Romance of Omaha, Chapter VIII
No other single influence has played such a prominent part in the "winning of the west" as has the railroad. Before the coming of the iron rail the great west lay dormant. Its wide prairies and its rolling hills knew only the foot of the roving Indian and the trapper.
Later came the pioneer, who, led by what Kipling calls "The Whisper of God," first drew the attention of the waiting peoples to the greatest inland empire the world has ever known.
In the earlier days of the west, lack of transportation sadly handicapped the pioneer's efforts to develop this wealth-studded region.
The Indian canoe, the Missouri river pirogue and flatboat, the oxcart, the prairie schooner, the stage coach, the horse and the steamboat were the slow and crude methods until the railroad invaded the great plains.
First Came River Steamboats
Up to the time that the first railroad reached the Missouri at Council Bluffs, the river was the great highway of commerce.
In 1857 more than 50 steamers piled the Missouri. They all stopped at the Omaha levee, a mile in length.
That condition obtained until 1867, when the Northwestern rails were extended across Iowa. The end of the steamboat and river navigation era was then at hand.
Long before the Northwestern penetrated the western plains the dream of a great cross-continental railroad had come to far-seeing men.
As early as 1819 Robert Mills of Virginia was urging the building of a railroad across the country to the Pacific coast. He was many years ahead of his time and few listened to his urgings.
It was not until 1852 that the first steps toward realization of the dream of a trans-continental railroad were taken.
Engineers Pioneer Railroad Building
In that year Jefferson Davis, later to become the president of the southern confederacy, used his authority as secretary of war to send five engineering groups into the west to survey five routes to the Pacific from the Mississippi river.
Three years later Stephen A. Douglas introduced a bill in congress authorizing the construction of and pledging aid for three railroads, the Southern Pacific, the Northern Pacific and the Central or Union Pacific. Douglas chose three routes surveyed by the engineers sent out by Jefferson Davis and they are almost identical with those now followed by the three great railway systems, the Union, Northern and Southern Pacific.
On July 1, 1862, President Lincoln approved the bill for construction of the Union Pacific railroad.
On November 1, 1863, he designated Council Bluffs as the eastern terminus and on December 2 of that year the ground was broken on the Omaha side of the river for the new railroad. The site of the ground breaking was in the "North Omaha bottoms," and is now covered by the waters of Carter lake.
Civil War Retards Railroads
The civil war was then raging and naturally there was delay in construction of the western railway.
The first rail was laid on July 19, 1865, and by September 22 of that year the first 10 miles of roadbed and rails had been completed.
One of the big days of early Omaha came on November 11, 1865, when the first train was run from Omaha to Saling's Grove, 15 miles away.
Prominent citizens rode on flat cars, seated on nail kegs. They wore their frock coats and tall silk hats and made quite an imposing sight.
As soon as the war was over, the building of the Union Pacific went forward rapidly, due largely to the ability and genius of Gen. Grenville P. Dodge, chief engineer, who died in Council Bluffs but a few years ago.
Other Railroads Arrive
While the Union Pacific was in the building, other railroads were pressing west and north toward Omaha. On January 17, 1867, the first Northwestern train entered Council Bluffs. On December 10, of that year, the present Kansas City-St. Louis line of the Burlington was built into the Bluffs.
Completion of the latter line spelled the doom of river traffic, and the stemboat, which for 30 years had served the western country, passed from the scene.
The biggest day in the history of the young city of Omaha up to that time was May 10, 1869, when the transcontinental railroad was completed by the joining of the Central Pacific, building from the western coast, and the Union Pacific, building from Omaha, at Promontory Point, Utah.
The driving of the last spike was signaled to Omaha over a telegraph line built by Edward Creighton, Omaha pioneer, and, according to the annals of the day, "Omaha went wild with joy."
From Capitol hill "100 guns boomed forth, a grand procession was formed, stores were closed and the entire populace turned out to celebrate."
Speeches were made, bands played and the era of the railroad was born.
Old Frontier Passes Away
The old frontier had passed away.
Transportation, in its most modern form, had come to the west and a new period had dawned.
Other railroads quickly followed. The Rock Island entered Council Bluffs on June 9, 1869, and passed on through Nebraska.
Omaha men organized companies and constructed railroads southwest to the Platte river and north to Herman, Neb. Both were started in 1870. They were absorbed by the Burlington, which first crossed the river at Plattsmouth, and by the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha, now a part of the Northwestern railroad.
The Missouri Pacific came into Omaha in the early 80s. The Illinois Central, Great Western, Milwaukee and Wabash followed in the order named.
Today Omaha is the fourth railroad center of the country, with five great trunk roads entering the city.
These roads have a total of 62,000 miles. More than 6,000 miles are in the state of Nebraska.
Vast Railroad Investments Here
Omaha railroads own terminal facilities estimated to be worth at least $40,000,000. They employ approximately 10,000 persons in Omaha alone.
They pay out each year in Omaha more than $20,000,000 in wages and salaries. Outside of Omaha, but in the state of Nebraska, these railroads expend approximately $70,00,000 for maintenance, rebuilding and wages every 12 months.
They carry more than 7,500,000 tons of freight in and out of Omaha each 12 months., for which they are paid about $30,000,000 in revenue.
They handle 150,000,000 pounds of express annually.
More than 160 passenger and 40 mail trains arrive and depart from the city each 24 hours. Scores of additional freight trains go in and out of Omaha daily.
Three Million Railway Passengers
More than 3,000,000 passengers come in, depart or pass through Omaha each year. It is estimated that the railroads bring several hundred thousand persons in Omaha each 12 months.
Omaha has outgrown its present depot facilities. Although the Union and Burlington stations were erected for the purpose of serving the city for many years to come, so great has been the city's growth that they are now inadequate.
Plans for a splendid new Union station and for erection of a new modern station by the Burlington are now in the making. The stations will be linked together under a system that will make them to all intents and purposes one united station, although separate structures.
The new structure will cost nearly $5,000,000 and trackage rearrangements and station yard enlargements will take another $1,000,000.
This will give Omaha modern station facilities. According to plans work on the new railroad gateway to the city will start next spring.
Each railroad entering Omaha has its own freight depot and the facilities, while ample now, will have to be enlarged at no long distant date. Every year the railroads spend many thousands of dollars improving their terminal facilities here.
The great Union Pacific railroad with its general offices here is now erecting a large building to relieve the congestion in its present headquarters.
New Yankton Line Soon
One of the railroad projects about to be carried out that will open a new and rich trade territory for Omaha is the Yankton line that will give this city direct rail connections with southwestern South Dakota. When that road is finished, Omaha will have still another outlet for its products.
The railroads have kept pace with Omaha's growth. They have been the main factor in the development of this region. They made it possible for the early settler to build his home on the great prairies, to turn unbroken sod into the most productive land in the world, and to get his crops to market after his harvest had been reaped.
Return to Table of Contents