Travel any highway or byway anyplace around the world and you’re provided necessary information by signs along the way – 110 miles to Denver or 75 km to Berlin for example. You take these markers for granted as they are part of the infrastructure helping you to get safely from one place to another. Not too long ago in the US before the interstate highway system was built different examples of these markers existed. They tended to be local businesses or municipalities offering services to people traveling the patchwork roads that connected the nation. But what about before then? What about the first highways across the wide open plains of the American West? How did the emigrants find their way from St. Louis to destinations in the west – Oregon, California or Salt lake City?
The answer is that major trails – the Overland Trails – were opened. The trails were scouted by trappers and frontiersmen who first crossed the High Plains to get to the Rocky Mountains and the streams teeming with beaver. These trails were not easy roads to follow across the undulating Plains in ox drawn wagons. The Oregon and Mormon Trails ran together for many miles and are a good example of the rough going pioneers experienced. Traveling on the Overland Trails was hard, oxen died and wagons broke. Danger existed from wildlife to hostile native Americans to bandits preying on the slow moving carts or wagons. Life was tough and it was not an easy life on these wide open expanses. The road signs on these early roads were based on the geography and geology and settlers rejoiced when they came into view because they could confirm where they were in their journey. Timing was critical for these people; they needed to cross the high mountain passes before winter set in and snow closed them
One example is not too far south of the North Platte River in the panhandle of Nebraska, the famous Chimney Rock. Located in the vicinity of Bayard, Nebraska, this landmark rises almost 300 feet above the surrounding plains. It sits alongside the remains of the Overland Train and served as a waypoint for settlers heading to Oregon, Salt Lake City and California. Drawings of this famous rock differ over time as the spire has been worn away because – while called Chimney Rock – this land form is not made of hard rock. This unique geographic feature is actually composed of Sandstone, clay and volcanic ash. A capstone of erosion resistant sandstone once topped the spire but over time lighting, wind and rain have worn the spire down to its present form.
When the pioneers were traveling the Trails between the 1840s to the 860s, Chimney Rock could be seen for miles, beckoning them further westward. This unique landmark was a cause for celebration for emigrants – they had made it this far into the interior of the Plains from starting points along the Mississippi River, roughly 800 miles. Settlers would pause for the day, picnic in its shadow and sing besides camp fires before turning in for the day. Unbeknownst to these pioneers, untold hardships and tragedies awaited them before their final destinations.
Roughly 20 miles to the north and west of Chimney Rock lies Scotts Bluff National Monument, another geologic feature that sits astride the Overland Trail. Scotts Bluff has a longer history than Chimney Rock in that it is named after a fur trader who died in the area after a fight with Native Americans in 1828. As the westward migration of people started in the 1840s, the Overland Trails passed right by Scotts Bluff through the Mitchell Pass as the land begins to transition from the Plains to the foothills of the Rockies. This landmark rises over 800 feet above the Plains and like Chimney Rock is composed of sandstone, clay and volcanic ash. What is interesting is that Scotts Bluff and the neighboring Wildcat Range show the true height of the Plains. The top of Scotts Bluff used to be the Plains floor, but Water and wind erosion have carved its way through the area, leaving these interesting landmarks behind.
Not many people made the climb up the sides of the bluffs since time was a precious commodity. Those few who did were able to overlook the Plains in all directions. On a clear day you could plainly see Chimney Rock 20 miles distant. People today have a much easier time reaching the summit of the bluffs via a road that was initially built during the 1930s. The views from the summit are spectacular: the Platte River is visible to the north, the flat plains stretch into the distance to the east, and the Rocky Mountain foothills begin to build to the west. While on the summit it’s important to stayed on paved paths for two reasons – this area is known for rattlesnakes which can be hiding in long grass or crevices and the soft clay material is highly susceptible to erosion from foot traffic. Besides the summit trails, there is a trail to Saddle Rock (partially closed during my recent visit) and a bike trail as well.
If you’re out west and in the vicinity, a trip to Scotts Bluff is recommended for the views from the summit if nothing else. The historic background of both Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff are valuable to anyone wanting to understand the opening of the American West as well as understanding what emigrants and ancestors had to endure to build this country what it is today.