Day 134/ July 10th – North Platte, NE: Buffalo, soldiers

We came into North Platte over the South Platte River.  The two forks of the Platte come together here, and the town’s founders couldn’t decide whether to call it North or South Platte.  Eventually, the debate had to be settled by a coin toss, and North Platte it’s been ever since.  We were checked into the Travelers Inn for the night by an earnest young boy of ten, whose mother watched proudly as he confirmed our booking, checked our ID and handed us our key before asking for payment.

“That’ll be, uh, four hundred… eighty-one dollars,” he announced, doubtfully.  “Mom!”

North Platte had seen better days.  Along the brick-paved stretch of Dewey Street downtown, fully a third of the shops were closed down and vacant, and shoppers strolled under awnings past long lines of empty windows.  Across the road was the Pawnee Hotel, clearly once a smart railwayside lodging for business travellers, but now a semi-derelict ‘retirement hotel’, where a sad little group of elderly people squatted outside the lobby around a cluster of paper bags and Styrofoam coffee cups.

Pawnee Hotel and Fox Theater in North Platte

North Platte: Not the nation's liveliest town centre

It’s hard to believe today, but around the turn of the century, North Platte was the home of arguably the most famous person on the planet.  William Cody was born in Iowa in 1846, and by his 14th birthday had been a Wyoming wagon-train driver, a Colorado gold-miner and a Pony Express rider.  The following year, at the outbreak of the Civil War, he tried to join the Union forces, but was turned away for being too young.  In 1867, he was employed to procure buffalo meat for workers on the Kansas Pacific Railway, and earned the nickname ‘Buffalo Bill’ after killing 4,000 of the animals in eight months.  Following a subsequent career as a soldier and hunting-guide, he put on a show in 1882 here in North Platte called the ‘Old Glory Blowout’, widely considered to herald the birth of the modern rodeo.  The following year, he staged his first ‘Wild West’ show, and spent most of the next 25 years touring with it across America and Europe, becoming in the process an immensely wealthy global celebrity.

His home, Scout’s Rest Ranch, still stands on the north side of town, at the end of a long road of trailers and dilapidated bungalows.  It was a striking building, a green and white Italianate villa set on spreading lawns cut by a long, curving creek, and we spent a pleasant hour examining the décor inside – buffalo skins were a recurring motif – before taking a stroll through the grounds.  Behind a vast red barn, three buffalo were sitting listlessly in the shade of a large hay bale.  No doubt, had Bill been alive today, he would have enlisted them in a thrilling show – or, perhaps more likely, shot them.

Buffalo at Scout's Rest Ranch, North Platte, Nebraska

Buffalo demonstrating the agility and preservation instinct that served them so well in the 19th century

North Platte had had a good war.  Not content with giving the world Glenn Miller, it was also the scene of one of the most heart-warming episodes on America’s home front.  In December 1941, a rumour spread around the town that the men of the Nebraska National Guard would be passing through North Platte on their way to deployment overseas.  Expecting to see their sons and husbands, five hundred of the town’s womenfolk descended on its train station with food and treats, only to discover that the arriving troops were in fact from Kansas.

Unperturbed, they laid on a spread for the men anyway, and it dawned on them that, as a major rail junction near the centre of the country, nearly every American serviceman would pass through the town on their way overseas, and that as a result, they were in a unique position to offer them a final taste of small-town hospitality before they went off to war.  Over the next 4 ½ years, without a single day’s break, the North Platte Canteen, operating from an unused room in the Union Pacific railroad depot, fed an average of 4,000 servicemen each day.  Towns, church groups and neighbourhood clubs across Nebraska – some 55,000 volunteers in all – took it in turns to prepare and serve fried chicken, pies, sandwiches and drinks to the passing men for one day each, working unpaid and paying for the meals out of their own pockets.

North Platte Canteen mock-up in county museum

The North Platte Canteen exhibit in the county museum

By the end of the war, six million American servicemen – in Normandy and Italy, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima – all had in common that they had briefly stopped and been welcomed with an extraordinary outpouring of affection in this tiny prairie town.  After the war, though, the depot fell into disuse.  Union Pacific deemed it surplus to their requirements, and, realising that it had great emotional importance to the residents of North Platte, quietly demolished it one night in 1973.  The townsfolk awoke to find a smoking ruin where the Canteen had once stood.

Trains in Bailey Yard, North Platte, Nebraska

Bailey Yard: The trains stay mainly on the plain

You might have thought that Union Pacific’s name would be mud locally, but it was still the town’s largest employer, and North Platte still a major rail junction, halfway between Chicago and Salt Lake City and between Denver and Omaha.  We walked west out of town past the hub of it all, Bailey Yard, the largest rail-yard in the world.  From the tower of its visitor centre (‘Welcome to Bailey Yard – More Trains Than You Can Keep Track Of!’) we looked out across an area the size of a large airport, filled with unending lines of freight wagons being shunted between more than 300 parallel lines of track.  It was a vastly impressive spectacle, but it was hard not to imagine a Union Pacific demolition crew forty years ago, climbing into their trucks here in the middle of the night, driving into town to knock down an old depot.

Trains outside North Platte, Nebraska

North Platte: Train-spotter's paradise

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