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The History of Rail in Sioux City

The first railroad to lay track and build a line into Sioux City was the Sioux City and Pacific, with its first train arriving in town on March 9th, 1868. From the moment that first train arrived, Sioux City was destined to become a railroad town. On the heels of the Sioux City and Pacific railroad, 8 other rail lines would begin building lines to Sioux City. Eventually, those 8 railroads would consolidate into 6 major railroads, making Sioux City the 10th largest railroad center in the nation during the 1920s and 1930s.

The Milwaukee Railroad Repair Shops

As railroad traffic began to flourish in the plains states there was an increased demand for reliable equipment. The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, & Pacific, the line fondly known as the Milwaukee Road, made a capital commitment in 1912 to build a major repair shop terminal in Sioux City to meet the needs of the time. Construction on this historic railroad terminal began in 1916 with the clearing of the land between the Loess Hills and the Big Sioux River. Construction of the railyard began one year later in 1917 and completed in July of 1918.

At its peak of operations before WWII the Sioux City-based Milwaukee Road Shops employed over 500 shopmen. Unfortunately, this intense activity would wane after WWII and the Milwaukee Railroad Shops would undergo many physical changes as the railroad industry changed itself.

In 1954, The Milwaukee Road operated its last steam locomotive out of Sioux City. Similar to the steam locomotive the number of railroad workers employed at the site also dropped dramatically from over 560 workers during WWII to less than 10 by the mid-1950s. The shift from steam locomotives to diesels meant that many of the buildings and structures were now obsolete. The railroad retired and vacated many of those buildings, except for a portion of the roundhouse, which was transitioned to the maintenance of diesel engines and the car shops building as well. In 1954, the railroads engineering department raised many of the buildings and structures, including reducing the roundhouse from 30 stalls today’s 6 stall building.


The End of the Line for The Milwaukee Road

During the 1970s the Milwaukee Road tried to weather through the financial struggles and the bankruptcy. In 1977 they filed for bankruptcy protection, but its lack of access to cash caused deep financial difficulties that simply couldn’t be overcome.

The Junkyard Years

In 1981 the Sioux City-based Milwaukee railroad shops complex was sold to a farm machinery salvage company, which turned this once industrious complex into a junkyard. Over the next 14 years, the complex became blighted with junk tractors, trucks, cars and other farm machinery. The buildings fell into a state of major disrepair with broken windows and doors, as they were used to store all kinds junk, rubbish, and other items. The site deteriorated to the point where the Sioux City declared the property a nuisance, condemned that site, and issued a demolition order in 1994.


Before & After Header Image

The Milwaukee Road Shop Complex was saved from the wrecking ball when Larry Obermeyer, founding president of the Siouxland Historical Railroad Association (SHRA), worked with local elected officials and city staff to develop a preservation vision for transforming that complex into the Sioux City Railroad Museum. That vision led the SHRA buying the complex in December of 1995, with financial assistance from the city of Sioux City. And the extensive historic preservation work began.

The Sioux City Railroad Museum

Today, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. After receiving federal, state, and local grants, to go along with the generous contributions made by businesses and visitors, over the past few years there has been an unprecedented amount of building and grounds restoration. In turn, thousands of people come every year to see HISTORY UNDER RECONSTRUCTION at the old historic Milwaukee Railroad Shops. This historical site is nothing short of a spectacular transformation.