Scotts Bluff
Administrative History
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Nearby Historical Areas


On June 5, 1965, the 89th Congress approved a bill to "provide for the establishment of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in the State of Nebraska." Public Law 89-33 was first submitted to the First Session of the 88th Congress by sponsors Senator Roman L. Hruska and Representative Dave Martin of Nebraska. The Act of June 5, 1965, stipulates that no more than 3,150 acres may be acquired with an acquisition ceiling of $301,150. According to the legislation, the purpose of the monument is

. . . to preserve for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations the outstanding and paleontological sites known as Agate Springs Fossil Quarries and nearby related geological phenomena, to provide a center of continuing paleontological research and for the display and interpretation of the scientific specimins uncovered at such sites, and to facilitate the protection and exhibition of a valuable collection of Indian artifacts and relics. . . .

The monument is a 30-minute drive via Nebraska 29 from U.S. 20 at Harrison (20 miles north) or from U.S. 26 at Mitchell (34 miles south). The communities of Gering-Scottsbluff, Alliance, and Chadron, Nebraska, are all within a two-hour drive of the monument. Large Miocene fossil deposits are presented in three prominent buttes south of the Niobrara River: Carnegie Hill, University Hill, and Amherst Point. The mammalian remains, which date more than 20 million years old, have been described as "the most significant discovery (of its kind) ever to be found anywhere on the face of the earth." [1] While excavations began 80 years ago, scientists estimate that more than three-quarters of the fossil-bearing layer remains within the two principal hills.

The secondary significance of the monument involves the late owner of the Agate Springs Ranch, Captain James H. Cook, who was the first Euro-American to discover fossil bones there in 1878. Cook was respected by the Sioux Indians and was a friend of the famous Chief Red Cloud. Cook and his son, Harold, made Agate Springs Ranch not only a friendly outpost for the Indians, but a headquarters for paleontologists. The famous Cook Collection of native American artifacts and prehistoric fossils will eventually be on display at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. Currently, the collection remains in protective storage at Scotts Bluff National Monument until permanent onsite facilities are constructed. The Superintendent of Scotts Bluff National Monument has direct responsibility for the collection. [2]

Because the new national monument is only 40 miles north of another NPS area, the administrative authority over Agate Fossil Beds was assigned to the Superintendent of Scotts Bluff National Monument. The first superintendent to administer the two parks jointly was Richard L. Holder. This administrative dichotomy presents special demands on the superintendent's time and attention, but each Scotts Bluff-Agate Fossil Beds Superintendent has administered the two monuments' staffs very well. A ranger-in-charge is onsite to administer the daily operation of Agate Fossil Beds. In addition, a maintenance worker, park ranger, seasonal park ranger, and seasonal laborer complete the onsite staff, while the clerk-stenographer remains with the superintendent at Scotts Bluff. (The clerk-stenographer was formally transferred to Scotts Bluff in 1983).

For in-depth information regarding the history, establishment, and development of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, the reader is urged to consult the administrative history which will be prepared on Agate Fossil Beds in 1984.


The Secretary of the Interior designated Chimney Rock, Nebraska, a National Historic Site on August 9, 1956. While the State of Nebraska owns the 83-acre grounds, the Nebraska State Historical Society, National Park Service, and the City of Bayard, Nebraska, have joint administrative control according to a June 5, 1956, Memorandum of Agreement. Chimney Rock is under the administration of the Nebraska State Historical Society, while the Scotts Bluff Superintendent serves as the local NPS representative stationed 23 miles west of the national historic site. The agreement also provides that the NPS erect historical markers, publish informational literature, give technical assistance and advice, and provide funding "within limits of available appropriations." Markers have been erected and interpretive leaflets published by the NPS. Park Service interpretation is nonexistent at the site, but the NSHS maintains a mobile trailer containing exhibits at the roadside stop on Nebraska 92 from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The Oregon Trail Museum at Scotts Bluff includes the story of Chimney Rock in its exhibits. [3]

A Professional Service Proposal in the early 1970s called for the incorporation of nearby Robidoux Pass and Chimney Rock into Scotts Bluff National Monument. The proposal suggested that since all three areas possessed the same historical significance and were interdependent, they should be combined and administered as one unit. In February 1971, Midwest Regional Director Merrill Beal, reporting on the results of a feasibility study, revealed that the Professional Services Proposal was cancelled and the two peripheral sites would not be incorporated into Scotts Bluff National Monument "at this time." No specific reason was given, [4] but the proposal was vetoed at the Washington level.

