Mon Jun 7th (1847)
Passed three companies in the evening on a small ravine running into the Platt, it being too full to camp we had the good luck to pass One company of forty three wagons scattered for half a mile on each side of the road, one half of them were fast in the mud. The poor oxen had to pay the bill or bear the blame. They had two Roman Catholics in their company. They were stalking around among the men with their long robes on and their bibles under their arms praying to God to help them out. He didn’t. We passed altogether ninety four wagons in the low bottom on the Platt, a great many fast in the mud. Three miles and camped on the prairie. Fifty one wagons in camp.
Pleasant. Eighteen miles.
Entry in the journal diary of James Madison Coon and Nancy Iness (Miller) Coon
One week and 127 miles later, the wagon train would camp at Ash Hollow for three days leaving 37 wagons of settlers who decided that they would put down their roots here. James and Nancy would continue on until their arrival in Oregon on October 10. They left their home in Mercer County, Illinois on April 11, 1847 bound for Oregon. The story of their journey is transcribed from their diary and can be found here.
The story of my journey that morning from North Platte to Ash Hollow was a mere 80 miles, and were it not for stops in Sutherland and at Lake McConaughy, would have taken a little over an hour via I-80. That isn’t a real covered wagon in the opening shot. It’s an information center of sorts at the base of Windlass Hill near Ogalalla.
This sign in the photo above marks one of the ravines left by the wagons of the thousands of immigrants who traveled the Oregon Trail westward, some to Oregon and others to California. The hill marked the entrance into the North Platte River Valley, but the hill is steep, some 25-degree slope or so. The wheels of the wagons were lashed and ropes were used to lower the wagons down the steep grade. The hill’s name implies the use of a windlass to assist in raising or lowering the heavy weights of the wagons and their owner’s possessions. There is no documented evidence that the settlers used such a contrivance and the hill’s current name came into use many years after the pioneers journeyed west in the mid-1800s.
There were several ravines created by the wheels of each wagon dragging along the hillside as it was lowered into the river valley. Different ravines marked the most common places that the settlers felt would be the least work in the hill’s descent. That “covered wagon” information center is just off the parking area and these days a sidewalk has replaced a walking trail that allows visitors to walk to the top of the hill and see the views of the valley in a manner similar to what the settlers saw as they arrived. One item of note in that journal is that there was no reference to the hill or its transition in the journal entry for the arrival at Ash Hollow. It was certainly a nice place to stop and rest as many settlers stopped there for a few days, or for the rest of their lives.
In 1852 another pioneer, Howard Stansbury, passed through Ash Hollow on July 3, 1852 and noted in his journal the following:
“Here we were obliged, from the steepness of the road, to let the wagons down by ropes. . . . The bottom of Ash Creek is tolerably well wooded, principally with ash and some dwarf cedars . . . traces of the great tide of emigration . . . plainly visible in remains of campfires, in blazed trees covered with innumerable names . . . total absence of all herbage.”
The quote above and more information about Ash Hollow can be found here.
Lynn and I climbed the hill from the sidewalk until the concrete stopped though the trail continued even slightly higher. It was a long and challenging walk for us. There are benches along the way to stop and rest as you may note from the gallery of images that end this post.
The view from the flat land that leads into the valley appears to be relatively unchanged from what might have been seen in the 1850s. A vehicle trail is prominent as it winds through the valley. That’s not a covered wagon trail, though, it’s been made by modern vehicles.
There is more to see in Ash Hollow including a pioneer cabin, a staffed information center, a cave that’s open to the pubic and more. The park is staffed from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day each year and requires one of the Nebraska park permits. However, for Lynn and I, after stopping at the other parks on our journey to Colorado, we needed to be on the road to meet family for hotel check-in and a late lunch. I submit for your review a gallery of images captured that morning at Windlass Hill, Nebraska. If your browser supports the function, you can click on an image to enlarge it and to scroll through the gallery.