Category Archive: History

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Traveling the trails of yesteryear

Scotts Bluff National Monument

Scotts Bluff National Monument

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

 

Chimney Rock

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.

 

Scotts Bluff National Monument

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.

 

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Travel the Great Platte River Road

Bison statue at the Archway, Kearney, NE

Bison statue at the Archway, Kearney, NE

Recently I took an epic road trip out west from Illinois. You zoom over the flat prairie of Illinois, cross the Father of Waters into the rolling countryside of Iowa and then hit the muddy Missouri River. After that, you begin the gradual climb across the Great Plains to the Rockies. Once you pass the Missouri River, you’re traveling on the Great Platte River Road through the valley of the Platte River that has been so important to the growth of this country.

The Platte River valley is a naturally formed highway across the wide open plains of Nebraska. Its flood plain and valley are wide and broad, indicative of it’s winding channels and fairly shallow streams. The great herds of bison thundered across this land, followed by the Native Americans who used this animal for sustenance and livelihood. Once the white man arrived on the continent, the Platte River Valley was used by fur hunters to move furs from the Rockies to St. Louis on the Mississippi. From there, furs went down to New Orleans and to the great cities of Europe to meet the fashion needs of high society. Once the United States’ independence was won, emigrants started to trickle west. Then a variety of factors made the valley a bustling place. The discovery of gold in California drew people to venture through harsh country and hostile conditions for the chance at wealth. Legislation drew families west to seek out land of their own so they could make their mark on the country. Some groups, such as the Mormons, used the river road to seek their own place to worship. The valley still shows remnants of the trails emigrants used to travel – the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, the California Trail and the Bozeman Trail.

Today, US Interstate Highway 80 (I-80) follows the Platte River valley letting truckers, vacationers and residents follow in historic footsteps. Instead of flatboat or oxcart, the asphalt ribbon of I-80 drives commerce and exploration in this modern age. My travel through this historic corridor was to reach further destinations – Colorado, Wyoming and Montana – which seem to be areas that calm my soul and help me re-focus on what’s really important in life. But while I was just passing through, I could still enjoy some of the sights of the valley. During my drive, I stopped at a rest stop and looked out across the broad valley, now filled with productive farms. I skirted through flurries of fluff from the groves of cottonwoods that line the Platte River and its tributaries. I visited the Archway which depicts the history of the Great Platte River Road from the earliest days to today. Finally I ended up at my first day’s destination, Ogallala, Nebraska. After some dinner, I visited Boot Hill the original graveyard for this cattle drive terminus and caught an awesome Great Plains sunset before retiring for the night.

Enjoy the images below. More to follow as I head into Nebraska and visit some friendly places!

Hiking Bear Butte

Panorama view from summit of Bear Butte - looking toward the Black Hills

The first time I hiked up Bear Butte, I went up alone early in the morning. No one else was around as the wind whispered through the trees. The hike was more strenuous than I expected but nothing out of the ordinary. As I climbed, the sun broke through the high wispy clouds to pour …

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AirVenture 2011

At the end of July every year, one of the greatest shows in aviation starts in Oshkosh, Wisconsin – EAA’s AirVenture.  This year I was hoping to have my dad along in tow, but that just didn’t work out.  Instead, I went up by myself for “Warbird Friday.”  The weather had been somewhat cloudy and …

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