In 1978, Congress designated the route of the Oregon Trail a "National Historic Trail," and since then the NPS has worked with government agencies and private landowners to preserve the remnants of the trail and open these areas to public access. [5]

For many years the possibility of establishing a "Trails West National Park" has garnered intense interest. In a September 1978 meeting between Superintendent Burns, Congressman Keith G. Sebelius (member of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on National Parks and Insular Affairs), and Congresswoman Virginia Smith, the proposed national park was discussed. Representative Sebelius stated that the concept of a Trails West National Park "is a very good proposal," while Representative Smith believed that if Fort Laramie National Historic Site was eliminated from the proposal, the new NPS entity stood "a good chance of passage." Removing Fort Laramie from the proposal was considered crucial for passage because the Wyoming Congressional Delegation was convinced that a change in the status of Fort Laramie would result in a loss of State control. In fact, the NPS designation of Fort Laramie was changed from a national monument in the early 1960s to a national historic site to allow for increased involvement by the State of Wyoming. [6]

Public comparison of Fort Laramie and Chimney Rock, particularly the latter, with Scotts Bluff in 1960 resulted in near-unanimous opposition to legislation to change the designation of Scotts Bluff National Monument. The bill, which primarily was designed to revise the boundaries to follow logical, geographic features, also included a provision to designate Scotts Bluff a "national historic site." The public feared that any such change would "downgrade" the importance of Scotts Bluff and result in it being transformed into "another Chimney Rock" where the NPS presence and involvement was minimal. In a May 2, 1960, memorandum from Midwest Regional Director Baker, the Service's long-range goal of classifying "only outstanding historic sites, buildings, or objects as National Historic Sites" was explained. Baker added:

The classification of National Monument would be used for nationally significant landmarks, structures, objects, or areas of scientific or prehistoric interest designated by the Government for preservation and public use.

The main purpose for the change in classification is to eliminate the confusion that has developed on the part of the public through the classification of outstanding historic sites as National Monuments. The change does not imply downgrading. In fact, it should go a long way towards giving proper recognition to the true values of a historic site.

It is, of course, understandable why the local people might interpret the change as downgrading with Chimney Rock National Historic Site nearby. However, it seems to us that you should explain it on the basis of the above justification without comparing it to the Chimney Rock situation. [7]

Attempts to quell public opposition to the name change, which threatened the legislation and its provisions to alter the boundaries, failed. Two weeks later Regional Director Baker informed the Director:

We believe this opposition to the name change stems from the fact that, to most of the people living within the sight of Scotts Bluff, its significance as a physiographic landmark of considerable scenic beauty far outweighs its officially recognized significance as an historic landmark associated with the Overland Migrations. In view of this situation, we do not believe that the favorably received boundary change should be jeopardized by insisting on the name change.

Baker recommended that the name change clause be removed. [8] His recommendation was followed, and on June 30, 1961, Congress approved Public Law 87-68 which altered the boundaries of Scotts Bluff National Monument by adding 210 new acres and deleting 350 Government-owned acres.

The administrative relationship between Scotts Bluff and Fort Laramie has always been close. Former Scotts Bluff Custodian Merrill J. Mattes was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the establishment of Fort Laramie National Monument. After its incorporation into the National Park Service in 1938, Mattes served as "Acting Custodian" and supervised the first CCC camp there under the direction of G. Hubert Smith. In 1941, Mattes was also appointed the Fort Laramie historian to begin research on the important military post. Until 1946, both areas, plus Devil's Tower and Dinosaur National Monuments, were under the superintendency of David Canfield of Rocky Mountain National Park. [9]

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Last Updated: 19-Jan-2003