Scotts Bluff
Administrative History
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Operating The National Monument


The visitor center, formerly called the Administration and Museum Building, is the only interpretive center at Scotts Bluff. Constructed by the NPS and CCC in 1935 to house an "Oregon Trail Museum," the building was designed by NPS architect Howard W. Baker. The brick and adobe structure has been expanded twice. In 1938, a ranger's office, paleontology wing and basement, workroom, and superintendent's office were built onto the "History Room." Funds provided by the American Pioneer Trails Association in 1949 resulted in the construction of the William Henry Jackson Wing. The visitor center today measures 6,677 square feet.

Two employees' residences complete the visitor center complex area, and both architecturally conform to the brick and adobe, Spanish Colonial influence. The first residence was built in 1938 by the CCC. A bedroom and utility room were added in 1949. The second house was a MISSION 66 project built in 1958. It served as the superintendent's residence until the Heilbrun House (Tract 01-102) was acquired in 1973. The two levels of this concrete block and brick veneer structure which contained five bedrooms and three baths, were built in 1956 and 1965 respectively (this structure was removed in late 1983). A steel 32-by 60-foot Quonset hut built in 1958 stands to the east of the house and contains NPS equipment and material which cannot be stored elsewhere.

A Park Service utility building is behind two houses at the headquarters area. Completed by the CCC in 1936, the building was remodeled in 1958, expanded from 6 to 8 stalls under the MISSION 66 effort, and expanded again to 12 stalls in 1981. It, too, adheres to the Spanish Colonial influence.

The comfort station was built by the CCC in 1938 and is adjacent to the visitor center. It measures 288 square feet. The pump vault which houses the electric water pump is concrete and below grade. It was erected in 1936. The pumphouse, near the North Platte River, houses a power unit and another water pump. This was also a CCC project which was completed in 1938. A new pump was installed in the concrete building in 1957. [1]

A 1976 study of NPS visitor centers titled Visitor Center Design Evaluation was compiled from staff and visitor surveys by the Denver Service Center (DSC). Twelve visitor centers were chosen nationally, and the Scotts Bluff facility was the only design model representing the Midwest Region. Despite the attractive and practical design, several problems were ascertained by the DSC evaluators. In the area of maintenance and repairs the team noted that the extensive lawn around the building and parking areas required frequent mowing. Another drawback was that the front, or south, terra cotta facades needed painting annually. Three functional concerns were noted: congestion of visitors in the sales and information desk area, the lack of a marked starting point to view the exhibits, and some degree of visitor difficulty in finding the visitor center from the highway. [2]

A controversy in the mid-1970s centered around the intrusion of the NPS visitor center complex on the historic landscape. For decades the NPS sought the removal of all intrusions at Scotts Bluff, including Nebraska Highway 92 and the overhead power lines and poles. Any such relocation of these facilities outside the monument boundaries would be seen as hypocritical if the NPS was itself unwilling to remove its own resource encumbrances. The argument took shape in 1975 as the DSC was preparing the draft Master Plan for the monument. DSC Manager Glenn O. Hendrix informed Midwest Regional Director Merrill D. Beal:

Such a relocation is, in our opinion, very desirable and, indeed, imperative if we are to abide by our mandate to preserve and restore historic resources of the National Park System. In the case of Scotts Bluff, the present complex sits squarely in the heart of the historic scene; while it is extremely well done architecturally, it visually blights the once pristine prairie scene. [3]

Beal responded:

Except for the physical presence of the structure on the historic site, we do not believe the visitor center is a serious visual intrusion. However, the housing, maintenance area, and visitor center are poorly located in terms of resources, principally the Oregon Trail.

We agree in principle that as a long-term objective, removal of the visitor center to a less intrusive site is desirable. However, the present structure will, with proper maintenance, serve the needs of the public and the park for a very long period; it is difficult to envision making the expenditures for a new visitor center when funds are short for the preservation of historic and natural resources throughout the System, and when there are several parks with little or no accommodations for visitors.

