Part 3–“Just down the Road” U.S. Route 30 in Nebraska

Nebraska finally admitted to its place on tourism’s ‘must-see’ list– dead bottom. Just last year, the Nebraska Tourism Commission adopted a new slogan– “Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”

“If you like experiences that are unpretentious and uncomplicated or if you enjoy escaping the big city life for moments of solitude in the open plains, creating your own fun or exploring the quirkiness the state has to offer, chances are, you will like it here,” it says in a press release.

“The longest drive… and criminally boring,” says one driver. “There’s not a whole lot to see, and what there is to see ain’t worth seeing.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by millions of  Nebraska drivers. It could be the longest 460 miles you’ll ever drive. Indeed, it is a day-long cornfield.

It’s a skewed viewpoint of someone who 1) is in a hurry, and 2) drives the interstates. If the writer had the time to roll casually across U.S. Route 30, they could have made the trip more interesting (not necessarily nerve-rattling exciting) and met some wonderful natives who were understandably proud of their Cornhusker state. One resident even insisted “there is no part of Nebraska that is not scenic.”

That, certainly, is an interesting perspective and not one that every tourist will share. It has big cities– Omaha has a larger population than Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Minneapolis– but small-town America is its forte.

silo in distance under black skyIowa and Nebraska are second and third, respectively, in U.S. agriculture. This spring, however, severe weather, in the way of snow, frigid temperatures, wind, followed by rain and warm temperatures challenged midwest farmers.

Many fields were still unplanted in June. A stop at a busy Ames (population 24) turf farm answered a lot of questions about this summer’s farm crops– including turf and sod.

It was a cold winter and the ground had frozen solid. Then came 30 inches of snow, on top of water already locked in the frozen ground. Rains came, and as one writer described it– “eastern Nebraska was one big concrete parking lot, and the equivalent of a 2- to 6-inch rainfall was about to wash it off.”

What followed was four feet of water covering the fields. It wiped out irrigation ditches which had to be rebuilt once the water receded. Fortunately, unlike many other local grain farms, this turf farm has mostly recovered. Some fields are still partially water-covered.

flooded cornfieldOne of the country’s biggest sources of beef and pork, the midwest, could lose 50 percent  of its farms this year due to flooding, says Homesteaders of America. One farmer lost 700 hogs.

A few miles west is Rogers, a tiny town of fewer than 100 people, everyone suffered some kind of flood damage and floodwaters, one resident says, covered most of the village.

U.S. Route 30 is a two- lane road here, but the construction of a four-lane highway adjacent to the original road should help commuters to Fremont or Columbus in the morning drive. A Kracl and Son Garage greets travelers with a ghost-town like image; plenty of old cars are rusting away in the grown-over parking lot. With a peek through a window, it appears workers left the night before, and just never returned. It closed, says one resident, sometime “in the ’90s”.

Central City (population 1,250) is one of dozens (hundreds?) of small towns that dot the map along U.S. Route 30. The Union Pacific parallels the highway through the state, and the cities provided the trains needed water and supplies every few miles. Central City’s mural salutes the trains.

washington in front of courthouseIn Grand Island (population 48,500), a statue of George Washington reading the Constitution was presented to the city a year ago and is displayed in front of the Hall County Courthouse. City lawyers donated the artwork, calling it a “gift to the city”.

Shelton (population 1,059) calls itself the “Lincoln Hi-way Capital of Nebraska” and featured an annual Lincoln Highway Festival and car show.  Also on the town sign is “Slice of the good life”. Here, as well as through some of the midwest, the Lincoln Highway and U.S. Route 30 are the same road. In other places, as in York and Lancaster, Pa., the Lincoln Highway runs through the town and U.S. Route 30 is a bypass.

Gibbon (population 1,800), named for a Union general, was founded in 1871 when the Soldiers Free Temperance Colony brought mostly Union veterans to the area. More than 125 families took advantage of the program.

gibbon city hallAs usual, Union Pacific trains are busy here, whistling through Gibbon every 7.5 minutes according to city hall. One set of tracks heads to Kansas, two more to Omaha.

