North Platte and Kearney, Nebraska: May 15-20, 2012

After skimming the lower margin of Wyoming, we dipped down slightly to do the same across the northern border of Nebraska. We had visited Omaha and adjacent area in 2010, but we thought we should have a look at a few additional locales.

The first stop was North Platte. The railroad people in Ely, Nevada told us we had to make a stop here because it housed the world’s largest railroad make-up facility, the Bailey Yard. Midway between Chicago and Salt Lake City – and between Omaha and Denver — the Yard is eight miles long and covers almost 3,000 acres. Its origins date back to 1866, when the first train passed through and Chief Engineer Grenville Dodge platted a railroad town and built the first yard. Most of its growth to its current monstrous size took place from 1948 on. Its 17 incoming and 16 departure tracks handle up to 14,000 cars a day. A substantial number of those cars go through a sortation and makeup process by “humping” them. Pushed to the top of either the east or west hump, they roll down the other side and are directed to one of 114 bowl tracks, each one representing a separate transport. And they’re added in reverse order of destination, a first in/last out sequence.

The makeup operation is just one of many that take place at Bailey. The engine building is the size of three football fields and repairs over 750 locomotives a month. That doesn’t include the pit-stop-like facility that does minor service (less than an hour) on line without detaching cars. The car repair facility replaces over 10,000 trucks a year, identifying bad wheels with ultrasound. There’s a fuel station, of course, and a sand tower that refills the anti-slip compound.

Operating 24/7, Bailey employs about 2,600. The public gets to view it from the eight story Golden Spike Tower. Opened in 2008, it is obviously not the location of the golden spike, but it’s the east-west midpoint of UP’s line. The 8th floor is an enclosed 360 view, reminiscent of an airport flight controller’s workplace, while the 7th floor balcony is open for pictures without glass. But here’s some representative views. The cars in the middle of the last two pictures are rolling down one of the humps.

While the yard is very special – certainly a must-see for anyone who ever had a model train setup – the real celebrity in town is William F. Cody. The ubiquitous Buffalo Bill was born in Iowa in 1846, lived for many years in Kansas, served the army and westward expansion after the Civil War, established a ranch in North Platte in 1877, built the town of Cody, Wyoming in 1896, and was buried at his request on Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado (we visited there). The story goes that in 1878, North Platteans (Platte-ites?) asked him to put together a July 4th celebration, and the rodeo-like result was the precursor to his Wild West Show. His life, as you likely know, financially soared to meteoric highs and sunk to desperate lows. The 4,000 acre Scouts Rest prospered during his heyday; he sold it to meet debts in 1911 but stayed on for two more years and then moved to Cody. He died in 1917, just shy of his 71st birthday.

Scout’s Rest became a state historical park in 1965; its 265 remaining acres include his house and barn restored, a wealth of memorabilia, and a recreation area that includes picnicking, fishing, hiking and a campground with 23 improved sites. There’s a well-documented self-guided tour through the house and barn. The den includes Cody’s furniture, and most of the other rooms mingle family owned furnishings along with supplemental pieces. The wallpaper in the dining room is an authentic reproduction of the Cody-designed original. The barn features rafters carved to replicate gunstocks, and, at each end, there’s an ace of hearts with a bullet hole in it – Annie Oakley’s trademark. A bison rancher houses part of his stock on the property for atmosphere, and a grass-roofed hut behind the barn (last two pictures) was Bill’s recuperation room.

We picked up a walking tour booklet of historical downtown but drove it to save time. There were commercial buildings, fraternal halls, hotels, banks, a Carnegie library, a service station and two big old theaters, the Paramount and the Fox. We also stopped in at Cody Park, where both the age of steam and the age of diesel were represented. You could climb all through them, and it was fascinating to see the difference in the last two pictures below.

Just down the street from our campground was the Fort Cody Trading Post, housing every jimcrack and geegaw you could possibly imagine – along with a miniature rendition of the Wild West Show, featuring over 20,000 hand carved figures created by Ernie and Virginia Palmquist over a 12 year period. They are arranged in multiple dioramas, and at the dot of each half hour, about a hundred of them come alive.

We took a tour of the Lincoln County Historical Museum. The grounds feature a blacksmith shop, pony express station, ort headquarters, and a 1899 Sears Roebuck house, replete with original furniture, wallpaper and outbuildings. Also featured is the home of William Jeffers (1876-1953), a native of North Platte who rose from UP call boy at age 14 to its presidency from 1937 until his death. A get-it-done type, FDR appointed him to the War Production Board as “rubber czar,” and in addition to easing the crisis through rationing, he was instrumental in the development of synthetic rubber. The first four pictures below are monuments in front of the museum that represent four eras: The Mormon Western Trek, The Oregon Trail, The Civil War, and The Coming of the Railroad.

