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Things to Do When Lost in Scottsbluff, Nebraska
Important sites along the pioneer trails are found in the west of the state
Shannon McCann (joethefig)     Print Article 
Published 2007-01-07 12:05 (KST)   
Nearly 500,000 settlers who traveled west to find a better life took either the California, Mormon, or Oregon trail to reach their goal. All of these traverse western Nebraska around the present day town of Scottsbluff.

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To truly enjoy a visit to the region, you should travel from the east. After traveling through hundreds of miles of flat land that is covered with wheat fields, cornfields, and cattle ranches today, you reach the landmarks that so impressed the American settlers.

The first landmark you will run into is the Chimney Rock National Historic Site outside of Baynard, Nebraska. This is the most famous landmark on any of the western trails. More travelers wrote about it and drew pictures of it in letters home than any other landmark.

This landmark was chosen to represent Nebraska on their state quarter and appears on the back of the coin that was issued in 2006. This can be an ominous honor to have.

In 2003 The Old Man of the Mountain, a rock formation that appears on the back of the New Hampshire quarter, collapsed and will never be viewed again. The same will eventually occur to Chimney Rock as it is made of soft sandstone and is at the mercy of the elements. The fact that erosion will someday eat away this monument adds to the reasons why you would want to stop and visit if you are ever in the area.

"Chimney Rock" to the settlers, "Elk Penis Rock" to the native Americans
©2006 Shannon McCann
Outside of Chimney Rock, the state has built a Visitor Center and museum. From the Visitor Center you can take a good profile photo of Chimney Rock. Visitors can watch a video that covers the history of the great migration west on the covered wagon trains.

There is also a hands-on exhibit where you pack up a wagon in much the manner the pioneers did 150 years ago. Many of the drawings and sketches that were made by wagon train participants are displayed. Also on exhibit are letters written home describing Chimney Rock and the bluff country of western Nebraska.

I can imagine the pioneers being awestruck when seeing Chimney Rock after spending weeks riding in a wagon across the flat country of Nebraska and Kansas. This would have been the most significant landmark they encountered. Little did they know as they pulled away from Chimney Rock, that this formation would be dwarfed by some of the landscape encountered as the trail continued west.

Sunflower in Bloomin Nebraska
©2007 Shannon McCann
For anyone who has vacationed in the western U.S., Chimney Rock will not be an overly impressive site. But, as this is a historical landmark, you must look at the monument as the pioneers did on their travels to get the feel for what they were seeing as they approached it.

Remember when you visit the site, that the American Indians had a more descriptive and appropriate name for this landmark, Elk Penis Rock. If the pioneers had not changed the name, this site might be a more popular destination today.

Just to the west of Chimney Rock stands another major landmark along the old wagon trails, Scott's Bluff. Scott's Bluff is such an important landmark along the old wagon trails that it is now park of the National Park Service. Scott's Bluff National Monument was established in 1919 in part to preserve the history and legacy of America's westward migration.

It is the largest of the bluffs that line the old channels of the Platte River in this part of western Nebraska. The bluff stands well over 800 feet high and towers over the flat fertile farmland below.

The Bluff is named after Hiram Scott. He was a fur trapper in the early 1800s whose skeleton was found at the bottom of the bluff one spring, according to one tale. Very little is actually known about Hiram Scott and his life, but his death gained him eternal fame, tying his name to this impressive bluff.

The Monument encompasses 3,000 acres of Nebraska prairie and bluff land, but most of the bluffs are closed to hiking because of unstable surfaces. Scott's Bluff itself is open to hiking and developed trails allow you to hike up to the top to get a clear view of the surrounding land.

From the top of Scott's Bluff you overlook the entire city of Scottsbluff, Nebraska and get a great view of the Platte Valley. On a clear day, you should be able to view Laramie Peak in Wyoming, which is over 100 miles away. If you are not interested in climbing the bluff on foot, there is a developed road that goes to the top and the Park Service operates a shuttle that runs from the Visitor Center to the bluff top.

The Visitor Center has rooms dedicated to both the geology of the area and to the history of wagon trains. A short slide show has many pictures and paintings that cover the American West and the pioneer trails. Among these slides are paintings and photos done by William Henry Jackson. In fact, the Visitor Center houses the largest single collection of Jackson's work in the world.

For those who are not familiar with Jackson and his work, you must learn a little of this amazing man for lived to be 99 years old. Jackson's family was tied to American history long before his birth as his great-great uncle, Samuel Wilson, is thought to be the figure commonly known now as "Uncle Sam."

Jackson is possibly the most accomplished painter and photographer of the American West. It was Jackson's images of the Yellowstone area of Wyoming that were used to convince Congress to designate Yellowstone as a National Monument in 1872.