Very often, the train cars are filled with coal being hauled from Wyoming. About 120-car trains are normal with each car carrying roughly 120 tons, making the capacity of a coal train around 15,000 tons per train. For comparison, in Pennsylvania, a semi-tractor trailer’s maximum load is 80,000 pounds or 40 tons.

Wyoming is now the country’s largest coal producer, providing 40 percent of the country’s total, or more than 300 million tons a year, to 30 different states.

Despite trains rumbling through town so often, Gibbon is known as “The Smile City”, apparently since workmen jokingly painted a smiley face on the water tower a while back in its history.

Former television talk show host Dick Cavett was born here.

Beyond Kearney (population 30,700), originally Fort Kearny, a settlement on the California, Mormon, Oregon, and Pony Express trails, and the Lincoln Highway, is Lexington (population 10,200).

The town began in 1860 as a  frontier trading post called Plum Creek. An 1864 Indian attack on wagon trains killed a dozen people who were headed for Denver. The town became Lexington in 1871.

Dawson co schoolThe Dawson County Historical Museum focuses on a more positive history, including, of course, the always-present train traffic, the Lincoln Highway, a few dinosaurs and continuing education.

Gothenburg (population 3,500) claims it is the Pony Express Capital of Nebraska and offers a small museum and gift shop on the town square. The Pony Express captured the hearts and imagination of people through TV westerns and books but actually lasted a mere 18 months. Some of the romanticism was sheer publicity, pushed by former rider Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West shows. More on that later.

The rather foreboding (and possibly phony) advertisement for Pony Express riders asked “Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week.”

North Platte (population 24,700) hangs its cowboy hat on Buffalo Bill Cody, the ‘most popular personality in western culture,” according to one site. “The home of Buffalo Bill has tons of great options for anyone looking to have fun and if you want a sure-fire good time just look for Buffalo Bill’s Buffalo Stamp of Approval,” says one North Platte visitor-friendly website.

little cowboy hangng on fenceBuffalo Bill is everywhere, including his home, the Nebraskaland Days festival and rodeo, and even the railroads. One story has Buffalo Bill riding for the Pony Express as a 14-year-old. On one trip, he is said to have ridden an amazing 322 miles.

“But Bill had things mixed up,” says Tom Rea of the Wyoming Historical Society. “For one thing, Three Crossings and Rocky Ridge are only 25 miles apart, not 85. For a second thing, much more important, he never did make the famous ride. In fact, William F. Cody never rode for the Pony Express at all. During the 19 months of 1860 and 1861, when the Pony Express was a going concern, he was in school in Leavenworth.”

Cody chose North Platte because of its location near the railroad, making it easier to move his wild west shows across the country. His home is across the street from the Nebraskaland Days arena, where 31,000 people (according to latest available figures) show up for the June rodeo and music concerts.

Tours are available at Cody’s home, a state historic park since 1965.

Bailey Yard is the world’s largest railroad yard, claims the Guinness Book of World Records. The yard is eight miles long and two miles wide, or nearly 4.5 square miles (just a bit smaller than all of York city, Pennsylvania). The Golden Spike Tower offers tourists an elevated view of the yard.Bailey yard sunset

The yard has 200 separate tracks totaling 315 miles of track, 985 switches, 766 turnouts, and 17 receiving and 16 departure tracks. Union Pacific employs more than 2,600 people in North Platte, most of whom are responsible for the day-to-day operations of Bailey Yard, says the Union Pacific website.

“Rail passenger service was discontinued in 1971 after operating for some 105 years. Gone are the days of Pullman sleeping cars, dining cars, lounges, and coaches. The romance and luxury of passenger trains was done in by automobiles and air travel.” –The Golden Spike Tower website.

When Interstate 80 was completed in 1974, making Nebraska the first state to complete its interstate, train passenger service was pushed aside by relatively quick and inexpensive automobile traffic. And, U.S. Route 30, which parallels I-80 and the Platte River on the north, was a forgotten highway. Or so it would seem.

