If this were an 1870s travel guide, we’d advise you to go around Sidney. No sense taking your chances with the outlaws, gamblers and riffraff that made this railroad town one of the toughest places in the West. Stay on the train, lock the doors and you’ll be fine.
Sidney began in 1867 as a fort guarding the Union Pacific Railroad from Native Americans. With the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, Sidney became a trailhead for northbound gold-seekers. The boomtown days brought easy money and outlaws. It is said that a single city block once held 23 saloons.
The tales of Sidney’s rowdy past are many. One local favorite is an incident in which a man was shot and killed at a dance. The body was propped up in a corner, and the dance went on. Soon, another man was shot and likewise displayed. The party, so it was said, ended only after the third shooting.
These days the community of 6,474 residents is best known as the home of Cabela’s, a locally-owned business that began on a kitchen table and now bills itself as the “World’s Foremost Outfitter.” Visible for miles, the green-and-gold water tower bearing the Cabela’s logo stands tall at exit 59. Locals call it the “big green stop sign on I-80.” For more than 1 million visitors each year, it beckons irresistibly. The 72,000-square-foot store sells outdoor equipment of every sort from fishing and hunting to backpacking and photography. Open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. Closed Christmas Day, Thanksgiving and Easter. RV parking and tent camping available. (308) 254-7889.
Near the Cabela’s retail giant is the Pony Express National Monument, reportedly the only national monument with flags and markers that honor all the states the Pony Express riders journeyed to. The monument’s flags can be seen by travelers on I-80.
Sidney Barracks was established in 1867 to protect Union Pacific Railroad track layers against the threat of hostile Indians. In 1869, the post was relocated to the present site at Sidney, Neb., and the following year it was renamed Fort Sidney and was active through the Indian wars and was closed by the army in 1894. At its height, the fort had 40 buildings. Today, three buildings remain in what is now a residential neighborhood on the east side of town.
The grounds of former Boot Hill Cemetery that was established by the military in 1868 has recently been restored and features interpretive panels with stories about some of the people who were buried there. The cemetery was used until 1889, and 211 bodies were removed and relocated in 1922.
At Sixth and Jackson streets, Fort Sidney Museum and Post Commander’s Home consists of two buildings, the Officers’ Quarters, which is a museum of Sidney’s colorful past, and the Post Commander’s Home, which has been restored with original and other period furnishings. The third building still standing is an octagonal stone building that used to be the fort’s powder magazine. It is now attached to a private home at 1545 Fifth Ave. All three buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Sidney Fort Complex is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday and 1-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Memorial Day-Labor Day. (308) 254-2150.
Half a century after Fort Sidney closed, Sidney again became home to a major military facility. The Sioux Army Depot, built in 1942, held tons of military equipment and ammunition. Located six miles west and two miles north of Sidney, the site covered 36 square miles. Closed in 1967, its odd igloo-shaped structures that once housed ammunition still stand and are accessible through a driving tour.
When a local man suggested putting up a flagpole for the War Memorial in Legion Park and Memorial Gardens, people decided that an ordinary flagpole wasn’t enough to honor Cheyenne County’s veterans. Volunteers and local companies converted a blown-down interstate light pole, anchoring it with 20 tons of concrete and rebar. It stands 140 feet tall and is the tallest flagpole in the state. The flag itself is 20 feet tall and 38 feet wide.
The park, at 11th and Toledo, features a railroad monument, a new pond stocked with fish, handicap accessible fishing docks, a charming gazebo and a modern playground for children. The Living Memorial Gardens is home of “Nebraska’s First Angel of Hope” (based on the Christmas Box Angel). The park is a starting point for a paved walking trail that winds through most of the city.
For visitors seeking more of a workout, the Cheyenne County Community Center, 627 Toledo, near Legion Park offers indoor sports and exercise facilities, including basketball and racquetball courts, running tracks and weight equipment. There is an admission charge; however, visitors to Sidney can receive free admission. Open year-round 5 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday; noon-6 p.m. Sunday. (308) 254-7000.
Located on bluffs overlooking Sidney, Hillside Municipal Golf Course incorporates the area’s rugged Western terrain into a championship-caliber 18-hole public course. The course winds through a beautiful canyon, offering spectacular views of Sidney and the surrounding countryside. (308) 254-2311.
Test your marksmanship at Sidney Shooting Park, which offers target shooting and sporting clays. From I-80 exit 59, go north to U.S. Highway 30, then west to Greenwood Road, then three miles north. The park is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and noon-4 p.m. Sunday. Fifty sporting clays are $15; 100 are $25. (308) 254-4577.
In 1874, a military expedition led by George Armstrong Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills. Though a treaty reserved the Black Hills to the Sioux Indians, the Army stopped enforcing it. Soon a major gold rush was underway – and it led to war between the Sioux Indians and the United States, a war in which Custer himself was famously killed in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
For would-be gold miners, Sidney became a popular jumping-off place, leaving behind the ease of railroad travel and heading overland up the 267-mile Sidney-to-Deadwood Trail. Though the early 1880s, the trail carried most of the gold rush traffic, including gold shipments from the Black Hills.
On Highway 30 west of town, a historical marker indicates where wagon ruts from the trail are still visible up the valley across the Union Pacific tracks. Highway 30 is also part of the old Lincoln Highway, which in the 1920s became the first paved coast-to-coast auto route.
Today, the Nebraska portion of U.S. Hwy 385 is designated the Gold Rush Scenic Byway. From the Colorado to the South Dakota state lines, the highway connects Sidney with Bridgeport, Alliance and Chadron. It follows the old trail for much of the way and rolls through some of the most spectacular country in the state. Heading north from Sidney, the highway passes through the towns of Gurley and Dalton before descending dramatically into the North Platte Valley beside Courthouse and Jail rocks near Bridgeport.
Northeast of Sidney, just off of Highway 385, the Gold Rush Scenic Byway, visitors can find one of the state’s most interesting greenhouses. And, it’s interesting too that the owners of Ricky and Lucy’s Country Greenhouse, 11732 Road 32, are neither named Ricky nor Lucy. In 2003, Terri and Dan Wolff opened the business in a renovated 1800s era barn, and their organic farm offers much more than greenery. Organic herbs, vegetables, pastas, coffees and gourmet hot chocolates are among the offerings. There’s a gift shop with bath and body products, Roman statuary, pottery, and more. (877) 254-2204.
Six miles west of Sidney, the I-80 Golden Link marks where the last segment of Interstate 80 was completed in 1974. The link is a six-inch strip of brass plates embedded in both lanes.
For more information about Sidney, contact the Cheyenne County Visitors Committee at (866) 545-4030 or visit www.sidneycheyennecountytourism.com.