September 28, 2021

On all side of the tracks

By John Van Nostrand, CNA managing editor

Listening to Union County officials and Thayer Mayor Jennifer Mitchell talk about the future of the overpass in Thayer reminds me of the Colorado town I grew up in that has a railroad overpass and what it has gone through.

(For starters, most of the conversations about Thayer have used the word bridge. I prefer to say overpass since I think overpass is defined as a bridge over another form of transportation that is not a river. It’s OK to say U.S. Highway 34 has a bridge over the Grand River east of Creston. But what is in on Fifth Avenue in Thayer is an overpass since it goes over the railroad.)

Sterling, Colorado, in the northeast corner of the state also has an overpass of BNSF Railroad. Some people there call the overpass a viaduct, but I’ll continue with the word overpass. The situation in Sterling is not like what could happen in Thayer. What happened around the overpass in Sterling is what made the news. U.S. Highway 6 enters Sterling from the east and the overpass is what brings that highway traffic into and through town. Highway 6 also intersects with Interstate 76 which is on Sterling’s east side.

For years, and even before I was able to drive in my teens, there were options should a train be along the tracks underneath the overpass. Before you reached the overpass, on either side, you could easily see if there was a train going through. A street was parallel to the tracks also under the overpass. All of that was convenient for emergency services.

If there was a train, you just went over the overpass. Along the tracks and street were various businesses. At one time, my father’s warehouse for his route sales business was located in a spot where train traffic determined if you went over or under the overpass. If you needed to go over, you drove a little bit extra to turn around at a street or in a business parking lot to access those places on either side of the tracks.

But over the past five years, what happened to the overpass evolved. To improve traffic flow, the state of Colorado had an extensive remodel of some streets in Sterling with some leading to the overpass. That meant no one could drive under the overpass anymore. The west side of the overpass intersected with a northbound, one-way street. That street was reconfigured into a two-way street closing the short frontage streets to drive under the overpass.

And like that, the overpass was not exactly the same anymore.

The work was finished about a year ago, a few weeks after my last visit to see my parents. My parents and a longtime friend who lives there (and works from a warehouse under the overpass) have told me when I visit I will notice the big difference in the streets and new configuration. What has been a habit for generations is gone.

Living in a train town, which Sterling is, adds a bit of uniqueness to a town. Creston can say the same thing. In Sterling’s case, the at-grade crossings are very few. (At-grade is when the vehicle actually drives over the tracks.) The work on the overpass closed one. There are few others on north and south sides leading into industrial areas.

My parents live close enough to the tracks you can hear the trains at night. Growing up there, it was just something you got used to. It was close enough to hear, but far enough not to be a nuisance. I don’t know if people who live closer could say the same thing. Well, maybe I do.

Unfortunately there are people who do quickly learn what it’s like living with Sterling’s train traffic. Like Creston, Sterling has a community college with dormitories. The college campus is on the north side of town, but just across a four-lane highway from the tracks. Those students who are not familiar with Sterling and the campus’ location, they easily hear the trains at night. I’m sure it is a bother. But as the school year passes, those students will eventually become accustom to the sounds.

And with whatever the county, Thayer and BNSF decide, over time we will become accustom as well, like it or not.

John Van Nostrand


An Iowa native, John's newspaper career has mostly been in small-town weeklies from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. He first stint in Creston was from 2002 to 2005.