On the job, 1973
Photo by Nebraska State Historical Society
Albert and LeeAnna (Goins) Riley and their sod house in the Sandhills.
Bill Riley tribute, Bailey Yard Hall of Fame
The Hall of Fame is displayed inside the Golden Spike Visitor's Center.
Bill Riley aboard the historic No. 8444 steam locomotive
Bill Riley: biker, railroad engineer and good guy. Riley was also on the cutting edge of history. In 1968, he became the first Black locomotive engineer in Bailey Yard.
Riley engineered passenger trains for a little while, and for most of his 43-year career, he took trains to and from North Platte to Morrill and Cheyenne, hauling coal from Wyoming's Powder River Basin.
Riley was also an avid motorcyclist during his off hours, testifying to his love of adventure. He had a distinguished career in Bailey Yard and is honored today along with such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody and Edd Bailey in Bailey Yard’s Hall of Fame, on display at the Golden Spike Tower and Visitor’s Center.
The chain of events that brought Riley to North Platte included slavery, refugees, schooling, interracial marriages and the tiny town of DeWitty in the remote Sandhills.
DeWitty, later appropriately renamed Audacious in tribute to the attitude of the settlers, was a village in Cherry County in the early 1900s. It was 11 miles west of Brownlee, which itself is a small village between Thedford and Valentine.
At one time, DeWitty was bustling, relatively speaking. It had a church, a post office, a baseball team, a barber and a general store. There were three school districts in the area. More than 100 black families farmed and ranched along the river and in the hills.
The overall DeWitty settlement bordered the North Loup River and stretched for nearly 15 miles in the eastern part of the county.
DeWitty was officially founded in 1907. It was named for its first postmaster.
Black settlers were initially attracted to the area by the 1904 Kinkaid Act, which offered one square mile (640 acres) of land to those who could settle and live in the Sand Hills.
Several African-American families were living in Overton and Cozad at the time and were lured to the Sandhills, including Bill Riley’s grandparents.
But as the years went by, families struggled to make a living on the sandy soils, and problems were compounded by the Great Depression and droughts of the 1930s. After 30 years, Audacious was generally abandoned.
But the modern-day Riley story begins much earlier, with Isaac Riley, who escaped slavery in Perry County, Mo. via the Underground Railroad, a route that gave shelter and provisions to former slaves as they sought freedom in eastern Canada.
Isaac traveled the underground railroad into southern Canada, where he settled just across the border on the north side of Lake Erie in Buxton, named for an Irish minister who founded the settlement.
Buxton had a school that was renowned for classical education, respected so much that White parents applied to send their children there.
Buxton was a mixed racial community, where blacks and whites were equally accepted and Isaac married into a large Irish immigrant family -- the Charles Meehan family.
After the Civil War, Meehan led 50 or so families from Buxton all the way to Overton, Nebraska in search of better opportunities.
Some of those settlers are still in the Overton and Cozad areas today, but around 1910, after a couple of dry years, eight families, including the Rileys and the Meehans, went on to DeWitty by covered wagon.
At the time, DeWitty was a small but growing settlement for black families, and after they staked their claim, Bill’s grandfather, Albert Riley, Sr. and his wife LeeAnna built a relatively roomy sod house.
The little settlement of DeWitty grew. By 1912, there were 79 homesteading black families in the area, according to a 2004 report by Maxine Isaacson of Maxwell in the Nebraska Rural Electric magazine. Five years later, there were 100 families there. More than 125 families lived in and around DeWitty at its peak.
As was the case in Canada, education was emphasized around DeWitty. At that time, an eighth-grade diploma was typically provided from one-room “country” schoolhouses and generally considered to be sufficient.
Nevertheless, many DeWitty families arranged for their children to attend high school in Thedford and Seneca -- a two-day trip, some 40 miles away, Isaacson said.
Times grew harsh. Droughts and crop failures on the fragile farmland following World War I caused families to mortgage their properties and they sunk deeper into debt in ensuring years.
They eventually had to sell out and move on during the Depression.
The only remnants of DeWitty today are some old foundations.
