Two Broads Abroad on The Oregon Trail – Stop 14, Chimney Rock, Nebraska
By Judy Rickard, author, Torn Apart: United by Love, Divided by Law, Findorn Press, 2011
Books and online sites will tell you that Chimney Rock is the most famous landmark on The Oregon Trail. I can see why they would say that, but to me, it’s one of the best we saw. I am not sure I can pick a best – or most famous – after all the amazing things we saw. If the public, or historians, thinks Chimney Rock is it, I won’t argue, but I will continue to be impressed with places other than Chimney Rock too.
We pulled up to Chimney Rock late in the afternoon. It was a glorious site, one that we had seen first miles away. We found a place to pull off the road and just stared. I guess that’s what the pioneers did, too. You can see it way before you get to it. That’s one reason it is famous – it’s a landmark. For the wagon trains, it was a sign that they were on track and had made a specific amount of progress. For us, it was another stop on the list, but a very unique one.
This geologic wonder is unusual because it rises from fields. It is the only hard rock for miles around, clearly the remnant of some upthrust. Composed of alternating layers of clay, volcanic ash and sandstone, the harder sandstone at the top has protected the spire, but today’s spire is shorter than the ones my ancestors would have viewed in 1847.
You can stand or sit and just gawk at the rock or you can go to the Ethel and Christopher J. Abbott Visitor Center, which houses museum exhibits, a hands-on opportunity to “pack your wagon,” and a video presentation that tells the story of the great migration West. A large inventory of books on western and trail history is available for purchase at the Chimney Rock Visitor Center. Unfortunately, we arrived at the center just after closing at 5 p.m. We didn’t get to see the exhibits or buy anything, but if you plan ahead, you can visit the center 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily except Nebraska state holidays in the off season. Cost is $3.
We drove past the center and found a cemetery, which we explored. The setting closer to Chimney Rock gave us a new perspective and a view of another historic place in the vicinity. We saw, and hard, prairie dogs and spotted an owl on the fence while at the cemetery.
Rising nearly 300 feet above the surrounding North Platte River valley, the peak of Chimney Rock is 4,226 feet above sea level, according to Wikipedia. After serving as a landmark in the mid-1800s for travelers on the Oregon Trail, California Trail and Mormon Trail, it still is a beacon, visible for many miles from the east along U.S. Route 26.
Wiki also tells us the first recorded mention of ‘Chimney Rock’ was in 1827 by Joshua Pilcher. He had journeyed up the Platte River valley to the Salt Lake rendezvous of the Rocky Mountain fur trappers. The first non-natives to see the pillar were probably the Astorians of Robert Stuart in their eastern journey from the Pacific Ocean in 1813. This marker of the plains was recorded in many journals after that. Based on sketches, paintings, written accounts, and the 1897 photograph by Darton, Chimney Rock was taller when it was first seen by settlers, but has been reduced in height since then by erosion and lightning. In 1992 a lightning strike that caused part of the rock to tumble off of the spire was recorded by a tourist’s video camera.
Chimney Rock was designated a National Historic Site in 1956. Fifty years later, the Nebraska State Quarter was released. It features a covered wagon headed west past Chimney Rock, memorializing Nebraska’s role in westward migration. If you find one in your pocket change, check it out.
For more information on Chimney Rock, go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimney_Rock_National_Historic_Site
You can see pictures other than mine at this link:
For information on The Oregon National Historic Trail, go to:
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