For over 150 years railroads have played an important role in the
history of Council Bluffs and Pottawattamie County.
The growth and unique character of Council Bluffs was largely
shaped by the construction of the railroads during the 19th century and
which was also responsible for settling much of Pottawattamie County.
The railroads retained their importance into the 20th century as
Council Bluffs became one of the nation's largest rail centers.
And while the heyday of the Zephyr and Overland Express may be
gone, railroads remain a vital part of the community at the beginning of
the 21st century.
Peter Dey completed the first railroad survey to Council Bluffs
in late 1853 for the proposed Mississippi & Missouri River Railroad.
Accompanying Dey was his 22-year old assistant, Grenville Dodge,
who would adopt Council Bluffs as his permanent home and become one of
the greatest railroad builders of all time.
The Iowa Central Air Line Railroad was also surveyed to Council
Bluffs as the village of a few thousand became a magnet for the many
railroads then building west from Chicago.
At the same time, in 1854 eager Council Bluffs businessmen
platted a new town on the west bank of the river they optimistically
named Omaha City. However,
the economic Panic of 1857 sent most of these first proposed railroads
into bankruptcy not long after construction had first started.
spite of the tough times, in May 1858 the Council Bluffs and Saint
Joseph Railroad was organized in Council Bluffs by representatives from
southwest Iowa, southeastern Nebraska, and northwest Missouri.
The CB & St . Joe intended to build south along the Missouri
River to Missouri where they hoped to connect with the Hannibal and
Saint Joe Railroad.
ceremonies of the CB & Saint Joe were held the next November with
almost everyone in town on hand to celebrate the city's first railroad
and Council Bluffs residents contributed $25,000 towards its
construction. For the next
two years the line was graded south and about 40 men were hired to cut
railroad ties from the loess hills.
With almost no money in circulation, the men were paid a dollar a
day, half in groceries and half in dry goods.
in 1859, an ambitious Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln came to
southwest Iowa by way of a Missouri River steamboat.
In addition to testing the western political waters, Lincoln
intended to examine 160 acres of land in Council Bluffs that he had
received as collateral from Norman Judd, the attorney of the bankrupt M
& MR Railroad. Lincoln
found the time to give an impromptu speech at Palmer's Concert Hall at
the urging of Council Bluffs bankers Officer and Pusey.
He also met Grenville Dodge on the front porch of the Pacific
House Hotel and questioned the young surveyor concerning the best route
to build a railroad across North America.
The government had outlined four potential routes several years
earlier but Dodge enthusiastically pronounced the route west from
Council Bluffs along the Platte River as the most superior.
1862, Lincoln had been elected President, the Civil War broke out, and
Dodge was promoted to Brigadier-General after the Battle of Pea Ridge.
On the first of July that year Lincoln signed the Pacific
Railroad Act into law with a variety of financial incentives to build a
transcontinental railroad with its official eastern terminus at Council
Bluffs. The Act was
introduced in Congress by Major-General Samuel Ryan Curtis who had
financial interests in both the moribund Iowa Central Railroad and the
very profitable Council Bluffs & Nebraska Ferry Company.
While the war raged, bushwhackers, jayhawkers, runaway slaves,
and draft-dodgers all found their way to Council Bluffs along with even
more railroad promoters. In
1863, Massachusetts Congressman Oakes Ames and railroad financier John
Blair made an exploratory journey across Iowa to Council Bluffs scouting
out a route for their Cedar Rapids & Missouri River Railroad.
of the Union Pacific were also held in 1863 in Omaha with messages of
congratulations from President Lincoln read by the enigmatic
"Champion Crank" George Francis Train although the first rail
wouldn't be laid for many months. In
early 1864, President Lincoln once again issued an Executive Order
locating the eastern terminus at Council Bluffs while the U.P.'s wily
Vice President, Doctor Thomas Durant, purchased the charter of an
obscure Pennsylvania finance company, had himself elected President, and
on the advice of George Francis Train changed the company's name to
Credit Mobilier of America. Durant's
Credit Mobilier was fully prepared to take advantage of an amended
Pacific Railroad Act that offered even more generous financial aid to
aid construction and doubled the size of all land grants, including the
ownership of any coal and iron.
