Walking Tour of Historic Downtown North Platte
Once president, Jeffers chose his home town of North Platte to build a “retarder” rail yard. This huge complex on the western edge of town now has a receiving capacity of 1,400 cars. Completed in 1948, it required 51 additional miles of trackage and cost $3.5 million.
Constantly updated and expanded, North Platte’s “Bailey Yard” is now the largest such facility in the world; covering 2,850 acres, reaching a total length of eight miles and containing more than 315 miles of track. As many as 15,000 cars can be sorted per day with an average of 150 trains passing through the yard for destination east, west, and south.
Now overlooking the yard is the Golden Spike Tower & Visitor Center which is an eight-story observation tower that visitors can ascend and take in the massive operation. As if to solidify the relationship between the town and the railroad, the United States Congress named North Platte “Rail Town USA” through the efforts of the Original Town Association.
North Platte also has the distinction of having the first lighted airfield in the country. In 1921, a representative of the United States Post Office asked the town to open an airfield for the use of pilots carrying transcontinental air mail. The Post Office had no money for leasing land or building hangers, but promised that if the city would oblige them, it would be reimbursed as soon as Congress appropriated funds.
Accordingly, North Platte subscribed $45,000 in capital stock and obtained land east of the city. Wooden hangers were built and the field (only a hay meadow) was leveled by hauling in dirt to fill the old buffalo wallows on its surface. The landing strip was then outlined by 100 kerosene lanterns hung on stakes driven into the ground. These lanterns had be cleaned and filled daily and lit each night.
In February 1921, Jack Knight made his famous airmail night flight landing successfully on the “lighted airstrip in the middle of Nebraska.” Although the field remained a hay meadow for the next 20 years, some improvements were made and it continued to serve the county as a major link in aviation. In 1941, a concrete runway and electric lights were added. A terminal building was erected in 1952. Today, its longest runway measures 8,000 feet. (Incidentally, Congress never appropriated the money to pay the original stockholders.)
During World War II, North Platte became famous as the home of the “North Platte Canteen.” With its headquarters in the large, unused dining room of the Union Pacific depot, thousands of volunteers from 125 towns, some as far away as 200 miles, served countless sandwiches, cakes, coffee, candy bars, and magazines to 6 million members of the armed forces. The Canteen was open day and night for 51 months, frequently serving as many as 23 trains and up to 8,000 service men in 24 hours. The story is preserved at the Lincoln County Historical Museum in its “North Platte Canteen” Exhibit, documented in the book, Once Upon a Town, by Bob Greene, and immortalized in the Nebraska Education Television documentary, The Canteen Spirit.
Of course, no history would be complete without mentioning William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Beginning as a bison hunter for the Kansas Pacific Railroad and then scouting for the Untied States Army, he finally gained fame with his “Wild West Show”, which traveled all over the United States and Europe entertaining audiences with tales of the West. Possibly more important was Cody’s responsibility for creating the first organized rodeo in the world. Held on July 4, 1882, it was called the “Old Glory Blowout” and was held in North Platte’s Cody Park. Cash prizes were awarded to the winners of the bucking bronco, buffalo riding, steer roping, and horse racing events. Its legacy can still be found In Nebraska’s official celebration, NEBRASKALand Days, PRCA Buffalo Bill Rodeo.
Today, North Platte is a modern city with thriving businesses and community organizations. However, the visitor can still get a glimpse of its former wild side by visiting and taking in its attractions and historic places.