In 1841 John Bidwell was traveling across the “dull and monotonous” Great Plains when finally the landscape began to change. On June 17th the party spotted castle-like Courthouse Rock, and on the 18th they came to Chimney Rock, a landmark mentioned by nearly every emigrant who left a record:
Friday 18th: At about 12 o’clock today we passed another object, still more singular and interesting. It is called by the mountaineers the Chimney, from its resemblance to that object, and is composed of clay and sand so compact as to possess the hardness of rock. It has been formed from a high isolated mound which, being washed on every side by the rains and snows of ages, has been worn down till nothing is left but the centre which stands upon an obtuse cone, and is seen towering like a huge column at the distance of 30 miles.
Most of the company members traveled from their campsite to Chimney Rock to get a closer view and to inscribe their names with tar and grease. No doubt the names have long since worn away. Bidwell later noted that the chimney had become shorter than when he first saw it and less square. Today it looks more like a spire, but in 1841 it really did look like a chimney. Or maybe, as Father DeSmet said, a funnel.
Father Jean Pierre De Smet, the missionary whose group traveled along with the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, wrote of seeing “the chimney”:
It is called so on account of its extraordinary form; but instead of applying to it an appellation which is rather unworthy this wonder of nature, just because it bears some resemblance to the object after which it is named, it would have been more proper to call it “the inverted funnel” as there is no object which it resembles more. What excites our astonishment, is the manner in which this remnant of a mountain,composed of sand and clay, has been so shaped, and how it has for such a length of time preserved this form, in spite of the winds which are so violent in these parts.
And if you have ever traveled through Nebraska, you too can attest to the “violence” of the winds.