear, and easy to understand.

This, however, is Carter Lake... Iowa. A piece of land that is a little over 2 square miles, sitting snugly in Omaha, Nebraska.

As borders were drawn during the founding of Iowa, this small community wasn’t an oversight or a mistake. On the contrary, Carter Lake has had a colorful, confusing history that involves floods, legal battles, and cessation.

The Missouri River is no stranger to periodic flooding. As the waters rise, they sometimes slightly alter the course of the river, following a new or different channel.

In 1877, a major flood occurred during an ice jam along what was then called Seratoga Bend between Council Bluffs and Omaha. The flood caused the Missouri River to change course, and when the waters receded, a crescent-shaped body of water called ‘cut off lake’ was all that remained of the river’s previous channel.

Immediately after the flood, a legal battle broke out between Nebraska and Iowa. Nebraska claimed the cutoff lake and the surrounding area as its land since it sat on the Omaha side of the river. Iowa disagreed.

Soon after the formation of the lake, the site became a flourishing recreational area. The destination was popular for boating, fishing, picnics and swimming. Later developers would build an Amusement park with a merry-go-round and one of the earliest roller coasters in the Midwest.

Council Bluffs officials, however, saw Omaha’s intrusion as a bold attempt to steal land that rightfully belonged to them. The ensuing legal battle over whether Iowa or Nebraska had jurisdiction over Cut-Off Island eventually went to the nation’s highest court.

In the 1892 ruling, the Supreme court sided with Iowa on the basis that state lines remain the same when a river avulsed, or dramatically altered it’s path, as it did in 1877. So the land never left Iowa, despite its position on the Nebraska Side of the river.

In the early 20th century, the area continued to flourish as a recreational hotspot. Although Carter Lake was legally considered part of Council Bluffs, residents paid city taxes but lacked many of the city utilities.

Eventually residents were fed up. The community successfully seceded from Council Bluffs in the 1920s, intending to become part of Omaha, Nebraska but Omaha wouldn’t provide the services the area needed. Finally in 1930, by a vote of 171 to 124, residents approved Carter Lake’s incorporation as a municipality in the state of Iowa, giving birth to the geographical oddity of a lone Iowa city accessible only by Nebraska roads.

Carter Lake’s unique position on Nebraska’s side of the river has created its fair share of confusion and legal issues. It has one of the shortest highways in the state, Iowa highway 165, and measures just a half mile long. As you leave Epply airfield in Omaha, you immediately eNter and then leave  the state of Iowa. Despite the abnormality, Carter Lake stands as it’s own thing.. A land locked  in Omaha,that is a unique Iowa community .

© Iowa PBS 2020


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