NORTH PLATTE, Neb. — Growing up, just about everybody Christy Miller knew was a railroader: neighbors, classmates' parents, uncles, aunts, cousins.
Her dad worked in the diesel shop at Union Pacific's sprawling Bailey Yard — the world's largest rail yard, covering 2,850 acres and running eight miles in length. Grandpa was an electrical foreman for more than three decades. Great-grandma and great-grandpa met on the job; she worked in the railroad store, he was a switchman.
And the family history went back even further, to Miller's great-great grandfather, once superintendent of U.P.'s store department. His father, an Irish immigrant, went to work for the railroad in North Platte in 1865.
That lineage gives Miller, who works as a conductor, an unusual distinction: sixth-generation railroader. Even in North Platte, home to about 2,500 U.P. employees, she's never met anyone who could best her family's longevity. But if there are others out there, it's a good chance she'll hear about them this year.
On July 1, Omaha-based U.P. will mark a major milestone: 150 years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act, creating the Union Pacific Railroad. To celebrate the big event, the company is planning a yearlong slate of events, ranging from picnics and festivals in communities across its 23-state network to a contest that encourages entrants to come up with their own version of U.P.'s "Great Big Rolling Railroad" theme song.
The railroad has unveiled a special 150th anniversary website featuring information on the song contest and an interactive railroad history timeline. And there's something else that will likely be of interest to many rail fans: a place to share stories and photos about all things railroad-related.
In addition to visits from the railroad's historic steam locomotive and U.P. events at celebrations like El Reno, Okla.'s "Fried Onion Burger Day Festival" and Boone, Iowa's "Pufferbilly Days," the story-sharing is a way to reach out to people across the country, said U.P. spokesman Tom Lange.
"We are part of about 7,300 communities," he said. "And a lot of them grew up with Union Pacific, became towns or cities because they had access to the railroad."
Visitors to the website will be able to share their stories in writing, short videos or photos. They'll also be asked to note if they are U.P. employees and if they have a family history with the railroad. (For a link to the website, visit omaha.com.)
The collection of personal stories eventually will be available to download as a set — creating an e-book of personal histories.
For the first time, Lange said, the company will be able to get a better sense of how many four-, five- or six-generation railroading families are out there. As the stories come in, they'll be filed into categories linked to an interactive map, so people can search out tales from their hometowns or on similar topics.
The timeline, which features photos and facts from the railroad's history, has been formatted for computers, smartphones and a large touch-screen display for the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs.
The song contest, meanwhile, will provide a chance for railroad fans, musicians, school groups and others to create their own take on part of U.P.'s history — and maybe win some of the more than $30,000 in available prize money.
Railroad buffs — or anybody who was around and watching television in the 1970s — might remember the commercial that featured U.P. employees across the country singing along to the "Great Big Rolling Railroad."
Now, the company is asking people to record a new version of the song, in any style. Through the July 1 entry deadline, one entry will be selected every month for a $1,000 prize. Once the contest is over, two finalists will get $5,000 each, and the grand prize winner will receive $15,000.
Organizers of the contest and the other online portions of the anniversary celebration aren't sure how many people will participate. But if other recent promotional events are anything to go by, the response could be significant.
A contest last year that allowed fans to vote online for the steam locomotive's next route attracted more than 175,000 votes.
Tim McMahan, U.P.'s senior manager for media technology, said it's clear people want to get involved with the railroad.
"We know there's a big rail fan contingent," he said.
Plus, there are all of the people who work for U.P., more than 43,000 of them, and all of those who once worked for the company.
In communities like North Platte, the railroad is more than a big employer. It's part of the city's identity as much as it's part of the identity of families like Miller's.
And after a century and a half, it's more or less a permanent part of the family's story.
Miller's grandmother Mary Hunt has seen six of her 10 children work for the railroad at one point or another.
When asked to guess how many family members have been U.P. employees, she pauses for a minute and then gives up on figuring out an exact number. Must be in the hundreds, she said.
They don't all set out with that plan, but somehow it keeps happening. It's a family tradition, but also a chance to have the kind of solid jobs that have sustained the family for decades.
Miller said she thought she'd do anything but work for U.P., but with four children, she wanted to find something stable. It's a story her grandmother has seen over and over again as another son or daughter or niece or nephew became a railroader.
"Even though they don't think they will, they do," Hunt said.
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