I’m on the road again in the Great American West following the Oregon-California Trail in the 1850 footsteps of John App. This time it is a quick trip to test how best to film the landscape in the west as compared to how it is filmed in eastern states. I’ve learned a lot, and hope to apply this knowledge when creating a family video documentary of John App’s journey from Pekin, Illinois to California’s gold fields.
The first place I tested filming was along the Platte River in Nebraska, which according to Wikipedia “is about 310 miles (500 km) long, is a tributary of the Missouri River, which itself is a tributary of the Mississippi River which flows to the Gulf of Mexico. The Platte over most of its length is a muddy, broad, shallow, meandering stream with a swampy bottom and many islands—a braided stream. These characteristics made it too difficult for canoe travel, and it was never used as a major navigation route by European-American trappers or explorers.” It was a crucial element in forming the path taken by the emigrants on the Oregon-California Trail, and in the next post I will have some video demonstrating the “look” of this river.
The next stop was sort of serendipitous and not intended for filming, but it was a very important stop for the travelers along the trail. Ash Hollow was an oasis where many travelers rested before beginning the more arduous journey to the west along the last of the relatively flat trail. It was a place where animals could be watered and fed, and where wagons and equipment could be repaired.
The Nebraska Historical Society describes it this way: “Ash Hollow is four miles in total length, from about 1,000 feet wide between its gateway cliffs near the North Platte up to 2,000 feet rim to rim, and with an average depth of some 250 feet. Most emigrants who passed through Ash Hollow stopped for rest and refitting. According to Merrill Mattes’s Great Platte River Road, “In a country otherwise devoid of noteworthy features, Ash Hollow, with its high white cliffs, flower beds, oasis-like patches of trees and shrubbery, and beneficent clear springs, is an outright marvel.”
The second place to test filming was Courthouse and Jail Rocks in Nebraska. Resembling from a distance a jail next to a courthouse, it certainly was a recognizable landmark for the travelers. The National Parks Service describes the landmark this way: “Courthouse Rock was first noted by Robert Stuart in 1812 and quickly became one of the guiding landmarks for fur traders and emigrants. It is a massive monolith of Brule clay and Gering sandstone south of the trail, which was variously likened to a courthouse or a castle. A smaller feature just to the east was called the Jail House or Jail Rock. Courthouse Rock was the first of several impressive natural landmarks along the trail in western Nebraska.
In November of 1841, Rufus B. Sage recorded, “A singular natural formation, known as the Court House, or McFarlan’s Castle . . . rises in an abrupt quadrilangular form, to a height of three or four hundred feet, and covers an area of two hundred yards in length by one hundred and fifty broad. Occupying a perfectly level site in an open prairie, it stands as the proud palace of Solitude, amid here boundless domains. Its position commands a view of the country for forty miles around and meets the eye of the traveler for several successive days, in journeying up the Platte.”
Stop number three was at Chimney Rock, arguably the most notable landmark along the entire Oregon-California Trail. Visible from sometimes 40 miles away it stood as an ancient beacon to the travelers as a place to rest and find water and grass for their animals.
It also served as an indicator for gauging the rate of their progress west along the trail. It is probably considered to be “the symbol” of the great western migration. It is a natural geologic formation (from erosion) that towers 480 feet (146 meters) above the North Platte River Valley. It is visible proof that things out west are certainly larger and further away than a human eye can judge.