The Railroad History of Council Bluffs

Historical Society of Pottawattamie County, Iowa

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Kanesville citizens authorized $300,000 in bonds for the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad (M&M; RR) for the grading of 4 miles of roadbed east of town. The city never recovered the money.


Kanesville officially renamed Council Bluffs and incorporated. Grenville Dodge surveyed the route from Davenport to Council Bluffs for the C.R.I.& P (Rock Island, then known as the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad). Dodge selected Council Bluffs as the route's western terminus. Through a series of bankruptcies and mergers by the M&M; into the Rock Island, the C&NW; eventually became the first line to reach Council Bluffs.


Samuel Bayliss established the Iowa and Nebraska Ferry Company leaving Council Bluffs between 1st and 3rd Avenues, and operating with a small boat named the "Nebraska" until a larger boat was required a few years later to transport rail cars across the river. This second boat he named after his youngest daughter Lizzie Bayliss.


The first rail was laid in Iowa by the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad.


Congress authorized land grants to any company wishing to complete a railroad to the Pacific. Council Bluffs again offered bonds, money, land, and free labor to railroad companies as inducement to locate here. Council Bluffs newspapers promoted ground breaking ceremonies and other promotional campaigns to the nation.


The first railroad bridge was constructed over the Mississippi River by the Rock Island. The bridge was legally and physically threatened by steamboat interests and a subsequent lawsuit was won for the railroad by Abraham Lincoln, an Illinois lawyer.


Citizens authorized a $25,000 bond issue, offered money raised from sale of swamp land, and gave rightof-way to the Council Bluffs and St. Joseph Railroad, which established its depot and yards near 4th Street and 16th Avenue.


Abraham Lincoln and Grenville Dodge viewed the Council Bluffs region as the potential western terminus of the Iowa rail network. Lincoln suggested Council Bluffs would serve as the interconnection for the transcontinental rail system.


The Rock Island bought the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad and continued track construction from Iowa City toward Council Bluffs.


Civil War breaks out.


Abraham Lincoln, now President, issues "vague proclamation" designating Council Bluffs as the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad, adding to the growing rivalry between the cities of Council Bluffs and Omaha. The controversy wasn't settled until the U.S. Circuit Court ruled in favor of Council Bluffs 13 years later.


The Union Pacific was organized by T. C. Durant and began building west from the west bank of the Missouri in 1865.


Civil War ends. Grenville Dodge became a General during the war.


Durant hired General Dodge as his chief engineer to survey the route of the U.P. west and to organize the construction effort.


The Union Pacific purchased 1,200 acres of land in Council Bluffs. The company negotiated an agreement with the city to build the railroad bridge if the city would provide the right-of-way and $205,000 in bonds. The company also agreed to build its freight and passenger depots in Council Bluffs. Rock Island placed into operation the first sleeping car to be used in the U.S. in 1867.


To attract the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, citizens of Council Bluffs agreed to donate 20 acres of land for their terminal. The passenger and freight depots were eventually located at Main and 12th Avenue.


Driving of the Golden Spike was held on May 10th at Promontory Summit, Utah. The first train arrived on May 12th in Council Bluffs over the Rock Island track linking Council Bluffs with the Great Lakes and Chicago. The R.I.'s original depot was located near Pearl and Broadway. Coincidentally, the cornerstone was laid for the Ogden House that same day, so a substantial celebration was held, with Mayor Bloomer leading the lengthy parade from the Ogden House to the depot where the C.R.I.&P.; Silver Horse was joined by 4 other engines. Despite a drenching rain, the entire community joined the band, the engine whistles, and numerous cannons in a rather noisy celebration.


Union Pacific built its first railroad bridge across the Missouri River. The bridge was re-built twice, the current one having been completed in 1916.


Frank and Jesse James, along with the Younger brothers, on July 21st conducted their first moving train robbery near Adair, Iowa. The Rock Island train engine was derailed when members of the James gang, using a rope, pulled out of alignment a previously loosened rail as the train rounded a curve. The engineer was killed when the engine toppled over.


U.P.'s depot in Omaha burned. Construction began on Union Station including hotel, immigrant house, stock yards, railroad grounds, platforms and storage facilities on the 1,200 acre tract appropriated in 1867 by Council Bluffs. Years later, when the passenger trains from the East arranged to share the U.P. bridge, the transfers occurred at Omaha rather than Council Bluffs.


The first dining rail car in the U.S. was placed in service by the Rock Island on the Council Bluffs to Chicago run. (Council Bluffs Nonpareil, October 8, 1939)


The original Rock Island Depot exploded. Temporary buildings then were used. New depot built on the same site at Main and 16th Avenue in 1899.


The chipped-brick restored Rock Island Depot is placed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 21. It now houses a railroad museum and HO scale model railroad.

Several other rail lines terminated in Council Bluffs from all directions to hook-up with the Union Pacific; the Sioux City and Council Bluffs Railroads merged with the Chicago and Northwestern; the Wabash, St. Louis, and Pacific arrived in 1879; the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul arrived in 1882; the Illinois Central arrived in 1899; the Great Western arrived in 1903. During the 1890's, Council Bluffs was served by 15 lines operating some 90 trains per day. By 1940, the 8 main trunk lines operated 61 freight and 63 passenger trains daily in Council Bluffs. That made this city the 5th largest rail center in the United States, with an annual payroll in the Bluffs of $3.9 million.

The Rock Island Railroad survived 2 out of 3 bankruptcies. The first one being the 1915 financial manipulations of stockholders; and then the combination of the Great Depression and devastating droughts of the 1930's. The terminating bankruptcy court session came in 1975. The railroad era, over 120 years after that first Rock Island train arrived in Council Bluffs, continues at a different pace. The last Rock Island Passenger train pulled out of the 1899 Council Bluffs Depot at 11:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 31, 1970 carrying 32 passengers bound for Des Moines, Davenport and Chicago. The last day of operations for the Rock Island Railroad was on March 31, 1980. Gone also are the Chicago Great Western Railroad, the Wabash Railroad, the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, and the Illinois Central Railroad. The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad is now the Burlington Northern Railroad.

Railroading has had a most profound impact on the development of Council Bluffs. Nothing else influenced the city's history so dramatically for so long; not the Indians, not the Mormons, not the wars, not the modern technology.

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