It was 150 years ago today that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act. That act set in motion the building of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad and created an Omaha-based business called Union Pacific.
From that date in 1862, it took six years for more than 20,000 men, working 12- to 16-hour days, to complete the job. The cross-country rail route helped open the American West.
U.P. rail lines today link 23 states in the western two-thirds of the country. Union Pacific is present in more than 7,000 communities, many of which can trace their origins to the U.P. line and depots.
To say that Omaha has been fortunate to have the Union Pacific Railroad headquartered here for 15 decades would be an understatement. The company has consistently been a major employer, outstanding corporate citizen, a participant in corporate events and clearly one of Omaha’s greatest assets.
The city of Omaha, the state of Nebraska and Union Pacific have grown together.
U.P. today has 1,068 miles of track in the state. Its main line in central Nebraska is the busiest rail freight corridor in America. The U.P. rail yard in North Platte, which covers 2,850 acres and runs 8 miles in length, is the world’s largest. Its in-state purchases totaled almost $200 million last year. In the past two years, U.P.’s capital spending in Nebraska was $455 million. Earlier this year, it announced plans to invest $1 billion on Nebraska rail projects over the next several years.
Union Pacific employs almost 8,000 people in Nebraska and has an annual payroll in the state of more than $980 million. In 2004, the company moved into its new downtown Omaha headquarters, a building with enough space for some 4,000 employees.
The company supports charitable efforts across the state as well. In 2011, Union Pacific gave more than $4.4 million to organizations in Nebraska through the Union Pacific Foundation, matching gifts and corporate contributions.
U.P. is having fun with its birthday, holding a contest to do a remake of its famous and ubiquitous “Great Big Rollin’ Railroad” TV commercial from the 1970s. Many of us remember the original, featuring actual railroaders, some of whom would have struggled mightily during an “American Idol” audition.
But it’s important to remember that not every one of the company’s 150 years has been easy. The railroad has had to reinvent itself multiple times, notably when airplanes replaced rail as the primary way for passengers to travel long distances. The company’s culture had to evolve from being “just a railroad” to a leader in the shipping and logistics businesses, learning about the specific needs of its customers across an array of industries.
So if you have family members or neighbors who work for Union Pacific, thank them for what their company has meant to Omaha — and for the important role it will play in Omaha’s future as they continue to “Build America.”