Road trip news, rants, and ruminations by the Editors of RoadsideAmerica.com
June 18, 2008
Back in 1999, North Platte, Nebraska, dreamed up a bold plan to attract visitors. They would capitalize on their status as home of the world’s largest railroad yards by erecting a giant tower shaped like a golden spike from which railroad buffs could observe the train action in the yards. The tower would be covered in metal and visible from I-80. Planners estimated it would draw an estimated 200,000 visitors a year — even though it was 600 miles east of the spot where the golden spike supposedly marked the junction of the transcontinental railroad.
But when the Golden Spike Tower finally opened this week, it was with a more modest clang. It is now 7 stories shorter than originally planned, and it looks like a house stuck on top of a giant cement column, not like a golden spike. Visitor projections have been revised down to a more modest 50,000 visitors a year by five years from now. Railroad buffs are still delighted, but the rest of us ask, what happened?
According to Diane Cokeland, president of North Platte’s Golden Spike Tower board, the Tower’s fate was sealed by a change to the local fire code. “It would have required a second stairwell, and that would have made it a fat spike,” she told us. “And there were already cost concerns, and so the board decided to reevaluate the entire project.”
What the board decided to do was to cut the Tower’s budget, even though a controversial local occupancy tax (tacked onto hotel room bills until 2029) was kept in place. And although the Tower no longer looked like a spike, it continued to be called the Golden Spike Tower. “We evaluated changing the name,” Diane said, “but there was already so much name recognition that there was concern that people wouldn’t recognize it if we changed the name.”
Diane is confident that people who visit the Tower won’t care that it doesn’t look like a golden spike — they just want a tower where they can watch trains. Other folks in North Platte, however, are skeptical. “People here are calling it the game warden tower, the traffic control tower, the airport runway tower,” said Shelly Harshaw, the Tower’s executive director. “North Platte’s not so appreciative now, but I think that they will soon come to realize what they’ve got here.”