A forty-niner on his way to the gold fields said that Chimney Rock was “the most remarkable object” he had ever seen. Apparently, Joseph Hackney hadn’t done much traveling before heading to California It is, for sure, a historic landmark forever tied to 19th century travelers and pioneers. Emigrants passing it on the California, Mormon, and Oregon Trails often noted in their journals that they were very glad to see it because it was proof that they were headed in the right direction. It was also a natural, vertical spire different from the flat prairie they had been crossing for 600 miles. Exuberantly, many of them climbed up the cone and carved their names on the tower.
Chimney Rock is surely Nebraska’s most recognizable geographic phenomenon. But is the tower we see today the same one the pioneers saw? Not quite. Scientists estimate that the spire has lost around 30 feet since they passed through. Its summit today is 4,225 above sea level and 470 feet above the nearby North Platte River that wagon trains followed. The actual spire is 120 feet of clay, volcanic ash, and sandstone that is destined to disappear. A wind-affected lightning magnet, it will eventually be destroyed by erosion. No one, not even scientists, knows when that will happen. Go see it now, just in case.
It was designated a National Historic Site in 1956. Today it’s maintained by the Nebraska State Historical Society and has a fair visitor center. If you want souvenirs and some historical info, it’s worth the price of admission; but you won’t get better pictures of it from just outside its back door than you’ll get for free from the road. However, outside the back door Ruth & I found some unusual white flowers blooming among the sunflowers. We asked the lady behind the desk what they were and she had to look them up. “They’re called Ten-Petal Blazing Stars,” she informed. “Like morning glories, the flowers only open in late afternoon. We see them first in July, and they’re usually gone by the end of August,” she added. Nebraskans must be truth-tellers. One of their wild plants is named sneezeweed.
Fur trappers like Warren Farris named it The Chimney. Pony Express riders used the Chimney Rock telegraph and stage station. Female Native Americans called it Wigwam or The Teepee. The males mostly called it Elk Penis, which is said to be its most favored and accurate name.