Accordingly, we suggest that the master plan endorse the concept of relocating the visitor center and other developments in the distant future. But the plan should stress the fact that the present complex is serviceable and that new structures should be built only when the following condition prevails: that the present structures have lived beyond their normal life under appropriate maintenance, to the point where expensive major rehabilitation would be necessary. [4]

Another point of contention over the visitor center and the 1976 Master Plan involved the Harpers Ferry Center (HFC) and its assertion that the interpretive facility needed an auditorium. Because the administrative office space was inadequate, HFC recommended an addition to the building. [5] The recommendation was not incorporated into the plan, indicating its rejection by the Midwest Regional Director.

Administrative offices occupy a quarter of the main floor of the visitor center and the entirety of the basement level. The Oregon Trail Museum is the only visitor attraction within the NPS facility. Its many exhibits focus on the history of the Oregon Trail. The geology, paleontology, and natural history of the monument are represented in the exhibits as a secondary topic which reinforces the primary theme of the American westward expansion.

The largest artifact collection deposited at Scotts Bluff was loaned in 1963 to the Park Service. Mrs. Margaret Cook, the widow of Dr. Harold J. Cook, the renowned paleontologist-geologist and former Scotts Bluff Custodian, loaned the "Cook Collection" to the NPS. The Cook Collection comprises of an extensive array of well-preserved Indian artifacts, scientific books, documents, fossils, and numerous personal items. Terms of the loan agreement specified that the collection be stored at Scotts Bluff until the future establishment of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument (Agate Springs, Nebraska). [6] When Mrs. Cook died in 1968, the settlement of the Cook estate transferred ownership of the valuable collection along with thousands of other objects to the National Park Service.

Another donation of historical material is the William Henry Jackson Collection, roughly 1200 sketches, photographs, watercolors, and personal memorabilia. The significance of Jackson's work as a pioneer illustrator of the Old West extends far beyond Scotts Bluff. His photographs and sketches give a realistic picture of the westward migration over the Oregon Trail. Jackson's work was instrumental in the establishment of the nation's first national park, Yellowstone. The centerpiece of the collection is 60 watercolors done in the 1930s, three albums of 200 pencil sketches and 500 photographs, and several glass plate negatives representing the first use of dry gelatin (1881). In the early 1980s, the rare items were sent to the Division of Museum Services Laboratory at harpers Ferry Center for conservation treatment. [7]

The Scotts Bluff Collection is the third major grouping of curatorial material at the monument. Many of the items date to the 1860s. A large segment of the collection is paleontological while many items are artifacts which were found along the Oregon Trail and associated sites such as Robidoux Pass. Many of the valuable items were collected by Custodian Merrill J. Mattes for the original museum exhibits dedicated by William Henry Jackson in 1936. Artifacts from two nearby trading posts of the overland migration period, the Robidoux site in Robidoux Pass and the American Fur Company site in Helvas Canyon, were donated by T.L. Green of Scottsbluff.

Four hundred prime artifacts are displayed while 8,000 other objects in the collection received very little conservation treatment and, therefore, continued to deteriorate. [8] Improved storage facilities have helped to slow this natural process. In 1979, the vault in the visitor center basement was doubled in size to accommodate the Scotts Bluff and Jackson Collections, and the ethnographic portion of the Cook Collection. In addition, the Quonset curatorial storage facility was altered to include new decking, an environmental control system, and the erection of steel shelving. With these innovations, approximately 5,000 artifacts were placed under proper environmental controls for the first time. [9]

Within the museum itself, the exhibits are carefully checked to maintain a safe range of humidity and light readings to reduce any danger of damage to the objects. [10] Photographic reproduction of the Jackson paintings began in 1980 as a local studio was contracted to photograph the watercolors and prints on location without risking potential damage in shipping and handling the historic materials to HFC. [11] The photographs are so true to nature that it is a rare visitor who is able to detect that the glass-covered Jackson "paintings" are actually clever photographs. The paintings are kept in the vault or safe for their protection. Exhibit rehabilitation continued in 1981 as photographs in the Scotts Bluff Collection were reproduced and faded exhibit panels were repainted. [12]

