Friday, July 7, 2017

Chimney Rock

Two days before pioneers reached the sandstone formation of Chimney Rock, they could see its solitary finger that, in the words of A. J. McCall, 1849, looked like "an old ruin, then a very sharp cone, more the shape of a chimney than anything else."

The Indians in the area, unfamiliar with the architecture of the white man's buildings, had another name for this landmark; they called it Elk's Penis.  Oh, my!  I really wouldn't know if that's appropriate so I'll just assume their reference is correct.

Fort Kearney to Chimney Rock

Tim and I drove the 250 miles between Kearny, Nebraska to Chimney Rock National Historic Site in approximately four hours, arriving in plenty of time to stop at the small visitors center a walkable half-mile from the campground.

As we trudged up the hill to the center on a miserably hot summer day, I wondered how the pioneers walked, many of them barefoot, mile after weary mile.  Just imagine...On a good day, the pioneers on the Oregon Trail could cover 30 miles; it would have taken them more than a week to walk the same distance our RV, the Dawntreader covered in an afternoon.

Approaching Chimney Rock, a painting by William Henry Jackson

“We halted in the neighborhood of the Chimney Rock…It is visible at a distance of thirty miles and has the unpoetical appearance of a hay-stack with a pole running far above its top.”  Joel Palmer, 1845

A 1870 engraving of Chimney Rock juxtaposed to my photo.

Chimney Rock rises 300 feet above the Platte River Valley.  Approximately 40 million years ago, volcanoes lifted the Colorado Plateau; then wind and water chiseled away the rock and soil until its spire appeared.  Those forces are still at work today.

Margaret Irving Carrington accompanied her husband, Colonel Henry Carrington, and 2,000 troops on their way to northeastern Wyoming to build Fort Phil Kearny on the Bozeman Trail.  In an 1879 book, she pondered the fate of this formation:
"Chimney Rock is fast gathering about it the debris of waste and will soon lose the bold outline and marked symmetry of its present proportions.  It is now much more beautiful than when Fremont visited it, and is worn to such a fine delineation that it seems that the first summer's storm or winter's blast must topple it from its base and destroy it utterly."
Of course, the Army soldiers who used it for target practice in the 1860s did not help matters.  Nor did the thunderstorm in 1992 when lightning struck it, causing rocks the size of shuttle buses to fall from the spire.  One wonders how much longer its soft sandstone tower will stand.

Tim and I stopped overnight at Chimney Rock Pioneer Crossing campground which is less than a mile as the crow flies from this outcropping.  Our site, one of 16 in the small campground, gave us a ringside seat to watch the sun fade from the rock's spire.

Chimney Rock is illuminated at night.  It is and was a beautiful--and to the pioneers--welcome sight.

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