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.