Abraham Lincoln faced several tough issues and decisions during his tenure as our country’s 16th president. One decision continues to play a major role for the Omaha metropolitan area. The first transcontinental railroad started during his first term. Today, Union Pacific calls Omaha home. The city is the headquarters for the nation’s top railroad, employing more than 40,000 people.
Omaha beat out Council Bluffs (Omaha’s Iowa neighbor across the river) for the location. Council Bluffs was designated the eastern terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad. A 56-foot tall Golden Spike monument in Council Bluffs recognizes the city’s role with the railroad.
The transcontinental railroad was designated to run between Omaha/Council Bluffs and San Francisco. On the western end, Central Pacific built its portion of the railroad. Today, UP operates from Chicago on the eastern end, Texas to the south and north to the Pacific Northwest. Union Pacific operates in 23 states.
The two railroad companies met in Omaha for the ceremonial groundbreaking in late 1863. Construction was delayed until 1865 due to a funding shortage. The railroad companies took about four years to complete the railroad. On May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific met and hammered in the ceremonial golden spike at Promontory Summit, about 53 miles west of Ogden, Utah. This marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
Union Pacific’s history is told at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs. The museum staff does an outstanding job in telling the railroad’s history. In exploring pre-rail methods of transportation, including wagons, horseback and boats, the museum shows how the advent of the railroad rendered much of the other transportation methods obsolete. No longer did pioneers have to load their belongings onto a covered wagon and navigate tough terrains, as they did with the Oregon and California Trails.
President Lincoln supported creating the railroad to help expand the nation’s westward movement and to protect the Union during the Civil War. A personal train car was built for the president. However, he never rode it alive. Instead, the car was used to transport his body from Washington, DC, to Springfield, Illinois, following his assassination in April 1865.
It was interesting to learn that both companies relied a lot on immigrants to construct the railroad. Union Pacific hired a lot of Irish workers, while Central Pacific employed several Chinese workers.
As the transcontinental railroad was built, workers had to deal with challenging terrain and routes. The Dale Creek Bridge in Wyoming presented UP with its most difficult decision. The 650-foot long bridge was built 150 feet above the water valley. The construction required blasting through granite for the first time.
As the transcontinental railroad grew in popularity, it had a major impact on the country’s growth, beyond bringing the end to the overland routes for pioneers. The railroad ushered in a progressive era for industrial development. The telegraph became a popular communication method. As improvements came for Americans in the west, sadly, the railroad played a role in ending the traditional lifestyle of Native Americans.
The transcontinental railroad is responsible for the creation of the clock. Not really. But, railroad companies lobbied for the creation of the time zones used today to separate the country (and world) into different time zones. For the contiguous United States, we use the Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific time zones.
Union Pacific has its own police force. Its special agents have the same authority as state and federal law officers when it comes to enforcing laws along UP’s property.
Union Pacific has played a major role in the history of Omaha and Council Bluffs, since President Lincoln authorized the transcontinental railroad in 1862. The area is proud of its involvement with the railroad. Visitors can find more railroad-related attractions in the area, as well as throughout Nebraska. We recommend checking out the UP museum in Council Bluffs, the headquarters building in downtown Omaha and the other area attractions.
For more information on Union Pacific, we recommend visiting the UP museum’s website at www.uprrmuseum.org.