Durant also forced the city of Omaha to donate additional money and land
to the U.P. by threatening to move the railroad's main line south to
Bellevue. By the end of
1865, 40 miles of track had been completed with machine shops, engine
house, sawmill, and a "Burtenizer" to treat railroad ties
built in Omaha. The
contract for supplying the U.P. with railroad ties and timbers went to
Council Bluffs miller Julius Hoffmayr whose workers spent the next five
years cutting down thousands of trees along the Missouri River in
northwest Pottawattamie County. The railroad construction boom attracted a large numbers of
Irish immigrants to Council Bluffs who originally congregated in
"Irish Hollow," now Franklin Avenue.
January 1866, Major-General Grenville Dodge was named Chief Engineer of
the Union Pacific with a salary of $10,000 annually and stock in Credit
Mobilier. The Civil War
hero returned to Council Bluffs in May where he helped finance
construction of Solomon Bloom's Opera House and was also nominated by
Iowa Republicans as their candidate to Congress.
Dodge never campaigned for the position and learned of his
victory while surveying in the Rocky Mountains.
Dodge managed to find the time to serve one term as an Iowa
Congressman. Also in 1866,
Iowa Congressman, Civil War hero, and railroad promoter Major-General
Sam Curtis died in Council Bluffs.
late December, 1866 the first locomotive steamed its way into Council
Bluffs from the south on the far from completed CB & Saint Joe
Railroad. Plagued by
financial difficulties, all Council Bluffs and Pottawattamie County
stock in the railroad had been given up to Massachusetts entrepreneur
Willis Phelps and by 1867 Council Bluffs was no longer the headquarters
of the railroad that had been founded in town 9 years before.
January, 1867 the Cedar Rapids and Missouri River Railroad became the
first railroad to reach Council Bluffs from Chicago. Local residents had
contributed $36,000 and 80 acres to help finish construction following a
visit to town by promoter John Blair.
The CR & MR entered Pottawattamie County from the north with
stations at Loveland, Honey Creek, Crescent Station, and Council Bluffs.
A two and a half mile spur line was laid west from the Council
Bluffs depot at Broadway and 11th Street to the river where railcars and
passengers were ferried across the Missouri by large steam ferries. German immigrant Peter Rapp opened a saloon near the ferry
landing at about 37th and Broadway for the convenience of those in
transit. John Blair also
built the Sioux City and Pacific into Missouri Valley and both railroads
eventually became part of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad.
same year, the U.P. Railroad purchased 1,200 acres on the West End of
Council Bluffs to use as their Transfer Grounds while hundreds of miles
to the west Chief Engineer Grenville Dodge continued his surveys through
the Rocky Mountains. In
addition to the railroad line, Dodge also laid out the towns of Cheyenne
and Laramie, Wyoming; Julesburg, Colorado; and Kearney and North Platte,
Nebraska. The U.P.'s
construction crews were followed by the migrant community of gamblers,
prostitutes, and liquor dealers appropriately named
construction passed through Cheyenne, a 19 year old gambler named
Benjamin Marks found considerable financial success dealing three-card
monte at his phony Dollar Store and soon afterwards moved to Council
Bluffs to join a host of like-minded confidence men.
By 1868 the location of the U.P.'s proposed bridge across the
Missouri River had become a point of consternation and that May Chief
Engineer Dodge estimated that such a bridge would cost at almost two
million dollars. A final
decision wasn't made until Omaha and Council Bluffs contributed the land
and $450,000 towards the bridge although apparently Council Bluffs never
delivered the promised $200,000 worth of bonds.
In July 1868, the CB & Saint Joe Railroad line finally was
opened between Council Bluffs and Saint Joseph, Missouri where it
connected with the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad.
The CB & Saint Joe was then briefly consolidated as part of
the Hannibal & Saint Joe before it was reorganized into the Kansas
City, Saint Joseph, & Council Bluffs Railroad.
