Tag Archives: railroad

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.

Train Collecting

November 13, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Omaha area owes much to the railroad industry. The city’s history, and indeed, the entire history of the railroad are spiked with significant links throughout.

It comes as no surprise then that the Omaha area has a thriving culture of railroad enthusiasts. They collect model trains, meet regularly to share stories, memories, and swap items.

Some even enjoy what is called “rail fanning,” which is going out on location to see actual train operations in action or going to a train museum. “Rail fanning is watching trains,” says John Moore of Omaha. Moore adds, “The Omaha-Council Bluffs area is just as good as Kansas City for rail fanning.”

Says Moore: “…the UP Main Line by the Durham [the old Union and Burlington Stations] is always a great place. There are so many great places to rail fan throughout the metro. Millard along Industrial and Bob Boozer is one of my favorites, good chance to see loaned power from Norfolk Southern, CSX, and even the Kansas City Southern. Fremont, Blair, Ashland, Missouri Valley, and Gretna each have much going on or through. Don’t forget about all the great museums and train stores! BNSF’s Havelock Shops and Dobson Yard are a short drive down to Lincoln and never disappoint.”

Nebraska-Iowa Railroaders

Moore goes rail fanning with fellow members of The Nebraska-Iowa Railroaders. They are one of the area’s most active clubs for railroad enthusiasts. It has about 110 members of all ages and backgrounds. A member-at-large, Moore says, “Our members range in age from 7 to 80. The membership is mostly older, although some are in their forties, and we have some teenage guys, too. Some members bring their grandkids to the meetings.”

The Nebraska-Iowa Railroaders have a 5,500-square-foot train room inside Mall of the Bluffs. It features 10 large, model railroad layouts of various scales. The train room is open to the public on Saturdays from 11-4 p.m. On Saturdays, members are on site to operate the model trains, help visitors with questions about trains, or just socialize. In addition to other activities, they hold monthly meetings and an annual train show in June.

Omaha’s Train Hobby Shops

Rod Lilley started Train Time Hobby in 2005. Located on South 84th Street in LaVista, Train Time Hobby caters to modelers of all ages, with its selection of trains from wooden Thomas the Train sets (young children enjoy these) to realistic scale 
electric models.

Lilley says the train collecting culture is “strong in Omaha with Union Pacific and Burlington Northern. A lot of guys are still active or retired employees.”

Lilley says, “Many collectors started when they were younger. As you get older, you have more time on your hands, and you’re looking for a new hobby. I get a lot of guys who come in here who need a hobby. They’re ready to do something they remember from 
their childhood.”

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John Moore, member of Nebraska-Iowa Railroaders

Across town at 81st and Maple streets in Omaha, David Mrsny owns and operates House of Trains. Mrsny along with his brother Richard, bought the business from his father Leonard, who founded it in 1938 as Kenwood Model Railroad Supply.

“Omaha is one of the bigger markets anywhere,” Mrsny says, and goes on to list about a half-dozen clubs devoted to the hobby, not to mention about the same number of annual train shows in the area.

In the late 1990s, Burt Reynolds walked into the House of Trains. Says Mrsny, “A Lincoln Town Car pulled up, and he got out wearing sunglasses, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat.” Mrsny cites several other model train hobbyist celebrities, including James Joseph “Jim” Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper on the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Frank Sinatra and Rod Stewart are also known to have collected train models.

Mrsny started collecting trains as a youngster. “When I was little you had a 4’x8’ layout. If you were really in to it, you had two.” Mrsny says nowadays, collectors are not satisfied with having a small railroad collection—they want more trains!

Collection of a Lifetime

One of these zealous collectors, Ron Bond of Bellevue, has an entire train layout room in his home’s finished lower level. A hallway leading to the 1,100-square-foot room is flanked by custom-built display cases holding some of Bond’s showpiece models.

Bond’s wife Suzanne shows patience and understanding for his hobby, as she herself is a collector (although she enjoys vintage glassware instead of model trains).

Bond’s massive layout comes to life with realistic backgrounds and scenery modeled after his hometown of Downingtown, Pa. “It took 13 years to build the layout,” says Bond. “Most of it was done three years ago. Two guys in the [Nebraska-Iowa Railroaders] club helped out, Francis McGovern and Larry Galkowski. Danny Botos did the wiring.”

