It's tricky to play the "what if" game. Wondering what the world would have been like had George Bailey not lived made for an entertaining Jimmy Stewart Christmas movie, but nobody really knows what the country would have been like had Abraham Lincoln and President Kennedy not been assassinated, for example, or what Council Bluffs would be like today had Abraham Lincoln not chanced to visit in 1859. Despite that, we none-the-less should be able to make some fairly safe assumptions.
Its not like there wouldn't have been a transcontinental railroad. California was becoming ever more desirable for the United States. Its inaccessibility made it more like a colony, and government leaders were aware how hard it was for an imperial power to maintain control over remote colonies. Theodore Judah had essentially dedicated his life to a transcontinental route and pushed the formation of the Central Pacific to make it happen. Grenville Dodge had long been a proponent, as well as had many politicians.
The railroad would have happened, but it might not have happened here. How would have that have changed Council Bluffs?
Once the eastern terminus was announced, Council Bluffs suddenly took on a new importance. Railroads were big business back east but plans to cross Iowa hadn't gained traction; the prevailing notion was stage coaches were plenty good enough for Iowa and there wasn't all that much need to rush. Once rails were brought up the river to build the line west all that changed; a railroad that could connect the lines of the east to this new western route should profit handsomely. The rail race across Iowa was on, and the tracks were all heading the same place— Council Bluffs.
By 1865, when rails were first laid, Council Bluffs had already established itself as a significant city through western migration. Had the transcontinental railroad gone elsewhere Council Bluffs surely would be on a rail line, probably more than one, but very unlikely to have been served by eight class I railroads. Almost no city, even those much, much larger, enjoyed that advantage.
Because of this Council Bluffs' growth exploded. The country revolved around railroads, and Council Bluffs had them— and plenty of them. Population doubled in one decade; in 1888 alone 1169 new buildings were constructed. A huge agricultural business developed. It was estimated this section of the Midwest had 200,000 farms pouring their products into the grain elevators of Council Bluffs. A large farm implement manufacturing and sales business developed in the south end of town. The railroads made it easy for manufacturers to get supplies, and to export their finished products. After awhile Bluffs manufacturers were turning out just about everything from confectionery to cigars to carriages. Cattle came as well, resulting in a large stock yards industry.
Once the Golden Spike was driven people and freight could move easily from coast-to-coast, but there was still a barrier for perishable goods. Railroads responded by building special insulated cars and ice plants along the route. The Pacific Fruit Express ice docks at 33rd and 14th Avenue in Council Bluffs were efficient at icing the cars, but labor intensive, providing the city a great many jobs. Thousands of train wheels were manufactured at Griffin Wheel on 9th Avenue, adding hundreds more jobs. Just a few blocks away the Railway Mail Service terminal for a time was the city's largest employer. It's numbers were staggering; the terminal could process 14,000 pieces of mail per hour; they worked three shifts, 365 days a year.
Being a terminal point for so many railroads netted Council Bluffs a first class YMCA. There already was a YMCA in Council Bluffs but its conversion to a Railroad YMCA in 1929 provided growth and prosperity, including expansion and remodeling of the facility as well as more programming.
The railroads grew and so did the town. The tremendous growth led to a very positive attitude in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century. The prevailing notion was there existed no limit to our potential; "no city east or west possesses the assurance of profitable returns as does Council Bluffs." By 1953 the Union Pacific was the city's single largest employer with a full quarter of the population dependent upon the railroads for a living.