On the Road: Chimney Rock National Historic Site

Chimney Rock National Historic Site, western Nebraska.

History Nebraska (formerly known as the Nebraska Historical Society) has six historic sites, including Chimney Rock near Bayard. Growing up in California, this natural landmark figures prominently in the schoolbook history of western settlement with images of slowly moving wagons crossing empty plains accompanied by men carrying rifles and women carrying children.

As my first experience in Nebraska, my road trip showed me the physical challenges of living in the mountains and plains of the western United States. That’s one of the big reasons I love to travel because it establishes the physical context for historical events and places that can’t be adequately captured in books or exhibitions. It’s one of the reasons I’m so committed to the preservation and interpretation of historic sites—it’s where history happened.

History Nebraska debuted a renovated Visitor Center at Chimney Rock in July 2020 and received a Rising Star Award as an outstanding tourism attraction from the NebraskaLand Foundation. My chance to see it last month showed that it was a terrific experience for tourists with families from the architecture to the exhibitions to the restrooms. It’s a significant improvement from a couple years ago, as described by Karrin Doll Tolliver at A Taste for Travel.

Architecture is one of my biggest interests so I was impressed that the design of this visitor center has strong design relationship with Chimney Rock. It’s not just that there’s a big window inside that looks out towards the pinnacle, but outside the roofline move with and around it. As a result, it creates a range of surprisingly compressed and open spaces inside that create a foundation for engaging experiences. When spaces are same height and size throughout a building, it creates a monotony that has to be broken in other ways to keep visitors engaged (if you were to compare this to writing, it would be as if all the sentences were the same length—boring!).

This marked-up image shows how the visitor center at Chimney Rocks succeeds and fails. The roof line (red) avoids the landmark (blue) and follows the adjacent horizon. The yellow arrow shows the pathway to the new entrance, allowing the visitor to see the landmark as they enter. The purple marks out the unfortunate location of disabled parking and signs, which could have easily been moved to the left to improve the visitor’s experience without increasing travel distances for disabled visitors.

The exhibition is organized by topic, first placing Chimney Rock in a geographic and historical context with a large map showing the California-Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, and Pony Express route. Visitors love these types of maps because it helps them connect the site (Chimney Rock) to a context (United States, western trails) they know. Too often these maps are cluttered by someone on the exhibition committee insists on including the state capitol or today’s major US cities (“many of our visitors are from California so we need to include San Francisco”). Here these irrelevant places are omitted.

Map of Trails highlight Chimney Rock. This first section is placed on the right as visitors enter the main gallery, with text labels organized from right to left (the order in which they are encountered). Notice that some visitors are standing close to read the labels and others further away to understand the context.

In general, the exhibition sections have subjects as big titles with short labels written for people who have only a superficial understanding of Chimney Rock. That’s perfect for heritage travelers who are seeking historical information but have full itinerary—they can’t stay here all day, so give them what’s significant quickly with few details (hopefully you’ve provoked them to buy a book in the gift shop).

This approach doesn’t skimp on good interpretation. The exhibition doesn’t just celebrate pioneers but includes various perspectives and mentions the challenges and difficulties. In the section on the “People of Chimney Rock,” the main label reads:

To Native people this valley was home. To emigrants it contained a path to a new life. They dreamed of gold, or of farms in Oregon, or of a New Zion beside the Great Salt Lake. For others the trail was a workplace for hauling freight or serving an enlistment. (50 words)

For families, the interactive experiences are diverse and could be done together and individually to provide plenty of choices. Visitors can look at historic images, make decisions about what to bring with you for an overland journey, leave your image of Chimney Rock to other travelers, and feel what it’s like to carve your name onto Chimney Rock (hmm, I’m not sure we want to promote this type of activity).

The Visitor Center includes a couple of fun surprises, including stuffed rattlesnakes with warnings, t-shirts promoting the protection of endangered prairie sasquatches, and a restroom that allows you to choose a stall based on your interest in risky restrooms or alarming animals. Thanks for making history educational and fun.

Credit for the work certainly goes to History Nebraska, but others involved included Blue Cadet, ADEX International, and Working Studio. I love giving credit where credit is due, so if there are others, please share in the comments below.