A Railroad Town on the Prairie
Grand Island has been a railroad center since the Union Pacific Railroad first reached here in July 1866, building westward as part of the original transcontinental railroad. 146 miles west of the starting point of the Union Pacific (UP) at Council Bluffs, Iowa, Grand Island became a major engine and crew change point. A depot and locomotive maintenance shops were built and added as the city and railroad prospered. Grand Island’s business trade territory expanded as other Union Pacific rails were laid from 1879-1891, connecting Grand Island to regional markets and distant cities.
Grand Island became a crossroads for rail traffic in 1884.
Grand Island literally became a crossroads for rail traffic in 1884 when the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad reached Grand Island, pushing a line northwest from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Billings, Montana (This later became the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy.). The Union Pacific and Burlington crossed at grade on the city’s east side for more than 100 years.
In 1885, the UP locomotive shop in Grand Island was converted to freight car construction and maintenance, a role it maintained for many years. UP’s Grand Island roundhouse provided local employment as workers carried out repairs and maintenance on the steam locomotives. At its peak in the 1920s, the roundhouse consisted of 40 stalls where engines could be serviced.
To eliminate the crossing of the two lines at grade, which had reportedly become the busiest railroad intersection in America, a new Burlington overpass of the Union Pacific main line was completed with the first train over the new line on July 27, 1995.
The city’s former Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Depot remains, known as the Plum Street Station. This 1911 passenger depot was saved and renovated by the Hall County Historical Society. It retains the original floor and wall tiles, woodwork and bricks. The passenger building is now a reception hall and small parlor with restrooms, and the freight building is home to the Tri-City Model Railroad Association. Sadly, none of the Union Pacific depots remain, including the stunning 1918 depot considered one of the finest small city depots in the United States.