Located right off Interstate 80 in the south-central part of the state, this town is chock-full of rich history and fun activities.
By Anna Lee Braunstein
U.S. Interstate 80 is 2,900 miles long and crisscrossed by hundreds of overpasses and bridges on its coast-to-coast journey. The one that reigns high above the ordinary is located at Exit 275 in Kearney (pronounced CAR-knee), Nebraska. It is not an ordinary overpass but instead a museum honoring the people who took to the trails and roadways that expanded the United States. This interesting piece of history is among other attractions to explore in town.
The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, known as the Archway (www.archway.org), presents the 200-year story of travelers crossing the United States. Using interactive exhibits and authentic artifacts, the museum tells stories of feet, horses, wagons, and cars traveling for weeks and months on a route that now takes only a couple of days of nonstop driving to cross.
The Mormon, California, and Oregon trails converged at the Archway site. Native Americans, Pony Express riders, Overland Stage passengers, and individuals and families in covered wagons followed these trails. The first transcontinental railway and telegraph paralleled the routes as well.
Between 1841 and 1866, 350,000 men, women, and children took to the trails to seek new opportunities in the West. The lure of gold, a chance at a new life, and the desire for adventure were the main reasons for facing the hazardous trek. Though few achieved the riches they sought, many left their mark on American history. As the trails improved, millions more would travel the road.
In 1913, Carl Fisher, founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, led the way for the creation of the 3,389-mile Lincoln Highway. Those trails and roadways have merged to become I-80.
Former Nebraska Governor Frank Morrison wanted to celebrate the intrepid adventurers who made the journey. On the night of August 16, 1999, a section of I-80 closed and a 1,500-ton, 309-foot-long arch began to be built over the interstate. Morrison’s dream became the Archway Monument, now telling of the 200 years that these routes helped build the vast country.
At the Archway, visitors can ride up the two-story escalator to begin their historical adventure. Murals, dioramas, and exhibits depict life and loss along the roads. While the sounds of animals, trains, and cars reverberate in the air, personal audio guides provide individual narrated tours to supplement the exhibits.
Some displays show the usual travails and joys of life on the road, and others tell specific stories such as those recorded by Joseph Goldsborough. The former U.S. Military Academy West Point cadet left his job in Washington, D.C., and led 66 men west to find gold. Like many others, they did not succeed, but visitors can read a day-to-day account with illustrations of their journey.
The museum also pays tribute to Ezra Meeker, a pioneer who first traveled the Oregon Trail west in 1852 in an ox-drawn wagon. Meeker was determined to keep the history of the trails alive. In 1906, to raise awareness and funds for that cause, he retraced the journey of his youth in an ox-drawn wagon. He spent much of the rest of his life traversing the trails, traveling by covered wagon, prairie schooner, automobile, and biplane.
One exhibit features a buffalo stampede, and another shows the ordeal of rescuing Mormon handcart pioneers, 200 of whom froze to death on their journey to Salt Lake City. A different exhibit displays a Pony Express rider changing horses during his dash to deliver the mail.
The Lincoln Highway exhibit is filled with mementos from the early days of transcontinental driving. Additional dioramas provide more recent nostalgic moments — drive-in restaurants, drive-in theaters, campgrounds, and road trips are all large parts of the highway’s history. Short videos of the area’s past are shown in the theater as well.
Activities outside the Archway include hiking and biking trails, a small lake for boating and fishing, and the Trail Blaze Maze. In addition, a replica of a sod house gives a sense of living in small quarters out in the middle of vast grassland.
Attend Soda Fountain Sundae events to enjoy a delicious treat and listen to local musicians. For information about special events, go to www.archway.org.
Located near the Archway is the Nebraska Firefighters Museum & Education Center. This facility honors those who dedicate their lives to saving others. The museum pays respect to firefighters, explains what their risky job entails, and puts an emphasis on safety and prevention. Vehicles from the late 1800s to current times are on display, along with a variety of vintage firefighting equipment. Children can enjoy hands-on exhibits that include dressing as a firefighter and climbing a replica fire engine. For more information, go to nebraskafirefightersmuseum.org.
Classic Car Collection features over 200 vintage automobiles. Owners Bernie and Janice Taulborg wanted to find a way to share their collection of classic cars, so they donated 137 vehicles to help create this Kearney attraction. The collection has now grown to more than 200 vehicles, with about 60 in frequently changing exhibits. Car aficionados and those who just like looking at awesome automobiles will find delight as they walk down the aisles. The oldest car is an 1877 Seldon replica, and the newest is a 2004 commemorative edition Chevrolet Corvette. Most of the exhibits show cars from the 1930s to 1950s. Many are rare, such as the Jewett and Metz, and others represent the remaining few of their eras. Exhibits take viewers back in time to when attendants pumped gas, cleaned the windshield, and checked the oil. Replicas of a drive-in movie theater and a drive-in diner provide fun, nostalgic settings for the cars.
The museum calls its Car Hoods Project “the crowning bit of technology.” The hoods hang on the wall above the cars and show historical videos. The collection lives up to the words of director Greg McCollough: “We sell memories here.”
Each year during the second week of July, the museum hosts Cruise Nite, actually a multiday celebration of cars, which culminates on Saturday. Between 500 and 1,000 drivers show up in their cars, cruise the streets, and celebrate automobiles. The annual Classic and Collectible Auction is held on Friday during the event as well. To learn of other special events at the museum, visit www.ccckearney.com.
More museums and attractions await discovery in Kearney — including exploring its claim to fame as the sandhill capital of the world. Each of these stops will recall old and create new memories of eras gone by.
Kearney Visitors Bureau
1007 Second Ave.
Kearney, NE 68847
Kearney RV Park & Campground
1140 E. First St.
Kearney, NE 68847
Fort Kearney State Recreation Area
1020 V Road
Kearney, NE 68847