The Cowboy Line

Norfolk to Lander

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This was abandoned about 1982. I am not sure how far west though. I believe all of the NE portion is gone. It is now a very long bike path Norfork to at least Valentine, NE.

James Heydt
Lincoln, NE

Built in the 1880's, the Cowboy Line was abandoned by the Chicago and Northwestern between Van Tassell, Wyoming and Crawford Nebraska in 1991 after a storm caused many washouts on the line. In 1992 the 321 miles of track between Norfolk and Chadron, Nebraska were abandoned. In 1994 the Nebkota Railway started operations on the westernmost 74 miles between Merriman and Chadron, hauling mostly grain. In 2006 the railroad abandoned 43 miles between Merriman and Rushville and in 2007 abandoned most of the remaining line. The Nebkota retained 4 miles of track from Chadron to the east and has a small grain loading facility on the line.

A grandson of the Sandhills
Northern, MN

The Van Tassell-Crawford portion of the line was abandoned after a May 10th 1991 storm dropped 7" of rain in about an hour in the area. The rain caused a flash flood with a wall of water 15-18' high on the White River, destroying the line through White River Canyon west of Crawford.

Source: Rapid City Journal article - June 15, 2011.

A grandson of the sandhills
Northern, MN

This line ended at the Purina grain elevator in Lander. You can keep an eye on that elevator at

Richard Gilpin
St. Louis, MO

The Cowboy line was the first line to reach Rapid City, SD and the Black Hills. It was abandoned in parts: Fremont to Norfolk in 1982. Then Norfolk to Lusk, Wy in 1992. All the bridges between Norfolk and Chadron remain. It is too bad that Chicago Northwestern did not upgrade this line to carry coal, because it would still be in use. There is is still an operating turntable at Chadron, operated by the Nebkota Railway. The Norfolk railyard is still in use and is the home of the Central Nebraska Railroad. The Cowboy line was once apart of the Chicago Northwestern Railroad that once had second largest trackage in the state of Nebraska. Almost all branch lines as well as the Chicago and Northwest Railroad are gone in the state of Nebraska.

James Holtgrewe
Broken Bow, NE

This line was still actively running trains up to 1991. We moved here in Jan. of 91. The last train went through town in October of the same year. In 1996 the rails and rock were removed and it became the Cowboy Trail. The bridges were all fitted with railings for pedestrians. Concrete was laid in most towns for pedestrian traffic also. A few people have attempted to ride bikes on it, but, gave up because steel slivers kept giving them flat tires.

Mike Joedeman
Ainsworth, NE

not all of the NE portion is gone some exsists around Chadron

James Wolken
Omaha, NE

The Cowboy Line IS railbanked (government protected corridor which could be reopened for future use if a railroad felt the need to), so given coal traffic becomes to great on either the BNSF or UP route across Nebraska, this line could be reopened with relatively little red tape. This left some towns (such as Valentine, NE) as much as 60 miles from the nearest rail line.

Edwardsville, IL

To see video of the last train on the Cowboy Line, go to C&NW The Cowboy Line in Nebr. You will see the last train to Chadron with two engines and one car crossing a bridge west bound.

Al Clark
Chadron, NE



A C and NW timetable from 1932 shows a train leaving Norfolk daily at 8:56 pm and arriving in Lander the next day at 5.40 p.m. It left Lander the next morning and headed east back to Norfolk, with connections to Omaha. They also ran a daily mixed train between Casper and Lander.

oakford, AL

I am from Iowa and remember seeing the Cowboy Line when I was a 12 year old boy back in 1966 or so. My cousins lived in Neligh, NE which was a pleasant county seat town west of Norfolk, NE. I was a huge railfan even back then. I was thrilled to see that the railroad paralleled the highway most of the way. I always was fascinated with wig-wag signals and there was a cool wig-wag signal on the main street of Tilden which was east of Neligh. These signals were everywhere on the C&NW. Every town had at least one at their main street railroad crossing and they were associated with the C&NW in the Midwest.

I remember sneaking away from all the family festivities without telling anyone (boy, did I catch hell for that, but if I had asked permission, they would have said no) and walked all the way across town to some place called the Neligh Mill. They has a set of wig-wag signals at the crossing and it was one of the most beautiful visions of the C&NW going through a small town. As I stood there, my heart stopped when I heard a train horn off to the west. Soon, a long freight train soon rumbled through. It was one of my best railfanning memories. Watching the wig-wag signals swinging was the highlight of the whole trip. It had spurred a life-long interest in them. I now collect and repair wig-wag signals. Much to the consternation of my neighbors (no homeowners association), I have 6 or 7 of them in the yard in Tampa at any one time. I have repaired them and they come on daily with timers (the bells are equipped with on/off switches) and happily swing like they did in their heyday on the railroad.

I don't remember a thing about the wedding, but I will never forget seeing the Cowboy Line in action. I was devastated at the shortsightedness of the railroad and the state legislature of Nebraska for abandoning it on the early 1990's. I really thought it would last forever.

Jerold Crawford

Tampa, FL

Jerold Crawford
Tampa, FL