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The Atlantic to the Pacific: What to See and How to See it (1873), by John Erastus Lester

Chicago to Omaha

Chicago to Omaha.—We have choice of three routes by which to reach the Union Pacific Railroad at Omaha (or at Council Bluffs. which is on the east bank of the Missouri River, and lies opposite Omaha). These routes are by railroads forming continuous lines across the states of Illinois and Iowa, namely, the ‘North-Western,’ the ‘Burlington and Quincy,’ and the ‘Rock Island.’ There is no ground for preference of either of the three, so far as I know, as they all convey the passenger to their common terminus in equal time and equal comfort. By agreement between their managers, the profits of ‘through’ business are divided proportionately, and they do not compete against each other, but are combined against the more southerly routes on which passengers are conveyed by way of St. Louis. The ‘North-Western’ crosses the Mississippi at Clinton; the ‘Rock Island’ at the city of Rock Island; and the ‘Burlington and Quincy’ at Burlington.

Desiring to see that section of Iowa along the line of the ‘North-Western,’ I chose that route, embarking in the night express train at 9.45 p.m. I found a cleanly and comfortable sleeping berth ready for my occupancy, and giving the porter directions to call me when we reached the Mississippi River, I soon went to bed, and, in evidence of the satisfactory character of the arrangements for travellers in America, will add that I was soon fast asleep. The day was just breaking in the east when I looked out of the car-window. We soon reached Fulton, and crossed the river to Clinton. The bridge is in two sections, an island about the centre of the river dividing it. The first section is of iron, the last of wood, and both together more than a mile in length. This point is about 2,000 miles from the mouth of the river, which is navigable for more than 400 miles farther North.

From Clinton to Mount Vernon we pass through the ‘garden of Iowa.’ The comfortable brick and frame houses, the well-built barns, the fences, the sleek cattle, all betoken thrift and wealth. Here the land is rolling, well watered, and as productive as on the prairies of Illinois. They say here, that when a farmer gets his lands paid for, and a little ahead, he builds a brick house. This section is the fairest I have seen during the journey. It reminds one of the country seen in passing from Liverpool to London.

Cedar Rapids, a large town on Cedar River, is a busy place, where are good facilities for water-power. Leaving it, we reach again prairie-lands, and we pass for 200 miles through a purely agricultural region in which wheat is growing finely and the farmers are busily planting their corn. At one place there were more than 100,000 bushels of the surplus of the previous year’s crop of corn piled in temporary cribs along the line of the railroad to be shipped East.

Marshall, a town of some importance, 289 miles west of Chicago, was the terminus of the road until the Union Pacific was begun. From here to Council Bluffs we pass through prairies where plough has never been, and with only here and there a dwelling. Along the old stage-road you see the ‘schooners,’ as they call the emigrant wagons, wending their way West. The classes which adopt this style of ‘moving West’ include large numbers who, used to free roving in pursuit of deer, squirrels, and other game, now complain that the Middle States are becoming ‘too thickly settled’ for them. Others are offshoots of thrifty families, now turning pioneers as their fathers were before them. The liberal policy of the Government in giving farms to actual settlers tempts them to abandon the older settlements, where the increase of population renders it impossible for every one to have a hundred or more acres of land of his own.

There was upon our train a gentleman, some eighty years old, who emigrated to the North-West before there were any states called Ohio, Illinois, or Indiana; and to hear the old pioneer recount his adventures was very interesting. He was now going upon a journey to the West, to visit some of his grandchildren, of whom he had twenty-eight scattered through the country around.

