Click here for more information about Union Pacific 150th anniversary celebration events.
Photo showcase: See more images of places and items important to Union Pacific's history.
See a video /a> of retired Union Pacific employees and a historian talking about the importance of the railroad.
Check out the view in this video of the largest rail yard in the world from the Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center in North Platte, Neb.
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NORTH PLATTE, Neb. — When you're standing on the observation deck of the tower overlooking the largest rail yard in the world, it's hard to imagine a time when this place wasn't all about trains.
The railroad is everywhere, from the sprawling yard that stretches eight miles and handles 14,000 railcars each day to the packed parking lot at Walmart on railroad pay day.
It's in the white pickup trucks and SUVs with Union Pacific emblems on the doors, the North Platte equivalent of a yellow taxicab in New York City; in the banks and bars and gas stations that line the streets to the rail yard; in the neighborhoods where you'd be hard pressed to find a household without a railroader somewhere in the family tree.
And it's bigger than that, too. The train cars loaded with coal and grain and shipping containers and headed east and west to distant places pass the cities formed along the tracks as Union Pacific pushed west in the second half of the 19th century. Completion of the transcontinental railroad transformed not only the way the country moved people, products and information, but also how the West was settled.
A full century and a half after it all began, Union Pacific's impact on many of those places is as immediate as ever.
Union Pacific Railroad, headquartered in Omaha, now has more than 44,000 employees across a 23-state network — the largest of any railroad in the United States. It operates 8,200 locomotives over 31,900 route miles and is a financial powerhouse. Last year, net income was $3.3 billion.
In Nebraska alone, U.P. employs 8,000 workers — 2,500 of them in North Platte.
Looking out over the rail yard in that city, retired railroader Deloyt Young said the relationship is simple.
“If the railroad pulled out, we're done,” he said. “And that includes Kearney and Grand Island too. Whether we like it or whether we don't, the railroad built this community.”
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Legislation signed July 1, 1862, created Union Pacific and outlined its development: west from the Missouri River, to meet with the Central Pacific Railroad, which was building east from California.
U.P. would get 6,400 acres of land and $48,000 in bonds for every mile of track it completed.
President Abraham Lincoln said the eastern terminus should be the western boundary of Iowa. But U.P. Vice President Thomas Durant, who owned property in Omaha and stood to profit if the railroad were located there, moved it across the river.
On Dec. 2, 1863, amid speeches, fireworks and bands, U.P. broke ground near Seventh and Davenport Streets — an area that once was a ferry landing, now near the CenturyLink Center.
But legal disagreements, funding delays and a significant national crisis — the Civil War — kept Union Pacific from getting started.
Finally, on July 10, 1865, crews laid the first rails in Omaha. There was no music or celebration, and only a small crew of workers; many had been laid off because the railroad was short on cash.
“The event was buried in obscurity,” wrote historian and Union Pacific biographer Maury Klein, “because at that moment, the first forty miles of track seemed as remote as the Rocky Mountains.”
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Cruise west along Interstate 80, which takes a route similar to U.P.'s original main line across Nebraska, and imagine a landscape without four lanes of highway, without gas stations and billboards.
In 1865, it was open prairie. The railroad line had been charted out by a handful of surveyors who had traveled the area on horseback. All of the lumber and metal and tools crews needed to lay railroad track and build bridges had to be hauled by wagon.
The work was back-breaking — and, in some cases, deadly.
There were the challenges of terrain and weather, and the inherent risks of building major structures without the benefit of safety equipment or the assistance of machinery. And there were plenty of people already living in Nebraska willing to fight to stop the railroad.
Crews didn't face much trouble on the first stretch as they left Omaha. There, the Pawnee were allies of the government and the railroad.
By October of 1866, the line had reached the 100th meridian — a point near Cozad that the U.S. Geological Survey had determined to be the point between “the moist east and the arid west.” The government had made it the point at which U.P. would be granted the right to continue to build west. The milestone was marked by celebrations and visits from dignitaries.
But as construction moved forward, the workers sometimes faced resistance.
The area had been plagued by drought, which meant livable spaces were in high demand, said Patricia LaBounty, collections and outreach manager at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs. Native Americans living there were well aware that the railroad stood to change their lives.
“Especially going into western Nebraska, the Sioux and Cheyenne were definitely opposed to construction going through, seeing it as a potential end to their food supply, which was bison,” she said. “There was a lot of cultural and environmental stress at that time. ... It created sort of a good arena for conflict.”
In one 1867 incident near Plum Creek — now Lexington — a railroad repair crew was attacked by a group of Cheyenne. Seven workers were killed.
In the beginning, with many potential workers still making their way from serving on the battlefield, Union Pacific struggled to fill work crews. Many who signed on were Irish immigrants, laying down tie after tie in the race to meet up with the Central Pacific Railroad, which was being built primarily by Chinese immigrants who had been living on the West Coast.
To foot the bill for more construction, U.P. sold off parcels of land it had been given by the government to settlers. In total, U.P. and other railroads that expanded across the state were granted more than 8 million acres of land, which amounts to more than 16 percent of the state.
The railroads pushed hard to build towns because they stood to profit on both the sale of the land and the communities that would grow and need a railroad's services. U.P. brought many people from Sweden to Saunders and Polk Counties, historian James Olson noted in his “History of Nebraska.”
They and others settled in the towns the railroads laid out and, in many cases, named for employees.
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Some railroad towns grew slowly and steadily as people built homes, farms, schools and stores.
Some towns were born overnight in a rush of workers and people looking to make a profit: saloonkeepers, salesmen, prostitutes. Hell on Wheels, they called them.
Klein quotes a medical officer who passed through North Platte in 1867 and found a total of 15 buildings. Nine were saloons and one was a billiards establishment. There were about 5,000 people living there, he said, “having a good time, gambling, drinking and shooting each other.”
