Nebraska: Enjoy the Drive!

Posted by Dave Crosby
on Thursday, April 4, 2019

Nebraska: Enjoy the Drive

In May, 2019 the railroad world will turn its attention to Northern Utah and the 150th anniversary of the driving of the Golden Spike.  For thousands, the promise of a Union Pacific Big Boy in steam and a once in a life time celebration of our nation’s history is enough to encourage the making of travel plans far in advance of any official schedule of events.

Union Pacific 3977 at Cody Park in North Platte.

Most any true road trip has a component known as “the drive”.  For many East Coast fans, the pilgrimage to Utah will involve “the drive” on Interstate 80 through Nebraska.  All 455 miles of it. 

While a cursory look at a map might see the average driver resigning himself to the monotony, grudgingly calculating the drive time - 6.5 hours if you’re wondering – a student of history can find plenty to break up the drive.  One might even want to plan an overnight stay or two and make “the drive” part of the fun.

For those driving westward, the excitement begins as you cross the Missouri River and enter Nebraska as, perched high on a hillside, a pair of famous locomotives welcome visitors to Omaha.   Known as Kenefick Park (for former UP CEO John Kenefick) this impressive monument to the Union Pacific showcases “Big Boy” steam locomotive #4023 and “Centennial” diesel #6900.  Visitors can get a close up view of these two giants by taking exit 454 and following the signs to Lauritzen Gardens.

As one might expect, the UP has left its mark on its longtime hometown.  If you choose to inspect the locomotives at Kenefick Park, you might occasionally hear a steam whistle in the distance.  Its not your imagination, as the Henry Doorly Zoo and its narrow-gauge steam railroad are located just across the highway.  Sponsored and constructed by the Union Pacific, the Omaha Zoo railroad opened in 1968 and features two steam locomotives.  The first is a scale model of original UP 4-4-0 #119, made famous by its participation in the golden spike ceremony of 1869.  The second locomotive is a most unusual interloper in America’s heartland.  “Riva” - an 1890 vintage Krauss 0-6-2 - was imported from Romania, overhauled by the UP in their Omaha shops and entered revenue service in 1976.

No visit to Omaha would be complete without a visit to the Durham Museum located in Omaha’s former Union Station.  The meticulously restored waiting room would be worth the stopover alone, yet on the ground floor a treasure trove of artifacts including a display train led by Union Pacific 4-6-0 1243.  The constant parade of modern-day freight trains outside reminds guests that America’s railroads are still alive in kicking in 2019.  Staying the night?  Seek out Anthony’s Steakhouse just west of downtown proper at 72nd and F Streets.  Look for the giant cow over the entranceway, you won’t be disappointed. 

Nebraska is far from being a one-railroad state and an hour drive west to Lincoln will certainly illustrate that. The city’s revitalized “Haymarket District” features restored buildings, shops and restaurants and is anchored by a 1926 CB&Q depot.  Used until 2012 as a functioning passenger station, the re-christened “Lincoln Station” is now part of a lively arts and entertainment hub.  Just outside the depot at 9th and Q Streets is the well-maintained CB&Q 710, a 4-6-0 of 1901.  If you’re a fan of restored depots as I am, you’ll want to check out the 1892 former Rock Island depot a few blocks to the East at 1944 O Street.  Now a branch of Union Bank & Trust, the brick Renaissance style structure is hidden by shade trees, so look for the caboose in the parking lot.

It would seem that the mid-size 2-8-0 was the donation of choice as the Union Pacific dropped the fires on their steam locomotives in the 1950’s.  There are nine in Nebraska alone and six along the I-80 corridor (at Hastings, Grand Island, Kearney, Lexington, North Platte and Sidney if you’re a “collector” of park engines).   The first UP consolidation you’ll encounter is #437 located at the Stuhr Museum in Grand Island, about 90 miles west of Lincoln.  Even though the museum discontinued steam operations years ago, you’ll still want to budget a few hours to visit the museum and its recreated railroad town with historic buildings and rolling stock.  Once you visit the museum, skip the interstate for a few miles and take US Route 34 into Hastings and pay a visit to Union Pacific 2-8-0 #237. 

By the time you reach Hastings, you’ll surely have noticed a plethora of clever signs for one of America’s greatest roadside attractions – and next stop on our Nebraska road trip.  Just over 30 miles west of Hastings on Route 34 lies the crossroads town of Minden, home of Harold Warp’s Pioneer Village.  "Warps’", as its commonly known, is a collection of some dozen plus original prairie buildings and an equal number of exhibit halls displaying everything from airplanes to Grover Cleveland’s Oval Office desk.  The site defies definition with the kitschy nature of the attraction itself being a major part of its appeal.  Railroads played a major role in westward development and are certainly not overlooked at the village.  Here you’ll find a CB&Q 4-6-0 in, shall we say, less than authentic attire along with two tank engines, a depot and countless railroad related artifacts.  If you’re looking to get some sleep, Warp’s also offers a motel and campground on site, as long as you don’t mind the parade of BNSF trains across the street.  Look for the Conestoga wagon atop the entrance building and you’ll know you’re at the right place. 

Continuing onward? A 15-minute drive north on Nebraska Route 10 will bring you back to Interstate 80 near Kearney – home of the “Trails and Rails Museum”.  Trails and Rails is another village-type attraction featuring a dozen or so restored buildings and an 1898 Santa Fe depot from Shelton, NE.  Union Pacific 2-8-0 481 heads up a short display train.  A 40-mile drive west on US Route 30 or Interstate 80 will take you to a similar site in Lexington – The Dawson County Historical Museum – which displays UP 2-8-0 #485 and the Willow Island, NE Union Pacific depot.

From Lexington you’ll have the choice of continuing on Route 30 or returning to Interstate 80.  Traveling either one will put you in North Platte in a little over an hour.  Route 30 may prove the bigger draw as it parallels the Union Pacific mainline nearly the entire way.  There’s a lot to see in North Platte, so you may want to make it an overnight stop.  If you do, don’t miss dinner at “3 Margaritas” or you’ll miss some of the best Mexican food on planet Earth.

North Plate is home to the “park engine” by which all others should be judged.  Union Pacific 3977, one of the road’s famous 4-6-6-4 “Challengers”, is impeccably maintained and displayed at the Cody Park Railroad Museum along with “Centennial” diesel #6922.  A variety of rolling stock and a restored depot from Hershey, Nebraska complete the display.  All are maintained to the same high standard as the 3977 and are open to the public daily.  Union Pacific 2-8-0 #480 is also well cared for in nearby Memorial Park and should not be missed.

Just West of North Platte’s classic downtown lies Bailey Yard, the largest freight classification yard in the world and stretches nearly 8 miles.  The best way to see the yard is from the Golden Spike Tower which offers climate controlled and open-air decks for viewing and is well worth the modest admission price of $7.00.

From North Plate its just under three hours to the Wyoming state line (and another 30 minutes to Cheyenne).  You’ll pick up an hour as you cross into Mountain Time just west of North Platte, so you’ll be in Wyoming before you know it.  If need be, break up the drive by stopping off to see Union Pacific 2-8-0 # 407 and its short display train in Sidney Nebraska’s Legion Park, about 2 hours into the drive from North Platte.    Of course, you can continue the drive between North Platte and Cheyenne on US 30 and see America as it was meant to be seen, if you have a little extra time to spare.

Above all else, whichever road you choose, ENJOY THE DRIVE!

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