Hershey (population 568) is about 15 miles west of North Platte. It was not named for the more famous Hershey in Pennsylvania, but rather for J. H. Hershey, a pioneer settler.

Chamberlins roscoe nebraskaTravelers through Roscoe (population 63) will breeze past Chamberlin’s store, and a few other vacant storefronts, assuming they were all ‘done in’ by the interstate’s completion. A gas station here struggled for a bit, but eventually died in the late 70’s, a victim of dwindling auto traffic, says one former resident. Chamberlin’s store was gone long before that, he says, it’s demise having nothing to do with I-80.

Chappell (population 929) is the county seat of Deuel County, and is named for a railroad worker in 1884. Dick Cabela, founder of Cabela’s World’s Foremost Outfitter, began his store here before moving to Sidney (see below).

Sunol (population 73) was founded in 1909 and a post office built in 1910 but was closed in 1973.  Sunol has never been a big town, although it doubled its size to about 150 during World War II, according to the Cheyenne County Genealogical Society.  The public school, now the community center, was used until 1993 when it consolidated with Lodge Pole Schools.

sunol garden w donnaSmall towns like Sunol are generally bedroom communities today and don’t provide much for TripAdvisor-style stops. If you leave U.S. Route 30 and roam around a small town, you might find some real gems. Donna and Richard provide one such break in Sunol. A few blocks from U.S. Route 30, at Second Street and Newman, the couple has put together a lovely garden. Not a huge garden, and not a public garden– just a well-kept, pretty and diverse flower garden.

After endless hours of driving through miles and miles of cornfields, a little color can brighten the afternoon.

Sunol was a busy place ‘back in the day’, says resident Velma. “We had two filling stations, a bank, an undertaker, and implements office”. The huge grain elevators were dismantled in 2001. The mail comes from Lodge Pole (seven miles away) and the phone is from Sidney.

Sidney (population 6,600)  was called by frontier newspaper editors and publishers   “Sinful Sidney”, “Wickedest Town in the West”, “Toughest Town on the Tracks” the “Hardest Hole” and even the “Magic City on the Plains.”  The town grew up around Sidney Barracks, a military outpost with a primary function of protecting the Union Pacific Railroad track layers against the threat of hostile Indians. The commander’s home is available for tours, and Boot Hill cemetery holds some soldiers, some outlaws, and some lynched by vigilantes in 1881.

But Sidney has a more recent history as well. From World War II through the Vietnam War, the nearby Sioux Army Depot stored and issue all kinds of ammunition, from small arms to 10,000 bombs in 801 storage igloos on its 19,771-acre site (nearly six times the size of York, Pa.).  Nearly 400 support buildings were scattered over the area, often connected by the 51 miles of railroad track. It employed 2,100 civilians. The depot was deactivated in 1967. depot rentals

It might seem that losing that many jobs would seriously damage a town of this size. Cabela’s was looking to expand, and Sidney’s depot had plenty of buildings– huge buildings.  Cabela’s bought a half dozen buildings here and business boomed.

Cabela’s was named Company of the Year in Sporting Classics magazine’s prestigious Awards of Excellence in 2001, and the owners were named to the Sporting Classics Hall of Fame. Cabela’s was also named one of the top 100 companies to work for, according to Forbes magazine.

Despite all that, Bass Pro Shop bought out Cabela’s, and six months ago the depot buildings were closed, resulting in 1,700 lost jobs. The home store is still open here as a subsidiary of Bass Pro.

Sidney’s city hall has been busy finding new companies to fill those buildings and recently received an award for attracting new business. More than 1,000 people have moved into the area, (90 homes still for sale) and the school population is moving up.

Sidney will apparently rise again.

Brownson schoolBrownson (population 20?) school was built in 1921 and closed in 1988.

From Brownson to the Wyoming state line, it’s about an hour’s drive. By the interstate, drivers reach the line five minutes faster than by U.S. Route 30.

However, the latter passes through four more quaint small towns along the way, making the five-minute ‘delay’ a lot more interesting.

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