Chimney Rock, Nebraska

My Dad and I left the hotel in Cheyenne around 9:00 in the morning. We drove around the city; we took I-25 North. The weather was great and there weren’t a lot of traffic until we turned to 85 northeast where there was a road construction and we arrived at the endless views of the fields. Then we passed the 88 East by the town of La Grange and finally crossed the state border to Nebraska.

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Wildcat Hills

At the junction we turned left in highway 71 passed by the Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area. Many beautiful types of scenery are can be found in the area one of which is gigantic rock and also the Scott Bluff National Monument up north. The road came up and down until we reach the outskirts of Gering as 71 made a right curve and then we moved right to 92. Chimney Rock was located in the town of Bayard but in the middle of nowhere. An imposing figure was already visible from this distance and as we drove closer here was a starting introduction to the history of the site.

Designated the Chimney Rock National Historic Site, Chimney Rock is one of the most famous and recognizable landmarks for pioneer travelers on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails, a symbol of the great western migration. Located approximately four miles south of present-day Bayard, at the south edge of the North Platte River Valley, Chimney Rock is a natural geologic formation, a remnant of the erosion of the bluffs at the edge of the North Platte Valley. A slender spire rises 325 feet from a conical base. The imposing formation, composed of layers of volcanic ash and brule clay dating back to the Oligocene Age (34 million to 23 million years ago), towers 480 feet above the North Platte River Valley.

Upon coming to the road leading to the Visitor Center we came across the Historical marker located on the left side if coming from the west. If you don’t have time to explore the center you can just stop there and read the marker. We stop here on our way out and took some pictures, but now we head to the Visitor Center. We turn right and the center was already visible from there. The center barely opened so there weren’t a lot of vehicles on the parking lot. We went down and  there were some of the information about the Visitor Center.

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Chimney Rock Formation

Erected on the southeast edge of the base in 1940, a small stone monument commemorates a gift from the Frank Durnal family to the Nebraska State Historical Society of approximately 80 acres of land, including Chimney Rock. The plot of land that the State owns provides a buffer zone to protect the historic landmark from modern encroachment.  The only modern developments are Chimney Rock Cemetery, located approximately one-quarter mile southeast, and the visitor center nearby.  Chimney Rock was designated a National Historic Site in 1956.  The visitor center provides information on the history of the Overland Trails and Chimney Rock.

We entered the area and saw the exhibit of the Chimney Rock which started where it came from.

The natural forces of deposition and erosion formed Chimney Rock. Wind and water also shaped Courthouse Rock and Scott’s Bluff, companion geological formations along the North Platte Valley. Trail diarists speculated on the rock’s origin, some thought it rose up from a violent volcanic eruption and not as the result of the gradual wearing away of the surrounding landscape over millions of years. Many who closely inspected Chimney Rock were surprised about its composition.

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Chimney Rock

About 35 million years ago, thick sediments carried by wind and streams began to cover the present Nebraska Panhandle. Wind-deposited sediments in the form of ash originated with volcanic eruptions to the west. Volcanic activity and successive ash falls lasted several million years.

The younger Arikaree deposits, carried by water, covered the older Brule formation. The latter is hundreds of feet thick. Repeated cycles followed: wind deposition and erosion, stream deposition and erosion. About four or five million years ago, the rate of erosion, especially by streams, exceeded the rate of deposition. This plain, which once was as high as the top of the Wildcat Ridge, began to erode away.

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Tragedy at Winter Quarters by Avard Tennyson

Erosion carried away vast amounts of sediment and left our present landscape. Chimney Rock remained as an isolated remnant of this former great plain, along with Courthouse Rock, Scott’s Bluff, and the Wildcat Hills.

There was a door behind this exhibit and we went out to get a view of the Chimney Rock. It looked so far as always but the view was beautiful. I was not sure if they have a trail leading to the site itself but I will not be surprised if its off limits. The erosion and vandalism of the rock through the centuries had made the Chimney Rock vulnerable. We came back inside and went through the exhibit of the pioneers who came to the rock.

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Chimney Rock in various creations

“Though the origins of the name of the rock are obscure, the title “Chimney Rock” probably originated with the first fur traders in the region. In the early 19th century, however, travelers referred to it by a variety of other names, including Chimley Rock, Chimney Tower, and Elk Peak, but Chimney Rock had become the most commonly used name by the 1840s.

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Chimney Rock through the years

After examining over 300 journal accounts of settlers moving west along the Platte River Road, historian Merrill Mattes concluded that Chimney Rock was by far the most mentioned landmark. Mattes notes that although no special events took place at the rock, it held center-stage in the minds of the overland trail travelers. For many, the geological marker was an optical illusion. Some claimed that Chimney Rock could be seen upwards of 30 miles away, and though one travelled toward the rock-spire, Chimney Rock always appeared to be off in the distance—unapproachable.

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Chimney Rock from the back of the center

Because of this optical effect, early travel accounts varied in their description of the rock. Some travelers believed that the rock spire may have been upwards of 30 feet higher than its current height, suggesting that wind, erosion, or a lightning strike had caused the top part of the spire to break off. Throughout the ages, the rock spire has continued to capture the imaginations and the romantic fascinations of travelers heading west. People who passed by the site left their marks by carving their names on the soft base only to have these records disappear through the forces of nature. this eroded landmark is smaller than that which greeted early visitors to the area, but its presence for the generations of the near future is secure.

The United States Geological Survey, using scientific instruments, calculated the elevation of Chimney Rock in 1895 as 4,225 feet above sea level. Forty-niner David Cosad used the centuries-old method of measuring his shadow against the rock’s to come up with a figure of 360 feet from the base to the top. 19th century estimates have ranged widely, but Cosad came within 10% of today’s measurement.”

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Native American items

After reading more information, we went to the gift shop and bought souvenirs about the site. Then we left to continue on our journey. This time before turning right we turned to the historical markers and took some photos. Chimney Rock was one of the most prominent landmarks during the Oregon Trail and frontier days and preserving this iconic rock was one of the things we can do to honor those pioneers. Unfortunately, nature will eventually come for it and there will be nothing we can do about it.

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Say Cheez!
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