COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — With its just-opened million-dollar makeover, the Union Pacific Railroad Museum beckons visitors of all ages to downtown Council Bluffs. But to get the full experience, be sure to bring a kid along.
Youngsters are more likely to be savvy with the latest video games, and that's just what's been incorporated into the revamped museum, which reopened May 12.
For the first time, Microsoft is bringing its Kinect technology to a museum. Responding to body movements, the same software that allows gamers to swing a tennis racket, golf club or "Star Wars" lightsaber will enable people to step back in time to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.
The project was authorized in 1862, and the Union Pacific was born the same year. Its crews began building westward from Council Bluffs, Iowa, while the Central Pacific began laying track eastward from Oakland, Calif. They finally met, 143 years ago this month, at Promontory Summit, north of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
The story's previously been told at the museum but never in such an immersive fashion as in the new exhibit, "Building America," created to celebrate the Union Pacific's 150th anniversary.
"The 'Building America' exhibit will allow us to put visitors to work at the scene of the Transcontinental Railroad construction," said Patricia LaBounty, one of the museum's managers. "From entering a tunnel at Donner Summit to trying their hand at driving a spike, visitors will see this 19th-century feat of technology and engineering come to life as never before."
"Feat" almost seems like an understatement for the colossal conquest of a largely unsettled continent. It sprang from a chance meeting between two men, one of them Abraham Lincoln, in Council Bluffs.
Lincoln was in the western Iowa city to deliver a speech on his abolitionist views in 1859, a year before being elected president, when he met an Army general named Grenville Dodge, an advocate for moving America westward by rail.
"His friends introduced him to Dodge, because they knew Lincoln was interested in railroads. He was interested in the idea of a Transcontinental Railroad, which had been talked about since the 1830s," the museum's Abigail Cape said during a tour.
In the ensuing years, five routes were proposed for a rail line venturing west. One originating in the Omaha area was, ironically, not among them.
"This was the route suggested to Lincoln by Grenville Dodge, and this was the route eventually chosen by the president," Cape said. Dodge became the Union Pacific's chief construction engineer.
Using legions of Irish immigrants and, following the Civil War, discharged soldiers, track was slowly laid across the Plains and over and through the Rockies. The final spike was driven May 10, 1869. By rail, a trip from East to West across the continent became doable in seven days. Previously, by ship around South America, it had taken six to eight months.
Today the Union Pacific carries only freight. Its last human cargo disembarked in Los Angeles in May 1971. The heyday of passenger trains in the 1950s is recalled on the museum's second floor in the "America Moves by Rail" exhibit.
"We offer a very special trip, a trip back through time," a railroad employee says in greeting guests. In fact, he's an actor who appears on a TV monitor cleverly mounted behind the steel bars of the ticket office window.
Using wax figures and mock-ups of various rail cars, the museum offers a trip back into those pre-Amtrak years — which is especially fascinating for computer-savvy kids who are strangers to cross-country train travel.
"Here's your drink, ma'am. That'll be 25 cents," a waiter says in the cocktail lounge.
In the nearby diner, a woman's voice from the past echoes, "Tonight, I think I'll try a slice of that famous apricot pie." And why not? As a vintage black-and-white commercial reminds folks: "Dining's delightful in the Astro-Dome Diner."
Once the meeting spot for no fewer than nine railroads, Council Bluffs still has three rail yards. Real whistles from trains on tracks just a few blocks away reverberate through the museum, adding to its authenticity.
Now, though, as those trains head west across the Missouri River into Nebraska, they're no longer heading into a vast, unsettled frontier.
If you go
The Union Pacific Railroad Museum (712-329-8307, uprrmuseum.org) is at 200 Pearl St. in Council Bluffs, Iowa. It's open Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free.
The General Dodge House of Grenville Dodge (712-322-2406, dodgehouse.org) is at 605 Third St. Now a museum, it's open every day except Monday. Admission is $7 for adults and $3 for children.