November 19, 2014

Visiting Council Bluffs and Omaha

On October 18, Tim and I decided to make a stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa. There were several reasons.  Council Bluffs was a good stopping point, it had a direct connection to Lewis and Clark and it was across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska, which we also wanted to visit.  

In a journal entry dated August 3 1804, Lewis and Clark recorded their now-historic meeting with Otoe-Missouria Indians at the “council bluff” above the Missouri River.  Several decades later a city developed there, and thousands of pioneers made it a crossroads to the west.  In 1853, the city was renamed Council Bluffs after the title given to the region by Lewis and Clark.  Council Bluffs quickly grew into a prosperous rail and river town.

We typically don’t spend much time in cities, but when we do we look for an RV park as close to the city as possible.  Although these parks typically lack the scenic qualities we prefer, proximity usually trumps scenery since we don’t want to spend our time commuting back and forth to a campground.  In Council Bluffs, our only option seemed to be Casino RV Park, which was no more than an asphalt parking lot with electric and water hookups.  This RV park, however, worked out just fine, and it was close to every place we wanted to visit.  

Mostly, it seemed that we (or I) visited museums – ones about historic trails, railroads, art and history – quite a large number of quality facilities to educate and entertain us.  While Tim watched football, I headed to the Western Historic Trails Center, which interprets the Lewis and Clark, Mormon, California and Oregon trails.  Outside the center is a very cool sculpture, which represents a cross-section of the topography from the Mississippi to the Pacific.  Inside, I enjoyed the 200+ sculptures that create a series of vignettes about various aspects of life on the trails.  The displays also carry the idea of trails into the twentieth century with a section about the lure of the road and trips to the west by car.  It was a small interpretive center, but it provided a somewhat different perspective about westward migration.

A Vignette at the Western Historic Trails Center

Since I’m a railroad buff, I also visited the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, located in the historic Carnegie Library in Council Bluffs.  The museum’s exhibit “Building America” quickly refreshed my memory about the significance of Council Bluffs in railroad history - Council Bluffs was the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad and was where the Union Pacific Railroad began laying the tracks that would finally meet those of the Central Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah. 

Although that exhibit was cleverly presented with interactive displays and video-game technology, I preferred “America Travels by Rail.”  I loved gazing at the various railroad china patterns, as well as the posters and other ephemera produced by the railroads to entice passengers to travel to the western national parks.  It was especially fun to see some of the same items that I have in my own collection.  (That collection did make it into our storage unit, in case you’re wondering.)

Lots of Railroad China
Winged Streamliner - My Favorite China Pattern

A Union Pacific Dining Car
Railroads Promoting the National Parks

Tim and I also spent parts of two days in Omaha, which turned out to be a very interesting historic city.  Our first stop was the National Park Service Midwest Regional Office, which also houses the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail visitor center.  Here we met Tim’s former colleague Heather Young, the curator for the Midwest region.  Tim and Heather have been in touch since his retirement, and it was Heather who advised Tim of the opportunity for the cataloging project at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site in North Dakota.  We had a wonderful lunch in one of the historic buildings in the Old Market area.  I loved getting to know Heather and learning a bit about her life in Omaha.

The Old Market District

Tim and I also checked out the beautiful Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which crosses the Missouri River and is the longest pedestrian bridge to link two states.  It was a beautiful day to walk across the bridge.

Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge

Approaching the "Bob"

It's Like Walking on Art Suspended Over the Missouri River

We returned to Omaha to visit the Joslyn Art Museum, which is housed in an amazing Art Deco structure.  The Joslyn is world-renowned for its extensive body of works by Swiss artist Karl Bodmer.  We had first learned of Bodmer at Fort Union, and it was a treat to see some of the original watercolors he painted during his 1832-34 journey to the Missouri River frontier with Prince Maximilian of Germany.  Perhaps even more fascinating, however, were several of Prince Maximilian’s original journals that were also on display.
Prince Maxmilian's Journals and Karl Bodmer's Prints

Karl Bodmer's Watercolor of the Bijoux Hills on the Missouri River

In the museum’s outstanding “Art of the American West” collection, we discovered other artists who were painting in the Upper Missouri during the era of exploration.  These pieces helped us gain a broader understanding of the places and events that we had been learning about during our travels down the Missouri.  The Joslyn was definitely the highlight of our visit to Omaha.

The Joslyn Art Museum (Yes, We Also Toured the Andy Warhol Exhibit)

One final stop was on my list, and that was a visit to Omaha’s historic Union Station, one of the nation’s first Art Deco train stations.  The station has been beautifully preserved and now houses The Durham Museum.  I was more interested in the incredible architecture of the station, but I did take a quick tour of the exhibits that chronicle Omaha’s history.

Omaha's Union Station

Council Bluffs was a good place to check off a few errands that are much easier to take care of in a larger city.  The Subaru got a quick oil change, and Tim purchased a new smartphone.  Verizon had just announced a promotion that would double the data on our plan, and we jumped on the offer.  Even though we rarely download movies or books, we do need a substantial amount of data for our internet needs.  With the double-data plan, we will no longer have to worry about exceeding our monthly limits.

During our stay in Council Bluffs, Tim’s thoughts turned to baseball.  The Kansas City Royals had just clinched a trip to the World Series, and we were only 200 miles north of Kansas City.  When Tim finally said something to me about the World Series, I immediately encouraged him to look into tickets.  It didn’t matter how expensive they were – we were just too close to Kansas City not to take advantage of what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend a game.  Tim couldn’t make the first game, but we could leave on Wednesday and arrive in time for him to make Game 2.  We quickly tossed any other plans out the window and made a beeline to Kansas City.  I’ll tell you all about it in the next post.


  1. What a beautiful pedestrian bridge!

    1. It really is. I thought of you as we were walking across (I haven't forgotten all of my urban design lessons!). I was told that it was often called the "Bridge to Nowhere" by some folks when it was first built, but it has definitely led to the revitalization of the riverfront, particularly on the Omaha side.


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