Union Pacific In North Platte
Western Nebraska is sparsely populated. The Sand Hills in the north and the plains to the south are full of small, dusty towns; many of them not far removed from the image of the frontier cow town. Most of them serve as place to buy goods for those who live and work on the surrounding ranches and farms.
Many of these towns feature little more than a gas station / convenience store, a small grocery and general goods store, a post office, and a population somewhere in the low to mid hundreds.
Most of these towns grew up along the railroad; some along a mainline but many along a lightly trafficked branch. Most of those branches are long gone, a dusty trail choked with weeds in the center of town the only reminder of what was.
And then there is North Platte.
Chance has been good to North Platte. Its central location along the first transcontinental railroad made it the choice location when the Union Pacific Railroad needed to build a division town. Unlike many such towns throughout the years, North Platte only grew in importance as traffic boomed on lines to Chicago and Kansas City, the junction of which is located not far to the east.
The proximity to lines fanning out in multiple directions to the east, as well as the mainline and the coal line to the Powder River Basin diverging to the west, has kept traffic increasing over the years to the point that North Platte is now home to both the largest and busiest freight yard in the world as well as the busiest freight mainline on the planet.
Not bad for a hastily built tent city thrown up as “hell on wheels” passed through in the 1860s.
With good reason, Union Pacific is proud of North Platte. The railroad has long been aware of its unique place in American history, and has long been the most active Class I when it comes to preserving its own place in history. A pair of city parks make that case in fine fashion. Cody park is home to one of the railroad’s massive Challenger type steam locomotives.
4-6-6-4 #3977 is well cared for, dressed in the Greyhound passenger colors a number of oil burning Challengers wore when they worked in passenger service on the line to Portland, Oregon. Inspecting the locomotive up close, it appears an oil fire in her belly and water in the boiler would be all she needs to join sister #3985 out on the mainline; an illusion maybe, but it is a nice thought.
Next to #3977 is another Union Pacific icon, DD40AX “Centennial” diesel #6922. Named and numbered for the 100th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, these eight axle, 6600 horsepower locomotives were only found on the Union Pacific. The unique design of these locomotives was also their undoing; being the equivalent of two locomotives on one frame resulted in the loss of two locomotives every time one was in the shop.
South of the railroad and in another city park, a second preserved locomotive rests behind a chain link fence. 2-8-0 #480 last ran in branch line service in Nebraska in the late fifties. Union Pacific saw fit to preserve this locomotive; giving a nod to the smaller power of an earlier era as well as the giants the railroad became known for in later years.
West of town lies Bailey Yard. Alongside is the Golden Spike Tower & Visitor Center. As you reach the edge of town, this tower looms in the distance above the cornfields that line the railroad. Even without directions it is easy to find; there it is, just drive that-a-way.
The center is owned and operated by a non-profit with the support of the Union Pacific. Admission is quite reasonable, giving access to the museum on the ground floor. Also on the ground floor is a gift shop chock full of Union Pacific related knick knacks, books and DVD’s (I left considerably poorer than when I entered).
The highlight of the center is found up in the tower. On the top floor is a glassed in viewing area overlooking the yard. The floor below that features an open air deck offering the best seat in the house to watch the goings on in the world’s largest freight yard.
The huge engine shop is located just west of the tower.
Northwest of the engine facility is the hump for eastbound traffic.
North of the tower is the westbound hump. In this photo, a loaded eastbound coal train passes nearest the camera. Behind that is a westbound empty coal train, a cut of yard power waiting to shove a cut of cars over the hump. In the background are runaround tracks for westbound coal and intermodal trains.
After visiting the tower, I headed to the west end of the yard. A public road crosses the tracks here, and as the sun set a westbound manifest passes below the signal bridge spanning the main tracks.
As the manifest begins its westbound trek into the sunset, another eastbound coal train approaches North Platte.
Author’s Note: This photo essay is another entry from my August trip through Nebraska and South Dakota.
Photos by Mary Rae McPherson except as noted.
Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson