The Transcontinental Line – and a Great Vacation – Start in Council Bluffs

Some husbands are into race cars. Some brew beer in the garage. Some are master grillers. My husband? He’s crazy about trains. C.R.A.Z.Y. Crazy, I tell you.

So in the 10-plus years I’ve known him, he’s dragged me around the Midwest to numerous train shows where vendors buy, sell and trade every kind of imaginable train memorabilia.

One of the best shows is, fortunately, right here in Iowa. Held at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, The Great Train Expo is a can’t-miss on our family’s yearly calendar. We went there again this year, but decided to extend our stay and learn why Council Bluffs is a train-lover’s delight.

First, a history lesson: With the signing of the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln directed the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads to create a transcontinental line. That line transformed our county; a transformation that started in Council Bluffs. By the start of the 20th century, Council Bluffs had become the nation’s fifth largest rail center and boasted eight railroad depots and roundhouses, six freight depots, 51 livery stables and 31 hotels.

Today the city is home to several attractions where this history lives on.

Council Bluffs’ former Rock Island Depot is the perfect home for the RailsWest Railroad Museum and HO Model Railroad Display. Not only does it features an impressive HO-gauge model of the Omaha/Council Bluffs metro, circo 1920s, but it features many original depot artifacts.  Outdoors, get up close and person with a handful of real-life steam locomotives and other rail-cars.

General Grenville Dodge was a Civil War General, railroad builder, banker, politician and counsel to Presidents Lincoln and Grant. His mansion in Council Bluffs is a National Historic Landmark and celebrates his influence on the creation of the transcontinental railroad.


Downtown, the Union Pacific Railroad Museum uses state-of-the-art exhibits to illustrate how the railroad helped build America. Three expansive exhibits cover two floors of a lovingly restored Carnegie Library: America Travels By Rail, The Lincoln Collection and Building America. The museum originally opened in 2003 but reopened again in 2012 after the installation of the massive Building America exhibit. History truly comes to life here.

And don’t forget the 56-foot concrete Golden Spike. Erected in 1939, it marks the eastern terminus of the Union Pacific Line.

I’ll admit that I’m not a “train person,” per se, but I enjoyed our visit to Council Bluffs and loved watching our young sons enthusiastically dash about the museums. We’ll be back again next year when the Great Train Expo chugs into town.

Shawna Lode | Iowa Tourism Office Manager

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