Tag Archives: cities

How Omaha Railroaded Council Bluffs

April 6, 2017 by
Photography by Provided by Union Pacific Museum

Thirteen years before Nebraska achieved statehood in 1867, a group of Council Bluffs businessmen helped establish “Omaha City.” They didn’t view Omaha as a rival to Council Bluffs; rather, they saw Omaha as a prime route for the transcontinental railroad—and a road to riches. Their efforts laid the groundwork for the nation’s most ambitious construction project, while forever forging a unique bond between the two cities and Union Pacific.

The saga begins in the 1850s, when Dr. Thomas Clark Durant and Henry Farnam partner to construct a rail extension across Iowa, called the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad. They subsequently commission Grenville M. Dodge to explore possible routes for a transcontinental railroad between the Missouri River and Salt Lake Valley.

 It’s a difficult decade for Omaha—a bank panic in 1857 wipes out investors, and the city’s population declines. Then, the Civil War ignites in 1861. Desperate to unite the country east to west, President Abraham Lincoln signs the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862. It OKs land grants to attract private capital for construction and authorizes UP’s origin at a point on Iowa’s western boundary, to be approved by the president.

Motivated by his large interest in the M&M, Durant is determined to link his Iowa rail extension with the transcontinental initiative, says Patricia LaBounty, collections manager at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum. By Oct. 30, 1863, Durant is elected UP’s director and vice president, taking nearly complete control of the enterprise. He appoints Peter A. Dey as UP’s chief engineer (Dey had surveyed the M&M with Dodge) to further explore four possible connections alongside the Missouri River, including Omaha and Bellevue.

Durant lobbies Lincoln, who’s also inundated with requests to fix the origin at locations stretching from Sioux City, Iowa, to Kansas City. Judge John P. Usher, Secretary of the Interior in Lincoln’s cabinet, recalls Durant’s advice: “Now, the natural place for this terminal point is at the mouth of the Platte River, but Omaha is the principal town in Nebraska; the wealth of the territory is there, and the energies of the people radiate from there, and I think they ought to be considered, and the best thing is to start it from Omaha.”

After consulting with Dodge, on Nov. 17, 1863, President Lincoln writes his first executive order on the subject. To ensure the railroad builds a continuous rail line and bridge surmounting the Missouri River, he sets the starting point on the Iowa side, across from Omaha. But his language is somewhat ambiguous, and Durant seizes the opportunity to plan an elaborate ground-breaking ceremony—in Omaha.

Held in early December 1863, near the ferry landing at Seventh and Davenport streets, and featuring bands, cannons, and fireworks, the event attracts throngs of citizens. Writes David Bristow in A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha: “And so it was an act of great faith—right there in the middle of a bloody civil war—to begin the most ambitious and expensive building project the country had ever attempted. It began in Omaha—it was a day, as the Omaha Nebraskian put it, ‘to thank God and take courage.’”

On March 7, 1864, Lincoln pens a second, more formal executive order, again specifying the origin on Iowa’s boundary opposite Omaha. Construction languishes due to lack of financing during the war, so a second Congressional Act on July 2, 1864, creates additional land grant incentives. A map detailing the railroad’s first 100 miles west from Omaha is filed with the Interior Department later that year, which President Lincoln approves.

And then, amazingly, Durant flip-flops. Despite two presidential orders, the UP Board of Directors’ approval of the Omaha route and his initial support, he changes his mind. A new consulting engineer, Silas Seymour, has identified steep grades surrounding Omaha, so he and Durant seek to move the origination point to Bellevue.

“Just like Omaha, Bellevue has already authorized land grants to UP, provided it begin the railroad there,” LaBounty says, “and Durant continues playing both sides of the fence. By May 1865, he requests surveys on the Missouri-Bellevue route and the best location for mechanical shops at Bellevue or Fremont.”

Omahans are outraged. The anger is apparent in telegrams exchanged between Durant and Edward Creighton, president of First National Bank and founder of the university that bears his name. Due to the reroute, Durant says no buildings are needed in Omaha. He’s had “enough of interference” and threatens to “make application to the President to change the terminus.” Responds Creighton: “Omaha must be the only point of connection with the Missouri River. Without this, there will be trouble.”