A wide selection of research material is available to the visitor or scholar through the Scotts Bluff National Monument Library which is owned by the National Park Service. The cooperating association, the Oregon Trail Museum Association (OTMA), (formed in 1956 and incorporated in 1959 as a nonprofit organization to assist the NPS interpretive program at Scotts Bluff), has donated many items to the library. The library contains approximately 1,000 volumes and features a collection of photographs. The OTMA. also sells various publications, postcards, color slides, posters, and other materials in the visitor center lobby. [13]

The major foot trail at the monument is the Saddle Rock Trail. It meanders from the visitor center to the summit of Scotts Bluff. There it joins the Summit Trail System which includes trails to the North and South Overlooks. Another trail stretches from the visitor center to the Jackson, or Pioneer, Campsite. This trail for 200 yards follows the Oregon Trail and visitors are exposed to historic ruts and interpretive signs. A Bicycle Trail, completed in the late 1960s, parallels Highway 92 and joins with a similar trail at the monument boundary constructed by the city of Gering. The last trail is the Badlands Environmental Study Area Trail. It passes through the badlands area on the south bank of the North Platte, but is presently not maintained for visitor use. A total of four miles of trails are featured within the authorized boundaries.


The interpretive effort at Scotts Bluff centers on the historical development of the United States and the effects of natural forces. The role of Scotts Bluff as a landmark along the corridor of America's westward expansion is the primary focus while a secondary theme of geology, paleontology, and natural history is presented only to reinforce the primary theme. The principal objective of the interpretive program, according to the 1976 Master Plan, is

. . . to allow visitors to come away from the monument with a richer understanding of this segment of our nation's history. They should be able to experience the historic natural environment and at the same time have access to interpretive developments that help to explain the total atmosphere of the monument area during this period. Structured activities and facilities will be kept to the minimum necessary to provide protection for the visitors and the resource without interferring with the visitors' assimilation of the monument's values. [14]

Three Scotts Bluff Interpretive Plans were compiled between 1957 and 1963. Volume one is titled Museum Prospectus for Prehistory [Landmark] Room, Oregon Trail Museum, by Edwin C. Alberts, Regional Naturalist; Merrill J. Mattes, Regional Historian; and Eli D. Potts, Historian (1957). Volume two is the Exhibit Plan, by Coyt H. Hackett (1960). It recommends revisions on History Room exhibits. Sign and Wayside Exhibit Planning Report (1963) by Edwin C. Alberts is the final volume of the Scotts Bluff Interpretive Plans. All three studies establish the basic framework of the monument's interpretive program. An updated Interpretive Prospectus was prepared in 1978.

As with most National Park Service units, interpretation at Scotts Bluff has changed over the past two decades in response to policy shifts, availability of new interpretive media, and economic constraints of park budgets. The basic objectives of the monument's interpretive program remain: to provide visitors with an understanding and appreciation for the historical impact which the bluffs had as a landmark during the period of westward expansion.

The Oregon Trail Museum remains relatively unchanged and interpretive displays are the focus of many visitors' interest. Recent years have seen periodic displays of special exhibits coordinated through Harpers Ferry Center as well as displays organized with the park's own resources. In 1983, the monument coordinated a special exhibit of seldom seen works by William Henry Jackson in conjunction with a local Great Plains Festival. Also in 1983, a full-size Mormon handcart replica was added to the museum for permanent display. Currently, the park has a 12 and a half minute narrated slide program which orients visitors to the emigrant experience of traveling the Great Platte River Road.

The summit area and Saddle Rock Trail are still popular attractions for park visitors. In the mid-1960s, a self-guiding trail guide was published for the Saddle Rock Trail. Those markers have since been removed and an updated self guiding trail guide was compiled for the Summit Trail System. Wayside exhibits remain in place on the summit area as well as in several other locations throughout the park. A new Wayside Exhibit Plan which will alter several of the parks' exhibits was approved in 1983.

Ranger-led interpretive services continue to present programming challenges for the park staff. Park visitation is transient with the majority of visitors spending approximately one to two hours. Scheduling formal interpretive walks along the Oregon Trail result in sporadic success because of the difficulties in predicting visitation densities at any one time, even during the busy summer season. In addition, scheduled evening programs have limited success, due in part to the lack of overnight facilities within the park. Another challenge is the large proportion of repeat visitation which occurs, especially in the off-season.

