Union Pacific Railroad Museum

This museum sounds like it is actually part of the Union Pacific Railroad, but it is not – although as we’ll see, the Union Pacific clearly has a soft spot for this former library turned railroad museum. This year Big Boy 4014 pulled the annual Union Pacific Railroad Museum Special!

A Big Museum, for a Big Subject

The Union Pacific Railroad Museum is a three-way partnership between Union Pacific, the City of Council Bluffs and the Union Pacific Museum Association.

The museum is, as you may be able to guess from the list of partners, located in Council Bluffs, Iowa, directly across the Missouri River from Omaha Nebraska – headquarters of Union Pacific. It is located in a former Carnegie Public Library

A nighttime shot of the former Carnegie Public Library in Council Bluffs, Iowa - now the Union Pacific Railroad Museum.
Former Carnegie Public Library, Council Bluffs (Image: Union Pacific Railroad Museum)

The museum is a repository for Union Pacific artifacts, exhibits on UP history, the railroad industry and a teaching opportunity with technology as the teaching tool. Permanent galleries and exhibits include “America Travels by Rail”, “Building America” and “Wheels of War” – telling the story of railroads in our nation’s conflicts.

From Library to Museum

The large former Carnegie Public Library (built in 1903) allows for large exhibits and some room to spread out. It a good thing – something as large as the Union Pacific Railroad – and as expansive as its history needs some room to tell the story.

What a statement as you enter the museum! The end of a Union Pacific observation car under a second story dome and skylight.
The entrance to the Union Pacific Museum. (Credit: Council Bluffs CVB)

The “America Travels by Rail” exhibit shows us the heyday of rail travel. Who better to have a complete collection of railroad dining china, menus and porter’s uniforms from that era than the railroad itself? The Union Pacific has over 300 pieces of china and silverware on display.

The museum recreates the famous City of Los Angeles streamlined passenger train that ran from Chicago to LA – and through Council Bluffs. A recreation of a cabin in a coach car, and you’ll see the streamliner at the ‘station platform’ with the crew. All of this comes together with the help of a multi-media show.

About half of the second floor is an exhibit called "America Travels by Rail" which recreates that 1950s rail travel on the famous Union Pacific streamliner, City of Los Angeles.
Hey, isn’t that the famous City of Los Angeles!? (Credit: Union Pacific Railroad Museum)

Abraham Lincoln

Without President Abraham Lincoln the transcontinental railroad would not have been completed in 1869. Think of this, it was a pretty audacious task for a nation to take on, in the middle of a bloody civil war, to push a giant construction project from the middle of the country to the Pacific Ocean.

President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862. That act created the Union Pacific Railroad. The Union Pacific Railroad Museum recognizes the connection between the railroad and the President with an exhibit of Lincoln material. In fact, the museum was founded as a direct result of a Lincoln/Union Pacific connection.

In 1921 railroad employees found several silver serving pieces that had been on President Lincoln’s rail car. It was that discover, and the story of how the UP came to have presidential serving pieces that led to the founding of the Union Pacific Railroad Museum.

A model of a special car made for President Abraham Lincoln, thought it only ever carried his body. The model was made by UP employees and is part of the Museum founding story.
Model of President’s Lincoln’s Rail Car, built by UP Employees. (Credit: Union Pacific Railroad Museum)

In 1864, toward the end of the Civil War, the United States Military Railroad built the President a rail car that could safely carry Abraham Lincoln after the war. The President never traveled in the car during his lifetime. He was assassinated before he could travel in the car. Instead it was used to carry his body back home to Springfield, Illinois where he was buried.

After that duty, the Union Pacific bought the rail car and used it for railroad directors and other important people as it completed the transcontinental railroad. Salvaged from the car were original furnishings, art work and, of course, that silver dining service, is now on display at the museum. Also in 1921 Railroad employees built the model of the presidential car you see above.

Modern Railroading and Modern Railroading

The museum isn’t all ‘dusty’ antiques and history. The Council Bluffs Convention & Visitors Bureau put together this very quick video showing some of the high tech displays at the museum.

The museum has tours for school groups and others. It also provides resources for teachers, like lessons on the transcontinental railroad and how our system of time zones, our Standard Time, evolved out of Railroad time.

Where does all the Money come from?

The three way partnership shares in the maintenance and staffing and fundraising costs. Each year Union Pacific helps to promote, and finance, the museum with a special charter train. A special trip behind Big Boy 4014 from Denver to Cheyenne in July this year was the fundraiser special. It is apparently to be the only trip for Big Boy in 2022!

So if you wanted to hitch a ride behind the big beast, this was your only chance. The typical UP consist for these fundraisers will carry almost 400 people. That sounds like a lot of seats…but tickets go fast. And the only way to make (almost) sure you get a ticket, is to be a patron of the Museum.

Union Pacific Big Boy 4014, leaving Denver, COlorado for the 2022 Union Pacific Railroad Museum Fundraising Special.
Big Boy 4014 leaving Denver on the Museum Special, July 30th, 2022 (Dave Burritt, Mile High Drone Services)

So how do you became a Union Pacific Railroad Museum patron? It’s not difficult and not all that expensive., and it helps the museum. Patron donation levels vary, but start at only $50 a year. In order to be eligible for tickets on the annual July fundraiser train, you must be a patron before July 1st. (The museum is a tax deductible organization.) You’ll also get Union Pacific Railroad Museum discounts. What a deal!

Support the Museum

Tickets for the fundraising specials go on sale to the general public after all patrons have an opportunity to pre-purchase tickets. For a railfan, this has to a top-notch type of fundraiser!

The 2018 poster created by the Union Pacific Railroad Museum to draw attention to that year's fundraiser special.
In 2018, the Museum Special was pulled by Union Pacific 844. (Image: Union Pacific Museum)

Every year possible the Union Pacific runs a Museum Special. Most years it is behind steam, and lately it has been bhind the biggest steam restoration sensation since… well, maybe ever? Union Pacific Big Boy 4014 pulled the fundraiser train in 2019 – the first year 4014 turned a wheel under its own power in 60 years.

Other years have featured other engines, both steam and diesel – but it’s always been a historic engine. And it’s always pulled that beautiful matched set of Armour Yellow and Harbor Mist Gray passenger consist.

Would you like to go to the museum? Check out their website for times, and what exhibits are currently open and available. The address is: 200 Pearl Street, Council Bluffs, IA 51503.

A map showing how to get to the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

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