In 1869 the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads were
joined together with a golden spike just over 1,000 miles west of the
Missouri River. Celebrations
were held from coast to coast and the cracked Liberty Bell was even rung
in Philadelphia to mark the beginning of freight and passenger service
to California. The lack of
a Missouri River bridge became the only missing link in a
The day after the Golden Spike festivities, tracks for the
Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad entered Council Bluffs on the
route of the old M & MR surveyed by Dey and Dodge.
To further celebrate the day, the cornerstone of the Ogden House
Hotel was laid in Council Bluffs at Broadway and Park Avenue.
The Rock Island's arrival in Council Bluffs put an end to most of
the Western Stage Company's operations in southwest Iowa and also led to
the establishment of the Pottawattamie County towns of Weston, Neola,
and Pacific. Located on the eastern edge of Pottawattamie County,
Pacific eventually changed its name to Avoca.
In 1869, the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad was
completed across Iowa to the Missouri River several miles south of
Council Bluffs. Trains of
the B & MR entered Council Bluffs from the south by way of the KC,
Saint Joe, & CB Railroad from the new town of Pacific Junction.
Construction of the B & MR continued west across Nebraska and
reached Kearny on the Platte River in 1872.
By the 1880's the B & MR and KC, Saint Joe, & CB had both
become part of the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroad.
effect of the railroads on Council Bluffs was extraordinary as the city
grew from an isolated town on the Missouri River with about 2,000 souls
in 1860 to a bustling city with a population of just over 10,000
residents a decade later. By
1870 Council Bluffs had become the 5th largest city in Iowa although for
the first time Omaha boasted a larger population with about 6,000 more
sudden number of railroad lines into Council Bluffs made for cutthroat
competition for freight and passengers.
The stop disastrous rate wars, the Burlington, Northwestern, and
Rock Island formed the "Iowa Pool" to standardize rates
between Chicago and Council Bluffs and maximize their share of the
the Union Pacific was publicly rebuked in Council Bluffs after the
railroad organized the Missouri River Bridge Charter Company. Local residents were rightfully afraid that this would allow
the U.P. to build a bridge across the Missouri River but not actually
terminate its trains in Council Bluffs.
Initial construction of the bridge started in 1869 but work was
sporadic due to scarcity of available funds and the unstable condition
of the Missouri River. In
the end, construction costs of the U.P.'s Missouri River Bridge grew to
almost three million dollars by the time it finally opened in April 1872
with much of the fill for the bridge coming from cutting down the loess
hills on the southern edge of Council Bluffs.
Much to the disgust of local residents, a "dummy train"
was used as part of the Bridge Company to avoid questions over the
U.P.'s actual terminus and the railroad originally named its Council
Bluffs depot as Lake Station.
yet was the connections between U.P. officials with Dr. Durant's Credit
Mobilier which became a national scandal linking politicians and
businessmen to numerous unethical dealings during the U.P.'s
construction which had led to enormous profits for some.
Evidence of bribery to Congressmen and even the Vice-President
blackened the reputation of President Grant's already scandal ridden
administration. Credit Mobilier's questionable assets included a large
amount of land located on the West End of Council Bluffs.
1873 the question of the U.P.'s actual terminus had grown ugly.
The "conflict grew earnest and hot," according to the
1873 History of Pottawattamie County, "and the citizens of either
city became bitter and fierce in the advocacy of their special
city." Colonel William
Sapp spent much of his time and money lobbying for Council Bluffs in
Washington and was eventually successful in forcing the U.P. to offer
service to Council Bluffs instead of terminating at Omaha.
The case finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1875 with
Justice Strong announcing that the Court had decided that the U.P.'s
official eastern terminus was indeed at Council Bluffs.
Following the Court's decision, residents of Council Bluffs
gathered at Broadway and Fourth Street to hold a public celebration.
In the early 1870's another railroad, the Saint Louis, Council
Bluffs, & Omaha, was organized to build a line into town from the
plans fell apart however during the Panic of 1873 when infamous New York
financier Jay Gould took over controlling interest in the Union Pacific.
Reviled on Wall Street for his attempt to corner the gold market
with Jim Fisk, Gould quickly set about improving the U.P.'s western
mines, promoting industrial growth along the rail line, and establishing
a monopoly on coal between Council Bluffs and Ogden, Utah.
