While your image of Nebraska as mile upon mile of farms and grasslands is not off the mark, my time in the state uncovered bizarre roadside attractions (Carhenge), natural landmarks for Native Americans and emigrants on the Oregon, California and Mormon trails (Scotts Bluff National Monument and Chimney Rock) and the urban joys of Omaha with its innovative cuisine, outdoor sculpture gardens, music clubs, riverside parks and boutique hotels.
North Platte, however, was the surprise. Half way through the six-and-a-half hour drive across the state, I decided to stop at the world’s largest “railroad classification yard” where personnel sort, service and repair locomotives for Union Pacific Railroad. With the golden spike observation tower providing a birds eye view over the 315 miles of track, 985 switches, and 766 turnouts, , it would offer anyone a good excuse to stretch your legs but the history of this rail crossroads quickly draws you in for a longer visit.
In the late 1800’s, Buffalo Bill located Scouts Rest Ranch at North Platte because it allowed him to move his Wild West Show by train or by wagon across the United States quickly.
From 1941 to 1946, the North Platte “Canteen” supported more than six million service members being convoyed across the United States. Every day for 55 months, volunteers from this small community would offer 3,000 – 5,000 troops sandwiches, coffee, cookies, newspapers and friendly smiles.
“Upon stopping at North Platte, we were invaded by a swarm of angels, beautiful girls and charming women, all with a simple smile and cheery word . . . and food and drinks and candy bars and all the other things we needed. We were dumbfounded. . . .
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 . . . above all this we saw America.”
Letter from a wounded serviceman published in the North Platte Telegraph
North Platte was also a major destination for the “orphan trains” that ran from 1854 to 1929 transporting more than 250,000 orphans and unwanted children out of New York City to find homes thousands of miles away in the Midwest. The “placing out” system was originally organized by Methodist minister Charles Loring Brace and the Children’s Aid Society of New York. His mission was to rid the streets and overcrowded orphanages of homeless children and provide them with an opportunity to find new homes. Some found loving parents. Others ended up closer to indentured servants and field hands. In arriving at a train platform, people would gather to look over occupants of the train and decide if they wanted to take one home. Orphans that were not chosen stepped back on the train riding to the next town and starting the process all over again.
All of this and so much more transpired at a single rail crossroads in one small community in the middle of Nebraska.