Nebraska Historical Marker: Courthouse and Jail Rocks
Rural Nebraska 88, Bridgeport, Morrill County, Nebraska
View this marker's location 41.600513, -103.0994
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Courthouse and Jail Rocks are two of the most famous landmarks of westward migration. Nearby passed the Oregon-California Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Pony Express Trail and the Sidney-Deadwood Trail. The rocks were vanguards of unforgettable scenic wonders that travelers would encounter farther west, including Chimney Rock's curious spire and the rugged heights of Scott's Bluffs. Hundreds of overland emigrants mentioned Courthouse Rock in their diaries. Often called a "castle" or "solitary tower," the name Courthouse was first used in 1837. One 1845 traveler described the rock as "resembling the ruins of an old castle [which] rises abruptly from the plain. . . .It is difficult to look upon it and not believe that art had something to do with its construction. The voyagers have called it the Courthouse; but it looks infinitely more like the Capitol." Courthouse and Jail Rocks, rising some 400 feet above the North Platte Valley, are erosional remnants composed of clay, sandstone and volcanic ash. The rocks are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and in the Nebraska Natural Areas Register.
Court House Rock is a geological feature in the Nebraska Panhandle that became a famous landmark in the Platte River Road. It is the first of the three famous landmarks seen by westward migrants in the Nebraska Panhandle region, followed by Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff. Even though they are not technically mountains, these features were called mountains by the pioneers and weighed heavily on their memories because they were the first large geological features on the trail.
Slightly to the east of Court House Rock is another rock of equal height but smaller size called Jail Rock. While Court House Rock and Jail Rock are usually grouped together as one monument, the pioneers rarely mentioned Jail Rock, focusing on Court House Rock instead.
While Court House Rock became the standard name for the feature, several other names were popular during the Great Migration: Solitary Tower, the Church, the Capitol, and the Castle. Jail Rock was never called Jail Rock by migrants; it was just called the Jail or Jail House. Some pioneers called it a clerk’s office, county building, lighthouse, sentinel post or even “the leaning Tower of Pisa.”
The rock is 400 feet above the Platte River Valley and consists mainly of two different types of sandstone. The base is made of softer Brule Clay, and the top is composed of Arikaree sandstone mixed with limestone. The hardness of the upper section is the reason the rock has not eroded away more. The bottom part is much less stable. It was common for pioneers to carve their names into the base of the rock, but these names have since eroded away.
Mattes, Merrill J. The Great Platte River Road: The Covered Wagon Mainline via Fort Kearny To Fort Laramie. Lincoln: Nebraska State Historical Society, 1969.
See Nebraska Historical Marker Program for more information.