One of Gould's most valuable business allies was Grenville Dodge
who first recommended to him the potential benefits of promoting stock
raising in western Nebraska and who often served as Gould's lobbyist in
While Gould set about profiting on railroad futures in Council
Bluffs, another group of men "roosted" in town strictly to
profit from the many railroad passengers.
This motley assortment of con-artists included Ben Marks, Canada
Bill Jones, Doc Baggs, John Bull, Frank Tarbeaux, and several other
colorful characters who frequented the many dives and depots around town
and across the river in Omaha. Canada
Bill's dexterity at three-card monte and inventive methods to fleece
suckers on the trains pulling in and out of Council Bluffs was renowned
throughout the West although the 1883 History of Pottawattamie County
noted that his charity towards the less fortunate knew no bounds.
Then a primary source of revenue ended after Frank Tarbeaux and
his companion "Jew" Mose scammed $1,200 from a U.P. official.
The railroad quickly banned all gambling on its trains in spite
of an earnest attempt by Canada Bill.
By the late 1870's most of the confidence men left Council Bluffs
for the mining camps of the Black Hills.
Ben Marks, however, remained to become a leading local
businessman and nationally notorious con-artist until his death in 1919.
The railroads not only brought financiers and gamblers to Council
Bluffs, but also immigrants. The
Irish who came to Council Bluffs during construction of the U.P. were
soon joined by Swedes and Germans and later by blacks, Italians, and
Greeks. Railroad land
companies were also particularly influential in promoting the
immigration of farmers from Europe to turn the wild prairies of
Pottawattamie County into productive fields.
At the same time, new towns were laid out along railroad lines,
including Minden which was almost entirely dominated by German
railroads also brought industrial conflict to Council Bluffs as the
Great Strike of 1877 spread across America.
Almost 6,000 workers in Chicago called for the government to take
over the railroads and a general strike shut down Saint Louis for a
week. Some in Council
Bluffs blamed "lawless" elements for the trouble as a
"hooting collection and motley crowd" gathered in town and
marched with torches down Broadway demanding that the Mayor buy them
supper at the Ogden House Hotel. Leaders
of the strike gathered at the roundhouse of the KC, Saint Joe, & CB
Railroad while the workers armed themselves and began to take over the
rail yards. To ensure that no train traffic would leave town,
non-striking engineers were forced out of their locomotives which were
then disabled. In response,
city officials increased the size of the police force as the threat of
violence grew worse. On the
third day a posse was organized at the Pottawattamie County Courthouse
and a public delegation was sent ordering the strikers to disperse.
Although confrontation seemed inevitable, the strikers peacefully
abandoned the rail yards and went home by that evening.
year later in 1878, the U.P.'s famous Council Bluffs Transfer Depot and
Hotel opened on the West End of town.
Designed by U.P. Superintendent S.H. Clark, the building
supposedly cost almost $100,000 and featured black walnut and white pine
interior with 20 foot high ceilings on the first floor.
The south wing of the Depot was home to five express companies
while the north wing included an elegant dining room, saloon,
barbershop, newsstand, lunch counter, and waiting rooms segregated by
sex. The hotel was on the
second floor and stretched along a 207 foot long hallway with two large
parlors located at each end. Nearby
was the less luxurious Emigrant House with a bakery, laundry, land
office, and room for cold storage where thousands waited on their way to
make a new life in the West. Large
stockyards were also located at the Transfer Grounds as Council Bluffs
grew into a major shipping point for western livestock.
The U.P. also constructed six homes for railroad employees and
their families close by along 9th Avenue that featured such modern
conveniences as gas lighting and indoor plumbing.
To encourage travel between the depot and downtown, a 120 foot
wide diagonal street called Union Avenue was laid out between the
Transfer Grounds and Broadway and 9th Street.
Although the thoroughfare never lived up to its promoters'
dreams, it later led to the construction of the U.P.'s Broadway Depot
along with a few small factories and warehouses.
of the reorganized Council Bluffs & Saint Louis Railway finally
reached the city in 1879. Stations
on the line southeast from Council Bluffs included Neoga, Dumfries,
Mineola, and Silver City. Jay
Gould soon took over control of the railroad which was consolidated into
his sprawling Wabash, Saint Louis, & Pacific.
