Gold Rush 49ers, massive rocks over a changing prairie

Courthouse & Jailhouse Rocks

Slowly the landscape along the Platte River trail began to change. Rock outcroppings poked from the sand hills beside the valley. The plains were covered in the pale yellow blooms of prickly pear, a welcome relief from the endless miles of greenish-gray sagebrush. In the distance the shadow of the Laramie Mountains hung on the horizon, broken only by massive rocks that towered above the flat plain. The first of these, rising abruptly 400 feet above the valley, was known as Courthouse Rock because its straight sides and square appearance resembled the St. Louis courthouse. And because no courthouse is complete without a jail a smaller outcropping was dubbed Jailhouse Rock by a witty traveler.

View of Chimney Rock with Sioux Village in Foreground

Even as they passed Courthouse Rock the tall spire of Chimney Rock soared like a needle in the distance. One man said it resembled the smoke stack of a sugar refinery, another thought it like a foundry, but a man with Elisha Perkins said it looked more like a giant stack of pancakes. Rising over 300 feet from the Platte River Valley, its spindly chimney sprouting precariously from it’s pyramidal base, many were certain that the thin tower would soon crumble to the ground. It was one of the most awesome sights yet seen on the journey west. Perkins himself said, as he stood near the bottom and looked up, “If a man does not feel like an insect then I don’t know when he should.”

Scotts Bluff National Monument

But the most impressive of all was Scott’s Bluff, made up of five distinct parts, Crown, Dome, Eagle, Saddle, and Sentinel Rocks, and looming over 830 feet above the trail at it’s highest point. Men would imagine castles, minarets, temples, and forts in the varied formations before them. From the top of the bluff travelers gaped at the magnificent view of the Platte Valley. On the way up, in a deep ravine, lay a spring of the coldest water most had ever drank. Nearby a Frenchman named Roubidioux ran a trading post, blacksmith forge and grog shop in a log shanty. Here mountain sheep could be seen leaping along the bluffs. Their bleached white bones and skulls with huge horns still attached lay beside the road. As the emigrants neared Fort Laramie piles of bacon, barrels of crackers, and hundreds of tools littered the trail as men lightened wagons for the long climb ahead.

A Rocky Mountain Sheep


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