Preserve Iowa Summit to Spotlight Council Bluffs
One of Google’s biggest data centers is in Council Bluffs because Abraham Lincoln made a surprise visit to the city one afternoon in August 1859. He’d been campaigning in Kansas when a steamboat captain offered to shuttle him up the Missouri River to Iowa, where locals led him up a hill and pointed way out west to show him a potential route for the first transcontinental railroad.
When Lincoln did, in fact, choose that route in 1864 (over several fiercely competing alternatives), Council Bluffs became the hub of a vast national network of railroads — along which telephone lines and fiber-optic cables were installed many years later.
“We’re all familiar with ‘online’ and ‘offline.’ That’s a railroad term, and it meant as much then as it does now. If you were offline, you were separated from the world,” said Patricia LaBounty, a curator at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in downtown Council Bluffs.
So it makes sense, then, that the city is a community partner for this year’s virtual Preserve Iowa Summit. Presented annually by the State Historic Preservation Office, which is part of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, the annual statewide conference offers workshops and tours for historic-preservation professionals and volunteers.
This year’s theme, “The Trail Ahead,” looks two ways at once: back to Council Bluffs’ history as a trailhead for explorers and settlers, and forward to a potential future where communities across Iowa use local history to create a sense of place and shared identity.
“Historic preservation celebrates the ingenuity of previous generations and inspires pride in our cities and towns today,” said summit organizer Paula Mohr, an architectural historian with the State Historic Preservation Office. “Every dot on the Iowa map has historic sites and stories that are worth saving.”
Those stories abound in Council Bluffs. In its heyday at the turn of the 20th century, it was the fifth largest railroad center in North America, with 17 depots just for passenger trains. It was the country’s second largest postal distribution center.
“So imagine all that wealth, all that technology, all that information, all those goods and services coming straight through here,” said Tom Emmett, executive director of the Historic General Dodge House, whose namesake was an influential friend of President Lincoln. “All you’d hear around here right now, if we were in the 1890s, would be constant train whistles.”
The transcontinental railroad accelerated coast-to-coast trips from six months to a single week, which allowed millions of Americans to visit far-flung family and friends. It enabled farmers to ship crops worldwide and consumers to eat all sorts of new foods. It turned the United States into a global superpower.
And it all started at Mile Zero, in Council Bluffs.
When local students visit the railroad museum, LaBounty encourages them to take pride in their city’s role in the broader sweep of national and world history. She compares the magnitude of the railroad’s impact to another big public-private project.
“When you look at the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, just 100 years later, we put a man on the moon,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of communities in the country that can claim the origin point of such a national story.”
2021 Preserve Iowa Summit
When: June 3–5
— Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs