Both the Homestead Trail and Jamaica Trail, running south of Lincoln, Nebraska, use nearly 50 miles of a former Union Pacific (UP) branch line. The history of this corridor traces back to the late 1870s, constructed by a UP subsidiary as a means of adding agricultural traffic to the parent’s main lines to Omaha and Kansas City. While UP is often not considered a true “granger railroad” (systems whose substantial portion of freight was agricultural), such as the Rock Island, Chicago & North Western, or Chicago Great Western, it did operate several branches along the eastern end of its system for the express purpose of tapping agricultural traffic. With little freight remaining by the early 2000s, UP elected to abandon the line, forming today’s trails.
According to Joe Welsh and Kevin Holland’s book “Union Pacific Railroad,” The UP is arguably the most famous worldwide. In the United States that is certainly the case, since it is the largest and one of the oldest rail lines. Its history traces back to the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, created by Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 1. The act authorized the formation of the new Union Pacific and Central Pacific to build the Transcontinental Railroad, providing a coast-to-coast rail link as well as open trade across the West. The two lines met at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, forever changing how we move people and goods throughout the country. The Central Pacific would disappear into Southern Pacific, while the Union Pacific continued growing and expanding throughout the 19th century. By the early 1890s, it stretched from Omaha, Nebraska, to Ogden, Utah, with a secondary main line between Denver and Kansas City, thanks to its takeover of the Kansas Pacific Railway in 1874.
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It also reached Butte, Montana, much of Idaho, and Portland, Oregon, via control of the Oregon Short Line, Utah & Northern, and various other subsidiaries. Union Pacific experienced its only two notable bankruptcies during the late 19th century; it was reorganized as the Union Pacific Railway in early 1880 and again fell into receivership during the financial Panic of 1893. From that it emerged in 1897 as the Union Pacific Railroad once more. Additional expansions through the early 20th century provided UP with its own transcontinental connection to Los Angeles, a main line that continues playing an important role within the company today. By 1950, the “original” UP operated roughly 9,720 route miles serving eleven states. However, several acquisitions toward the end of the 20th century, which included the massive Southern Pacific along with the Denver & Rio Grande Western, Missouri Pacific, Chicago & North Western, Western Pacific, and Missouri-Kansas-Texas (the “Katy”), swelled its size to more than three-fold. Today, Union Pacific operates over 32,000 route miles.
The right-of-way composing today’s Homestead and Jamaica Trails was a series of former branch lines UP constructed in Nebraska and Kansas to feed agricultural traffic and other freight to its main lines. The primary subsidiary was known as the Omaha & Republican Valley Railroad (O&RV), incorporated in August 1876. A year later, the O&RV began construction west from Valley, Nebraska, to Rising City, reaching Stromberg by December 1879. This branch would eventually reconnect with the UP main line at Central City by 1906. During January 1884, the O&RV had completed its line between Valley and the Nebraska–Kansas state line, running via Beatrice and Lincoln. From the state line it connected with another UP subsidiary known as the Marysville & Blue Valley Railroad, which reached Marysville, Kansas, in January 1880.
There were various other small subsidiaries and consolidations that formed the Omaha & Republican Valley Railway on June 26, 1886. A year later, it became known as the Omaha & Republican Valley District before being formally sold to the Union Pacific Railroad on October 4, 1898. For many years, this branch south of Lincoln to Marysville remained under UP direction. The company’s 1969 timetables in “The Official Guide Of The Railways” lists the corridor under two sections, Valley to Beatrice (97 miles), along with the 38-mile route between the latter town and Marysville, totaling 135 miles in all. As business declined on these secondary lines, the company elected to abandon much of the corridor in 2000 between Marysville and Lincoln (78 miles) after no short line operators stepped forward to keep it in service.
Railroad attractions across Nebraska include the Durham Museum in Omaha; Fremont & Elkhorn Valley Railroad/Fremont Dinner Train in Fremont, which runs on 17 miles of the old Cowboy Line; Golden Spike Tower overlooking UP’s massive yard in Bailey Yard at North Platte; Omaha Zoo Railroad in Omaha; Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island, featuring a small collection of historic rolling stock; and the Trails & Rails Museum in Kearney.