Although I have described somewhat in detail my journey over the North-Western Railroad, I would not thereby give my readers. any intimation that this route should be chosen in preference to either of the others mentioned. The Rock Island route takes tourists through populous sections of the States of Illinois and Iowa and the city of Des Moines, the capital of the last named State. The Burlington and Quincy has a delightful country and the largest cities and towns along its line. The roads composing this last route are unsurpassed in the United States for their good management and the elegance and comfort of their cars. Attached to the express trains are hotel-cars, in which you have cooked and served for you a dinner, and of which you partake while the train is speeding on at thirty miles in the hour. To one who has never seen these modern contrivances in railroad travel, they are of unusual interest. Such a car is very ingenious in its arrangement. It contains a kitchen—the existence of which would not be detected by any unpleasant odours—wherein is a cooking range, a sink with hot and cold water, a wine closet, a china closet, and provision lockers. It can carry stores for forty people during a journey from Chicago to San Francisco, and is supplied with 1,000 napkins, 200 table-cloths, 400 towels of different kinds, ample bed-linen, &c. &c. The commissariat is as ample as can be wished, and the tables will seat forty persons. By day you can write comfortably at a table, in a room closed off if you wish, or lounge in easy arm-chairs, or stretch yourself out at full length on a sofa, while by night these arm-chairs and sofas are transformed into beds, upon which you cannot fail to sleep soundly. The cars are heated by hot-water pipes, are thoroughly ventilated, made with double windows, and so constructed that the noise of the train is almost entirely overcome. The introduction of hotel and sleeping-cars upon American railroads has made travelling almost as comfortable as staying in one’s own drawing-room.

Council Bluffs, the seat of Pottawattomie County, Iowa, is situated about three miles east of the Missouri River. It contains some 10,000 people, and is the oldest and largest in Western Iowa. Formerly, and as early as 1846, it was called Kanesville, and was peopled chiefly by Mormons. From the circumstance that here the explorers Lewis and Clarke held a council with the Indians, it was named, in the Charter of Incorporation, Council Bluffs; but the people round about always call the place ‘The Bluffs.’ It is the western terminus of the three great railroad lines before named, and has made a hard fight with Omaha for the eastern terminus of the Union Pacific.1

1Since the above was written, the President of the Union Pacific Railroad Company has announced, under date of May 29, 1873, that the Company will fix its depôt and general offices at Omaha, and has directed the immediate construction of the necessary buildings.

The several newspapers published here, a seminary for young ladies, a high-school, good district schools, and many fine churches, all contribute to the welfare of the people.

There are two good hotels—the ‘Ogden’ and the ‘Pacific,’ the latter of which is more centrally located; indeed, one is at a loss to understand why the ‘Ogden’ was placed so far away from the business portion of the city.

The main portion of Council Bluffs is built upon the low lands bordering the river; but the finer residences are situated in the shady ‘glens’ among the hills which rise in rear of it. Its present site is some two miles back from the river-bank. Of the early Mormon town, which was located about a mile to the eastward, there remains hardly any other vestige than a solitary log-house.


Omaha is situated about 50 feet above the river at highwater mark, and contains a population, according to the Census of 1870, of nearly 17,000. It was the first capital of the state, as it was indeed the first settlement made in the territory. A few squatters were here in 1854, one of whom some time in that year was appointed postmaster, and immediately opened an office ‘in the crown of his hat.’ Riding over the prairies, or strolling about the infant settlement, he would deliver the letters which had collected in the ‘office.’ The town began to spread in 1859; and the commencement of the Union Pacific gave it fresh means for increase, and day by day it grew at wonderful speed. Stores and houses, hotels and ‘saloons,’ were erected; and a few months saw the straggling settlement a busy city, overcrowded with adventurers. All the material for the building of the railroad was shipped from here. As the road pushed West, the villages which were established along its line took away the floating population. The subsequent growth of Omaha was for the most part substantial, though rather unhealthily rapid, and the ideas of many of her citizens as to her prospects proved to be unduly inflated.

The streets are broad, and laid out at right angles and the ground rises from the river in such pretty undulations, that the location could not be bettered in many a mile around. There are some very fine brick structures already erected, several business blocks, the new Grand Central Hotel, and the high-school building on Capitol Hill. The latter, when completed, will be one of the finest brick buildings that I have seen in the West. The hotel building is creditable, and already $350,000 have been expended upon it; but it is a sad financial failure. George Francis Train early took up his abode here, and harangued and shouted, until he thought he owned all the land in the city; and the people, in their infatuation, became thoroughly imbued with his wild ideas. He erected a great hotel, called the Cozzens House, but it is now closed, and it would seem that the dreams and hopes of ‘this modern philosopher’ were not to be realised. But, notwithstanding all this, the place is a wonderful example of what can be done in this country in the way of city building in the short space of eight years.