At the time Gould also controlled the Union Pacific, Kansas
Pacific, Denver Pacific, and Missouri Pacific Railroads and he used the
Wabash to take business away from the Iowa Pool.
Under Gould, the U.P. Railroad also took over the Council Bluffs
Street Railway which connected the city's scattered depots to the U.P.
Transfer and downtown Council Bluffs.
expansion of Jay Gould's railroad empire sent the other railroads into a
flurry of construction to protect their territory.
Branch lines built by the Burlington and Rock Island Railroads
along the West Nishnabotna River soon resulted in the establishment of
the towns of Hancock, Oakland, and Carson.
The Burlington's branch line between Hastings and Carson also
created "New" Macedonia which was located a mile east of the
1882 Council Bluffs gained another railroad when the Chicago, Saint
Paul, & Milwaukee Railroad completed its second trans-Iowa line into
Council Bluffs. Rail yards for what most folks called the "Saint Paul" were located east
of South 19th Avenue near 5th Street with a depot on 16th Avenue.
The Saint Paul also built a station house and water tank at the
newly platted town of Underwood.
1883 Council Bluffs boasted eight railroad depots and roundhouses and
six freight depots along with 51 livery stables and 31 hotels. That year city residents were also introduced to running
water, electric lights, and standardized time and the city's first
full-time municipal fire department was created.
1884, the Burlington Railroad's engine # 29 made the first run of the
famous Fast Mail train between Chicago and Council Bluffs in just 16
hours. The Fast Mail from
Chicago remained in operation until 1967.
same year U.P. workers went on a three-day strike to protest a 10% cut
in pay and returned to work with their wages restored thanks to the
influence of the Knights of Labor.
The first Local Assembly of the Knights was founded in Council
Bluffs in 1878 and other local assemblies appeared in 1881, 1887, and
1889. The union was
particularly strong among workers on the U.P. and Wabash Railroads.
the city became more industrialized Council Bluffs lost much of its
"cow town" aura after the stockyards were flooded out in 1881
and South Omaha was founded across the river in 1884.
No longer filled with cowboys from the Plains, the Drovers Hotel
on 10th Avenue closed and the building was moved to 7th Avenue and 19th
1887, the Lake Manawa Railway was organized thanks to public interest in
the large ox-bow formed during the 1881 Missouri River flood.
The Lake Manawa Railway sought to provide easy access to the lake
from the U.P.'s Broadway Depot. That
year the 24 room Manawa Hotel opened on the 4th of July, the Council
Bluffs Rowing Association built a small clubhouse, and the Manhattan
Beach Improvement Company was organized to develop 80 acres on the
lake's south side. The
Manawa Park resort soon became the "Mecca of the Midwest" and
was promoted by railroads like the Rock Island.
Colonel F.C. Reed took over the Lake Manawa Railway to carry
thrill-seekers south from Council Bluffs and in 1889 Colonel Reed became
the first and only mayor of the new town of Manawa.
was the year of the "Great Q Strike" against the Burlington
Railroad by members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Almost 2,000 Burlington engineers and firemen walked off the
job at the end of February attempting to shut down the 5,500 mile
railroad line. Striking railroad workers in Council Bluffs rented T.L.
Smith's Hall on 16th Avenue and 7th Street for their headquarters while
the city hired extra policemen to patrol the Burlington yards.
A boycott was instituted among sympathetic employees of other
railroads who refused to handle freight from the Burlington.
sentiment was in favor of the striking workers and the Burlington hired
"scab" workers to keep its trains running and Pinkerton
detectives to harass strikers. One
non-striking Burlington engineer named L.E. Bridenstein ran his train
through the pickets at the Council Bluffs U.P. Transfer and headed south
to Pacific Junction where he was shot in the foot by angry strikers who
had blocked the tracks with railroad ties.
Although switchmen from other railroads joined the Burlington
workers the strike fell apart by early 1889.
