Backtracking the Oregon Trail #7
Day Four ~ Chimney Rock
Her left boot was getting a hole in it, letting the gritty dust in to nestle between sole and foot and bite in worse than the grit outside the sole. . . . Step after step . . . past natural wonders . . . Chimney Rock . . . Scotts Bluff. . . . She couldn’t get her breath. She was three months pregnant.
—A Place of Her Own: The Legacy of Oregon Pioneer Martha Poindexter Maupin, Janet Fisher. (Guilford, CT, Helena, MT: TwoDot/Globe Pequot Press, 2014), p. 116.
Wednesday, June 5. The weather to-day was quite hot and oppressive. We had to cross a long stretch without water. The road we took led us close to the base of Chimney Rock, where we stopped for some time to satisfy our curiosity. The base is shaped like a large cone, from the top of which rises a tall tower or chimney, resembling the chimney of a manufacturing establishment. . . . It is composed of marl and soft sandstone, which is easily worn away. Mr. Frink carved our names upon the chimney, where are hundreds of others.
—The diary of Margaret A. Frink, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 2, 1850, Kenneth L. Holmes, ed. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1990), p. 95.
Came opposite Chimney Rock which has been sight since yesterday. It has been seen 30 miles off on a clear day. Three of us went to it. I was struck with amazement at the grandeur of the scene.
—The diary of Lucena Parsons, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 2, 1850, Kenneth L. Holmes, ed. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1990), p. 253.
June 14th Traveled twenty four miles:. We have seen very romantic scenery all day; The Chimney rock has been in full view all day:; It is represented as being three hundred feet high but from the road we are traveling it does not appear to be more than one hundred feet.;. Palmer in speaking of this rock very truly says that it has the unpoetical appearance of a hay stack with a pole extending far above its top
—The diary of Abigail Jane Scott, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 5, 1852, The Oregon Trail, Kenneth L. Holmes and David C. Duniway, eds. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), pp. 65-66.
To day we come to the river opposite Chimney Rock which has been visible most of the way for the last 35 miles It is said to be 3 miles from the opposite side of the river but on these level prairies we cannot judge much of distances by the eye It does not appear more than half a mile It consists of a large square column of clay and sand mixed together with a base of conical form apperantly composed of sand, round base cone. and appears as if the column had been set up and the sand heaped around it to sustain it It is said to be 500 feet high but doubt it some
—The diary of Cecelia Adams & Parthenia Blank, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 5, 1852, The Oregon Trail, Kenneth L. Holmes and David C. Duniway, eds. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), p. 271.
At night we came to Chimney rock which had been visible to us for 15 miles. . . . We camped near the river about two miles from the rock. After tea uncles, Mr Long, Julia Martha & I went to see it by moonlight The sight was awfully sublime The sides of the base on which the pillar rests are so steep that it was with the utmost difficulty we could climb up it at all. We however succeeded in climbing up some distance. We found it covered with names We got back to the camp about 10 O’clock
—The diary of Celinda Hines, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 6, 1853-1854, Kenneth L. Holmes, ed. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), pp. 92-93.
Downriver from Scotts Bluff my family and I finally came upon another of the famous landmarks along the Oregon Trail, Chimney Rock. Traveling eastward, we didn’t see it right away. But perhaps even more than Scotts Bluff, this one cannot be mistaken once seen. Many a pioneer commented on this remarkable feature that points a jagged finger to the rich blue skies.
The pinnacle rose before us, one of the more amazing sights on our journey from Oregon to Kansas City, as we retraced the footsteps of our pioneer ancestors who took this trail westward. My daughter Christiane and I had seen it years ago when our family took a camping trailer over this route. And having traveled the trail again in my mind as I wrote Martha’s story, A Place of Her Own, I thrilled to see it firsthand once more and show my granddaughter as well.
By the time we reached the visitor center for this geological marvel, the thermometer was inching up to 100. And at this site we didn’t see a speck of shade. We dismissed any notion of trekking to the monument’s edge, but I hurried into the visitor center while my daughter and granddaughter stayed with the dog in the air-conditioned car, the motor running. I had previously sent a copy of my book to be reviewed for their gift shop and stopped in to introduce myself.
Thinking about our pioneers ancestors, I could only imagine how miserable it would have been for these people and their animals to trudge across the barren land here on days such as this. The photo above of a painted wagon and oxen from the Scotts Bluff site helps bring the image to life.
As with Scotts Bluff, the sediments on the unusual Chimney Rock landmark show the many layers set down by nature over time. Travelers along the Oregon Trail must have wondered how these imposing features happened to be here. The formations appear to hold the strength of the ages, but they’re gradually disintegrating, much as they’ve been doing for thousands of years.
Scientists say it all started with a major geological uplift along North America’s west coast 70 million years ago. A huge inland sea once covered this central part of North America, but that land rise on the coast created the Rocky Mountains, displacing the inland sea. Water on the east side began to wash into the Mississippi River Basin. Wind and water carried huge amounts of sediment from the Rockies and deposited it here in layers of sand and silt, the accumulated weight compressing the deposits into sandstone and siltstone. Periodic volcanic activity added layers of ash.
Then about 10 million years ago the uplift increased, and streams moved faster, carving deep into the deposits. Here and there, denser stone held firm, where hard capstones of limestone at the top held down the layers so they still show like a layer cake of varied flavors.
We saw lots of wild sunflowers along the way. They looked pretty next to these unidentified white flowers near Chimney Rock (directly above). We saw many bunnies and a magpie or two, but none of the prairie rattlesnakes that signs warned us about.
Life forms no longer seen in this area walked these lands 30 million years ago. Their fossils have been preserved in the sand and silt layers—animals like rhinos, camels, giant hogs, and a few stranger creatures, as well as huge turtles.
Humans began appearing around 10,000 years ago, or possibly earlier. People developed agriculture along the North Platte River, then abandoned the area around 1400 AD, probably due to drought. Later, eastern tribes were pressed into the area by European settlement. When the Spanish reintroduced the horse to this continent in the 16th century, that animal changed the lives of the tribes then living on the plains, providing mobility and prowess in battle. These were the people American emigrants met on their way west over the Oregon Trail.
—Scotts Bluff National Monument: Landmark on the Overland Trails, A History and Guide, Dean Knudsen, Historian, National Park Service, pp. 2-7.
NEXT: The North Platte and Ash Hollow