Railroads of Lincoln and Lancaster Co

Prior to the railroads coming most people settled along rivers and navigable steams. Lancaster County was unique for having its salt flat basin, but being near the Salt Creek was still its most attractive location. The best farmland and most of the timber was located along this creek and its many tributaries. Once the Union Pacific Railroad started building across the state in 1865 this all changed. The railroads then became the dominate force in shaping Nebraska. The principal reason for railroads became obtaining vast land grants given with its construction. After the initial railroad extensions along the Missouri River, branches were sent up the major valleys to develop more business for the railroads and to discourage others from those areas. As a result of the land grants, the railroads found themselves the biggest real estate promoters in the Midwest. They were not only interested in selling their land, but were anxious to build up the towns along their routes. The township developers worked along with the railroads in laying out new communities at the designated station sites. Stations were usually seven to eight miles apart along the tracks. Many early settlements were bypassed by the railroads in order to maximize the railroads’ profits. The biggest obstacle for most railroads was getting their building supplies to Nebraska. At first, the tracks were not finished across Iowa and Missouri. Then there was the major effort of getting up the Missouri River or across it. With no bridges, supplies had to be ferried or barged to the western side of the river. In 1873, the Union Pacific built the first bridge across to Omaha. Later bridges were built at Nebraska City, Plattsmouth, and Rulo. For the first few years most of the railroad activity was still in Iowa and around Omaha.

Lincoln had become a boomtown the moment it was named the Nebraska state capital. It quickly became the state’s second largest city and the business center of the Platte Valley. Even a city with the state capital, state college, insane asylum and prison could not be taken seriously without railroad service by the late 1860‘s. The city of Lincoln and surrounding county knew the economic benefit from close railroad connection to other areas of the country. The voters of Lincoln approved bonds issues starting in the late 1867 to entice the railroads. Bounties were offered to the first (and then second…) railroad to arrive in Lincoln. The city and county also offered additional land to what the federal and state government had offered the railroads. Even without these enticements, Lincoln was the one inland city, which could not be overlooked much longer. It was just a question which railroad, how soon, and by how many? The most obvious railroads were the Union Pacific to the north and those along the Missouri River.

 The one railroad that first realized the potential of Lincoln and the southern half of Nebraska was the Burlington Railroad. The Burlington saw that even though the Union Pacific had crossed the state, it had not made any major inroads either side of its famous railroad track. A vast majority of Nebraska’s land was still available to other railroads with little competition. The Burlington inspected the eastern part of the state in 1868. They recognized that the productive soil and favorable climate of Iowa extended at least a hundred miles into Nebraska. The new state capital was located at heart of the railroad’s Federal Land Grants and 500,000 acres were offered by the state. In 1869, the railroad started building beyond the Missouri River. On July 26th, 1870 the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad claimed a $50,000 prize when the locomotive, the Hurricane, steamed into Lincoln. The railroad started from Plattsmouth via Ashland. The 58-mile trip took only four hours. By 1871, it had reached Crete and went on to Kearney by 1872. Later the tracks were the first direct line to reach Denver. The new towns along the route were Waverly, Denton and Berks. Later there was a train stops at Havelock, Burnham Stockyards, and Cobb. The original B & MR depot was located at 5th and R. The 1880 and the current 1927 depots is located at 7th and P Street. By 1880, the Burlington had eight tracks and a 2--stall roundhouse. In the early 1890’s a major engine and rail car facility was built along with the new town of Havelock. In 1906 the Hobson “Hump” Yard was built southwest of Lincoln, near the Burnham Stockyards.

 On April 22, 1871, the Midland Pacific Railway reached Lincoln from Nebraska City. The railroad received a $150,000 bonus from the city and 100,000 acres from the state. The 50-mile trip would take five hours at a cost of $3.40. The railroad entered the county from the southeast and reached Seward by 1873. The stations along it tracks were Bennet, Cheney, Lancaster, West Lincoln, Woodlawn, and Malcolm. The train line extended on to York and Grand Island. The track later extended to Kearney and its Union Pacific tracks. The Lincoln depot was located at 8th Street between M and N. The railroad had agreed to build a car shop in Lincoln, but it was never done.  

