May 10 marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad—as ‘mile 0’ of the eastern side of the railroad, Council Bluffs will be celebrating and reflecting on the anniversary throughout the year.
“The 150th anniversary of the first transcontinental railroad is an important milestone to celebrate in Council Bluffs,” Mayor Matt Walsh said in a statement. “The railroad has employed many of our residents over the last 150 years; and stories of the railroad are at the root of our town’s heritage and history.”
A Brief History
When President Abraham Lincoln signed the first Pacific Railway Act in 1862, he set in motion the building of two railroads set to meet in the middle and become the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. One side would begin in Sacramento, California and head east, and the other side would begin from the Missouri River and head to the west. In 1864, President Lincoln was more specific, designating Council Bluffs as ‘Mile 0’ of the side starting from the Missouri River—a huge win for CB!
Railroads in Council Bluffs allowed a small town of 2,000 in 1860 to grow to over 10,000 residents in just 10 years, making it the fifth largest city in Iowa at the time. Council Bluffs owes much of its growth to the transcontinental railroad’s construction.
“Without so many railroads meeting in Council Bluffs as a result of the transcontinental railroad, Council Bluffs may well have remained a small settlement,” Patricia LaBounty, Union Pacific Museum curator said. “The impact on the metro region, in general, is incalculable. So many of the economic drivers in the region would have had no reason to be based here from the stockyards in the past to Google now!”
Railroad Museums & Celebrations
Council Bluffs’ connection with the railroad can be seen throughout town with two museums dedicated to railroad history: Union Pacific Railroad Museum and RailsWest Railroad Museum. Not far from either is the Historic General Dodge House, honoring General Grenville M. Dodge known as the “greatest railroad builder of all time.” And in 1939, Council Bluffs became home to the Golden Spike Monument, honoring ‘Mile 0’ and the film “Union Pacific.” And then there’s the annual summer Railroad Days celebration that recognizes all of this rich heritage.
In addition to Railroad Days this year, in honor of the 150th anniversary, Council Bluffs will play host to quite a few railroad themed events such as a 150th Kickoff Celebration, historical lectures, a “Sounds of the Railroad” themed Union Pacific Railroad Museum family night, and much more! A complete list of events can be found at UNleashCB.com/sites/anniversary.
In addition to celebrations, events like Railroads in Native America: Reflections on the 150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, hosted by the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, will also reflect on how the railroads affected not just our town, but also those who worked for the railroad, those in communities along the railroad's route, and the indigenous people living along the path of the railroad's expansion. Unfortunately, the railroads were not a cause of celebration for all and there were negative impacts.
“Utilizing an enhanced calendar of [museum] programming and expanded community partners, this complex [railroad] history will be explored from multiple perspectives and the shared experiences of people whose personal and family histories have been touched by the railroad,” LaBounty said. “The museum will explore viewpoints from the Chinese, Irish, and many others who helped to build the railroad, to indigenous peoples displaced by the oncoming railroad and the ensuing conflict with the U.S. government.”
The symposium event will feature works from scholars, artists, musicians, tribal members and representatives from tribal governments. This is a great opportunity for residents to get involved with the anniversary, join the discussion, and share their special talents. Submissions for the symposium are being accepted until May 31.
To learn more about the history of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, check out our calendar of anniversary events occurring throughout the year or head to one of our railroad museums. The calendar will be updated as more events are announced. You can also visit the Union Pacific Railroad Museum’s website to see an interactive map of the project.
*Header image of the construction of the Union Pacific Bridge (1887) is courtesy of the Council Bluffs Public Library.