Monday, September 9, 2013
North Platte Celebrates Its Railroad Roots Third Week Every September
By MURIEL CLARK
“Hell on Wheels,” the nickname give to the rowdy camp of railroad workers as they moved West building the Transcontinental Railroad, entered North Platte in November 1886 and it has been a railroad town ever since. As a matter of fact, North Platte was named Rail Town, USA by an act of Congress in 2008.
As the home of Union Pacific Railroad’s Bailey Yard, certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest railroad classification yard, it only makes sense that North Platte would develop one of the premiere railroad celebrations in America, the North Platte Rail Fest, www.npRailFest.com.
Held annually the third weekend in September, the cornerstone of the three-day Rail Fest is the bus tours of Bailey Yard. The only time of the year that the public is allowed on the nearly 3,000-acre operation, the tours bring visitors up close and personal to all aspects of the rail yard. Best of all, the tours are free thanks to generous donations from Union Pacific Railroad. Step-on guides will share their stories and information on yard operations during the two-hour tour. Tickets must be reserved in advance and are available through the Rail Fest website.
At Cody Park on Highway 83 on the north side of town, all of the skilled trades employed at the yard are represented at the exhibits of railroad jobs, tools and equipment. Railroad personnel are on hand to describe their jobs and what it takes to keep America “on track” by keeping nearly everything we buy rolling on schedule.
Cody Park is also the home of the Railroad Display which features the only Challenger steam locomotive on static public display. The other existing Challenger is owned by Union Pacific and, when running, pulls excursion trains. Also on display is a 6900 series diesel locomotive, the largest ever built. The public can climb in, on and around these huge engines and can explore the accompanying railroad memorabilia exhibit in railroad cars and an historic depot. The Cody Park Railroad Display closes after Rail Fest, but will reopen May 1, 2014.
Elsewhere in the park is non-stop entertainment under the pavilion, a model railroad show, kids activities and food, craft and railroad memorabilia vendors.
The Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center features an open air viewing deck on the 7th floor and a full enclosed and climate controlled viewing deck on the 8th floor overlooking Bailey Yard. The action in the yard doesn’t stop at sundown, so to give visitors a chance to see the operation at night, the Golden Spike is open until 11:00 p.m. Sept. 21.
Visitors also won’t want to miss the first-ever handcar races hosted on the new 700’ track at the Golden Spike Tower on Sept. 21. Five person teams will compete side by side to see who will be the first to cross the finish line. Handcars may have gone by the wayside in everyday use on railroads, but handcar racing is alive and well.
The Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center, www.GoldenSpikeTower.com, on the west side of town, is open all year around and is the best way to view Bailey Yard in North Platte. Click here for directions.
North Platte’s infamous past comes to life in a Cemetery Tour featuring an era when North Platte was known as “Little Chicago” and corruption, gambling, bootlegging and prostitution were running rampant through the town. Living history presenters will portray the big players in this age at their gravesites in the North Platte City Cemetery on Sept. 20-21.
On a lighter note, the heartwarming home front story of the North Platte World War II Canteen will be told on Sept. 22 in “The Canteen Spirit Experience” featuring a screening of the PBS documentary “Canteen Spirit” and a panel of Canteen volunteers and service personnel who came through. More than 6 million service men and women were greeted with a taste of home during their brief stops in North Platte on their way to the front lines of the war, and they never forgot it.
Guest blogger Muriel Clark is the assistant director at the North Platte Visitors Bureau and an ardent supporter of all things Nebraska. Her mission in life is to help people have fun and her vocation and avocation help her do just that. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook as Nebraska Outback.
To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.
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Stew Magnuson is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83.