Nebraska 2010 – Day 21

Beatrice to Rock Creek Station Historical Park: Connecting with the past

Wednesday May 26, 2010, 39 miles (63 km) – Total so far: 864 miles (1,390 km)

Today is one of the more significant days of the trip. I will visit Homestead National Monument and Rock Creek Station to learn about the opening up of the west for settlement and why people voluntarily emigrate away from the security and comfort of their previous homes. It will give me a chance to reflect on my own immigrant journey in Australia. (emigrate – to leave and journey away from; immigrate – to move into or toward).

First stop is Homestead National Monument. (Be careful – the road out to the monument has no shoulder, is pretty busy, has a decent amount of truck traffic and does not always offer long sight lines). I get there just after it opens. The building is unique and beautiful, shaped to look like a homesteader’s plow. It is a very new building and I take my time to watch the introductory film and really engage myself with the exhibits. I spend about 2.5 hours inside. It is pretty amazing that such a huge piece of American history is represented in such a little-known monument.

The Homestead Act of 1862 opened up land across the US for settlement and cultivation. The Act declared that any citizen or intended citizen could claim 160 acres (1/4 square mile) of surveyed government land. To ‘prove’ their claim, homesteaders had to improve the plot with a dwelling and grow crops. If the original people who filed for the land were still there in 5 years, the land became their property free and clear. Over 270 million acres in 30 states were turned over from government to private ownership. Homesteading was discontinued in 1976, except in Alaska where it continued until 1986.

The exhibits detail the motivations of the homesteaders and the hardships they endured. It also encourages you to think about what defines success. Only 40% of homesteaders proved their claim, but does that mean the others were unsuccessful? What about the skills they learned, the experiences they had? There was so much interesting information, but I really related to the exhibits which talked about why people decided to head west to homestead: to start a new life or to make money or to follow a love, etc. Oh yes, the motivation to move has not changed much over time. It talked about how early in westward emigration, movement was dominated by people out to make a buck who planned to go back East once they were rich. But later, and during the Homestead Act, it was people who were looking to move and stay, with many women and children making the trek. After looking at the exhibits showing the isolation of being away from family and trying to re-establish traditions in a new place, I realise that the emotions and difficulties of emigration are very similar today – just in a different time and place.

Restored tall-grass prairie at Homestead National Monument, NE.

Reflecting on the hardiness of those who are motivated to move is a lot to take in – so I’ve got lots to think about and push out through the pedals as I get back on the road to head to Rock Creek Station. I see my first fully-loaded touring cyclist heading eastbound near Ellis. He looks like he’s been on the road for awhile. He’s not wearing any lycra, has a BOB trailer and we wave at each other but neither of us makes a move to cross over. I’m too much in my head to want to talk to anyone right now.

The turn-off to Rock Creek Station at Jensen is well sign-posted. There’s a bunch of rollers and then one big hill before getting to the entrance. The campground is one of the nicest I’ve encountered with shade and grassy areas and well-spaced RV sites. The tent camping is all walk-in sites that are pretty damp and buggy, so I take the site next to the parking area which is slightly less gnatty. Still heaps of ticks though!

I thought the campground at Rock Creek Station was one of the better ones I’ve come across. Well thought-out and designed. Only drawback might be that there are only 2 toilets and one shower available for each sex. This could be a problem if the place was busy, I suspect.

I then head over to the Visitor Centre. There’s no one else around and the woman at the desk is very friendly. She has me watch the intro slide show (which is so dated it’s actually almost humorous) in the little auditorium, then I spend a while really having a good look at the indoor exhibits. I then have a chat with the woman at the desk, and I learn tremendous amounts about her family and children, too. I wish I had this immediate rapport with all of my research interviewees. This woman so quickly opens up to me that I’m not quite sure what to say a couple times. I then head out to look at the Oregon Trail ruts and the re-created station buildings. More stuff to blow my little mind.

This swale is the Oregon Trail. The 24 years of constant traffic on the trail wore out and killed the native grasses, resulting in the clay soils being eroded by wind and water. This carved out these ‘trail ruts’ in the uphill section leading out of Rock Creek. The swale has been revegetated with native grasses to prevent further erosion.

Rock Creek Station was established in 1857 as road ranch catering to stages, freight lines and emigrant traffic on the Oregon Trail. In 1859, a bloke named McCanles bought the station and built a toll bridge across the creek. In 1860, he rented the East Ranch to Russell, Majors and Waddell, founders of the Pony Express and owners of the Overland Stage Company (we’ve already come across them in Nebraska City). At one point, the company fell behind in its payments and when McCanles and a couple friends went to ask about the payments, there was a bit of a fracas and McCanles was shot dead by James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok. Yep, this is where he got his start. Many versions of this story have been developed and helped enshrine Wild Bill as a western legend. He sounded like a real early gangsta type – gambling, girls, show biz, more murders – whatever it took to be famous and rich sort of thing.

The state has built replicas of some of the buildings that would have composed the station’s East and West Ranch. This is looking down the actual Oregon Trail from above the East Ranch.

Interesting, but I mostly am trying to imagine what the people on the Oregon Trail would have been thinking and feeling as they came up out of the creek where the ruts are. They would have been so early in their journey at this point – probably just getting into the routines of the road. What were their fears? What were their dreams? More than 400,000 people travelled this trail from the 1830s to the 1860s, the heaviest travel period being 1846 to1869. There’s so much to ponder.

A shadowy figure riding along next to the Oregon Trail and the spirits of the 400,000 people who passed along this route.

The other interesting thing to think about is how well the Pony Express has been etched into American culture, even though it only operated for about 18 months. The mail service began in April 1860 and ended in November 1861 after the first transcontinental telegraph lines were completed. It completed 300 runs each way over 600,000 miles and carried more than 33,000 pieces of mail.


There’s no one else here today, so I have plenty of time to sit here along the trail and think about human migration. There’s heaps of information in the brochures to process which also provoke thoughts about the stuff that can’t be written as facts – the personalities, the experiences, the historical period, the landscape of the time, etc. Whew – my head is in overdrive today (good thing Nigel isn’t here – he doesn’t always have patience for my ponderings!).

Eventually I head back to have a shower in the campground. The shower is a ‘push’ button affair. There’s plenty of water that’s hot and a bit smelly. The funny thing is that I think the roominess of the shower stall is for the handicapped folks. No, it’s just so the torrent of water won’t erode the brick on the opposite wall, and so that you can stand back an appropriate distance from the spray so it won’t tear off your skin. Wow – it’s like being sprayed down with a fire hose. Ah, but it’s so much better than whatever means the emigrants would have had to clean up at the end of the day.

Sunset at Rock Creek Station, Nebraska.

As sunset approaches I ride back up to the trail ruts, sit on the road and watch the sun go down. It’s been a huge day mentally and emotionally – the significance of this history to me and my home country and its illustration of various aspects of basic humanity have really given me a spin today. It will also take me most of tomorrow to process all of this. So it is only appropriate that as I sit next to the Oregon Trail trace and watch the sun dissolve in the western sky that I also see several jet contrails arcing across the sky over the sun – modern day travellers effortlessly heading east, 500 miles an hour. The juxtaposition of modern day and historical journeys keeps my head swimming til long after dusk.

The Oregon Trail lies in the foreground. Jet contrails can be seen above the sun. The juxtaposition of modern day and historical journeys is a lot to think about.

Ave speed: 12.6

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