Most of the Brotherhood strikers were "blacklisted" by
the railroads and were forced to move or change their names to find
same year as the Burlington Strike the U.P. sold its interests in the
Council Bluffs Street Railway to the Omaha & Council Bluffs Bridge
and Railway Company. Council
Bluffs soon became the second city in America to have Pullman electric
streetcars. The O & CB
also built the first pedestrian, wagon, and streetcar bridge between
Council Bluffs and Omaha but the transit company would remain a vital
link between the various railroads for years.
1890 the population of Council Bluffs had grown to 21,474 and the
Interstate Bridge and Street Railway Company was organized to build a
second railroad bridge across the Missouri River.
The 1,620 foot long bridge was completed in 1893 with a 520 foot
drawspan that allowed boat traffic to pass up the river.
When it was completed this was the longest bridge of its type in
progress was stalled after the Panic of 1893.
The U.P. Railroad was driven into receivership and mass meetings
of the unemployed were held in Omaha and Council Bluffs. The next year an army of 500 unemployed "Commonwealers"
led by "General" Kelley arrived in Council Bluffs after
stealing a U.P. train at Ogden, Utah.
Although Iowa's Governor sent 300 members of the state militia to
Council Bluffs to stop any rioting, the unemployed men spent a peaceful
week resting on the edge of town where local residents donated money and
food to their cause.
enthusiastic citizen gave General Kelley a black stallion to ride and
the army of unemployed set out for Weston, were given a dinner party in
Underwood, camped outside Neola, and passed through Minden and Avoca.
One member of the unemployed army was author Jack London who
later wrote that "never did I make a tougher camp, pass a more
miserable night, that that night I passed with the Swede in the
itinerant saloon at Council Bluffs."
General Kelley's army of the unemployed eventually made its way
to Washington where they hoped to convince Congress to create more jobs
in the West. Instead, their
leaders were arrested for trespassing on the lawn of the Capitol.
Pullman Strike broke out among American railroad workers in June 1894.
The newly formed American Railway Union led by Eugene Debs called
for all union members to refuse to work on any train that handled
Pullman railcars which were used by all the major railroads.
Of America's 124 A.R.U. locals there were only three located in
Iowa, including one at Council Bluffs.
1897 a syndicate led by E.H. Harriman purchased the U.P. Railroad at an
auction in Omaha. Harriman
quickly set about improving the railroad's main line, overhauling repair
shops, reestablishing branch lines, and installing an electric
interlocking system to coordinate the movement of trains across the
Missouri River bridge.
1901 another railroad line was built into Council Bluffs with the
completion of the Fort Dodge & Omaha Railroad.
The railroad's Chief Engineer was John F. Wallace who later found
fame as Chief Engineer of the Panama Canal.
Stations on the new railroad line included Ascot, Clara, and
Grable with a Council Bluffs Depot located near Avenue A and North 13th
Street. The Fort Dodge
& Omaha was then consolidated into the Illinois Central Railroad and
the railroad purchased the Omaha Bridge and Terminal Company's tracks
and drawbridge to cross the river into Omaha. In 1911 Iowa's Governor
Beryl Carroll and about 2,000 people gathered at the Illinois Central
depot early one morning to welcome President William Howard Taft to
last major railroad completed into Council Bluffs was the Chicago &
Great Western in 1904. The
Great Western's first depot was built on South Main Street and the
railroad's completion set off a rate war with the other railroads
terminating in Council Bluffs. The
towns of Bently and McClelland were also laid out on the Great Western
line through Pottawattamie County.
interests formed a much smaller railroad in 1911. This was the short-lived Iowa & Omaha Short Line Railroad
which ran along 12 miles of track from Treynor to Neoga where it
interchanged with the Wabash on the southeast edge of Council Bluffs.
Never a money maker, the I & O Shortline made its last run in
In January 1916, Major-General Grenville Dodge died in Council
Bluffs at the age of 84. Although
Dodge's military and civic contributions were numerous, his
contributions to the nation and world's railroad system remain a
remarkable legacy. During
his career Dodge served as President of three Railroad Improvement
Companies and four Railroad Construction Companies.
