Locomotive No. 69 in Alaska
A sketch of the plan. (click on image to enlarge)
Jack Hanger had an idea for a new railroad in North Platte.
Hanger, a steam railroad buff, lived in Laramie in the 1960s, but his passionate interest in railroads led him to west central Nebraska.
Hanger dreamed of designing an operational short-line, narrow-gauge railroad, and as he studied the geography and railroad operations throughout the West, he came to realize that North Platte would be an excellent location for a little rail line.
The city’s railroad history and location near Interstate 80 seemed ideal.
Good friends working for the railroad in Laramie encouraged Hanger to follow his dream. His day job was at a radio station, and he screwed up his determination, approached his employer and asked to be transferred to a radio station in North Platte.
Hanger got the transfer. After he landed in North Platte, he met local businessman Jim Conley. Conley liked Hanger’s railroad idea, so much so that together they formed the Nebraska Midland Railroad Corporation to pursue the venture.
At the time, the 1960s, plans were underway for further development of the Scouts Rest Ranch and construction of the Wild West Arena. When state officials became aware of the Midland Railroad venture, they amended their improvement plans to include Hanger’s dream -- a narrow-gauge rail line. It was envisioned to run from the Scout’s Rest Ranch to Cody Park, carrying visitors to and fro.
Concept Design Associates of Salt Lake City, Utah was asked to develop a master design for the little rail line. The design was submitted to the Nebraska Department of Economic Development and the Nebraska Games and Parks Commission for approval.
The idea was generally well received, and official approval was granted in February 1973.
As part of the overall development, Brady’s Union Pacific Railroad Depot was moved to a site 200 yards east of the Buffalo Bill Cody Mansion.
Railroad rails were purchased and stacked up northwest of the Wild West Arena.
Conley, the president and board chairman of the corporation, purchased a narrow-gauge steam engine from Hill City, S.D. The little steam engine was originally built in the early 1900s for the White Pass and Yukon Railroad in Alaska.
The 60-foot locomotive, dubbed engine No. 69, operated in Alaska until 1954 when it was retired. The locomotive was then purchased by the Black Hills Central line, where it ran from Hills City to Custer until 1969.
Conley also purchased seven narrow-gauge cars from five different states, including a drover’s caboose, two cattle cars and four gondola cars. The gondolas were to be modified and lined with benches for about 100 passengers.
“There was risk, but we had a little money to invest,” Conley told the Bulletin. “We thought if we could get it built, it would take a few years to recover our investment.”
The project slowly became reality. By mid-summer 1973, tracks were laid near Scout’s Rest Ranch east across Buffalo Bill Ave. and across land owned by the Lincoln County Historical Society.
The rails stretched for three-fourths of a mile, and were laid in time to operate an abbreviated schedule during the 1973 tourist season.
But despite construction and demonstrable operations, Midland Nebraska was having trouble securing enough right of way. Two land-owners along the proposed line to Cody Park refused to even consider an offer to let the corporation obtain right of way across their property. And a third landowner indicated a price “way beyond what the railroad could possibly return,” Conley said.
Perhaps in hopes that the landowners would change their minds, the line expanded to 1.25 miles long in 1974, but the train did not operate that year except for a few special occasions.
At the same time, the owners explored the possibility of selling their company. And they also considered alternate plans. Once again Concept Design Associates was contacted to draw up a plan.
In May 1974, a new plan was developed for the rail line -- encircling the Scouts Rest Ranch and Wild West Arena.
But on July 27, 1974, Hanger and other members of the Midlands Railroad Corporation walked the proposed route with members of Concept Design Associates, and afterwards the consensus was reached that it would not be economically viable.
“The railroad must be able to draw from a sizable visitor market, must be in a highly visible situation with regard to visitor access, and must provide a ride of sufficient length and scenic or historical environment to provide a satisfying visitor experience,” Concept Design Associates reported. “Likewise, an amusement train ride must nearly always have an adjacent powerful visitor draw, such as a zoo or amusement park in order to be financially successful. The situation at the Wild West Arena location does not seem to measure up well to any of these criteria.”
Conley, Hanger and the other owners showed a great deal of determination to this point. They backed up their vision with substantial planning, equipment purchases and construction. But, stumped by their inability to acquire right of way, they continued to look for a buyer for their little railroad.
As early as Nov. 2, 1973, negotiations had been considered to sell the Nebraska Midland Railroad. Conley said there were inquiries from several states and two from within Nebraska.
Grand Island’s Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer was one of the interested buyers.
On Friday, Dec. 20, 1974, the Hall County Museum Board gave a green light to start negotiations with Midlands to buy the railroad.
Conley said he felt like Santa Claus.
The sale included 13 rail cars in addition to the small locomotive, a mile of track, related equipment and parts.
Grand Island’s museum began a fund-raising campaign on July 8, 1975. By Sept. 11, the museum had raised more than $100,000 to buy the railroad and pledges were still coming in. The fund drive had surpassed the original goal of $75,000 by Aug. 6 and the museum board continued to seek and accept donations, in hopes that the museum would be able to add even more to the railroad in the future.
The engine and cars were loaded on semi-truck flatbeds in North Platte and driven to Grand Island Stuhr’s Museum, leaving town on Sept. 10, 1975.
The little depot near the Buffalo Bill State Park was moved away, and few if any traces of the project remain.
The Stuhr Museum kept Engine No. 69 until October 2001, when it was sold to Fort Lupton, Colo., to be stored until restoration at North Lake, Wisc.
Sources: The North Platte Public Library & and the collected files of Keith Blackledge.
Despite the failure of the Nebraska Midland Railroad venture, investor and board president Jim Conley figured the effort did some good.
The narrow gauge steam locomotive, No. 69, that Midland bought still runs today.
Locomotive No. 69’s counterpart, No. 68, lays abandoned in a ravine in South Dakota, near the place where Conley and his partner Jack Hanger bought No. 69, Conley said.
After pulling the train at the Stuhr museumin Grand Island for many years, No. 69 was fully restored in Wisconsin and returned to the Alaska Yukon and the rail line where it was first operated.
It continues to run there today, Conley said.
The entire venture was a gamble.
“We took a (financial) bath,” Conley told the Bulletin. “It was nice that Stuhr wanted it. We got enough to pay off our debts, but we wrote a lot of it off and went on. At least we indirectly saved the locomotive.”
The Brady Depot, which was moved near Buffalo Bill's victorian mansion to serve the little railroad that almost could, was moved to the Lincoln County Museum, where it stands today.