If this were an 1870s travel guide, we’d advise you to go around Sidney. Outlaws, gamblers and other riffraff made this railroad town one of the toughest places in all of the American West. Stay on the train, lock the doors and you’ll be fine. Unless there’s a train robbery.
Sidney began in 1867 as an Army fort guarding the Union Pacific Railroad from hostile Native Americans. With the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, Sidney became a trailhead for gold seekers. The boomtown days brought easy money for some, and outlaws that many had to contend with. Legend has it a single city block in Sidney 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. Another man was shot and likewise displayed. The party, so it was said, ended only after the third shooting. Good times.
The community of 6,900 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.” The green-and-gold water tower bearing the Cabela’s logo stands tall at Exit 59. The 72,000-square-foot store sells outdoor equipment of every sort from fishing and hunting supplies to backpacking and boating equipment. 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 with a restaurant on site. (308) 254-7889. Near the Cabela’s store is the Pony Express National Monument. The monument’s flags can be seen from a long distance by travelers motoring on I-80.
Sidney Barracks was established in 1867 to protect Union Pacific Railroad track layers from attack. In 1869, the post was relocated to the present site at Sidney. It was renamed Fort Sidney and was active through the Indian wars. At its height, the fort had 40 buildings. It closed in 1894. Three buildings remain in what is now a residential neighborhood on Sidney’s east side. The grounds of former Boot Hill Cemetery, established by the military in 1868, has been restored and features interpretive panels with stories of some of the people buried there. The cemetery was used until 1889, and 211 bodies were removed and relocated in 1922. The Boot Hill Cemetery Committee is actively restoring Camp Lookout. The outpost built by soldiers from Fort Sedgwick, Colorado, later became Sidney Barracks. After years as a private residence, the restored structure will be ready for drive-by views in April 2017. On the corner of Elm Street and 10th Avenue.
At Sixth and Jackson streets, Fort Sidney Museum and Post Commander’s Home consists of 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 is an octagonal stone structure once used as the fort’s powder magazine. It is at 1047 Fifth Ave. All three buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Fort Sidney 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. Annual Christmas Lamplight tours are popular and take place the Friday after Thanksgiving from 6 p.m.-9 p.m. The building remain open for the holidays through December from 1-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The Christ Episcopal Church in Sidney was built in 1866 and was the original church of Fort Sidney. Worshippers gather today at 1205 10th Ave. in the same building where Native Americans and early settlers once worshipped together.
Half a century after Fort Sidney closed, Sidney again became home to a major military facility. The Sioux Army Depot, built in 1942, held equipment and ammunition. Located six miles west and two miles north of Sidney, the site once covered 36 square miles. It closed in 1967. Its igloo-shaped ammunition bunkers remain and are accessible through a driving tour.
Twenty-nine Sidney buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. Sidney is the only Western Nebraska city with a “Historic District” designation. When a local man suggested erecting a flagpole for the War Memorial in Legion Park and Memorial Gardens, local residents decided to go big to honor the sacrifice of Cheyenne County’s veterans. Volunteers and local companies converted an interstate light pole into a flag pole. At 140 feet, it is the tallest flagpole in Nebraska. The flag is 20 feet tall and 38 feet wide.
The park features a railroad monument, pond, docks and playground. The Living Memorial Gardens is home of “Nebraska’s First Angel of Hope” (based on the Christmas Box Angel). A trail begins here and winds through the community.
For visitors seeking more of a workout, the Cheyenne County Community Center, 627 Toledo, offers indoor basketball and racquetball courts, running tracks and weight lifting equipment. Visitors to Sidney receive free admission. Open year-round Monday-Friday, 5 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday, noon-6 p.m. (308) 254-7000.
Aquatic exercise flows from the six-lane competition pool at the Sidney Aquatics Center. Water polo, and the aquatic versions of volleyball and basketball, entertain teams while the Tree House Slide and Water Bug spray dome delight younger visitors. Open Memorial Day-Labor Day. (308) 2545-5851.
Located on bluffs overlooking Sidney, Hillside Municipal Golf Course incorporates the area’s rugged Western terrain into a 18-hole adventure. The course twists through a beautiful canyon, offering spectacular views of Sidney and the countryside. (308) 254-2311.
Test your marksmanship at the Sidney Shooting Park with target shooting and sporting clays courses. From I-80 exit 59, go north to U.S. Highway 30, then west to Greenwood Road, then three miles north. Prices and hours are subject to change and availability.
In 1874, a military expedition led by George Armstrong Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills. Though a treaty reserved the Black Hills for the Sioux Indians, the Army stopped enforcing it. Interlopers trespassed by the thousands and soon a major gold rush was under way. It led to a tragic war between the Sioux tribe and the United States, a war in which Custer himself was famously killed during 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 by horse, oxen, mule and wagon up the 267-mile Sidney-to-Deadwood Trail. Through the early 1880s, the trail carried most of the gold rush traffic, including rich gold shipments from the Black Hills in South Dakota.
On Highway 30 west of town, a historical marker indicates where trail ruts are still visible. Highway 30 is also part of the old Lincoln Highway, which in the 1920s became the first paved coast-to-coast auto route.
The Nebraska portion of U.S. Highway 385 is designated the Gold Rush 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 Nebraska. Heading north from Sidney, the highway passes through Gurley and Dalton before descending dramatically into the North Platte Valley beside Courthouse and Jail rocks near Bridgeport.
Northeast of Sidney, visitors can find Ricky and Lucy’s Country Gift Shop. The owners are neither named Ricky nor Lucy. In 2003, Terri and Dan Wolff opened the business in a renovated 1800s era barn. Their organic farm offers herbs and spices, dips, medicinal herbs, teas, coffees and pasta. There is a gift shop with Roman-inspired fountains and pottery. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday from May-September, or by appointment; and during the off season by appointment only. 11732 Road 32. (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 6-inch strip of brass plates embedded in both lanes of the thoroughfare, signifying the joining of Western and Eastern Nebraska.
For more information about Sidney, contact the Cheyenne County Visitors Committee. (866) 545-4030.