76-year-old man takes covered wagon along Oregon Trail to highlight historical significance

Caption: Ezra Meeker and his ox team at Chimney Rock, July 1906. NSHS RG0959.PH5-1

 

One hundred ten years ago in July 1906 Ezra Meeker stopped at Chimney Rock near Bayard, Nebraska, on his retracement, from west to east, of his 1852 journey along the Oregon Trail. Sixty years ago this month, on August 22, 1956, Chimney Rock was dedicated as a National Historic Site within the National Park Service system. Of all the natural wonders encountered by the thousands of overland emigrants crossing Nebraska to Oregon, California, or the Salt Lake Valley in the mid-nineteenth century, Chimney Rock was the one most often mentioned in their diaries.

The late National Park Service historian Merrill J. Mattes devoted a chapter to the rock in his 1969 study, The Great Platte River Road, which remains in print. The chapter includes many of the emigrants’ comments about the rock as recorded in trail diaries. In 1906 Ezra Meeker, at the age of 76, took a covered wagon and a team of oxen along the Oregon Trail to call attention to its historical significance and promote a project to mark the route. Such a project was consummated in 1912-13 when the Daughters of the American Revolution and the state of Nebraska erected some sixty granite markers documenting the trail across Nebraska. In 1909 Meeker published an account of his trek entitled Ventures and Adventures of Ezra Meeker. In the book he described the death of “Twist,” one of the two oxen (the other was “Dave”) that had pulled his covered wagon from near Seattle, Washington, to Nebraska in 1906.

On August 8, 1906, Meeker was traveling along the Platte River near Brady, Nebraska, when the seven-year-old “Twist” began breathing heavily. Meeker unyoked the ox, “gave him a quart of lard, a gill of vinegar, and a handful of sugar, but all to no purpose . . . and in two hours he was dead.” The ox was buried nearby. This was a serious setback that prevented Meeker from completing his retrace of the trail until 1908. It took time to find another ox, which then had to be trained to pull in a yoke. Meeker finally found a replacement for “Twist” at the Omaha stockyards after looking over a thousand head of cattle. He named the new ox “Dandy.”

Fifty years after Ezra Meeker stopped at Chimney Rock it was dedicated as a National Historic Site. The dignitaries attending included Merrill Mattes, then NPS regional historian; Nebraska State Historical Society (NSHS) Director William D. Aeschbacher; former director James C. Olson, and Nebraska Congressman A. L. Miller, the ranking member of the U.S. House Interior Committee. As reported by the Aug. 23 Bayard and Scottsbluff newspapers, Secretary of the Interior Fred A. Seaton, a Nebraskan appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, sent a letter to be read for the ceremonies. In it Seaton recalled that signing the national historic site designation for Chimney Rock had been his first act after taking office. In his address at the dedication, Congressman Miller recalled that Chimney Rock had once been characterized as “the finger of God pointing to the heavens,” which had also pointed the way of “a courageous people toward a new land of freedom and opportunity.”

Because the eighty-acres on which Chimney Rock stands had been donated to History Nebraska in the late 1930s, it administers the site. In 1994 the Society opened the Ethel and Christopher J. Abbott Visitor Center there. Although erosion has made the spire somewhat shorter than it was when Ezra Meeker passed by in 1906, Chimney Rock still fascinates twenty-first century travelers.

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