As Bond operates the trains, reaching across an array of controls, he has the timing of a modern DJ. He hopes at some point to upgrade his system “before his Social Security runs out,” he says with a laugh.

A framed picture hangs on the wall of Bond’s home; a child’s drawing of a locomotive pulling several cars. “I drew that picture in second grade, 1943-1944,” he says with a proud smile. A rail fan for a lifetime.

Railcar Modern American Kitchen

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jared Clarke can just as likely tell you how to make a great-tasting vinaigrette as he can the science behind why the mixture is called an emulsion and why oil floats on top of vinegar.

An experienced restaurant chef, Clarke has degrees in both culinary arts and culinology. The latter field focuses on the science of food, and culinologists are equally familiar with beakers and test tubes as they are with pots and pans. While many culinologists work in food-product development, research, quality control, and other roles in laboratories and government agencies, Clarke chose restaurants because of his passion for food and love of cooking.20130517_bs_6706_web

The 34-year-old Fairbury, Neb., native is chef-owner of Railcar Modern American Kitchen, which opened in December near 144th and Blondo streets. Its name and railcar era-inspired decor is a nod to the railroads that were key to Omaha’s growth and development.

Clarke envisioned a restaurant inspired by the dining cars prevalent during the golden age of rail travel. The result is a cozy yet elegant space with wood accents, warm paint colors, vintage chandeliers, and a variety of train memorabilia. Industrial elements such as open ceilings with exposed ductwork lend a modern touch to the dining room.20130517_bs_6709_web

The restaurant sources several products from local food producers, including Little Red Barn Beef, Jisa Farmstead Cheese, Truebridge Foods, and Le Quartier Baking Company. Railcar’s eclectic menu features fresh takes on classics.

“What I try to do is modern comfort food,” Clarke says. “Everything’s from scratch.”

Though hearty meat-and-potato entrees like the Woodford Reserve Tenderloin Medallions and Stout Braised Short Ribs are popular, there are several dishes for fans of lighter fare. When creating the menu, Clarke wanted to include options for a wide variety of guests, from vegetarians to gluten-free customers. A vegetarian-friendly cauliflower hash features cauliflower instead of potatoes, which means it’s also suitable for people watching their carbs.20130517_bs_6699_web

Customer satisfaction has been a part of Clarke’s mission since his first restaurant job at Chili’s in 1998. Just six weeks into the job, he was asked to help train new employees how to cook. In 2005, he moved to Chicago and worked as an executive chef for five years.

“It was pretty awesome,” he says. “I love Chicago. I’m a huge Cubs fan, and the dining scene is really amazing.”20130517_bs_6685_web

Expecting their second child, he and his wife returned to Nebraska to be closer to family. Clarke was a partner in the locally owned Blue Agave, where he developed the menu and headed up the kitchen. A few months after Blue Agave closed in summer 2012, he launched Railcar. With Omaha home to Union Pacific headquarters, he thought his concept would be a perfect fit.

What hasn’t been ideal, however, is a road-widening project at the intersection near his restaurant. Traffic on portions of Blondo Street has been detoured while crews move utilities and do other work.20130517_bs_6672_web

“It’s hard to say if it’s hurting us,” Clarke said, “but it has slowed down our growth.”

Despite inconveniences caused by construction work, which is expected to continue into fall, Clarke plans to keep chugging away and welcoming diners all aboard at Railcar.

Railcar Modern American Kitchen
1814 N. 144th St.
402-493-4743
railcaromaha.com

History Comes to Life

October 20, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Durham Museum underwent a $1.2 million renovation this past year. But most of the improvements are not visible to visitors, according to Executive Director Christi Janssen. Behind-the-scenes work, such as security cameras and new heating and air conditioning, were main concerns. The renovations were another step forward in improving the visitor experience, the museum’s priority.

The visitor experience also has been enhanced by close relationships with national partners providing exhibits that would otherwise not be seen in Omaha: The Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum; Chicago’s Field Museum; and the Library of Congress and National Archives in Washington, D.C.

“A lot of our physical enhancements have been because of our partners’ needs for their exhibits,” says Janssen. “National museums have standards and requirements for their exhibition partners. They want a staff that understands what it takes to mount a successful show.” Exhibit costs can range from $50,000 to $500,000. “Security is a major part of the cost,” she says. “For the Abraham Lincoln exhibit, we had 24/7 security.”

