Across the Great Plains: June 1846
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
Explorers, trappers and eventually, all west-bound emigrants followed the winding Platte River four hundred miles across the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains. A week after crossing the Big Blue River, the Reeds, the Donners, and other members of the Russell Company looked down from a plateau and saw the Platte Valley for the first time. The valley floor had no trees, yet hundreds of wooded islands lay in the shallow, mile-wide river.
Today US Route 77 north, Interstate 80 west, and Kansas-26 west generally follow the same route Virginia’s company took across the Plains near the Platte River. As I drove 450-plus miles from Alcove Spring, Kansas to the city of Scottsbluff, Nebraska I tried to imagine the continuous stretch of farmland, not unlike Interstate 5 from Sacramento to Los Angeles, as it must have looked in 1846 when it was treeless grassland inhabited by herds of buffalo, antelope and elk.
Virginia Reed wrote in her memoirs: “Stretching out before us as far as the eye could reach was a valley as green as emerald, dotted here and there with flowers of every imaginable color, and through this valley flowed the grand old Platte, a wide, rapid, shallow stream….”
Chimney Rock is the landmark pioneers wrote home most about. Its shape is the most fantastic and recognizable.
It was hard to take my eyes off Chimney Rock as I approached. With each mile it seemed to reach higher from the vast, flat plain.
When I approached the city of Scottsbluff, Nebraska and saw Courthouse Rock, as well as Chimney Rock and the Scotts Bluff National Monument, I remembered reading how excited members of the party were when they first came upon these landmarks.
I spent several hours at the informative visitor centers at the Chimney Rock National Historic Site and the Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor Center at the Scotts Bluff National Monument. Both were full of valuable information about westward migration in general, and the plains in particular.
Chimney Rock, left, can be seen from miles away on the flat plain. At one point I left my rental car to climb Courthouse Rock, right, but the “Beware of Rattlesnakes” signs discouraged me!