Looking for railroading in the cornfields: Beatrice, Nebraska

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, September 06, 2017

One of the joys of being an avid railroad explorer is finding locomotives, trains, or  rolling stock or at least an appreciation for our mutual obsession in unexpected places. We all know what we’ll get when we venture to the main line. But it’s when you find railroading where you least expect it that it becomes a truly sweet thing. That happened to me last week on a family trip that took us to Beatrice, Neb., south of Lincoln, a place not far from the Kansas border. We got a three-fer in the midst of the corn. Here’s how it happened, completely unplanned.


Following city streets, avoiding construction, and trying to make sense of a cranky GPS unit, my wife, Cate, and her cousin Joan Dawson, and I came across Beatrice’s handsome 1906 brick Burlington Route station. It’s preserved today as a museum, and includes a Chicago, Burlington & Quincy caboose, although neither were open when we were there due to road construction. We were a bit late for the Union Pacific depot, which apparently was next to the Burlington station, and was torn down years ago. The UP line also was gone as of 2000, and in its place is the 40-mile Homestead Trail bike path between Beatrice and Lincoln.


Snap, snap, click, click, and we’re ready to go, but just as I am about to cross the tracks and drive our 4-Runner across the Big Blue River bridge on the west side of downtown I suddenly spy to my left an early EMD switcher working a grain elevator. This is Husker territory, so the unit, No. 2004, appropriately, is red. After doing a quick turn and finding a spot to observe the engine, I am let down because it is snugged up against a factory. Not a very good spot for a picture, at all. We retire to lunch with a mediocre image, consoling ourselves with a fantastic meal at the nearby Black Crow restaurant, whose owner, it turns out, is the son-in-law of the folks who own the factory, which makes, of all things, church pews. Small world! After the lunch and switching are done, I track down the unit, which works for the Southeast Nebraska Cooperative, and photograph it in the company of a blue Alco, labeled RE 707. After returning home and checking a few sources, it turns out the EMD is an SW1200 built for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the Alco is an S3 built in 1950 as Ann Arbor No. 5. They are both great catches in this day and age when industrial units, endcab switchers, and Alcos are all rarities. Long may they run.


We found our third and final surprise at the Homestead National Monument, a tribute to the thousands of men and women who between 1862 and 1970 received 160 acres of land each in an effort to settle rural and remote parts of the country from Florida to Alaska. Railroads, of course, were eager to move settlers to their new homes and entire wall of advertisements aimed at these pioneers is a big portion of the memorial, itself a unit of the National Park Service. I recommend it and also direct your attention to the barbed wire display out back, where samples of the more than 570 types of patented barbed wire are on display and in use.


So, that’s what we discovered in Nebraska all by accident. Once again, keep your eyes open for the railroad stories and the railroading out there, past and present, that presents itself when you least expect it to. It’s out there.

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