Historical Society of
County Seat Council Bluffs, Iowa
Railroads in Council Bluffs and Pottawattamie County...
By Ryan Roenfeld
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.
In 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.
Groundbreaking 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.
Also 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.
By 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.
Groundbreaking 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.
Dr. 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.
In 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.
In 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.
In 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.
That 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 "Hell-on-Wheels." As 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 transcontinental railroad.
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.
The 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 residents.
The 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 profits.
Meanwhile, 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.
Worse 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.
By 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 southeast. Construction 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 Washington.
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 immigrants.
The 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.
A 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.
Tracks 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.
The 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 original settlement.
In 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.
By 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.
In 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.
That 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.
As 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 Street.
In 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.
1888 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.
Much local 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 employment.
The 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.
In 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 the world.
However, 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.
One 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.
The 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.
In 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.
In 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 Council Bluffs.
The 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.
Local 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 1916.
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 Railroads.
Dodge also 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 at "Kibatsville."
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.
By 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.
The 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.
Two 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.
Nonetheless, 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.
Many 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.
The 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 future.