I had just left North Platte, where I spent a couple hours being fascinated by what goes on every day at the world’s largest train yard. Up ahead, spanning six lanes of interstate, was what looked like an oversized covered bridge. Getting closer, it became obvious that it was a multistoried arch. A sign proclaimed it as the “Great Platte River Road Archway Monument.”
Back East, I have seen restaurants over turnpikes and expressways, but nothing like this in the Midwest. This, however, is no restaurant offering a sinuous scene that changes every second, but a museum and a monument to those who for centuries traveled this route, many before a road here was even thought of.
Nowhere are there more levels of migration across this continent than are found along the Platte River in central Nebraska. It began long before we showed up, as those truly native to this land migrated across the prairie — both man and animal.
The migrants best known to us, perhaps, were those half-million men, women and children who passed this way on the Oregon Trail in the mid-1800s. Most of them were destined to fill in the maps to the Pacific that Lewis and Clark had drawn earlier in the century. Others were on a rush for gold, a craze that was sweeping California. Still others, the Mormons, knew only that they were following their leader, who was to end their journey in Utah’s Salt Lake Valley.
Coinciding with this greatest of human migrations, the track of the Platte River was also that of the Pony Express, the first telegraph line, and the trans-continental railroad. Later the Lincoln Highway came through here, the first road across America; and later I-80, the nation’s first interstate. The most recent highway to follow the Platte was that of information — the fiber-optic cable that today links the nation.
Having parked, I was walking to the archway when I met Stephen Flood. He was outfitted as if he had just come off a cattle drive and had just brushed off the dust. Stephen, in his early 60s, was a school teacher here for 34 years. He now works in the museum.
“Had to stop to see this,” I told him.
I asked him the obvious: “How did they put it up?”
The challenge, of course, was to build the archway over 308 feet of heavily traveled interstate without shutting it down. So they built the archway beside the interstate. Then they lifted the 1,500-ton structure over the interstate and anchored it to the towers constructed on both sides of it.
“The exciting part was the rollout,” Stephen said. “I was teaching industrial arts at the time, so I had a special interest. Before the rollout, they had to jack it up 22 feet. That took eight days. Then on the night of August 16, 1999, they closed the interstate at 10 p.m. and began rolling it across. It was on TV, channel 13. We all stayed up and watched it. In fact, they play a short video of that now in the museum.
“By 6 a.m. the show was all over. The arch was welded into place and they reopened the interstate.”
Is this a great country or what?
Welcome to America’s Outback.
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]
Next month Bill will be in Santa Claus, Indiana.