BAYARD — Nighttime drivers along Highways 92 or 26 will be noticing an even brighter landmark in the distance. It’s Chimney Rock, just south of Bayard.
Since modern floodlights were first installed at the historic site in the early 1980s, travelers could see the luminous spire as they passed along the route that was once the Oregon Trail.
Now with the installation of brighter LED lighting, the site stands out even more. Travelers have reported they could see the familiar outline of Chimney Rock from Minatare, 10 miles to the west on Highway 92, and from the Scotts Bluff/Morrill County line, northwest of the site on Highway 26.
The project to improve the lighting started in November when Bayard City Clerk Nate Heffron began soliciting support to complete the work. Within 60 days, the entire $12,160 cost had been covered.
“I knew it would be cost prohibitive to just replace the existing lighting,” Heffron said. “When I started asking folks about supporting this project, I had all of the pledges we needed within a month.”
Contributors included Western States Bank, Morrill County Tourism Board, Scotts Bluff Area Visitors Bureau and the Oregon Trail Community Foundation. A large number of donations from private citizens also came in from the community, including people who used to live in the Bayard area.
With funding in place, the City of Bayard purchased four new LED light fixtures to replace the old floodlights. Colored lenses can also be used with the lights to observe special holidays, such as adding red and blue for Independence Day or red and green for Christmas.
Heffron said the project itself went pretty fast. The longest wait was for the weather to improve so city crews could install the new lighting. Finishing touches and focusing the lights were completed on May 8.
“Chimney Rock is something that will draw people back to western Nebraska,” Heffron said. “It will be a part of their lasting memory. It’s a great rallying point for people in the valley as part of our culture and home.”
Bayard Mayor Michelle Coolidge and her husband, Dan, also noticed the more brightly lit landmark as they returned home from Scottsbluff.
“We turned south onto Highway 92 at Minatare to see what the lights were like,” she said. “We could see Chimney Rock from there. It’s been a long time since people have been able to see the rock that far away. It reminded me of when the rock was first lit up when I was in grade school. It was exciting and I felt that all over again.”
After posting pictures on Facebook, Coolidge started getting calls and comments from people who liked the new lighting. She thanked Utilities Superintendent Dan Coolidge and his crew of Mitch Carpenter, Kevin Fowlkes and James Assay for all the heavy lifting involved in getting the lights set up. She was also grateful to Chimney Rock Public Power District for the use of some equipment to make it possible.
“I know this sounds cheesy, but the new lighting brings home a reminder of the pioneers who first traveled through the area on their way west,” she said. “They were looking for that monument as a sign of where they were on their journey. It’s still a marker for our region and should be something to be proud of.”