He was also President of the Missouri, Kansas, & Texas; the
Saint Louis, Des Moines, & Northern; and the Mexican & Southern
served as Vice-President of the Abilene & Southern and the Mexican
& Southern Railroads and was a Director of the Union Pacific; the
Des Moines Union; the Denver, Texas, & Fort Worth; the Des Moines
& Northern; the Wichita Valley; and the Union Pacific, Denver, &
Gulf Railroads. He also
worked as an adviser for Russia's monumental Trans-Siberian Railroad.
Council Bluffs schools and businesses were closed as over 10,000
mourners watched Dodge's funeral procession through the streets of the
city. Eight months later
his wife Ruth also passed away and both are interned in the Dodge
Mausoleum at Walnut Hill Cemetery.
As farm prices began to fall after World War I the "Golden
Age" of Iowa's agricultural prosperity came to an end although the
railroads remained dominant in Council Bluffs throughout the 1920's.
A train crossed the U.P.'s Missouri River Bridge every five
minutes while the Union Transfer Post Office in Council Bluffs had
become the largest distribution point for through mail in America.
One Burlington mail train was robbed in Council Bluffs of over a
million dollars in cash and government bonds in what was then the
largest such heist in history.
At the same time, the railroads had expanded, modernized, and
weathered a variety of financial crises.
Expansion to the Pacific Northwest sent the Saint Paul Railroad
into bankruptcy until 1928 when it was reorganized as the
"Milwaukee," the Chicago, Milwaukee, Saint Paul, & Pacific
Railroad. However, the
growing affordability of automobiles and the appearance of the first
highways in the 1920's began to change how often Americans traveled
along with where they vacationed and how they got there.
Once promoted as the "Mecca of the Midwest," the once
glamorous Manawa Park resort shut down in 1928.
The next year the elegant U.P. Transfer Hotel in Council Bluffs
closed its doors for good.
Even more changes came about during the Great Depression of the
1930's. Although transient
"hobos" had traveled by train for years their numbers exploded
during the 1930's as thousands were forced to ride the rails across the
country looking for work or a better life. Council Bluffs became a natural stop-off for many and the
State of Iowa established transient camps in Council Bluffs on 37th
Street and near Mynster Springs. Both
were soon filled to capacity, forcing many to seek shelter in unofficial
"jungles" and "Hoovervilles" near the rail yards or
at the growing collection of make-shift homes along the Missouri River
As factories shut down and farms were foreclosed, many
railroads were sent into receivership, including the Rock Island, the
Wabash, the Northwestern, and the Great Western.
At the same time, the Burlington and U.P. railroads introduced
powerful new diesel locomotives. The
Burlington Zephyrs were the first diesel-powered luxury
"streamliners" and on Armistice Day 1934 the Pioneer Zephyr
went into daily service between Lincoln, Omaha, Council Bluffs, Saint
Joseph, and Kansas City. A
U.P. diesel locomotive broke the transcontinental record that year as it
traveled from coast to coast in just 57 hours.
The hard-times of the Depression also brought union agitation and
growing labor conflict although some federal protection for striking
workers first appeared in 1935. The
Council Bluffs local of the Railway Clerks went against their own union
and admitted black members for the first time.
A 1935 strike by streetcar workers broke out into violent
rioting, burnt streetcars, several deaths, and martial law in Omaha.
A rampaging mob estimated at 1,500 gathered at the O & CB's
streetcar car-barns on Avenue A in Council Bluffs.
Council Bluffs Mayor Finerty stood at the front of the crowd and
declared that "I've tried to be fair with you.
I want you to be fair with me.
Go home now. Go
home, and you'll never know how big a favor you've done me."
The crowd soon dispersed.
1939 war had broke out in Asia and Europe and a notice in the Nonpareil
reported that Council Bluffs was America's fifth largest rail center
with eight main trunk lines and over 2,200 railroad employees.
Workers for the U.P. even had their own newspaper, The Diamond.
