Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Nebraska's Chimney Rock: The Eighth Wonder of the World?

As the pioneers toiled their way west, they often bonded with the beauty and magnificence the creation provided them. Chimney Rock was no exception.

“The Great Platte River Road through Nebraska and Wyoming was the grand corridor of America’s westward expansion. The Trapper’s Trail, the Oregon Trail, the Council Bluffs Road, the California Road, the Pony Express route, and the military road from Port Leavenworth to Fort Laramie—all converged in the broad valley of the Platte, forming a kind of primitive superhighway. This was the transcontinental route of the covered wagon migration of 1841-1866, one of the epic adventures of American history.” (Mattes, Introduction)

However, to these emigrants the sight of Chimney Rock towering to the sky added to that adventure. In diaries that surfaced over the years, along with notes stuck in various places, and letters written from the pioneers to their various points of origin, Mattes says 96 percent of them mentioned Chimney Rock.

Chimney Rock was a psychological boost to the weary travelers trekking their way through the vast plains that are now Nebraska. The sight of Chimney Rock protruding in the air, in the middle of nowhere, signaled the end of the long, laborious, journey through those plains. And, if nothing else, the sight of Chimney Rock
stimulated their imaginations; confirmed by these statements:

“…by a slight stretch of the imagination may be said to resemble a chimney.-McCoy, 1849

…tall column like the flue in an iron foundry.-Berrien, 1849

…chimney of a glass-house furnace.-Delano, 1849.” (Mattes, 392)

In the mid-1800’s, before the erosion of the past one-and-a-half centuries, estimates say Chimney Rock’s spire rose to a height of 150-200 feet in the air, and from the east and west it was in visible for 40-50 miles. To these hardy souls, Chimney Rock was like the eighth wonder of the world:

“…well worth a visit across the Plains to see…in the dizziness of distance, and towering to the heavens.-Gelwicks- 1849

…the greatest thing that I have ever yet seen.-Gage- 1852

…a great monument of nature.-Burgess, 1866.” (Mattes, 381)

Today, Chimney Rock stands as a solitary, silent, memory of a bygone era, where modern travelers can stop and ponder the effect this freak of nature had upon those who lumbered through in covered wagons. A nearby cemetery is the final resting place of those whose families chose to leave them in Chimney Rock’s proverbial shadow, which bears testimony to the sacrosanct aura it cast upon the migrants who took the time to gaze at its austerity.

Over the years, the history that this monument carries in its solitude triggered the desire to assure that modern passers-by, who want to connect to another era, are able to do so. Thus, in 1939, Mr. and Mrs. R.F. Durnal donated the land that Chimney Rock stands on to the Nebraska State Historical Society, and, in 1956, Chimney Rock became a National Historical Site.

In addition, an informational trailer that is located near Chimney Rock opened for sightseers in 1966. In 1993, thanks to a $500,000 donation from the Ethyl and Christopher J. Abbott Foundation, the Nebraska State Historical Society arranged for the construction of the Chimney Rock visitors center. The dedication of the new center was in 1994.

Today, the visitor’s center stands beside Chimney Rock as a point of reference to those pioneers who braved the dangers of the unknown, in order to settle this territory and continue westward. The information center is open daily, 9:00-5:00, except for all state holidays but Memorial Day, Labor Day, and July 4. The visitor center contains printed information, artifacts from the pioneer era, and a video narrative of the period of migration to the West. Come and enjoy the encounter of experiencing Chimney Rock.

Mattes, Merrill J. The Great Platte River Road, The Society, 1969. Print

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