The issue is resolved Sept. 23, 1865, when President Andrew Johnson approves an amended location in Omaha that addresses the grades through a circuitous route, and construction to the west finally begins. But the drama doesn’t end there.

Given Lincoln’s presidential orders, it was assumed the Missouri River bridge would be constructed between Council Bluffs and Omaha. But UP’s board of directors rumors otherwise. In March 1868, a prominent Omaha delegation, including Nebraska Gov. Alvin Saunders, businessman Ezra Millard, and Omaha Herald publisher Dr. George L. Miller travel to UP’s New York City corporate office to settle the issue. They are appalled, writes Bristol, when Dodge announces the board has selected Bellevue. Using a tried-and-true strategy, Omaha and Council Bluffs unite to offer the railroad land, rights-of-ways and money. The railroad accepts, and the $2.5 million iron bridge is completed in 1872.

Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court settles the argument over the railroad’s origin point, establishing Milepost 0 in Council Bluffs. Both cities become transportation and business hubs, with a major rail yard and passenger transfer hotel in Council Bluffs, and Omaha home to UP’s operational headquarters and mechanical shops. Today the bond continues, with more than 4,000 Union Pacific employees in Omaha and Council Bluffs proudly serving the state and the nation.

Although Union Pacific is headquartered in downtown Omaha, the Union Pacific Railroad Museum is located in Council Bluffs. Visit uprrmuseum.org for more information about the railroad’s history.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Lenten Fish Fries

March 16, 2017 by
Photography by Joshua Foo

Lent in Omaha—a time of repentance and moderation for devout Catholics—is synonymous with crowded lines of happy, drunken people waiting for heaping piles of deep-fried fish.

Parishioners and non-churchgoers alike rejoice with the approach of Ash Wednesday. Non-Catholics who have never joined in the fun should not hesitate. All are welcome. Lenten fish fries (complete with raffles, pickle cards, and bake sales) are the biggest fundraising event of the year for many Catholic churches, schools, and charities in Omaha.

The beer-infused Friday fry-day gatherings are a popular annual ritual in Midwestern cities with robust Catholic communities. Omaha’s large Catholic population means that several dozen churches will host fish fries throughout the 40 days of Lenten fast (six weeks). Meanwhile, there are plenty of other community groups, such as the local Disabled American Veterans, hosting their own Lenten fish fries.

Some start the Friday before Ash Wednesday. Most begin after Ash Wednesday formally initiates the Lenten season. Some conclude after only a few weeks; others continue for the entire duration of the Lenten fast, including Good Friday two days before Easter.

Not all of them are bacchanals, with children running wild while parents and young adults socialize. A few are alcohol-free. But all are genuine family-friendly celebrations of community.

Expect to spend a few hours standing and waiting in line at Omaha’s most-popular fish fries. The long wait—and the chance to meet new friends while drinking beer—is sometimes the most fun part of the evening.

Omaha Magazine has compiled a list of six must-try fish fries for every week during Lent. But the list is hardly exhaustive. Other excellent fish fries are plentiful in the Omaha area. For those in a hurry, seeking out lesser-known gatherings might even save on the wait time. Or you might just discover a new Lenten favorite.

HOLY NAME CATHOLIC CHURCH (2017 Best of Omaha Winner)

2901 Fontenelle Blvd., Omaha, NE 68104 . 402.451.6622 . holynameomaha.org

Omaha’s oldest Lenten fish fry event, the Holy Name “Fryday” is famous for its jam-packed line, fried Alaskan pollock, french fries, coleslaw, and Rotella’s bread. The BYOB line makes the event especially unique for the 21-and-over crowd. Those arriving at 6 p.m. can expect to find a line stretching out the church, through the adjacent Holy Name Elementary School, and circling around the building. A wait time of three hours is not unusual. The initiated come prepared with coolers full of beer to sustain drinking through the long wait. Upon entering the main building, a free cup of beer is offered. Another free cup of beer is offered if there’s a line out the cafeteria. More beer is sold inside the cafeteria, and a storeroom accommodates winter coats and coolers. Nebraska politicians are known to make appearances at the event, which averages an attendance of 2,300 people per night. Fridays (5-8 p.m.), February 24 (pre-Lenten) to April 7

