North Platte, Nebraska. A Small City with a History of Big Numbers

Posted on October 28, 2016


This small city of a little over 25,000, located in the northwestern part of the state, is associated with some pretty big numbers – and they’re all railroad-related.
yard_large-1400x522Rail fans from all over the world travel here to take in a birds-eye view of the world’s largest rail car classification spectacle – the Union Pacific Railroad’s Bailey Yard.

The Golden Spike Tower, eight stories high, overlooks all the action of this massive yard measuring 8 miles long and over 2 miles wide.

downloadLocated at a key division point, where north-south and east-west rail lines converge, this is where cars are sorted and attached to trains headed to their final destinations.
north-platte-4Cars are sent over a hump, then roll slowly down to one of 114 tracks where they become part of trains headed to all points of the compass. Once a consist is complete, locomotives hitch up and away they go.

According to exhibits located in the Tower, the yard covers 2850 acre and holds 315 miles of track. 12,000 rail cars a day are pushed over the hump and sorted utilizing 766 turnouts.

125 trains are made up here each day. 9,000 locomotives are serviced here monthly. 1,200 locomotives and repaired here monthly. And 18 million gallons of diesel fuel a month are pumped into locomotives.

BIG numbers, and no doubt even bigger today, as the Tower exhibit was probably erected some time ago.

North Platte can claim the town was founded in the winter of 1867. That’s when the Union Pacific set up a winter camp for track-layers working on the first Transcontinental Railroad.

When spring arrived, the track layers moved east, leaving behind only the railroad itself and some service buildings, including a hotel. However, since North Platte – named for the river – had been chosen as a division point to sort rail cars, exchange crews, and service equipment, a more permanent settlement of railroad workers was soon established. A flat-switched yard with 20 tracks was laid out, and North Platte was firmly established as a Union Pacific railroad town.

But there’s another reason North Platte racked up some big numbers, and for that we must go back to World War II, when troop trains were streaming in and out of town – sometimes as many as 24 a day – and local residents wanted to offer a bit of home to those troops.

The whole project started by accident.

north-platte-canteen-photo-00102According to the Lincoln County Historical Museum, on December 17, 1941, members of Co. D of the Nebraska National Guard were scheduled to be on board a train stopping in North Platte. Their friends and family members decided to come to the station to give them their Christmas presents.

The train carrying Co. D arrived – but it was Co. D of the KANSAS National Guard. Though everyone was disappointed, one person eventually stepped forward and handed their gifts to a random soldier. Soon every else followed suit, much to the delight of the men…and an idea for a soldier’s canteen was born.

An exhibit in the Tower tells how this idea quickly grew into one of the largest volunteer efforts of all time.

Before the war ended, the North Platte Canteen became one of the most famous in the United States, serving between 3,000 and 5,000 service personnel on an average day.

Free sandwiches, fruit, hard-boiled eggs, coffee, cookies, cigarettes, magazines and smiles were handed out, all donated by volunteers during a time of nationwide food rationing.

And toward the end of the war, the number ballooned to nearly 8,000 military personnel served daily.

How did they do it?

screen-shot-2016-07-22-at-10-43-14-pm-700x468Women – and men – pooled rations stamps for sugar to bake cakes and cookies, as well as gas stamps so volunteers could get to the canteen.

Children gave up their birthday cakes so the ingredients could be used for canteen baking. Farmers donated extra produce. People staged benefit auctions to raise money for the canteen.

Union Pacific did their part, too. They donated the building and paid for heat, electricity and basic supplies. Railroad employees and their spouses participated as volunteers.

north-platte-2The North Platte canteen operated continuously – around the clock – for 51 months, serving a total of over 6 million servicemen and women.

A film documenting the memories of 3 grey-haired former canteen ladies was thought-provoking.

They joked about how such an undertaking probably wouldn’t be possible today. Back then, no one thought twice about all the food being prepared in unlicensed, uninspected home kitchens.

As one women noted, “We made those cookies and sandwiches right along with the ones we made for our families. And we didn’t wear plastic gloves, either”.

Maybe that’s partly why they were so appreciated – they tasted like home.