Between 1840 and 1869, visions of wealth and opportunity lured over 500,000 pioneers west to fulfill their dreams and a nation’s destiny. These emigrants started their journeys in Kansas and Missouri, walking more than 2,200 miles for months in pursuit of a better life.
Since there were no road signs back then, they used natural landmarks to point the way. Along the Oregon Trail, they named a few of those Chimney Rock, Courthouse and Jail Rocks. Today, you can visit Chimney Rock National Historic Site to learn about them.
How many of us remember studying the Oregon Trail and the mass movement to the west via covered wagon caravans? Well, we’ll take you on our tour of several stopping points that brought history to life for us as we learned about what settlers and pioneers endured while transiting west.
About the Oregon Trail
The Oregon National Historic Trail (NHT) was designated by Congress in 1978 and is administered by the National Park Service as a component of the National Trails System. Despite the name, the Oregon NHT is not a continuous traditional trail from end to end, but consists of many trail traces, structures, graves, landmarks, and markers left on the landscape to remind us that the trail still lives on.
The Oregon Trail is a 2,200-mile (3,500 km) historic east–west large-wheeled
wagon route and emigrant trail that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon. The eastern part of the Oregon Trail spanned part of the future state of Kansas and nearly all of what are now the states of Nebraska and Wyoming. The western half of the trail spanned most of the future states of Idaho and Oregon.
Use of the trail declined as the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, making the trip west substantially faster, cheaper, and safer. Today, modern highways such as Interstate 80 follow parts of the same course westward and pass through towns originally established to serve those using the Oregon Trail.
Our own journey
The first view on our personal journey west was seen by thousands two centuries before us; Courthouse and Jail Rocks. If not for doing a little research prior, one would think these two were just rocky buttes. However, they served as landmarks showing wagon travelers the way west along the Oregon Trail and the Pony Express Riders.
Courthouse and Jail Rocks were first noted by Robert Stuart in 1812 and quickly became one of the guiding landmarks for fur traders and emigrants.
It is a massive monolith of Brule clay and Gering sandstone south of the trail, which was variously likened to a courthouse or a castle. A smaller feature just to the east was called the Jail House or Jail Rock. Courthouse Rock was the first of several impressive natural landmarks along the westward trail in western Nebraska.
We didn’t go up to the rocks however, we made sure to stop for a short photo shoot.
The next natural landmark noting travelers were on the right route is now known as Chimney Rock National Historic Site. Still to this day, Chimney Rock is very peculiar yet prominent geological rock formation rising nearly 300 feet above the surrounding North Platte River valley. The peak of Chimney Rock is 4,226 feet above sea level.
During the middle 19th century, Chimney Rock served as a landmark along the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, and the Mormon Trail. All of which ran parallel to the north side of the rock. It is visible for many miles from the east along U.S. Route 26. This marker of the plains was recorded in many journals after this time.
The name Chimney Rock probably originated from early fur traders. It went through a variety of names before becoming Chimney Rock such as Chimley Rock, Chimney Tower, and Elk’s Peak. Based on sketches, paintings, written accounts, and the 1897 photography by Darton, Chimney Rock was taller when it was first seen by settlers. However, it has been reduced in height since then by erosion and lightening.
Chimney Rock National Historic Site has a small visitors center with small museum, historic exhibits and gift shop. We walked out the back door of the building to a fenced patio that allowed us an unobstructed view of this notable landmark. We had to be careful though. Several signs that bordered the grasslands warned onlookers of rattlesnakes.
We had a little fun photographing Chimney Rock during our visit.
After, we went back in the visitors center to get our National Park Passport stamped. It was time to get back on our own little auto tour to see more of the historic markers.
As you see in the image above, the monument on the left marked the Pony Express riders. The marker on the right identified Fort Mitchell’s northwest corner sit to the west of the intersection of Highway 92 and Hunt Dairy Road. Mitchell Pass and the City of Mitchell derive their names from the Cavalry-era Fort, built in 1864.
Today, no trace of the fort remains. This memorial was a simple historical marker alongside the highway; easy to miss if you’re not looking for it.
As you see, Western Nebraska played a huge part in our Nation’s History through the migrations west. The hardships and gains through our hearty nomadic ancestors has shown us that through perseverance and will, anything is possible.
We encourage you to visit other cool places in this region
Lake Minatare Lighthouse and State Recreation Area
Where we ate
Where we stayed