To deal with these challenges, the park initiated and refined various interpretive services designed to maximize the number of personal contacts. One of these involves roving interpretation, particularly in the Summit Trail and Overlook areas. Aside from interpreting basic park themes, rangers use the opportunity to advance safety and resources management themes.

Beginning in the early 1980s, the cooperating association has sponsored an evening summer film series. Presenting a variety of topics relating to the themes of western and natural history, it is a popular attraction for the surrounding community. [15]

An innovative chapter in park interpretation which continues to the present began on June 19, 1971, when the first living history demonstration was held at Scotts Bluff. Conducted by costumed Volunteers In Parks (VIPs) and rangers, the demonstrators recreate a pioneer campsite where a typical evening meal is made, a wagon wheel is repaired, and other daily chores are performed. The OTMA purchased the costumes and props. During the first summer of the program, the living history demonstrations were held on Saturdays and Sundays between five and eight in the evenings. [16] The living history program is now the mainstay of the summer interpretive programs as well as in special events during holiday seasons.

Coincident with the accelerating environmental movement in the United States during the late 1960s, an Environmental Study Program was established at the monument in March 1969. The program conformed to the National Environmental Education Development (NEED) program which focuses the curriculum of environmental studies to encompass kindergarten through grade 12. The Environmental Study Area (ESA) at Scotts Bluff is called "River-Badlands Environmental Study Area" and totals 231 acres on the south bank of the North Platte. A trail with numbered interpretive markers (no longer maintained) snakes through the riverbottom flood plain where students can view the ecological intricacies of the badlands and the myriad silt deposits sliced by intermittent streams. The ESA is in an undeveloped area and is naturally marred only by an occasional deer trail.

The purpose of the ESA is to study nature, man's relationship to it, and how he can preserve, coexist with, and influence it. A teacher's manual compiled by the monument's staff discusses such concerns as the physical control of erosion through the use of water bars, identifying the native flora and fauna, and how a normally intrusive pit toilet was cleverly concealed in the trees with a marked trail. A critique area was built with a semicircle of log seats behind the elevated planks designed for holding writing materials. A log podium for the lecturer faced the outdoor classroom. [17]

The success of the River-Badlands ESA depended solely on the response of local school districts. The initial response was termed "excellent" by Superintendent Homer L. Rouse who reported that 772 students visited the ESA during the 1969-70 school year. Rouse observed:

The greatest problem arises with the teachers themselves. Most of them are grossly lacking in knowledge concerning interrelationships between man and his total environment. We do find the younger teachers responsive and eager to learn. Hopefully, our colleges and universities will require future educators to have some basic knowledge of these concepts.

Rouse added that the aim of the Environmental Study Program was for NPS employees to take the teacher and class through the ESA on the first trip and then the teacher would be capable of conducting the interpretive tour on the second trip. It soon became evident, however, that instructors other than natural science teachers needed more guidance. The students seemed genuinely receptive and, as long as the schools maintained an active interest in the program, the NPS would continue to assist "as long as we have the personnel and resources to do so." [18]

In a memorandum to the Regional Director, Rouse explained the drain on manpower and time required to guide a class or school through the area, and added:

We also noted that our trail is too long and contains too many stops. This keeps the class on the move, is tiring to older teachers, and does not leave enough time for group discussions. We plan to shorten the one trail and reduce the number of stops in it. This will afford more time at each stop. An additional new trail will provide diversity for classes visiting the area for the second time. [19]

Environmental awareness waned in the area during the early 1970s. In his annual report, Superintendent Don Harper stated that "use of the environmental study area was almost nonexistent. The cost of maintenance greatly exceeds the use benefit factor of this area." [20] On November 22, 1976, it was reported that the ESA at Scotts Bluff "has been discontinued due to non-participation by the local school systems." [21] The initial enthusiasm for the program was spent and the NPS had no other choice but to close the ESA Trail after eight years of use. Subsequent proposals for use of the ESA include incorporating it into the living history and evening programs and for special tours. [22]

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Last Updated: 19-Jan-2003