Kearney Archway offers “look” into westward migration

Kearney Archway exterior

Designed as a tribute to Nebraska’s pioneer history and the role the Platte River valley played in American westward expansion, the Kearney Archway has not quite succeeded in its goals.

Officially named the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, the museum has struggled financially almost from the start. It recently filed for bankruptcy protection. It is said to be about $20 million in debt.

Supporters originally thought the monument would attract up to 300,000 visitors annually. People traveling east and west on Interstate 80 would pull off the road to spend some time at the monument and maybe the area. However, that never happened. The largest number of visitors was more than 249,000 in 2000 – its first year, according to the Omaha World-Herald ( Last year, attendance was just under 50,000.

So, while the museum works to resolve its financial issues, a major asset is coming along. The state is building an interstate exit about a mile east of the museum. Currently, if you’re driving west on I-80, you have to exit about two miles down the road, and then circle back on a side street. If you are driving eastward, you have to go another 12 miles before you can turn around. So, access has not been good.

The museum itself is an OK attraction. I was not overly impressed with the exhibits and information. The thing that really stood out for me upon arrival is the steep escalator that takes you to the exhibits. If you’ve seen the movie “About Schmidt,” then you may recall the scene where Jack Nicholson visits it. A framed movie poster is on display on the first

Admission was an issue to me. It costs adults $12 and kids 10-15-years-old $8. I believe the attraction should maybe charge adults $8 and all students $4 or $5. Honestly, I think it’s overpriced.

On the escalator ride up, it was interesting seeing mannequins dressed as pioneers “climbing” a hill.
Once on the exhibition floor, you are welcomed by an Army cannon near a mercantile building display.

Escalator to the top of the Kearney Archway to enter the museum

Then, you walk into a room with pioneers pushing and pulling a wagon through the deep muck they encountered during their moves west. One interesting thing was the lightning that bounces around the walls.

Amazing effects inside the Kearney Archway

Next up is a look at the downside of migration. There’s a spot where items were discarded, creating the first western landfills. LOL. An abandoned wagon is filled with and surrounded by personal items other pioneers would leave behind.

Hard times as a pioneer display at the Kearney Archway

Pioneers lost loved ones along the way. People were buried on the plains, and their survivors moved on.
Mormon migration to their holy land came through Nebraska. After spending winters near the Missouri River banks in Omaha, they moved westward through the Platte River valley, eventually settling in what is now Salt Lake City, Utah.
The museum has a nice-sized exhibit. The exhibits are laid out well at the Kearney Archway

I believe the museum skims over some pioneer acts.

It seems to me that the Indian wars are downplayed. Based on my interpretation of the center, Native Americans and pioneers seemed to get along. I wish there was more coverage of the battles between the parties, the thievery on both sides, and the illnesses that were spread from pioneers to Indians.

Native Americans and Pioneer history at the Kearney Archway

I may be too hard on the museum in this area. As a Native American, I realize the center works to have a positive relationship with Native Americans. Perhaps, the approach they take to cover that part of migration is best.

Another thing that caught my eye was coverage of the Donner party. It’s known that the party resorted to cannibalism
to survive. The museum does explain what happened to the party that resulted in the people getting lost. However, it skims over the cannibalism, only mentioning that some people were said to have resorted to cannibalism. Again, maybe I’m over thinking it.

Moving on, the museum looks at advancements to make life better for westerners. The Pony Express ran through the area. Union Pacific built the east-west railroad system. Then, the stage coach started as maybe the nation’s first “bus” system.

The Pony Express history at the Kearney Archway

The museum jumps to the 1950s, when the Lincoln Highway (US Highway 30) was a popular auto route from the east to the west. It is the nation’s first transcontinental highway, and was named after President Abraham Lincoln. This year is the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Highway.

The first transcontinental highway exhibit at the Kearney Archway

A look back at drive-ins was cool to see. There are so few left in the United States. We visited one in Oklahoma City during our visit there last fall.

[bctt tweet=”Kearney Archway offers a look into westward migration @NebraskaTourism ” username=”walkingtourists”]

Old drive-in display at Kearney Archway

An old diner display was interesting to see. It represented stops travelers made while driving across country.

That pretty much wrapped up the museum. We took maybe 20-30 minutes to walk through it. I guess you could stretch it out, but not sure how. LOL.

Earth lodge outside of the Kearney Archway Outside the museum offers visitors another look into Native American history. An earthen lodge house is located across the small lake in front of the museum. People can’t go inside it, but there is a nice view from the doorway.

Nearby is a plains above-ground burial spot. Some plains tribes built the structure when someone died. The deceased
was put on the bed of the structure.

The museum is located along a walking/biking trail that connects it to the downtown area of Kearney. It is more than eight miles long.

Kearney Archway

I have never been a fan of the Platte River Archway. I didn’t think it was a good idea when it was developed. But, as a Nebraskan, I want it to succeed. If it fails, what happens to the building? Would it be torn down?

Lisa and I discussed things that could go in there. One thought was a nature art gallery that highlights the Sandhill Crane migration, which happens annually through the area. That likely would not be enough to keep it going, either.

Maybe someone could put in a nice restaurant that sits above the interstate and gives diners views of the interstate traffic and the surrounding area. Not sure that would be a successful idea.

What I truly hope happens is that once the interstate exit is completed, travelers will take the time to take a look at the history of America that ran through Nebraska.

Flag at the Kearney Archway