A telegram arrived in Omaha from New York City on Dec. 2, 1863. The message was simple, but its impact would be felt across the nation for decades to come: “break ground.”
That afternoon, a thousand people gathered near the Missouri River in what is now north downtown Omaha to watch engineers and city leaders break ground on the new Union Pacific Railroad. The line would run west, linking up with the Central Pacific Railroad at Promontory, Utah, and tying the country together with the Transcontinental Railroad.
While an American flag fluttered in the breeze, officials spoke of the importance of the railroad in uniting a nation riven by the Civil War. But others felt the weight of the moment far more locally.
“The President has shown his good judgment in locating the road where the Almighty has placed the signal station at the entrance of a garden 700 miles in length and 20 broad,” said George Francis Train, the chief publicist for the railroad. “Look at the face of nature here — study the map, and point out, if you can, another place for the central station of the World’s Highway.”
His message was clear: Omaha was the perfect place for the railroad. And the railroad would be good to Omaha.
Friday marks the 150th anniversary of the driving of the final golden spike at Promontory and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.
It is a seminal moment in U.S. history, one memorialized in textbooks and well-known photographs. But the hammer strikes that laid the line reverberate through local history as well. Omaha is what it is today because of the railroad.
“It would be hard to exaggerate (its importance),” said Harl Dalstrom, professor emeritus of history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and co-author of “Upstream Metropolis: An Urban Biography of Omaha and Council Bluffs.” “It had a huge impact, and we find the Union Pacific in the vanguard of the story of Omaha.”
The decision to make Omaha the eastern terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad led to an economic windfall for the city and its Iowa neighbor, Council Bluffs. Business generated from the railroads fueled growth for both cities and allowed Omaha to outstrip rival Nebraska towns.
The cities of Nebraska Territory were jockeying for supremacy long before the Transcontinental Railroad became a reality. At meetings of the Territorial Legislature, tempers often flared as representatives debated where the capital should be.
Omaha prevailed thanks to the efforts of acting Gov. Thomas Cuming and other Omaha leaders who resorted to bribing representatives for their support, according to Dalstrom and his co-authors, Lawrence H. Larsen, Barbara J. Cottrell and Kay Calamé Dalstrom.
Still, most rallied behind Cuming at the first assembly of the Territorial Legislature in January 1855 when he spoke of a matter that he called “one of the most prominent and important of all the measures of national development upon this continent”: a railroad to the West Coast.
Nebraska, Cuming asserted, had much to offer a so-called Pacific Railroad: “… the valley of the Platte is on the nearest and most direct continuous line from the commercial metropolis of the East by railroad and the great lakes, through the most practical mountain passes to the metropolis of the West; that it is fitted by nature for an easy grade; and that it is central and convenient to the great major of grain-growing states,” he told the Legislature, according to “History of the City of Omaha, Nebraska” by James W. Savage and John T. Bell.
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Cuming wasn’t the only person who thought so. In 1859, Grenville Dodge of Council Bluffs met with Abraham Lincoln and told the future president that the best rail route to the west lay in the Platte River Valley, with Council Buffs as the eastern terminus.
In 1862, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act, which called for the federal government to help in the construction of a great railroad linking the East and the West. The measure created the Union Pacific, a single rail line to extend west from an eastern terminal. Lincoln, at the behest of Thomas C. Durant, a leading promoter for the railroad, later determined the terminal to be “so much of the western boundary of the State of Iowa as lies between the north and south boundaries of the United States township within which the city of Omaha is situate.”
(This ambiguous wording would later lead to a dispute between Omaha and Council Bluffs over which city would officially be the eastern terminus of the railroad. Though construction of the Union Pacific began in Omaha, the courts eventually sided with Council Bluffs, Dalstrom said.)
Despite the 1863 groundbreaking, construction of the Union Pacific didn’t begin in earnest until the end of the Civil War. In the meantime, Omaha feared that it would lose its position as the eastern terminal: The latest planned route out of town extended south for several miles before turning west at Bellevue, and Omaha leaders were concerned that Bellevue would become the terminal, attracting investment from railroad financiers.
But the eastern terminal remained in Omaha, and in 1866, Dodge returned from military service to lead construction as the Union Pacific’s chief engineer.
Construction continued at breakneck speed, and as rail lines continued spreading across the Great Plains, Omaha began to reap the rewards.
The city became Union Pacific’s base of operations. The railroad employed hundreds of wagon teams and six steamboats that brought goods and people up and down the Missouri River. Railroad officials poured money into Omaha banks and businesses, and at least one local plant made a killing preserving the stacks of cottonwood railroad ties that awaited shipment west from the riverfront.
Thousands of new workers clambered into town. Between 1860 and 1870, the city’s population grew from 1,883 people to 16,083, according to UNO’s College of Public Affairs and Community Service.
In 1867, when Nebraska became a state, Omaha leaders allowed the state capital to move to Lincoln. With the city’s influence secure in other ways, remaining the seat of the state government seemed less important.
“Just imagine for a moment that the Union Pacific, rather than starting here, started in Nebraska City. How different would things have been?” said Bill Pratt, professor emeritus of history at UNO.
In its day, Nebraska City was an important point of commerce for western travelers, Pratt said. Like Omaha, it was a bustling place in early Nebraska.
But without the boon from the railroad, the Omaha of today might look much like the Nebraska City of today, Pratt said.
As much as Omaha owes its success to the Union Pacific, the Union Pacific owes its success to other rail lines that extended east from Council Bluffs to the East Coast, Dalstrom said.
“The American West had a kind of magical influence upon the public, and the Union Pacific was at the center of this. But we still can’t think of just the West,” he said. “We needed connections to the East. And, by golly, they were reaching Council Bluffs at the time the Union Pacific was being built and shortly after it was finished.”
The completion of the railroad fulfilled a long-held American dream to unite the country and accelerate trade, allowing the nation to grow into a world power, said Kent Blansett, associate professor of history at UNO.
But the story of the Transcontinental Railroad is more complicated than the triumphant sepia-toned photos from Promontory would suggest.
As the rails continued their journey west, they ran into Native American tribes like the Lakota, Cheyenne and Pawnee. The native people were forcibly removed from their lands, and the buffalo, central to their way of life, were almost driven to extinction.
Native communities were forced to contend with a rapidly changing West, Blansett said. And while many were able to adapt to new ways of life, the railroad, in many ways, brought with it cultural destruction.
“There’s also a price that’s paid,” Blansett said. “With Indian Country, we paid with our lives. We paid with our lands. Out of this, one has to understand that with significant kinds of gains, also come significant forms of loss.”