Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rails Then and Now in Nebraska

A mournful whistle, a loud thump ... more than a thump ... a boom, a crash.  My sleep is interrupted.  Oh yes!  It's coming from the railroad yards as they move trains by computerized remote control.  One train section forcefully hits another to link together, eventually making one long train.

As I try to get back to sleep my thoughts turn to what used to be.  Pretty typical of a genealogist!  The Platte River Valley across the state of Nebraska was the route of wagon wheels and carts, clanking and banging their way along to the west.  Eventually those wheels were replaced by steel wheels of greater magnitude. 

As early as 1836 there was talk about constructing a railroad to connect the eastern United States with the Pacific Ocean.  More so after the explorations in 1842 and 1846, Congress began debating the importance of such a means of transportation.  A railroad was being built across Iowa and entrepreneur Thomas Durant hoped to extend the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad to the Pacific coast.  He sent his engineer, Grenville M. Dodge, to make surveys and collect data.  

The timing was poor as an economic panic hit the nation in 1857.  Then came the Civil War which eliminated any southern route to the Pacific.  It was apparent that any route west would have to go through the Platte Valley which was taking settlers to the west coast.  The government realized if it was to be built, they would have to do the financing.  Promotion companies began vying for the contract.  On 1 July 1862 the Pacific Railroad Act was passed. This provided for a hundred million dollar corporation ... the largest capitalization ever known in the United States. 

The act presented the promoters with a right of way through public lands, 200 feet each side, for the entire distance that the railroad would be built.  They would have free use of building materials from public lands.  Through the act they would received every alternate odd numbered section of public land to the amount of four sections a mile on each side, along with a subsidy of $16,000 a mile on the plains and $32,000-$48,000 a mile through the mountains.  In the process there would be an annulment of Indian titles.  

On 2 December 1863 near the ferry landing on the west bank of the Missouri River at Omaha, ground was broken.  Progress was extremely slow and by the spring of 1866, only 60 miles of rails had been laid.  General Dodge of the Union Army became Chief Engineer of the railroad and saw the project through completion.  By the summer of 1866 the tracks were about midway through Nebraska.  On 6 October 1866 the track crossed the 100th meridian near the present community of Cozad, 247 miles from Omaha.  Shortly after that Dodge went to an area near the confluence of the North and South Platte rivers.  It was the projected site of North Platte and was to be a railroad division point, 291 miles west of Omaha.  

The railroad, known as the Union Pacific Railroad, reached North Platte on 3 December 1866 and that winter progressed westward.  North Platte became the first of the notorious "Hell-on-Wheels" towns, which was an expression credited to Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield (Mass.) Republican.

In December of 1866 the area had been prairie and within three weeks there were about 20 buildings, including a brick roundhouse capable of storing 40 engines.  nearby was a frame depot and frame hotel which cost $18,000 to build.  Within a few months there were 15 businesses in North Platte, nine of which served food and/or drink.  North Platte's population soared with construction workers, miners, soldiers, traders, teamsters, prostitudes, adventurers and speculators.  All within six months it grew to 5,000 people.  Wide open living ... gambling, shooting, drinking ... no laws against it! 

By 1870 the route was advertised in newspapers as the Union Pacific All Rail Route to California and the Pacific Coast.  The journey of 1,800 miles was made in record time.  Each train had sleeping cars and a Pullman's Palace.  Some of the passenger lists for those early years have survived.  It is exciting to read the names.  In July of 1871 Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton traveled together from New York to the west coast.  Also passing through North Platte were artists, actors, actresses and lecturers, going to San Francisco.  Early balloonists, Professor Coe and Mr. Lay, made their way to California on the Union Pacific Railroad in January of 1873.  Professor Coe made balloon observations over Confederate camps during the Civil War.  Along with the famous came the not so famous ... carloads of unidentified emigrants.  Railroad travel also allowed people to return to the east as easily as they went west.  

It is so different now.  The Platte River Valley is still here, lined with homes extending far to the west, one of which is mine.  What began as one set of railroad tracks is now known as the Union Pacific Bailey Yard.  It is the world's largest Railroad Classification Yard covering 2,850 acres with 315 miles of tracks.  There are 16 receiving and 18 departing tracks with 3,000 cars sorted daily.  One of the railroad's largest repair facilities is there, large enough to house three football fields.  

You can see all of this in action from the newly built Golden Spike Tower at North Platte.  It is local history in progress by preserving the past and allowing people to view the present and future.  The eight story building has displays, a gift shop and an 8 story enclosed 365 degree view of Bailey Yard.  From there you can envision the lay of the land before the rails and during the early progress.  You can watch the computerized movement of train cars that create the loud crash that I've grown used to hearing.  Occasionally it wakes me at night so I can reflect on the days gone by in the life of the railroad.  


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hi Ruby
    Thanks for posting this. I had to use the commuter rail here in Massachusetts for a year or so until I got my car back on the road, and came to love riding the train.

    Of course, that whistle blowing around 11pm as the train rumbles through town here is a down side.*grin*