Our options for "learning opportunities" (aka 'things to do') in the Omaha area were greatly limited by weather, but we found a couple of train museums! The timing could not have been more perfect. The top headlines of the week included an Amtrak accident in Philadelphia that already had the boys asking questions about how trains work. It was time to find out!
This FREE museum in Council Bluffs, IA was created to educate others about the history, and future, of America's railroad industry. There are three main sections to the museum : the Lincoln collection, the Transcontinental Railroad, and the history of rail travel.
First, we had to build the railroad. The boys used dynamite to blow out the side of the mountain and constructed trestle bridges to span the rivers.
A virtual game allows you to physically build the railroad...from outfitting yourself properly to laying the tracks and hammering in the spikes. Once the train has been completed, you can ride as a passenger or engineer it through a multitude of landscapes.
Take a turn driving the train through several different landscapes!
There are many hands-on exhibits and virtual experiences so that you can travel on the railroads just like your great-grandparents did!
The Lincoln collection has several pieces from his private life, but the shining exhibit is his personal rail car that was constructed in 1864. Lincoln only ever rode on this rail car once...to Springfield, IL where he was buried. It's beautifully macabre...
Finally, part of the history of rail travel is communication. We learned about the importance of telephones and operators, as well as standard rail time. The purpose behind introducing railway time was twofold: to overcome the confusion caused by having non-uniform local times in each town and station stops along the expanding railway network, and to reduce the incidence of accidents and near misses, which were becoming more frequent as the number of train journeys increased.
Across the river in Omaha, NB is the old Union Station. Maybe you've heard of a 'Union Station' in other cities...what makes something a union station is the fact that it connects multiple railway lines.
Union Station opened in January 1931 and quickly became one of the busiest stations in the nation. At its heyday, 64 passenger trains and over 10,000 passengers came through the station each day. The last train ran through there in 1971.
The first things you'll notice when you walk inside are the eye-popping ceiling and the bronze statues. It is the statues that make the place feel 'alive,' like you are re-living the golden age of railroad history in the 1940's. Actually, the whole museum has that vibe about it...
Take the escalator downstairs to ride the trolley through town and take the train across country! On your trip, you'll pass vintage cars and beautiful scenery. If you're an HO train lover, there is a track setup that spans over half the length of the museum - it covers the evolution of the Union Pacific railroad, from laying the track, through its peak, and to its position today.
Inside the train itself, you can easily imagine what it would have been like to travel across country. The lounge and dining cars are reminiscent of White Christmas, but the berth cars are different.
Our guide told us that there were two types of berths : one had separate bedrooms, while the other was a living room that folded out into a bedroom. These were the latter type. Honestly, I think I'd prefer the former! Six families slept on one rail car in little bunkbeds...with very little space to move. If you were travelling alone, you had an actual room, but the bed folded down on top of the toilet, and if you had to go in the night, you had to unhitch your bed first!
There are many historical exhibits on the other side of the museum about the history of Omaha. One of our favorites was the dress-up area....it's fun to be silly!
Rail Travel unit study :
- Railroad Standard Time resources
- The Little Engine that Could
- Freight Train
- Trains lapbook (pre-school)
- Union Station resource guide
Transcontinental Railroad unit study :