Albert Riley, Sr., Bill’s grandfather, sold his land to a rancher and left DeWitty for Valentine in 1939. He found a job at the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge about 20 miles south of town. He managed the relatively remote and little known national refuge for 34 years.
His son Albert Jr. went to high school in Valentine and served in the military during World War II. When he returned, he married and went to work as a hired hand. He was a cowboy, carpenter and a projectionist at the theater in Valentine at various times.
Albert Jr.’s wife Thelma Nadine (Nadine was her preferred name) was a cashier at the grocery store in Valentine for many years, according to family members.
The couple raised three children, including Albert III, Bill and Herschel. Herschel was the youngest and was born in 1957 in the Valentine hospital. Black children were traditionally born at home, because whites didn’t accept them in hospitals, but attitudes were changing. Riley family members believe Herschel was the first black person born in a Cherry County hospital, Bill’s wife Debra said.
For some time, the family -- grandparents, parents and sons -- lived in a shack in an alley in Valentine. The Rileys eventually saved enough money to buy a small modest home in Valentine around 1960.
Bill Riley graduated from Valentine High School in 1968 and moved to North Platte to live with his Uncle Otis and Aunt Alleah before striking out on his own.
He enrolled in the community college voc-tech school and got a job at a truck stop. He applied for jobs with the Highway Patrol and Union Pacific. UP called him first and he was hired as an engineer before 1968 ended. He was 18 years old.
He endured considerable criticism on the job. Several people thought he should be a porter, not an engineer. When he tried to date the daughter of a railroad executive, he was told to stop or he would lose his job.
But Bill earned the respect of his co-workers. He was known for friendliness, sincerity and willingness to do whatever needed to be done.
He continued to attend college and eventually graduated in automotives and carpentry. He briefly was an engineer on passenger trains. He was drafted into the Army in 1970 and went to South Vietnam, where he served as a radio mechanic.
After he returned, he went back to work for Union Pacific. He ran the west route to South Morrill and Cheyenne. He logged 2 million miles during his career with no major mishaps.
Bill often helped new hires learn the ropes because he remembered how it felt during his first months. He would show them the right way to do things and how to stay out of trouble with the wheels, his wife Deb said.
Riley was inducted into the Bailey Yard Hall of Fame in May 2011. He was humble about the honor, his wife said, knowing that it was partly symbolic.
Riley died tragically a few months later in September. It happened while he was on a layover in Cheyenne. He suffered a brain aneurism. He did not report for his return run, and was found about three hours later in his motel room. He was barely conscious. He was rushed to the hospital in Cheyenne and then flown to Denver, where he died. He was 61.
He was remembered in the heart and minds of his co-workers.
In tribute, all crews on duty at Bailey Yard sounded their horns at 2:15 p.m. on Sept. 26, by order of the dispatcher.
The "whistle order" is part of Riley's display in the Hall of Fame.
“He was an outstanding employee and friend to many of us at Union Pacific,” the whistle order said. “He will truly be missed.”
“He was a humorous person and seldom had a critical word,” his wife Deb said. “He liked to help neighbors, fix roofs and run errands. He was a just a good hard working man. He never thought he was better than anyone.”
Bill took considerable ribbing. Even into the 1980s and 90s he was sometimes called “Watermelon.” When he first arrived in North Platte he drove a 1955 Ford pickup to work, and somebody pasted a “Sandford and Son” sign on the truck, referring to the television comedy show about a black father and son who operated a junk yard.
In 1969, Bill bought a Ford Mustang and started dating. He was told to leave at least one girl alone or he could be run out of town, Deb said.
When Riley was drafted, he went to Georgia for basic training, and later said it was the most racist experience he’d ever had.
But, “He didn’t complain a lot or worry,” Deb Riley said. “He figured after Vietnam, nothing could hurt him.”
He and Deb bought two Harleys and frequently went on rides. Deb still does. Often they would ride to the Ft. McPherson National Cemetery to pay their respects to the soldiers buried there.
After Bill died, Deb donated $300 to restore the Ft. McPherson statute in Bill’s memory. It was enough money to complete the restoration effort.
“He was a heck of a guy,” Deb said. “Thanks for the ride, Bill.”
First published in the Bulletin's Feb. 20 print edition during Black History Month.