On May 10, 1869, Union Pacific and Central Pacific officials were presented four ceremonial golden and silver railroad spikes to mark the transcontinental railroad’s completion – a date now known today by many rail fans as Golden Spike Day.
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Given the date’s significance, it’s no coincidence the Union Pacific Railroad Museum chose to open its permanent home in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on May 10, 2003. In another clever nod to history: Council Bluffs is home to historic Mile 0, declared by President Abraham Lincoln as the eastern-most point of the transcontinental railroad.
This one-of-a-kind railroad museum, celebrating its 20th anniversary at this historic location, has welcomed nearly 500,000 visitors from across the U.S. and the world – and counting, thanks to its award-winning notoriety and depth of history contained within its walls.
The museum is hosting free public events this week to celebrate.
The Museum’s History
In 1921, the railroad’s first museum was in a large room adjacent to Union Pacific President Carl Grey’s office before transferring to a much larger space on the ground floor of the railroad’s 1416 Dodge St. headquarters. In 1939, President William Jeffers expanded the museum and hired its first full-time director, Mrs. Ruth Cultra Hamilton, to run one of the Omaha metro’s first history museums – and attracted several hundred people on its opening day.
Visited by hundreds of area schoolchildren and people travelling through by train, the museum served the public but also became a repository of railroad memory and an important window into the American West’s history.
By 1974, this corporate museum, one of the oldest in the country, had welcomed its 1-millionth visitor. The museum again expanded and updated in the late 1980s, transforming from a cabinet of curiosities to a more modern interpretive museum.
By the late 1990s, when changing railroad business and several mergers found the old headquarters building lacking in space, Union Pacific built a new building across the street. This new modern building quickly filled, and the historical collection began a three-year odyssey to find a permanent new home. At the same time, Council Bluffs had built a beautiful new public library building, leaving its historic Carnegie Library vacant and in need of repair. Union Pacific, the city of Council Bluffs and a group of concerned citizens came together to form the new Union Pacific Railroad Museum known and loved today.
The Award-winning Museum of Today
The museum is operated in partnership with the city of Council Bluffs, which owns the historic building; Union Pacific’s historic collection; and the nonprofit Union Pacific Museum Association. The association employs three full-time staff members dedicated to the public’s experience of Union Pacific history.
In 2022, the museum was designated the best attraction in Pottawattamie County by the Omaha Metro Tourism Awards. In 2016, it was nationally recognized as one of the top 3 transportation museums in the country by USA Today.
Inspired by railroad history? Be part of the Union Pacific Railroad Museum’s story by joining today as a patron or a volunteer.