   The next year on September 1st, 1872, the Atchison and Nebraska Railroad came up to Lincoln from Atchison, Kansas. A bonus of $120,000 was paid to the railroad. The trip took almost eight hours to go the distance of 143 miles. . In Nebraska, the railroad started at Rulo, in the southeast corner of the state. The towns of Firth, Hickman, Roca, Saltillo, and Welch were started along it route. The track ended at it depot at 7th and Q Street. This railroad and the two earlier soon became part of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad. In the late 1870’s the Burlington began a policy of extension, which rapidly made it the greatest railroad system in the state.

Five years later the Omaha and Republican Valley entered Lancaster County from the north in 1877. This 58-mile railroad from Valley byway of Valparaiso was Lincoln’s first direct connection to the Union Pacific. Its depot was located on O Street between 4th and 5th. Later it moved in with the Burlington. The railroad line was extended 38 miles south to Beatrice in 1884. It would eventually reach Kansas City. The towns that the railroad platted were Agnew, Raymond, Jamaica, Hanlon, and Princeton. The railroad latter became of branch of Union Pacific Railroad.

The county offered $25,000 in bonds for the start of a line to Columbus. On September 8th 1879, the Lincoln and Northwestern Railroad built tracks for the Burlington west of Lincoln. The 73 mile tracks reached Columbus by May 18th, 1880. The town of Emerald was located on these tracks. In 1910, tracks were laid south from Cushman, just west of Lincoln, to the original Burlington and Missouri River Railroad heading to Crete. By this year, there were 1,500 miles of railroad tracks in Nebraska, most of it controlled by the Union Pacific and Burlington Railroads. On 1880, the Union Pacific had been granted 4.85 million acres and the Burlington 2.5 million acres.


 It was almost a decade before a new railroad reached Lincoln, but in 1886 there were two. At first, the Missouri Pacific Railroad bypassed Lincoln by 30 miles because was considered “too insignificant a city” in terms of freight and passenger revenue. Finally, the Missouri Pacific entered Lincoln on August 25th, 1886 from east. A bonus of $70,000 was given to the railroad. The tracks were laid west from Weeping Water. The towns of Walton and Bethany Heights grew along the tracks. With a train stop at Peek’s Grove, the railroad fostered the growth of eastern Lincoln. The tracks ended at the West Lincoln’s Stockyard at the northwest edge of town. Seeing all the trade in the area going to Burlington, the Missouri Pacific hoped they might get their share. The railroad offered Lincoln a direct link to St. Louis. It opened up new sources of timber and coal from the Ozarks. The train later became part of the Union Pacific.

Close behind the Missouri Pacific was the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad which came south from Fremont. The railroad connected Lincoln to the Union Pacific at Fremont via Wahoo on October 25th, 1886. They received a $50,000 bonus. The town of Davey was platted along the tracks. There was also a stop at Arbor, just northeast of Lincoln. The two new railroads shared a rail yard and a depot at 9th and S Street. The railroad had planned to reach St. Joseph and Kansas City byway of Topeka, but the tracks never went beyond Lincoln. The railroad became part of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. The Fremont Dinner Train still runs along some the original train route. .

In 1888, the Missouri Pacific laid a second track across the southern third of the county. Starting near Talmage it went almost straight west to Crete. The railroad received a $35,000 bonus when it reached the town on Oct 22nd, 1888. New towns along it route were Panama, Sprague, and Kramer. Hickman became a two-train town with this Missouri Pacific branch.

Last, but not least was Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad from Omaha. No land grants were available to the railroad, but it needed a faster route to Denver. The 57-mile railroad from the Missouri River reached Lincoln July 12th, 1892. Within the next year, it was extended on to Fairbury and then west within Kansas. New towns along the railroad began were Prairie Home, Rokeby, Martel, and Hallam. There was also a stop at Havelock/University Place. Their old depot is still located at 1944 O Street.

Lincoln was now nearer to 774 of the 914 railroad stations in Nebraska than any other commercial center in the state. Every town in the county was within less the tens miles of a railroad line. The only “inland” town to develop without the railroad was Holland, but there were two nearby. The people of Centerville moved to Sprague and Martell to be near the rails. Saltillo, a town near many of the county’s first settlements, could not survive with two railroads.  

Map of Railroads