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Cranes, trains and automobiles in the heart of America

Once a brief stopover for travelers, Kearney, Nebraska, is now a vacation destination in its own right.

By Larissa and Michael Milne

AAA World Article

The Archway straddling Interstate 80
Photo Courtesy of The Archway

Transportation and movement have always been pivotal in Kearney. Rising out of the vast rolling prairie in the center of Nebraska, this former U.S. Army fort grew rapidly due to the post-Civil War westward expansion of the Union Pacific Railroad that passed through town. Earlier, westbound settlers rode horses and wagons through the area using the Great Platte River Road, the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail; Kearney was even a stop on The Pony Express during its brief but romantic role in history.

With the advent of the automobile in the early 20th century, Kearney became the midpoint of the Lincoln Highway, the landmark coast-to-coast road begun in 1913 to link New York and San Francisco; its modern-day equivalent, Interstate 80, passes just south of town. Movement is not restricted to transportation modes, though; the majestic sandhill crane, with its signature red crown and six-foot wingspan, uses Kearney as a major stop on its annual migration northward from Mexico to Canada and Siberia. So many wading birds pass through annually that Kearney has become known as the Sandhill Crane Capital of the World.

Crane Migration
Sandhill crane migration
Photo Courtesy of Visit Kearney

While Kearney (population 33,800) has a long history as a transit point, it’s now a destination unto itself.

Hitting ‘The Bricks’
Kearney’s (pronounced “car-nee”) main boulevard, Central Avenue, is a brick roadway paved in an intricate herringbone pattern—a rare sight in this asphalt and concrete world—that appears as if it were a series of small arrows pointing to the town saying, “Stay a spell and explore.” This 14-square-block area, known as The Bricks, is home to shopping, dining and cultural spaces.

Kearney Nebraska Downtown Area
The Bricks downtown area
Photo courtesy of Visit Kearney

The Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA), which opened in 1986 in a circa-1911 neoclassical building that once served as the town’s post office, is devoted to Nebraska art and artists. Highlights of the collection include Thomas Hart Benton’s original illustrations for the 1945 publication of Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail, and several landscapes by prominent Nebraska artist Aaron Pyle, a student of Benton’s. The museum also houses one of the nation’s leading collections of wildlife prints by John James Audubon, including one of Kearney’s patron waterfowl: the sandhill crane.

Museum of Nebraska Art
Museum of Nebraska Art
Photo by Michael Milne

Farther along The Bricks, The World Theatre resides inside a refurbished 1927 Masonic temple. The performance space was restored in 2012 to its original vaudeville-era appearance in an effort led by Kearney native Joe Bokenkamp, screenwriter of the TV show The Blacklist. The venue hosts movies and live action performances, such as the fresh-from-Broadway The Million Dollar Quartet. Nebraska-grown popcorn (it’s the Cornhusker State for a reason) is served at the theater using the original 1920s buttery recipe.

Kerney World Theatre Kearney Nebraska
The World Theatre
Photo by Michael Milne

The Fort Theater is another artful adaptation—with a twist. Now the offices of Fort Dentistry, the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, retains its original 1914 lobby (now a waiting room), complete with velvet ropes and a popcorn machine. The marquee, dating from 1940, states the coming attraction: NEW PATIENTS WELCOME.

Around two dozen independent shops and eateries line The Bricks. Check out Bow & Arrow Boutique for fun and funky women’s fashions and shoes. Buffalo Records offers a collection of new and vintage vinyl, record players and accessories. Rustic Patch carries clothing and home décor with a prairie farmhouse aesthetic.

For creative refreshment, try Tru Café, which serves breakfast and lunch along with house-roasted coffee and craft cocktails amid a gallery of works by local artists. Platte Valley Brewery offers local brews and an outdoor patio complete with cornhole games. The Alley Rose café is the place to go for steaks; try the coffee-rubbed Petite Tender, a rarely found shoulder cut that butchers usually keep for themselves.

Kearney celebrates its history with several attractions showcasing migrations. The Buffalo County Historical Society’s Trails & Rails Museum highlights the town’s railroading heritage. A circa-1898 Union Pacific Depot was pain-stakingly moved to the museum, located just south of town on the original Mormon Trail. Train buffs will enjoy peering into the engine room of a Philadelphia-built 1903 Baldwin locomotive.

Trails and Rails Museum
Union
Pacific Depot at the Trails & Rails Museum
Photo Courtesy of Visit Kearney

In an interesting junction of past and present, The Road Archway museum, which arcs over Interstate 80 at Exit 275, highlights the struggles and sacrifices made by the people who ventured west, from settlers in Conestoga times to modern truckers. Life-sized dioramas demonstrate the privations of the trail as a sound-and-light show featuring flashing lightning and crashing thunder to give a you-are-there feel.

From Cars to Cranes
In the early 20th century, Kearney’s central location drew travelers on the newly paved Lincoln Highway. This then-newfangled mode of transportation is celebrated at the 200-vehicle Classic Car Collection. The museum is broken out thematically. The Drive-In features nine cars parked in rows facing a screen showing clips from old films, while other displays include the Cadillac Corral showcasing a 1940 Cadillac Fleetwood convertible with its aerodynamic torpedo-styled body. There is also an International Corner, which in Nebraska farm country refers to International Harvester trucks and buggies, featuring a 1907 International Auto Buggy and 1969 International Truck.

Kearney Classic Car Collection 1956 Ford Thunderbird Convertible
Classic Car Collection’s 1956 Ford Thunderbird
Photo by Larissa Milne

While people continue to travel through Kearney, the sandhill crane prefers to stop at the nearby Platte River on its way north. Each year, more than 600,000 sandhill cranes stop here from late February through early May on their way from Mexico to as far north as Siberia in what the National Audubon Society has called “among the greatest wildlife spectacles on the continent.” (Viewing maps are available at the Kearney Visitor Center.) The Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary also offers an indoor viewing observatory as well as viewing tours and photography classes. Hardy souls can attend overnight photography classes that run from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. in a photo blind near the birds’ prime roosting spots.

Fright trains in central Nebraska
Freight
trains regularly roll through central Nebraska.
Photo by Larissa Milne

Here in central Nebraska, the cacophony of thousands of exuberant birds competes with the far-off rumble of the freight trains that roll by with the regularity of a New York City subway. Eventually, the trains move on, joining the sandhill cranes as travelers from afar passing through. But Kearney remains a historic and vibrant cornerstone amid a sea of movement through the heart of America.

 

 

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of AAA World.


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