For many Americans a mention of Nebraska brings to mind cornfields, football and cattle ranches. For investors—both novice and professional—Nebraska is synonymous with investment guru Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha. History buffs think of Nebraska as a gateway to the Old West where a long stretch of the historic Oregon Trail follows the Platte River. However, mention Nebraska to a train enthusiast and it is North Platte’s Bailey Yard that inevitably springs to mind.
The Union Pacific Railroad’s Bailey Yard is a magical place for people who love and dream of locomotives, train stations, steam engines and steel rails. It is a site of unending rail activity where long freights are in constant motion as they pass through or are reconfigured in this Union Pacific nerve center where East meets West.
North Platte and the Union Pacific
North Platte, Nebraska, has always been a railroad town. Although it now offers much more to see and do than watch Union Pacific trains pass through, the railroad continues to be the town’s heart and soul. The railroad was instrumental in the creation of North Platte and it remains the town’s largest employer. Situated near the confluence of the North and South Platte rivers, and approximately halfway between Omaha and Cheyenne, North Platte offered a strategic location for the Union Pacific to build a major rail operation beginning with its race west to connect with the Central Pacific and complete the transcontinental railroad.
The initial settlement was a trading post established in 1866 by two men who intended to take advantage of economic activity generated by rail workers who had just arrived. During the year when the location served as the railroad’s end point, the town’s population ballooned to 3,000 souls, many of whom frequented its many gambling halls and saloons. As the UP crews departed the following year to push farther west, most of the town’s occupants went with it and the population plummeted.
Although crews working on the transcontinental railroad moved on, the Union Pacific decided this was a good location for maintenance shops and a roundhouse repair facility that was constructed the same year. Other repair shops and maintenance facilities followed, and North Platte officially became a city in 1874. Today the Union Pacific continues as North Platte’s largest employer with more than one-tenth of the town’s 25,000 people working for the railroad. Another 1,500 Union Pacific retirees continue to live in the North Platte area.
Passenger service to North Platte was discontinued in 1971 but freight service on this UP mainline has never been busier. More than 150 freights pass through North Platte daily. Many are dedicated trains hauling coal from Wyoming to points east. These trains, each with three locomotives, average 130 cars and typically haul 15 tons of coal.
The Bailey Yard
From the initial roundhouse plus several maintenance shops, the Union Pacific operation in North Platte continued to grow until now it is considered the world’s largest railroad classification yard. A classification yard, or marshaling yard, is one in which rail cars are separated onto various tracks according to destination. Arriving trains are taken apart and put back together based on the final destination of each car. The Bailey Yard is much like a FedEx or UPS distribution center, only for railroad cars instead of packages.
Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard is massive, filling 3,000 acres with 315 miles of track. Every day the yard handles over 14,000 railroad cars including 3,000 that are separated from arriving trains and reassembled into new trains. Much of the assembly work employs the use of humps; large mounds, or hills, that permit separated cars to roll slowly downhill and onto the assigned track to make up a new train. These portions of the facility are known as “hump yards.”
In addition to being the world’s largest railroad classification yard, the Bailey Yard serves as a point where the Union Pacific’s trains are inspected, fueled, and serviced. The yard services and inspects up to 75 refrigerator cars and trailers (“reefers”) each day. The North Platte facility has one of UP’s largest locomotive repair shops, and visitors can see dozens of the giant engines near the repair shop.
Golden Spike Tower
Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center sits just outside the rail yard and permits train buffs to gain a panoramic view of the Bailey Yard, an area off-limits to the public. The downstairs visitor center includes a gift shop and offers an introductory video with an overview of the Union Pacific Railroad and its rail yard. Displays include railroad exhibits and maps highlighting various aspects of the railroad. Golden Spike Tower boasts two observation decks, one inside and one outside, that provide rail fans with great views of the yard and its activities. Volunteers, generally retired UP employees, are stationed on the top floor to answer questions and provide commentary on the yard’s activities.
Admission to the tower and visitor center is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, and $5 for students. Children 5 years and under are free. The tower is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. May through September, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. October through April.
Other North Platte Railroad Venues
North Platte and the surrounding area offer several interesting places to visit, including the home of Buffalo Bill Cody that is now part of a state historical park. The Victorian house, constructed in 1886, contains period furniture and is open to visitors. A nearby barn offers memorabilia from his Wild West Show. Cody located here, in part, to take advantage of Union Pacific’s ability to transport his Wild West Show to locations around the country.
Two other North Platte attractions will be of interest to railroad buffs. Cody Park Railroad Museum has a beautiful Challenger 3900 series steam locomotive and a 6900 series diesel locomotive on public display. The park also includes a restored railroad depot and several restored rail cars that are open to the public. Being able to climb into the Challenger cab and remember as a kid when you wanted to be a train engineer is worth a visit to the park. No admission fee is charged.
Nearby Lincoln County Historical Museum includes a World War II exhibit that recounts how local citizens volunteered to serve coffee and baked goods to millions of soldiers and sailors who traveled on troop trains through North Platte on their way to war. The museum includes a number of typical prairie structures, including a Pony Express building, a church and a railroad depot. A downtown memorial notes the location where the old train station and canteen—now long gone—once stood. n
David and Kay Scott are the authors of Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges. Visit the Scotts at http://mypages.valdosta.edu/dlscott/Scott.html.
The North Platte area has several inviting campgrounds suitable for RVers. Here are four that we visited during our most recent trip.
Holiday RV Park has 100 sites, all pull-through and mostly shaded, just off I-80 and within the city limits. Sites range from 30 to 70 feet in length with full hookups and both 30- and 50-amp outlets. The park offers cable TV, laundry, Wi-Fi, a small store, children’s playground and swimming pool. Pull-through sites with 50 amps are $37 per night during summer. (holidayparkne.com)
Lake Maloney State Recreation Area, six miles south of North Platte, has over 230 camping sites for tents, trailers and RVs. Fifty-six sites, a number of which are on the water, have 30-amp electrical service and pay showers. A boat ramp and dock are nearby. Electric sites are $16 and non-electric sites are $8.
Buffalo Bill State Recreation Area on the northwest side of town has 22 sites with 30- and 50-amp electricity, but no water or sewage hookups. It has only pit toilets and no pull-through sites, but is on the North Platte River and near Buffalo Bill’s Scout Ranch. Electric sites are $14 per night.
North Platte Cody Park offers 40 sites, but none have electric, water, or sewage hookups. However, at $5 a night this place is a bargain. The city park is quite pleasant and includes a zoo, children’s amusement area, ball fields, and the Cody Park Railroad Museum. All are within easy walking distance of the campground that sits next to the North Platte River.