Ties That Bind: A look at the rise and demise of Lincoln’s railroads

The year was 1870. Nebraska had been a state for three years and the newly named city of Lincoln had just welcomed the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad into the new capital. Over the next thirty years, seven more lines were lured into Lincoln, creating a number of jobs that transformed the heart of the city from a retail and residential area into a bustling warehouse district.

Railroads were vital to the growth of Lincoln and other Nebraska towns, so leaders in the capital city made sure that rail service was a top priority – as it would literally put more small towns on the map. The soil quality in the state was outstanding, but farmers living in these small towns wouldn’t be able to transport commercial crops without a rail line.

To encourage the settlement of the United States, the government gave railroad companies close to 17% of Nebraska’s land to sell to farmers at a very cheap price. Many of the farmers were European immigrants and settled in large groups, which is why Lincoln and Nebraska in general house a number of German, Swedish and Czech communities.

The population of Lancaster County had skyrocketed since ushering in Lincoln’s first rails in 1870. At this time, the population was a little over 7,000. Within the next ten years, it quadrupled to over 28,000, and by 1890, it had reached 76,395. Business was booming and grain, livestock, coal, limestone and lumber had all become major transports. The city began to swell, and flag stops like Peck’s Grove on 33rd Street and Bethany Heights on 66th Street were annexed into Lincoln.

In 1886, a new rail line emerged in the capital city. The Missouri Pacific Railroad (MoPac) would allow Lincoln to have access to southern lumber and coal, while also providing a direct link to St. Louis and lower rates to southern cities.

Soon after arriving, they built an impressive new brick and sandstone station at 9th & S Streets in the Haymarket. Joining MoPac in this facility was the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley (a predecessor to Chicago and Northwestern) and a number of other lines.

However, sharing a busy rail yard in Lincoln proved to be difficult during this time. Disputes of where to lay new track arose and minor accidents would occasionally happen due to miscommunication.

But sometimes, more bizarre ones occurred like in the summer of 1911 when a train operator fell off the cab and was unable to climb back on before the runaway train crashed into the Chicago and Northwestern ticket office.

In the 1920s and 1930s technological advancements meant trains became more sleek and efficient. The Zephyr was introduced by Burlington – a model that would prove to be fierce competition for the MoPac. The first two diesels were introduced to the city in 1937 – one would make daily passenger trips to Union, and the other would act as both a switcher and freight.

In 1940, Lincolnites were dumbfounded by the arrival of another new technological marvel. The Eagle, a streamliner by MoPac, had been plastered on billboards and other advertisements throughout the city, and it would soon be making an appearance in Lincoln.Two years later, the city welcomed the Eaglette, a smaller version of the sleek streamliner that traveled at 55 miles per hour and offered unprecedented views through its glassed front.

A major shift in the railroad industry occurred in the 1940s when the steam engine, once the premier source of powered movement and courier of the Industrial Revolution, began to be phased out – with the last Lincoln steam engine running in 1951. Over the next decade, rail lines began to replace these trains with more diesel-powered engines. Their efficiency caused railroads to downsize and gave the Lincoln landscape a different look with the eradication of roundhouses, coaling towers and water towers.

New technology and the increasing costs of modern railroading is would eventually lead to the demise of the big railroads in the capital city. During the 1950s and 1960s the trucking industry started to gain traction thanks to the construction of the Interstate Highway System, and would takeover the freight industry in the 1970s and 1980s. Rails would soon begin to be pulled up or abandoned (some due to a flooding disaster in 1984 outside of Weeping Water).

Other reasons stemmed from the growing city itself, like when city officials wanted the MoPac rail line to go around Lincoln rather than straight through it. Traffic conflicts grew and reached a boiling point when an outbound train tragically collided with a fire engine in 1981.

In 1986, depots that had been built and rebuilt in Lincoln were demolished in preparation for Interstate 180 – leaving only a few desolate tracks under the overpass. In the summer and fall of 2000, many more rails were pulled up because the University of Nebraska had lines running through a segment of campus and wanted the land.

Additionally, the abandoned MoPac rail line was converted into the 26-mile MoPac Trail, a bicycling and walking trail that runs from Lincoln to Wabash, Nebraska. While railroads aren’t as abundant today as they were in the 1900s, Lincoln continues to utilize their benefits. The city has opened its newest train station at 5th and N in June of 2012 to serve Amtrak. The new $1.28 million station replaced one originally built in 1926 by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad that was recently abandoned due to conflicts with Pinnacle Bank Arena construction.

Since playing a prominent role in the development of Lincoln, trains have become popular fixtures in art and other
mediums around the city. There are plans to showcase public art depicting trains inside and around the new Pinnacle Bank arena when it opens in the fall of 2013. The Lincoln Children’s Museum in downtown Lincoln underwent a five-phase renovation in the fall of 2012 that includes a new train exhibit, and The Lincoln Area Railway Historical Society is set to feature a multi-scale museum at the Lancaster Event Center with a number of model railroad items and full-scale railroad items.

They once thundered down the tracks that stretched miles throughout the city. They captured the hearts of Lincoln’s children and provided jobs for Lincoln’s people. And with all this, these old trains and railways have left an indelible mark on the city of Lincoln by creating the path that has led to its future success.

By Matt Hames

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