Sioux City Railroad Museum seeks historical status for Milwaukee Railroad Shops

Sioux City, IA – The Siouxland Historical Railroad Association is seeking a historic designation to list the Milwaukee Railroad Shops Historic District in Sioux City on the National Register of Historic Places, a federal program administered by the National Park Service that recognizes buildings, structures and sites historically significant to the country, regions, states and local communities.

      The railroad museum organization formally submitted its application and draft nomination package last week to the State Historical Society of Iowa for review by the staff State Historic Preservation Office.  The submission last week kicks off a technical review process that will take several months by state staff and the State Nominations Review Committee. The first round of reviews will take place next week on Wednesday, December 2 at the State Historical Museum in Des Moines.

     Once approved by the State of Iowa, the nomination package will be forwarded to the National Park Service for its consideration of listing the Milwaukee Railroad Shops on the National Register of Historic Places. The Siouxland Historical Railroad Association is seeking designation of the Milwaukee Railroad Shops at the level of a “nationally significant” historic district.

     Situated on approximately 31.5 acres in Sioux City’s Riverside neighborhood, the Milwaukee Railroad Shops Historic District is a meat clever shaped property bordered by the Big Sioux River to the west, the BNSF Railway main line on the south to southwest, State Highway 12 –Sioux River Road on the east, and farmland on the north.  

     The historic landscape contains approximately 50 historic buildings, structures, foundations and industrial archaeological remnants that once formed the bustling Sioux City Roundhouse, Repair Shops and Engine Terminal of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railway.  The complex was built over a three year time span of 1916 to 1918, with its opening in mid-July 1918.

     Information supplied in the nomination package states the layout and configuration of the Milwaukee Railroad Shops Historic District was designed by renowned railroad civil engineer Charles F. Loweth. He is also known for his work in designing the Sioux City Elevated Railroad and railroad properties throughout the territories of the Dakotas, Wyoming and Pacific Northwest.

     In general, the Milwaukee Railroad Shops Historic District reflects a trend at the time in railroad land use and development relating to the servicing, repair and maintenance of steam locomotives and rolling stock. The buildings, structures, and other remnants are characteristic features of the era of the “Golden Age of Steam Railroading.”  According to historical research there were approximately 1,842 roundhouses and railroad repair shops built across the country during the steam locomotive era, employing over 400,000 railroad workers known as shopmen. By 1935, there were only 416 roundhouses and railroad repair shops in operation across the country, employing approximately 135,000, as the railroad industry started its transitioning to diesel locomotives. The Milwaukee Railroad Shops Historic District in Sioux City is one of seven roundhouse terminal landscapes in the nation with a comprehensive collection of buildings, structures, and industrial archaeological remnants to have survived into the 21st Century.

     At its peak during the 1930s, the Sioux City Roundhouse, Repair Shops and Engine Terminal repaired and rebuilt over 35 steam locomotives from coupler to coupler each month, repaired tens of thousands of rail cars, and fueled, serviced and maintained 850 steam locomotives a month. Complex employment topped over 585 shopmen during its height of operations during the 1920s and 1930s. The complex and employment were downsized in 1954, and saw the razing of several buildings and structures, when the Milwaukee Road railroad completely dieselized its motive power fleet.

     Notable events at the Milwaukee Railroad Shops Historic District include the 1922 Shopmen’s Strike, also known as the Great Railway Strike; the hiring of women to work as shopmen and railroad laborers during the strike, World War I and World War II; and the final bankruptcy of the railroad in 1980 that lead to the abandonment of the roundhouse terminal in 1981.

     Larry Obermeyer of the Siouxland Historical Railroad Association authored and prepared the nomination package; and he oversaw the extensive five-year historical research process. A team of volunteers helped with gathering research and historical information from across the country. Several family members of former railroad employees and railroad enthusiasts provided photographs of the complex to help illustrate in the application the history of the Milwaukee Railroad Shops over time. Archivists and librarians with the Milwaukee Public Library also assisted with the researching the Milwaukee Road Company Archives held by the library. The research team was able to find original blueprints for the Milwaukee Railroad Shops in the company archives. Other construction documents and site plans were obtained from the planning and zoning records maintained by the City of Sioux City.

      In 1991, the State Historical Society of Iowa determined the Milwaukee Railroad Shops Historic District was eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. This status was followed by the White House and National Trust for Historic Preservation designating the Milwaukee Railroad Shops Historic District an official millennium project of the Save America’s Treasures Program. The Milwaukee Railroad Shops Historic District was listed in 2000 by the Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance as one of Iowa Thirteen Most Endangered Historic Properties in the State.

     The Milwaukee Railroad Shops Historic District is currently undergoing extensive historic preservation work to transform the complex into a railroad museum and recreational area similar in scale to a national park. Over the past ten years, approximately $4 million in historic preservation work has been completed. Another round of $3 million of construction work is currently under way at the historic site.

 
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