MARY OUR QUEEN CATHOLIC CHURCH (2017 Best of Omaha Winner)

3405 S. 118th St., Omaha, NE 68144 . 402.333.8662 . maryourqueenchurch.com

A packed line meanders through the halls of Mary Our Queen School, where intermittent refreshment tables allow visitors to replenish their beer pitchers/cups in one of Omaha’s most-popular Lenten fish fries. Young volunteers walk up and down the school’s hallway to collect emptied pitchers. Popcorn is available in the line near the cafeteria. A drive-through allows motorists to avoid the packed halls. Food options include: fried or baked fish, macaroni and cheese, spudsters, fries, coleslaw, bread, with assorted soft drinks and desserts also available for sale. Fridays (5-8 p.m.), March 3 to April 7

ST. PATRICK’S CHURCH OF ELKHORN (2017 Best of Omaha Winner)

20500 West Maple Road, Elkhorn, NE 68022 . 402.289.4289 . stpatselkhorn.org

The fish fry at St. Patrick’s features fried or baked catfish and/or pollock. Margaritas and a variety of beers offer a change of pace from the adult beverages typically available at area fish fries. Cheese pizza, fries, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, and dessert round out the available food options. There’s a drive-through, and there are clowns and face-painting for the kids inside. Fridays (5-9:30 p.m.), March 3 to April 7

ST. VINCENT DE PAUL CATHOLIC CHURCH

14330 Eagle Run Drive, Omaha, NE 68164 . 402.496.7988 . svdpomaha.org

A cheerful and welcoming atmosphere radiates from the jam-packed line snaking through the halls of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School. The event features $3 cups, $8 bottles of wine, and $8 pitchers of Boulevard, Lucky Bucket, or Bud Light beer. For those seeking better quality beer on the cheap, St. Vincent de Paul’s fish fry is an excellent choice. Food options include fried or baked fish, cheese pizza, macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, and fries or baked potato, with assorted soft drinks and desserts also available for sale. Credit cards accepted. Fridays (5:30-8:30 p.m.), March 3 to April 7

ST. JOHN’S GREEK ORTHODOX CHURCH

602 Park Ave., Omaha, NE 68105 . 402.345.7103 . stjohnsgreekorthodox.org

Alcohol is not sold at the event; however, St. John’s offers possibly the most delicious food available at any Omaha area Lenten fish fry. The church also offers historic tours of its Byzantine-style building from 5:30-6:30 p.m. A kitchen full of volunteers (some of whom grew up in Greece and migrated to the United States) cook and serve plaki—a Greek baked cod with Mediterranean sauce. Also available: panko-fried cod, breaded-fried shrimp, baked salmon, and vegetable moussaka (an eggplant lasagna), spanakopita (a pie filled with spinach and feta cheese), and piropita (cheese baked in phyllo dough). Specialty cheesecakes and baklava sundaes await at the dessert bar. Fridays (4:30 to 8 p.m.), March 3 to April 7

HOLY GHOST CATHOLIC CHURCH

5219 S. 53rd St., Omaha, NE 68117 . 402.731.3176 . holyghostomaha.com

Clam chowder is one of the unique offerings at Holy Ghost Parish’s annual Lenten fish fry. The varied menu offers: shrimp, baked or fried cod, macaroni and cheese, or a combo dinner. Each dinner comes with baked potato, salad, fruit bar, and a drink. Beer, margaritas, and “watermelons” (a mixed drink) are sold. While the line is long, the wait is neither the longest nor the most beer-soaked in town. Expedited takeout service is available at the west end of the church. Fridays (4-8 p.m.), February 24 (pre-Lenten) to April 7.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.