About three miles north of the city are located the barracks of the Government troops, belonging to the military Department of the Platte,’ in which this section is included. This is a fine place to see the élite of the city, who drive out on pleasant days to witness the reviews.

They have here such thunder and lightning as we are not accustomed to at home. One morning I was awakened by deafening thunder, and a more marvellous display of lightning flashes than I had before seen. Not in one part of the heavens, but from horizon to zenith, it was one lurid flame. The rain poured in torrents for more than an hour, and streets and squares were flooded. I thought it a great storm; but the clerk of the hotel called it only a ‘baby-shower,’ and assured me that I ought to be here sometimes to know what a thundershower is.’ I was aware that they had everything upon a large scale in Omaha, but was not aware till now that they could boast this ‘the most thundering city upon the globe.’

I once heard two gentlemen—one from New York, and one from Philadelphia—praising each the advantages of their cities; and, after exhausting all arguments, the Philadelphian retorted, ‘Look here! Now, I would rather be a lamp-post in Philadelphia than an alderman in New York.’ So for me, I had rather be almost anything in an Eastern town than a citizen of Omaha,


The Missouri River flows by the city, but is of little service as a highway of commerce. It is a capricious stream, changing its channel so often that it has become a common saying, that you never know where to find it in the morning; and this fact, with the frequent and sudden changes in the depth of water, causes the ferry and steamboats (of which I have seen two in the river) to seek new moorings daily. As there are no wharves, the boats are run high and dry upon the banks for the purpose of landing freight and passengers—not a pleasant way for passengers, but no doubt economical for the steamers. This river is navigable more than 2,000 miles above this city at the high stages of water; but the railroads are fast taking the place of river service; and a few years more will see the steamers on the upper waters entirely withdrawn. It is a remarkably muddy stream at all seasons, and at its junction with the Mississippi its waters discolour those of the latter stream, changing them to its own cloudy yellow hue.

The Railway Bridge.—The Union Pacific Company has recently built an iron bridge over the Missouri River, between Council Bluffs and Omaha, which is regarded as one of the finest in the world. I obtained from T. E. Sickels, Esq., the engineer under whose direction the bridge has been built, the following information in regard to its construction.

Although erected upon principles heretofore applied, still, in the details, it has some peculiarities; and the whole structure has a grace and lightness, without the want of seeming strength, seldom seen in bridges of this class. The plans were recommended by Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, well known as the former chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad; but the bridge has been erected under the direction of Mr. Sickels since his election to that position. To the latter gentleman, therefore, belongs the honour of having erected the bridge, making it a success in every way, and that, too, at a saving of more than $100,000 from its estimated cost.

The plan of the bridge comprises eleven entirely distinct spans of iron superstructure (each span 250 feet in length), elevated 50 feet above high water, and supported on three stone masonry abutments and eleven piers, formed of cast-iron columns 82 feet in diameter, filled with cement masonry. The foundations of the abutments and the piers extend to the bed-rock underlying the sand, which is found at an average depth of 60 feet below low water in the river. Each span has a play of 2 1/2 inches for expansion and contraction. The original plan has been so modified as to provide for the use of the bridge for highway travel on the same level with the track of the railway; and wrought-iron has been substituted for cast-iron in the columns above high water.

In September 1868 a contract was made for sinking the iron columns, and the work was begun in February 1869; but, for various causes, the work was delayed, and afterwards entirely suspended until April 1871, when work was again commenced, which has been prosecuted since with great vigour; and, aided by the long continuance of the ice last winter, the bridge was completed sooner than was anticipated. The frozen river furnished a secure foundation for the transportation of the heavy iron-work, and for the erection of the ‘false work,’ as it is termed, which holds in place the iron-work until it is fastened securely. The superstructure is of the plan known as ‘Post’s truss,’ and is made of wrought-iron.

Those portions of the iron columns below water were cast in sections of ten feet each, having internal flanges at the ends; and, by means of bolts passing through them, the sections were securely fastened together. The ends of the sections were faced off in a lathe; and a red-lead joint was used to make them air-tight. The wrought-iron portion of the column (above high water) is also in sections of ten feet, the sections being fastened together with rivets. The thickness of the iron in this portion varies from half an inch at the bottom to three-eighths of an inch at the top. The thickness of the cast-iron portion is 1 1/2 inch.