But I’ve saved the best for last. Both the Golden Spike Tower and the Museum tell the story of the North Platte Canteen. On December 17, 1941, just ten days after Pearl Harbor, when a troop train passed through from Ft. Robinson, word of mouth brought over 500 townspeople to the depot, their arms full of gifts and goodies. Walking home from that first event, 26 year old Rae Wilson, a local drugstore sales associate, hatched and promoted the idea of providing similar greetings to all trains which typically stopped for just ten minutes at the rail yard.

This was just the start of the transit of over 6 million young men through North Platte on troop trains, plucked from their homes and families and thrown into service . The locals began serving all trains, tirelessly bringing a few minutes of surcease to the pain: a smile, a cup of coffee, home baked goodies, sandwiches, candy, magazines, cigarettes, birthday cakes, words of comfort and compassion, a hug, and a good-bye wave. Radios and juke boxes added to the festival, and a piano played by either servicemen or volunteers led to impromptu jam sessions.

UP president Jeffers provided space in the station for this effort. Donations came in from pennies to hundreds; gifts, equipment and services of all kinds came in from the entire area and the nation. Almost 100 towns provided volunteers. The program lasted until April 1, 1946.

The Museum features audio and video remembrances along with a pictorial history. A wounded serviceman who passed through on a hospital train in 1945 sent a letter of thanks in a letter that ended thusly: “We know you call us ‘your boys’ but I wonder if you realize whom we saw in you? We saw our mothers, our wives, our sisters and daughters and sweethearts–but above all this, we saw–America.”

From North Platte, we made another whistle stop in Kearney, Nebraska on the advice of our new Missouri friends. It is the home of the Great Platte River Road Archway, a museum of the western movement that literally transcends all lanes of the Lincoln Highway – a distance of over 300 feet. Building the structure, which emulates a covered bridge, involved erecting the two pedestals on either side of the highway, prefabricating the 1,500 ton bridge itself, and moving it into place. The last step was completed overnight in August, 16, 1999 and it was finally opened the following year. It has had its share of financial woes, caused in part by the start-up price tag and lack of a highway exit at the site. But it puts on a good show, and it even has free overnight RV parking.

Inside the ground level entrance, you pay your fare and get greeted by a cowboy reenactor. This large lobby features a restaurant and gift shop, and it’s bisected by an elevator to the sky – at least it seems that long. Framed by statuary and scenery, it leads up to the bridge where the interactive tale of the years between 1843 and 1869 begins with a violent lightning storm on the barren prairie. From then on, you meet scene after scene of the mighty overland trek along all of the Trails. You meet potential Oregonians, Californians and Utah-bound Mormons, on their way from Winter Quarters near Omaha, where they bivouacked before their Great Plains venture. The stories were not restricted to the travelers but also told of the life-changes of the Native American, the American Bison, the Mountain Man, the Trapper, and the Gold-Panner.

Suddenly, you’re extracted from the 19th century (and the dark) into the 20th, and the history continues. Though now it’s about cars, and roadways, and drive-ins, and main streets. As you level off, you find another escalator, and it returns you to your starting point (though you never detected the U-turn). Outside lay the river and a number of other exhibits.

Another excursion in town involved Fort Kearney. Established in 1848, it succeeded the first fort established to protect travelers on the Oregon Trail. Others followed, until a network of safety was established. Little remains of the fort today, shown in the few pictures below. There is a Fort Kearney Museum, however, which we investigated. It portrayed numerous stories; my favorite was that of the Opera House in Kearney, told in last three pix below. The first shows the building; the second some souvenirs, and the third, the curtain, replete with advertisements of local establishments. I heard a story recently of a town in financial straits that’s selling ad space on its fire engines and manhole covers. Nothing’s new under the sun!

Our final escapade in Kearney was a visit to a dedicated Classic Car Collection, just recently opened. It is the pride of Omaha real estate mogul Bernie Taulborg and his wife Janice, who amassed a collection of 157 cars over nearly 40 years. The oldest is a 1903 Metz. The Taulborg family have retained 26 favorites, but the balance are on display here adjacent to a Cabella’s store. There are many prizes, mostly arranged by manufacture so you get a history of their evolution. One thing Bernie procured was a sample each of the three years that Ford produced the hard-top convertible, the Sunliner. I’m picturing my favorite: a boat-tailed MG!


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