According to the Chamber of Commerce 61 freight trains and 63
passenger trains stopped in Council Bluffs every day.
historical connection between Council Bluffs and Omaha with the
railroads was celebrated during Golden Spike Days held to mark the
premiere of Cecil B. DeMille's "Union Pacific" starring
Barbara Stanwyck. The 56
foot tall Golden Spike Monument was erected near the old U.P. Transfer
Hotel at 9th Avenue and South 16th Street which was mile 0.0 on the
original main line of the transcontinental railroad.
years after Golden Spike Days America had entered World War II and troop
transports and freight bound for war-time industries filled the trains
traveling through town. Railroad
passenger service out of Council Bluffs included the Burlington's Silver
Streak Zephyr, California Zephyr, and Chicago Express; the Great
Western's Nebraska Limited, Omaha Express, Twin City Express, and Twin
City Limited; the Northwestern's City of Denver, City of Los Angeles,
Gold Coast, National Parks Special, North American, and San Francisco
Overland; the Milwaukee's Arrow and Midwest Hiawatha; the Rock Island's
Corn Belt Rocket, Des Moines-Omaha Limited, and Rocky Mountain Rocket;
and the Wabash's Omaha Limited and Saint Louis Limited.
However, the great era of passenger service available from town
began to come to a close within a few years after the end of the war.
In 1948 came the end of the streetcars in Council Bluffs which
had connected all the depots together and was owned by the U.P. at one
time. The Great Western
ended passenger service from Council Bluffs the next year.
A decade later the Northwestern Railroad ran its last passenger
train between Minneapolis and Council Bluffs and ended local passenger
service altogether in 1960.
Council Bluffs remained a lively rail town and was aptly titled the
"Blue Denim City" in one 1953 magazine article which noted
that one out of every four people the city of 47,000 were employed by
the railroads. According to
the article, America's third largest mail terminal was located at the
U.P. Transfer Grounds and there were 45 union locals in Council Bluffs
with over 7,000 members.
other changes took place in Council Bluffs during the 1950's, including
construction of the Broadway Viaduct between 8th and 15th Streets. For the first time, cars no longer backed up for blocks on
the busy thoroughfare while waiting for a break in the almost continuous
trains passing through the center of town.
That same decade, the U.P. Railroad introduced IBM computers to
coordinate movement in and out of the Transfer Grounds where new machine
shops for diesel locomotives were built in 1956.
The U.P. also ended its long-running partnership with the
Northwestern and would instead run its through trains east of Council
Bluffs over tracks of the Milwaukee Railroad.
The 1960's brought many more drastic developments to Council
Bluffs and the railroads, several of which found mergers the most
convenient way to avoid total bankruptcy.
The Norfolk & Western Railroad took over the Wabash line
running southeast from Council Bluffs in 1964.
In 1968, the Great Western Railroad disappeared after it merged
with the Northwestern although the Great Western's former yard office
and freight depot is still standing.
The Burlington-Northern was formed by mergers in 1970 and ended
passenger service from Council Bluffs on the Ak-Sar-Ben Zephyr that
September. The Rock Island,
which was then attempting to merge with the U.P., also ended passenger
service from town in 1970. In
1971 the government subsidized Railpax was formed to take over all
railroad passenger service. It
soon became Amtrak and does not stop in Council Bluffs.
Milwaukee ran its last train out of Council Bluffs in 1980 and the Rock
Island Railroad was shut down the same year.
In 1984 the old Rock Island line out of Council Bluffs became
part of the Iowa Interstate Railroad.
Also in 1984, the old Wabash line from Council Bluffs became part
of the Colorado & Eastern Railroad and was later operated by the
Iowa Southern until 1988 when the rails were removed and the line from
Council Bluffs to Blanchard, Iowa became the Wabash Trace Nature Trail.
At the same time, the Illinois Central suspended its operations
out of Council Bluffs and the line was taken over by the Chicago,
Central, & Pacific Railroad.
Changes continued throughout the 1990's, including the appearance
of the Great Western Railway of Iowa in 1991 and a year later the CBEC
Railway which laid new track to the Mid-American Energy Plant south of
the city. In 1995 the
Northwestern Railroad was merged into the U.P. along with the Missouri
Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads.
The Illinois Central repurchased the C.C. & P. Railroad in
1996 and the line eventually became part of the Canadian National
Railroad. In 1997 the
Burlington-Northern merged with the Santa Fe Railroad and a few years
later purchased the old Milwaukee line between Council Bluffs and
Bayard, Iowa. While
passenger service is no longer available, today's railroads are not only
a constant reminder of the city's past but also the possibilities of its