The columns were first sunk as far as possible by the application to the top of the column of a weight connected with a lever. The water was then expelled from within the column by the pressure of air forced in by a steam air-pump; and the sand within was excavated by labourers down to about two feet below the bottom of the column, and taken out in small bags or buckets at the top. The air pressure was then withdrawn, and the column sank to a depth varying from 6 inches to 182 feet, according to the character of the materials through which the column was passing. The latter distance was the greatest descent made by any column in twenty-four consecutive hours.

This process of sinking iron columns is similar to that which has been largely used in Europe and India for like purposes, and for a few bridges in this country. By no other known method can subaqueous foundations be obtained with equal certainty and economy, where the depth necessary to secure stability is very considerable. The system is especially applicable to the construction of foundations for bridges across rivers like the Missouri, where the river-bed is composed chiefly of sand, and is liable to scour to depths of 50 or 60 feet. In the process of excavating sand from within the columns, lignite rotten-wood and bones of animals were found at the depth of 50 feet below water, showing that the river-bed has been scoured to that extent at least.

The upper surface of the rock, in every case where the columns reached it, was found to be worn smooth, presenting an appearance very similar to the effect produced on rock by the attrition of sand under great pressure. For greater security, the rock at the base of the columns was in every instance excavated to form a recess into which the column was sunk, whereby any horizontal motion of the base of the columns is effectually prevented.

The difficulties which were anticipated in sinking the columns were surmounted as fast as they arose, so that the work was in nowise delayed. In seven days, one of the columns was sunk to its rock-bed at a depth of 72 feet, the greatest depth to which either of the eleven columns was sunk being 82 feet.

The greatest pressure to which the men working in the columns were subjected was 54 pounds per square inch in excess of the atmosphere; yet from this extreme pressure, which is beyond precedent in works of this character, no injury or inconvenience resulted to the labourers. The bridge operations have fortunately been free from serious accidents to life or property. It was apprehended that the exposure of the labourers in the iron columns to an atmosphere condensed to three times its normal pressure might produce paralysis too severe, in some cases, to yield to medical treatment; but experience has proved that injuries to a person are not necessarily more frequent in the prosecution of work of this peculiar character than in works of a different kind, but of like magnitude. There have been employed in all some 500 men, 250 being the average number; and ten steam-engines have been required for hoisting, excavating, driving air-pumps, &c.

To connect the bridge with the main track of the railroad on the west side of the river, a branch line of road 7,000 feet in length has been constructed. From the river bluff to the west abutment, a distance of 700 feet, a timber trestle-bridge, 60 feet in height, has been built, around the timbers of which dirt is being filled as fast as possible: so that, in a short time, a handsomely-formed embankment will be made, which, on the river-end, is faced by a stone wall for some 15 feet up the side. The east approach will be by a continuous grade 1 1/2 mile in length, commencing on the Council Bluffs table-land, and ascending, at the rate of 35 feet to the mile, to the east end of the iron bridge. The total quantity of embankment in this approach is 550,000 cubic yards, which is now almost completed.

The weight of the superstructure is a ton per lineal foot. It is capable of sustaining a weight of ten tons to the foot, in addition to its own weight; but it is not intended that a greater load than two tons to the foot shall at any time be brought upon it. A train of the heaviest locomotives would weigh about 1 1/2 ton to the lineal foot. Each wrought-iron piece of the superstructure was tested with a tensile strain of five tons to the square inch of sectional area, before being accepted; and this strain is as great as any portion of the bridge will be required to endure under a load of two tons to the lineal foot.

The total cost of the bridge has been, in round numbers, $1,750,000 and, although trains have been running over it since spring, still the work goes on. It is hoped that, a few months will see the structure completed in every detail.

This bridge is the link which completes the chain binding together the oceans. Even after the rails were joined at Promontory (now a station on Central Pacific Railroad, fifty-two miles west of Ogden), still the Missouri had to be passed by a ferry. Now the passage is made over the bridge in the cars of the ‘Transfer Company.’ This Company was formed for the purpose of transporting passengers and merchandise across the bridge. By the payment of a stipulated sum to the Transfer Company, freight is taken to the Far West without breaking bulk.

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