My map of Nebraska has Iowa on the other side of it. Looking at them both, it is hard to believe that the two states are neighbors. Iowa is a maze of secondary roads, country boundaries and white-circle towns. Nebraska, except for the southeastern corner, is mostly white space – few roads, very few towns. Out in that white space, the open prairie, is the city of North Platte, Nebraska, population 24,000. The red-and-black line of Interstate 80 runs by it, as does the broken-line trace of the Oregon Trail. And a thin line marking a railroad track runs through it, as do the light-blue outlines of two rivers. These map symbols graphically tell the story of North Platte, past and present.
The story begins with its location, its very lifeblood. North Platte is roughly halfway between Denver, Colorado, and Omaha, Nebraska. With 1,486 motel rooms, two private RV parks, dozens of campsites and a huge Wal-Mart parking lot, it is an obvious overnight stop for travelers of all types. Nebraska’s largest western gift shop – Fort Cody Trading Post – is here, complete with an Old West Museum and a miniaturized, mechanized version of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Clearly, tourism is the big industry in North Platte. Just how big is evident by the number, size and height of the signs that cluster around the interstate like drilling rigs in a rich oil field. Some even tell the time, the temperature and the price of gas. The first travelers to pass this way were not concerned with gas or the price of it.
They needed only feed and water for themselves and their livestock. The year was 1840. They numbered about a thousand – a mere omen of the multitudes to follow on the Oregon Trail, which was also the track the Mormons took on their pilgrimage west, as well as the gold-rush crowd bound for California. Most with oxen-drawn wagons, and some pushing handcarts, the emigrants followed the Platte River from Kansas City and other takeoff points along the Missouri River. The Overland Stage and the Pony Express used this well-established trail past North Platte. So did the railroad; it reached here in 1866. The South Platte River, coming out of Colorado, joins here with the North Platte, which the
Oregon Trail follows well into what is now Wyoming. On the strip of land between the two rivers is the city of North Platte, seat of Lincoln County.
Those involved in tourism have more showy attractions to offer than the dusty remnants of the Oregon Trail, apparently, so little is made of the town’s important proximity to it. It was a search, but I found a permanent marker that reads: Oregon Trail Marked by the State of Nebraska 1914. To put that year in chronological prospective, the state also erected near it a watering trough for horses. Both are cut from granite. Framed by greenery, they are at the entrance to the University of Nebraska West Central Research Extension Center, south of town. Driving back into town, I stopped at the Iron Horse Park Lake, one of many small lakes along I-80.
During the building of the interstate in the 1950s, road crews dug huge pits as they hauled out gravel for construction of the road. The pits later filled with water, creating “Nebraska’s chain of lakes.” Here a local group of veterans is building “America’s 20th-Century Veterans Memorial.” Adjacent to the junction of I-80 and U.S. Highway 83, it will honor all those who served this country in the military during the last century. Located in Middle America as it is, this seems an appropriate place for it. Within this ambitious and very impressive project will be a special memorial honoring those who staffed the famed North Platte Depot Canteen during World War II. It was opened shortly after December 7, 1941, and ran day and night until April 1, 1945. Every cross-country troop train stopped in North Platte. Local folks manned the canteen and met each train, handing out homemade food, drinks and sundries.
Any soldier or sailor who was having a birthday always got a cake. To this day, the mayor and other officials here get letters from veterans expressing gratitude. For many, North Platte was their last “hometown experience” before going to war. In 1975, the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) created a minipark with a fitting memorial honoring the 500 canteen volunteers from here and 125 surrounding communities. It’s on Front Street near where the depot and the canteen once stood. The UP is the biggest single employer here and has a huge presence. It quietly goes about its routine around-the-clock operation with little fuss or whistle blowing. The massive Bailey Yard covers 2,850 acres, reaching a total length of eight miles, well beyond the town limits.
It is the biggest railroad classification yard in the world. Every 24 hours, it handles 10,000 railroad cars. Of those, 3,000 are sorted in the yard’s eastward and westward yards, nicknamed “hump” yards. Using a mound cresting 34 feet for eastbound trains and 20 feet for those heading west, the two hump yards allow four cars a minute to roll gently to any of the 114 “bowl” tracks, where they become part of trains headed for dozens of destinations. Besides sorting cars, the Bailey Yard accommodates a growing number of “unit” trains that carry one commodity to one customer, like coal to a power company. Up to 32 coal trains, originating daily in the Power River Basin of northeastern Wyoming, pass through here, needing only quick servicing before continuing on “run-through” tracks.
One of the UP’s largest locomotive repair shops is here. Working around the clock, 900 technicians repair 750 locomotives every month. In an average day, they service another 350 locomotives, and they pump 14 million gallons of diesel fuel here every month. Beyond the Diesel Shop, there is a covered platform where tourists can watch the operations at the East Hump Tower. One of the early (1878 -1913) and frequent users of train service out of North Platte was William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. He organized his Wild West shows from his ranch north of town and moved his show both by train and wagon.
His ranch, now operated by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission as a state historical park, is beautifully maintained and open to the public. On the northern edge of town is spacious Cody Park. Its entrance is lined with the flags of all the states and foreign countries where Buffalo Bill performed. Centered in this esplanade of flags is a bronze statue of him, estimated to be valued at a quarter of a million dollars. This is where it all started for America’s most famous Wild West personality and showman.