North Platte, Nebraska is a railroad lover’s paradise, for freight trains in particular. On a daily basis more than 10,000 rail cars rumble through town as they head for the nearby Bailey Yard, the largest train yard in the world. To live near the tracks that cross Nebraska from east to west is to live with the ever-present sounds, sights and smells of the freight train: the night-and-day tug of the piercing whistles, the clang of the wheels, the dust the train hurls up from the tracks and hurls in its wake like mini-cyclones and the never-ending wait at crossings for the trains to pass.
If you’re a train geek, and let’s face it, if you’re reading this you probably are, the Golden Spike Tower in North Platte is a must-see destination. The 8-story high structure provides a grand viewing platform overlooking the 2,850 acre Bailey Yard; known as the place where east meets west for the Union Pacific Railroad. At any time of day or night there is a continual blur of motion as the powerful locomotives engage in their unending ritual of coupling, uncoupling and humping. (I’m not making these NSFW terms up by the way. That’s really what they call it.)
The numbers at the Bailey rail yard are daunting. It is eight miles long and pumps more than 14 million gallons of diesel fuel per month to power those 10,000 cars. I can believe those figures. I drove on the old Lincoln Highway across the entire length of Nebraska and was never far from the Union Pacific tracks.
On the long drive, filled with unending stretches of lots of nothing, the clanging wheels and blaring whistles of the trains were my steadfast companion. Back east the arrival of a freight train is something unusual to be noted. Not so in Nebraska. Here they run constantly with the frequency of a New York City subway train.
Their presence is unrelenting in the local’s lives. I asked a woman in a shop near the tracks if she ever gets used to the noise. She replied stoically, “What noise?” I guess I had my answer. The laid back rhythms of Midwestern life are reflected in the rhythm of the freight trains. I wonder which came first.
The view from the Golden Spike Tower makes you feel like Gulliver peering down on a Lilliputian railroad system. From high above the yard looks like an old-fashioned department store’s model railroad Christmas display. If from tall heights people look like ants, then the Union Pacific locomotives, painted in their yellow and black coats, appear like so many worker bees buzzing around the hive. If you’re into this sort of thing, and I confess that I am, it can be mesmerizing. I found myself staring down on the trains for what seemed like an hour before I even blinked.
Suspender-clad retired train buffs are stationed around the tower to provide a running color commentary for the goings on below. As a train hauling 100 cars of coal slid by, the guide pointed to twin smokestacks, each as tall as a fifty-story building, just visible in the haze on the western horizon. They loom over the Gerard Gentleman Station; a coal-fired power plant that is Nebraska’s largest. The guide noted that this plant alone can burn over 19,000 tons of coal, or enough to fill about 150 freight cars, per day. I repeat, per day. That’s a lot of coal but just a drop in the bucket compared to the 500 million tons passing through North Platte each year.
You can watch all this activity from an indoor viewing platform with panoramic windows and an outdoor platform as well. The Golden Spike Tower is one of those travel experiences that won’t compare to anything else that you’ll ever see. I highly recommend it.