Jim McKee: Relics of a railroad past

By | October 17, 2020

In 1866, with 260 miles of track completed west of Omaha, and all done “with the protection of the military,” the Union Pacific Railroad platted North Platte. Although it was considered a transient location, it was thought it would probably be a later trading point and was simply thought of as a temporary end of the line and supply point for the time being. All such points on the Union Pacific were termed “Hell on Wheels” though a newspaper, The Pioneer on Wheels, was even established in an empty railroad car.

In late January of 1867, fearing American Indian interference, the Department of the Platte, headquartered in Omaha, sent troops from Fort McPherson to protect the railroad.

That summer a semi-permanent presence was established by the U. S. Army at what was named Camp Sargent, erroneously spelt but named for William Sargeant. Camp Sargent was hastily built, in an almost prefabricated construction, of pine with frame roofs covered with tar paper. The main building/barracks was 127 by 30 feet with “no bath-rooms,” the lack explained by the convenient and nearby river. There were, in addition to the main building, a kitchen, an adobe guard house, mess hall, hospital, laundry/married soldiers’ quarters and a 75-horse stable. The parade grounds at the camp’s center would today sit at about Sixth and Willow streets.

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In May of 1867 North Platte’s population was estimated at 2,000, but by June the Union Pacific had reached Julesburg, Colorado. As the end of the line moved on, the population plummeted to 300 and may have bottomed out at 20 as even the newspaper and virtually all the railroad’s construction crews moved on.

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