The partnerships that Omaha’s regional history museum has forged have led to a new era of exceptional traveling exhibits.

Partners on Display

In 2004, the Velde Hall of American History was completed, providing environmentally controlled space for traveling exhibits, which further encouraged national partners to send exhibits to the Omaha museum.

In January 2011, the Library of Congress sent to Omaha With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition. “The Library of Congress said it was the best installation in the five-city tour,” Janssen says.

The Durham works with other partners, too. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry sent Mindbender Mansion this year, among the museum’s best-attended exhibits. More than 70,000 people visited. Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power, an upcoming exhibit (that includes Lady Gaga’s meat dress) will be on loan from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Feb. 9-May 5, 2013.

Traveling exhibits from partners are sometimes matched with a compatible exhibit put together by Durham Museum curators. Examples are current exhibits now on display: The American Soldier reflects soldiering from the Civil War to the War in Iraq. Its companion exhibit, Worn with Pride: Americans in Uniform, gives a local angle to the same topic.

You may be surprised to learn that the museum’s largest artifact on display is right before you as you enter the parking lot. It’s the Art Deco-style building the museum sits in. The building was constructed in 1931 by Union Pacific as a station for railroad passengers who traveled in elegance.

Building2 copy

Walking into the museum’s Suzanne and Walter Scott Great Hall for the first time is an awesome experience. Interior walls are limestone with polished black Belgian marble and terrazzo floors. The ceiling is gold, silver, and aluminum leaf. Brass lighting fixtures hanging from the 65-foot-tall ceiling each weighs one ton. It takes 45 minutes to replace a light bulb.

Architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood said he designed the building “to depict the strength and masculinity of the railroad.” Because Omaha is Union Pacific’s headquarters, an all-out effort was made to construct a special building.

As airplanes, interstate highways, and Amtrak provided new ways to travel, passenger trains dwindled. In 1971, the final UP passenger train left the station. UP donated the building near downtown to the city. The building became the Western Heritage Museum in 1975. The regional museum is now called the Durham Museum after philanthropists Chuck and Margre Durham, who led a $25 million renovation effort to create the museum seen today.

Membership at the Durham has more than doubled since 2004. About 40 to 45 percent of visitors are from out of town, leaving behind money at local shops, restaurants, and hotels.

Education at the Museum

Households with children predominate the list of visitors coming through the museum doors, a major change since 2004. The Durham has set out to make the museum a place of education as well as fun for children. Museum staff follow state education standards, work with local Nebraska and Iowa school districts, and distribute curriculum guides as a resource for teachers.

An example is the curriculum ‘Hail to the Chief.’ Students are asked to identify a U.S. president, his years in office, and a major event tied to him.

The Velde Gallery of American History is a destination for many class field trips. Children also can sign up for summer camp and for summer workshops that offer educational games and tours.

These upcoming exhibits throw a spotlight on topics of educational interest:

  • Girl Scouts: 100 Years of Courage, Confidence and Character—Nov. 3, 2012 – June 9, 2013
  • We Want the Vote: Women’s Suffrage on the Great Plains—Feb. 23 – May 26, 2013
  • A T. Rex Named Sue—May 25 – Sept. 8, 2013
  • Goose Bumps! The Science of Fear—Sept. 28, 2013 – Jan. 5, 2014

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Saving Omaha’s Pictorial History

Two years ago, Durham Museum staff began the long process of digitizing more than 700,000 historical photos from the 1860s to the 1990s and making them searchable online.

Yes, you read that number correctly. More than 700,000 photos that document Omaha’s history from frontier days to modern days are in one archive. Some of the negatives and prints are more than a century old and were in danger of being lost to history as they deteriorated.

The Durham turned to interns for help. Each spends about 20 to 30 hours a week to archive and document the collection. The interns also get hands-on experience by building exhibits around the photo archives. Photos are organized in 17 different collections. So far, 50,000 of the photographs in the archives have been posted online, where they can be viewed or purchased for a minimal amount at durhammuseum.org.

“Ak-Sar-Ben is the most recent collection of photos and artifacts,” says Janssen. “We want to be the repository for all things Ak-Sar-Ben.”

Some people using the photographs are compiling family or local histories. Others are writing books or producing documentaries.

“There are not many communities that have this kind of historical documentation,” says Janssen.