COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa -- Rock, sway, clack puts him to sleep like it's a railroader's lullaby.

Later on, the young man watches trees zip past as the conductor keeps time with a pocket watch. The Union Pacific Domeliner flies down the tracks at more than 100 mph.

The young man sees passengers in coats and ties, dresses and fancy hats. He watches as porters handle luggage and marvels as waiters pour coffee without spilling a drop.

And he savors the best french toast he will ever taste, served on real china in the dining car.

"They soaked the bread overnight," said 68-year-old John Bromley, describing a favorite memory of passenger trains. "We called it railroad french toast. It was not for the diet conscious, but I don't suppose it mattered. Boy, that stuff was good."

We've invented faster, more convenient ways to travel.

But not a better way, said Bromley, director of historical programs for the Union Pacific Railroad.

Today, the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in downtown Council Bluffs, Iowa, will open a new permanent exhibit called "America Travels By Rail."

The exhibit features hundreds of artifacts, photos and archival material from the heydays of UP's passenger train era.

The sights and sounds will conjure fond memories among those who rode passenger trains while providing a hint to younger generations of what they missed.

The $560,000 exhibit took two years to complete and was made possible with funding by the Iowa West Foundation, the City of Council Bluffs and federal transportation-enhancement funds, said Beth Lindquist, museum director.

Although railroads began carrying passengers from their earliest days, the exhibit focuses on the years from 1930 to 1971. Until the development of the nation's interstate highway system in the late 1950s, most Americans made long journeys by rail.

But by 1971, passenger rail was no longer lucrative for the railroads, and it was ceded to government-run Amtrak.

While it lasted, commercial rail travel was a massive industry that touched almost every American.

"We're trying to bring people back in time," Lindquist said. "We want them to realize the importance of rail travel in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s."

Occupying an entire wing on the second floor of one of the most impressive former Carnegie libraries in the Midwest, the multimedia exhibit accomplishes sensory overload. It's simply a challenge to take it all in.

Curved walls flash archival photos from eight video projectors while audio tracks pipe the sounds of train bells, steam hissing from locomotives and random calls of "All aboard!"

Visitors can sit in period train seats installed in a simulated coach car. They can check out the UP-branded glassware used by railroad bartenders in lounge cars. And they can see real menus listing four-star meals prepared by the original iron chefs.

The exhibit also features panels on the role trains played in transporting troops during World War II. There are publicity photos of celebrities Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Stewart, Mickey Rooney and Bing Crosby all boarding passenger trains.

While some rode in comfort and luxury, others worked until they were bone weary. A set of exhibit panels describes the story of Pullman porters, who were unversially black.

The men routinely put in 100-hour weeks for $720 per year in the 1920s — far less than the $2,000 per year considered a minimum for a family of four. To challenge disparities and discrimination, the porters created the first black labor union in 1925.

It's a fascinating exhibit, very well done.

And it harkens to a time when travelers were happy to get from Chicago to New York in 40 hours instead of two, Bromley said.

"You were kind of in your own world," he said. "You didn't have to worry about doing anything for a day or two."

Reach Joe Duggan at 402-473-7239 or jduggan@journalstar.com.

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