National Park Road Trip 2010: Into Nebraska on the Oregon Trail
Editor's note: As David and Kay Scott continue westward on their 2010 National Park Road Trip, their path took them to the Oregon National Historic Trail. Along with visiting parts of the trail administered by the National Park Service, they also found supporting historical sites managed by the states of Nebraska and Kansas worth including in their trek.
It is Saturday noon and we are at the Rock Creek Station visitor center that is located beside the California-Oregon Trail in southern Nebraska. This is a Nebraska state park and we spent last night at the park campground. Rock Creek Station was a stop for the Pony Express as well as a rest stop for emigrants departing from Independence and St. Joseph on the Oregon and California trails.
Emigrants stopped here to bath, do their laundry, and stock up on water during the early years of the migration west. In later years they were able to purchase supplies. The land surrounding the creek has never been plowed and retains some of the best and most visible remaining swales (wagon ruts) of the entire trail. Large depressions made by the wagons are easily visible from just beside the visitor center. For a better look at Rock Creek Station, check out our video.
The first commercial operation here to supply travelers operated from a lean-to in 1857. A small cabin and surrounding land were purchased in 1859 by a discouraged gold seeker who built a ranch and constructed a toll bridge over Rock Creek. Rock Creek was considered one of the most difficult crossings along the California-Oregon Trail and sometimes took nearly a full day. A plaque at the toll cabin indicates the charge ranged from 10 cents to 50 cents, depending on the wealth of the emigrant and the mood of the bridge owner.
As usual, we got a late start Friday morning from our last campsite outside Lawrence. Sitting around with a morning cup of coffee is the best part of camping, so why hurry,? Especially when we don’t have a timetable for the trip. As an aside, we have seen more lightening bugs this summer than either of us can remember since our childhoods. In addition, our campsites seem to be populated with huge numbers of daddy long-legs spiders. The outside of the tent is covered with them every morning.
We spent Friday attempting to trace the emigrant path across the northeast corner of Kansas. This included a drive through the state capital of Topeka, departing the city across the Kansas River at approximately the same point the emigrants used over 150 years ago.
On the edge of St. Marys, Kansas, we passed the site of a Jesuit mission built in 1848. The mission became an important stopping point for emigrants. Outside the town, Oregon Trail Nature Park offers views of the winding gravel road that overlays the original trail.
The next stop was the cemetery where Louis Vieux, a Potawatomi Indian, is buried along with his two wives and children. Louis was an enterprising soul who established a toll bridge on the Red Vermillion River, According to a plaque at the site, he earned up to $300 per day collecting tolls from the westward-bound pioneers. Emigrants, who considered most of the tolls to be outrageous, had an intense dislike of those who collected the fees.
About 20 miles northwest, we stopped for lunch at Scott Spring, a popular campsite for emigrants because of the availability of fresh water. The park includes a reconstructed pioneer wagon and a demonstration area for various types of grasses that pioneers encountered on the prairie. The tall grasses in eastern Kansas sometimes approached 10 feet in height.
Our next stop was Marysville, near the junction of pioneer trails beginning in St. Joseph and Independence. It is also the site of the first major Pony Express station for riders leaving St. Joseph. We visited the station and bought groceries at a nearby store. This included a 20-pound bag of ice to stock the two ice chests. Ice doesn’t last long in the 90-plus degree heat we have been encountering nearly every day. On the edge of Marysville is the site of Marshall’s Ferry, a major crossing of the Big Blue River for pioneers traveling the St. Joe Road.
Our last stop in Kansas was the Hollenberg Pony Express Station, thought to be the only remaining station at its original location. The station was constructed in 1857 and served as a rest stop for emigrants traveling west.
Next we travel northwest to Fort Kearny, Nebraska, an army post that offered protection for emigrants on the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails, and for Pony Express riders.