During his lifetime, he fought at Gettysburg, rode a wagon train on the Oregon trail to Salt Lake, worked as a missionary with the American Indians, (taking many now famous photos), created clay models of Mesa Verde that were displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, photographically documented the famous "White City" of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and was a technical adviser on the film "Gone With the Wind."

Scott's Bluff National Monument: Saddle Rock
©2007 Shannon McCann
After his long and distinguished photography career, Jackson gave up the camera and began painting at the age of 81. Jackson would eventually paint over 100 scenes of the old west and take over 80,000 photos. He passed away on June 30, 1942 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. I strongly recommend that you check out one of the two recent books by John Fielder, "Colorado 1870-2000" or "Colorado 1870-2000 II." These books take a fresh look at Jackson's photography and highlight how much has changed over the last 130 years.

Outside of the Visitor Center you can walk on a section of the original Oregon Trail. You will not see wagon ruts, as these have long ago been eroded by the elements. What is still visible is the roadbed where thousands of wagons rode single file, compacting the earth below. This heavily compacted earth is very difficult for plant life to grow in, especially in the harsh environment of western Nebraska.

Scott's Bluff National Monument: Eagle Rock
©2007 Shannon McCann
There is one more National Monument in the Scottsbluff area dedicated to an entirely different subject. Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is a dinosaur bone quarry north of Scottsbluff. The site of the monument was once the Agate Springs Ranch owned by Captain James Cook. Cook is famous for being close friends with many Indians, including the Sioux Chief, Red Cloud, who would visit Cook on this ranch from time to time. Cook himself was once an Army Scout, serving with the 4th, 5th, and 8th Cavalry.

During his travels, he met and befriended a paleontologist from Yale University. So, when he stumbled onto a quarry of dinosaur fossils on his ranch in 1872, he knew what he had found.

He spent the next 34 years trying to convince a research team to visit the site before paleontologists would visit and discover how amazing the find truly was. The Monument is one of the richest sources of prehistoric mammals ever discovered. Some of the best preserved examples of horses, rhinoceros, and giant beavers were found here.

Cook's son, Harold, would spend most of his life excavating and searching for fossils at the site. He spent so much time in the field that he built a small house where he lived while digging. This small house is now listed on the National Registry of Historic places. The site also became a popular tourist attraction and would eventually become a National Monument in 1997.

Fossils on display at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument.
©2007 Shannon McCann
The Visitor Center houses two museums. One is a collection of dinosaur fossils that have been found on site and the other contains more than 500 authentic American Indian artifacts that were given to Captain Cook over the years. Some of the artifacts are rare and unique, such as a pipe that Red Cloud gave Cook that was used prior to the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty.

One piece of Indian art that is on display in the Museum is actually a recent work. "Running Water Winter Count," by Dawn Little Sky is a nicely painted buffalo hide. The painting details the history of the Lakota people in the traditional Lakota method of relating their past. This impressive piece of original art is a highlight item on exhibit.

There are two short hiking trails in the monument, one mile and two miles long. The longer of these will take you out to Harold Cook's remote house, "The Bone Cabin." The other will take you to view the preserved burrows of the giant prairie dogs that once lived in the area. Both are easy walks that give a good feel for what life was like in the desolate landscape of Northwest Nebraska.

If you have found yourself this far off the main highway, you might as well drive by three nearby interesting roadside monuments. Two of these are just across the border near Lusk, Wyoming. One of these is the grave site of an Indian fighter and stagecoach driver who worked the stage on the Cheyenne-Deadwood Stage Road named George Lathrop. Another monument nearby on a dirt road is the only known monument built in the United States honoring a prostitute.

The Mother Featherlegs Monument, erected in 1964, marks the grave site of Charlotte Shephard who ran a saloon and brothel in the area in the 1870s. She was murdered and her body was found at the site.

Fitting for the disreputable life of its namesake, the monument was the source of shenanigans almost immediately after being dedicated. Originally, a pair of her famous ruffled pantalettes was displayed at the monument. But, shortly after the monument opened, they were stolen.

Was it here... Or there...?
©2007 Shannon McCann
In 1990, Lusk residents learned that they were in the possession of a Deadwood, South Dakota saloon. These residents went to Deadwood and reclaimed this "important" item of American history. These pantalettes are now on display in the Stagecoach Museum in Lusk.

The final roadside marker in the area to visit rests on the Nebraska-Wyoming border on Highway 26. This marker states that the "Oregon Trail entered Wyoming at this point." But then, goes on to state, "main trail 3 miles south." Which begs the question, where did it really enter Wyoming?

Although western Nebraska is not at the top of most people's vacation plans, if you ever find yourself lost in the area, there is plenty of rich history to view and visit.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Shannon McCann

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