Wednesday, July 22, 2009

At the Watercooler

In the panhandle of Nebraska, protruding skyward is Chimney Rock. It sits next to the Oregon Trail, which stretched from St. Louis, Mo. to Oregon City, Oregon. During the exodus to the west coast, between 1812 and 1866, approximately half a million people traveled the Oregon Trail.

This highway of ruts had many landmarks, but the most talked, and written, about was Chimney Rock. It's located 4.5 miles south of Bayard, Ne. on highway 92. Chimney Rock is a geological phenomenon, jutting upward from the ground; majestically alone.

 In 1895, a U.S. Geological Survey measured Chimney Rock at 4225 feet above sea level and estimated its height, from base to tip, at 360 feet. Its funnel, or chimney, though, is a composite of sandstone, clay, and volcanic ash, which is susceptible to damage from lightening and erosion. Today, estimates of the height of the landmark are around 325 feet from base to tip, The estimate of the length of the chimney is approximately 120 feet.

Early settlers and trappers reported that Native Americans called the formation Elk Penis. Nevertheless, political correctness prevailed and  it's forever dubbed Chimney Rock.

It was a welcome, but nevertheless foreboding sight to the brave pioneers. It was welcome because they were familiar with it from the stories of those who had made the journey before them. Seeing it signaled the hot, dry, and dusty prairie was behind them.

Yet, it forecast the arrival of traveling through the treacherous mountains was next. Fully aware of the dangers that lay ahead they pushed on westward.

A tribute to the hardships they endured is a small cemetery, in the vicinity of Chimney Rock. In that cemetery lie the remains of babies, and young and old warriors, who found the journey more than their bodies could handle. Those who remained continued on, and the legacy of those who didn’t went with them.

We moved to Bayard, in 1989, and I’ll never forget the sight as our moving caravan approached Chimney Rock. It was past midnight and everyone was tired, but there was Chimney Rock, lit up from lights at its base a shrine to another era. It stirred us all.

When our children were younger we took them to Chimney Rock. We ate lunch in its shadow they climbed on it, and listened as we told them its history. It must have meant something to our son, because years later he took his then girl friend to its base to propose to her.

The Nebraska Historical Society runs the Chimney Rock visitor center. At the center printed material about Chimney Rock is available, group tours can be booked in advance, videos about its history can be seen, and of course souvenirs can be purchased.

How long will Chimney Rock last? When will the elements lead to its demise? The disappearance of Chimney Rock has been forecast for years. It is reported famous mountain man Jim Bridger, in 1849, claimed it was shorter whenever he passed by. That may be true, but Chimney Rock is still a force in its own right.

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