A few weeks later, when the railroad operations had moved farther west, the population shrank to a few hundred.
North Platte, however, was there for good. Over the years, as the railroad grew and expanded its local operations, including Bailey Yard, the population grew. Today, about 25,000 people live in the city.
The town kept its rough-and-tumble reputation for years. During Prohibition, some people called it “Little Chicago” — a hot spot for mobsters looking to hide out. That didn't change until the 1940s and '50s, when the railroad began investing more money, the town grew and the politicians running the town changed, said Jim Griffin, director of the Lincoln County Historical Museum.
During World War II, North Platte and its relationship with the railroad earned a very different type of attention. Its canteen for servicemen passing through served 3,000 to 5,000 a day at its peak.
Volunteers from around the area poured endless pots of coffee and made millions of sandwiches. One North Platte woman baked an angel food cake every day during the war.
“It was really an experience that you can't imagine,” said volunteer Doris Kugler, now 93, who still lives in town.
Other towns formed around branch lines as U.P. expanded its reach north and south. That included places like St. Paul, about 22 miles north of Grand Island.
Union Pacific built a depot there in 1880 and it became a hub of activity for farmers who would haul their grain to be shipped by rail and for passengers looking to travel. A second railroad — the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy — built its own line and depot. By the turn of the 20th century, hotels couldn't keep pace and guests were forced to sleep on the floors or in nearby stable haylofts, according to documents from the Howard County Historical Society.
The last depot in St. Paul closed in the 1970s. Trains still rumble through, stopping occasionally to pick up a load of grain, but it's far from its former hustle and bustle.
Jerry Hruza, a retired railroader who started working for U.P. at 17, said the changes with the railroad didn't mean the end of the town. The important thing is how much the railroad meant to St. Paul's beginning.
“It brought in people to settle the area.”
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These days, North Platte isn't about gangsters or soldiers filling the canteen. It's about the thing that started it: the railroad.
Bailey Yard is a complex, constantly running operation. Every day, workers handle nearly 140 trains coming from both east and west, carrying coal, grain, cars, building materials and more.
It's where U.P. tries out some of its most high-tech equipment, like engines that run by remote control. If you live nearby, the sound of the railroad is almost constant.
North Platte and other nearby towns are home to several businesses that support the railroad, from logistics operation to locomotive service companies to wheel suppliers, said Dan Mauk, president and CEO of the North Platte Area Chamber & Development Corp.
Tourism also is growing. The Golden Spike Tower, a museum and rail yard observatory that opened near Bailey Yard in 2008, attracts close to 35,000 visitors each year.
(It's named for the site at Promontory Summit, Utah, where the Union Pacific met up with the Central Pacific and railroaders drove in a “golden spike” at the point where the two connected and completed a transcontinental line. North Platte, similarly, is the spot where U.P.'s east line meets its west line.)
Mauk said his group hasn't measured the impact of the railroad or of rail tourism, but said it is substantial. Particularly in the summer, hotels in town are often booked and room tax revenues are on the rise.
City sales taxes were forecast to increase by 2 percent “and we've exceeded that by far,” he said. “We've had a steady path of growth, even during the recession.”
Plus, Mauk said, U.P. provides good retirement benefits for its employees, who frequently stay.
There are families in town who can boast six generations on the railroad.
There are more than a few people such as 83-year-old Charles Grigsby, who on a recent morning put in a shift as a volunteer on the observation deck of the Golden Spike Tower. Grigsby leaned on his cane as he told visitors about his 30 years as a telegraph operator, a steward in passenger cars and, later, a billing clerk.
Or Young, 73, who worked as a railroad police officer, then yardmaster and finally manager of yard operations in North Platte.
They'll both tell you that their hometown, like so many others along the line across Nebraska, would be something entirely different without the hum of engines racing along the tracks.
“Railroading is like police work,” Young said. “It's either in your blood or you better get out.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1543, firstname.lastname@example.org
Celebrating Union Pacific
If you're looking to get in on Union Pacific's 150th anniversary celebration, you'll have plenty of opportunities over the next few weeks.
U.P.'s steam locomotive — rail buffs know it as No. 844 — will be traveling between Council Bluffs and Omaha on Monday on its way to TD Ameritrade Park, where it will be on display during the College World Series, along with a special traveling museum car designed specifically for anniversary events. The locomotive will be at 12th and Cuming Streets beginning June 14 and will be open from noon to 8 p.m. every day through the end of the series. On June 27 it will travel back to Council Bluffs. Fans between Council Bluffs and North Platte, Neb., can spot No. 844 as it passes through on June 29.
For updates on the locomotive's location, click here.
Meanwhile, the Durham Museum has scheduled a special exhibit of part of the document that started the railroad. From July 1 through July 31, visitors to the museum can view three pages of the Pacific Railway Act of 1862. The exhibit will also include railroad-related materials from the museum's collection from Byron Reed, an influential businessman and collector in 19th century Omaha.
June 20: Congressional celebration, Washington, D.C.
June 30-Sept. 16: The Great West Illustrated, an exhibition of A.J. Russell photographs, on view at the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha
July 2: New York Stock Exchange closing bell ringing
July 13-19: “Union Pacific” movie screening, Film Streams, Omaha
July 14-15: Railroad Days, Omaha
Aug. 8-12: Iowa State Fair, Des Moines
Aug. 31-Sept. 3: Nebraska State Fair, Grand Island
Sept. 13-16: North Platte Railfest, North Platte, Neb.
Union Pacific's impact on Nebraska
Retired Union Pacific employees and an historian talk about the importance of the railroad.
Golden Spike Tower
Check out the view of the largest rail yard in the world from the Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center in North Platte, Neb.