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Exploring Railroad History In Council Bluffs

The city of Council Bluffs has several historical attractions connected to the region’s railroad past, but none explore the industry quite like the Union Pacific Railroad Museum. With access to an unprecedented amount of artifacts and insider knowledge, the curators of the museum have been able to tell the story of Union Pacific like no other place could.

Where is the Union Pacific Railroad Museum?

The Union Pacific Railroad Museum is located at 200 Pearl St., Council Bluffs, Iowa. 

Exterior of the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa

Council Bluffs has a long history with the railroad industry. Near the museum, you’ll find the historic home of General Grenville Dodge, the RailsWest Museum, and the Golden Spike monument. 

There are even more railroad stops if you cross the Missouri RIver into Omaha, Neb., including Kenefick Park, UP’s headquarters, and The Durham Museum.

When did the museum open?

The gorgeous Beaux Arts-style building was once the city’s Carnegie Library, opening on Aug. 15, 1905. The museum itself opened on May 10, 2003.

Railroad artifacts on display at Union Pacific Railroad Museum

Establishing a railroad history museum was a pretty unique arrangement between public and private interests. The City of Council Bluffs collaborated with the Friends of the Carnegie Cultural Museum and Union Pacific Railroad to establish the museum. 

How much does it cost to visit?

Museum admission is completely free. Parking, however, is metered since it’s located in downtown Council Bluffs.

Museum highlights

The museum’s exhibits are on two floors. The building is ADA-accessible with an elevator to access each floor.

A fake railroad tunnel inside the Union Pacific Railroad Museum

The first floor focuses on the early days of railroading during the 19th Century. Exhibits include:

  • The Lincoln Collection.”According to the museum’s website, “The Union Pacific Railroad Museum is closely linked with President Abraham Lincoln. The museum was founded following the 1921 discovery of several silver serving pieces from the President’s rail car.” Those are on display, as well as other artifacts including a rocking chair from his law office. This is probably the least interactive area of the museum.
  • The “Building America” exhibit chronicles the history of the transcontinental railroad and railroad operations starting in the 1860s. Highlights include a railroad tunnel and a recreated rock blasting set up that makes a satisfying explosion sound. Other interactive areas in the exhibit includes a telegraph to test out Morse code, video footage, and a chance to try throwing the switch to signal a train. 

On the second floor, the history lesson continues and culminates with modern day railroading. Exhibits include:

Union Pacific children's menu and place setting
  • “America Travels by Rail” chronicles American passenger travel in the early 20th century, including celebrity photos, and gorgeous table settings from various decades. You can sit down and compare a few seats from different modes of travel. 
  • Working on the Railroad” has one of the museum’s most popular interactive exhibit pieces, the train simulator. You can also attempt to lift a rail (not so easy) and don’t forget to look for the model train. 

There’s a lot of reading involved if you want to learn the most while you’re there. For those visiting with kids, yes, there’s enough interactive elements to keep them fairly entertained.

Museum photo opps

Kim at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum photo opp

The can’t-miss photo opp is a photo on the caboose located on the first floor. Otherwise, the exterior of the building is photo-worthy. Currently, city public art has been placed by the steps which may or may not be something you want in your photo. 

A historic museum for railroad and train enthusiasts! Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa

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