College professor: Chimney Rock reduced in height by artillery. Bullshit?

I’m currently taking a Survey of American History class, this term focusing on the mid-19th century.

During a discussion of the Oregon Trail, our history professor mentioned that Chimney Rock is approx. 100 feet shorter today than it was in the 1840’s and 1850’s. His explanation, that he claims was told to him by a museum curator when he visited the monument years ago, was:

During WWI the Nebraska National Guard was performing field exercises nearby, which involved target practicing with some sort of Howitzer or other artillery piece. Spotting Chimney Rock in the distance, the guardsmen decided that the spire made a perfect target, and started firing at it instead of whatever their normal target was. After a few rounds hit the tip, causing it to crumble, the guys realized their stupidity and resumed firing at their proper target.

Of course the whole class got a big laugh, but I wanted to call bullshit. I’ve been playing with Google and Bing for a while now and can find no mention of this. Seems like such a thing would be prominently mentioned in history books, but I’m not finding anything. All the mentions of height decrease blame erosion and lightning strikes, which a find hard to believe (although one lightning strike, causing some rock to fall off, was apparently caught on camera some years ago, so it’s not all bunk). The rock is less than 500 feet tall and 35 million years old; it would have eroded into a small mound millions of years ago if it eroded at such a fast rate.

So. Was my professor full of shit?

Well, I don’t know about the rest of it, but: when people quote the age of a rock formation like that, they don’t mean that it has literally been a visible landmark standing on the prairie in its present shape for 35 million years, just that the rock that composes it was last chemically formed 35 million years ago. The rock has been twisted and deformed into all kinds of shapes and probably buried under all kinds of things since then, and only been exposed on the surface quite recently.

The actual shape of the rock you see today is probably a very recent event, a few ten thousands of years old at most. Compared to the large mesa that it probably started as, its present shape is a small mound.

If you don’t get a satisfactory answer here you could “ask the curator” at the link at the bottom of this page.

From the “how tall is it” link on that page, the highest pre-WWI estimate mentioned is only 35 ft higher than the current estimates.

Except the original story was claimed to have come from that curator (or someone else in that office), so it would be nice to get a different independent source.

I wonder if anyone really measured it back then. Or if it would have been very accurate. Maybe off by…100 feet or so?

Oops. Missed that.

Even better then if the curator agrees it’s bullshit.

The curator may have the type of reliable cite you’re looking for, so you don’t have to just take his word for it.

My professor couldn’t remember the name of the museum he went to. He said it was housed in an old trailer near the monument, but couldn’t remember more detail. I would assume using a howitzer to decapitate a national monument would be well-known to historians, but I can’t even find a wisp of rumor online.

True enough–when I visited the monument in the early 1990’s, the “visitors center” was a shabby-looking trailer at the site, which I don’t believe was even open at the time of my visit. I see the trailer has since been replaced with the much nicer Abbot Visitor Center. Any exhibits at the trailer would have moved to the visitor center. If you were to write to the visitor center they could probably put you in touch with local (or NPS) historians who could help with your question. At the very least, they could tell you if there were any exhibits on the alleged artillery shelling in the new center.

People have used objects for target practice for centuries. Rural road signs often have bullet holes in them. Napoleon’s troops used the pyramids and Sphinx for target practice. I think the British troops did damage too.

I can easily see some raw WWI troops using Chimney Rock for artillery practice. Most of those guys were what? 18, 19, 20? Proving that it happened might be difficult. I can’t imagine anyone admitting they did it.

Back then, Chimney Rock was just a pile of rocks. It wasn’t some revered monument.

No to Napoleon and no to the British–there is zero evidence that soldiers of either ever used the Sphinx for target practice, and a great deal of evidence that they didn’t. Napoleon in particular brought a team of historians and savants to study and document the monuments of Egypt, and certainly would not have tolerated deliberate destruction.

People DO use monuments for target practice–the true culprit in the case of the Sphinx was the Mamluk Turks of the Middle Ages. But people also tell tall tales about such targeting even when it doesn’t happen.

In the decade before World War I, the legendary Ezra Meeker re-traveled, documented, and drew a great deal of popular attention to the landmarks of the Oregon Trail. That doesn’t prove that soldiers didn’t target Chimney Rock, but by 1917 it was more than “just a pile of rocks”.

This USA Today quotes Nebraskan Gordon Howard:

Um, OK. So I’m not sure how much value I place on that.

Then, too, we have this print of a Nineteenth Century soldier firing at the rock, with the intriguing tidbit that “Some emigrants had heard that frontier soldiers used the rock for artillery practice.”

So it sounds like this is an old tale, unlikely to be proven one way or the other.

That is cool. So at least my college prof wasn’t totally making it up, likely just repeating an urban legend.

Turks were also involved in the incident that caused massive damage to the Parthenon. From Wiki:

The photo of 2012 compared to 1902 shows that it is substantially shorter now. How much is hard to say. How I don’t know.

I really do not know why you think this. It is at most an amusing and/or shocking anecdote, not an event of the least historical significance. It is not likely to have changed the subsequent course of history in any significant way whatsoever, no more, say, than what you had for lunch last Tuesday.

But humanity has been able to use geometry to accurately measure things for centuries.

Which is, for a college level history professor, just like making things up. That is, unless he prefaced his remarks with, “There is a local legend about Chimney Rock that…”

I would think that a history professor would (or should) be more cautious about presenting legend as historical fact.

I just called the Chimney Rock visitor center and they say BS. The troops referenced by the settler didn’t have artillery. The earliest artillery nearby was at Ft. Robinson in the 1920’s, but they had their own range. The Army Air Corps used it as a navigational aide prior to WWII and that’s it. It’s probably been subjected to rifle fire however. Any shortening in height is just wind, rain and natural erosion.

The Buddhas of Bamiyanwere totally destroyed by Taliban, using explosives, and a rocket.