Rock Creek Station

Location and owner/manager:

Jefferson County, Nebraska northeast of Endicott. Nebraska Game & Parks.

From the north at Interstate 80 exit 379: Go south on Highway 15 fifty-four miles to the PWF Road (just beyond Fairbury) and turn left. (The turnoff is near where Highway 8 breaks off to the southeast and is easy to miss). Go east on the PWF Road four and one half miles to 573rd Avenue and turn right. Go south on 573rd Avenue one mile to 710th Road and turn left. Go east one and one quarter of a mile to where the pavement turns to gravel and turn right into the Visitor Center entrance. During the off season the gate may be open during daylight hours but the visitor center otherwise unattended. The historic park is open and attended during daylight hours late spring through early fall. The State Recreation Area is open year round.

Free. Camping (in the State Recreation Area). Pets on leash.

Rock Creek Station is two separate parks within one overall unit with prairie remnants of different character in each. The smaller historical park is staffed during the warmer months only and preserves the history associated with Rock Creek Station. There is a footpath along a restored prairie in one section of this park (near the West Ranch) with excellent signage describing the various prairie plants here. The larger park is a state recreation area and encompasses a rugged area with numerous ravines. The bottomland tends to be wooded while the hilltops have extensive native grassland.

At this point I should mention that there is some western lore associated with an incident at Rock Creek Station that is possibly more compelling than the botany here. Let’s talk about that first.

The background to this incident is relatively unexciting. Rock Creek Station was set up in 1857 as a small ranch supplying goods and services to the stage traffic on the Overland Trail. It was located on the west side of Rock Creek in southeastern Nebraska. Eroded gullies with sheer drops such as Rock Creek often presented more problems for horse driven stages than broad shallow rivers such as the Platte. In 1859 David McCanles was on his way to the Colorado goldfields – which at that time consisted of some relatively modest placer deposits at Chicago Creek west of present day Denver - and encountering hard luck stories from returning prospectors decided to buy the Rock Creek Station business instead. He then built another cabin on the east side of Rock Creek followed by a toll bridge across the creek itself connecting the two modest ranches on his property.

Rock Creek Station offered its services as a small wayside inn. Not all were charmed who passed through its doors however. Sir Richard Burton - the eminent Victorian explorer and translator of the Arabian Nights – stayed at Rock Creek Station on August 8, 1860 and had this to say about it: ‘…. Upon the bedded floor of this foul ‘doggery’ lay in a seemingly promiscuous heap, men, women, children, lambs, and puppies, all fast in the arms of Morpheus, and many under the influence of a much jollier god. The employes, when aroused pretty roughly, blinked their eyes in the atmosphere of smoke and mosquitoes, and declared that it had been ‘merry in hall’ that night – the effects of which merriment had not passed off. After half an hour’s dispute about who should do the work, they produced cold scraps of mutton and a kind of bread which deserves a totally distinct generic name. The strongest stomachs of the party made tea, and found milk which was not more than one quarter flies. The succulent meal was followed by the usual douceur.’ Sir Richard Burton summed up Rock Creek Station in his City of the Saints as the ‘ne plus ultra of western discomfort’ when describing another station further up the trail in Wyoming.

In 1861 David McCanles sold on installment the East Ranch to the owners of the Overland Stage Company and Pony Express who provided their own staff. One of these individuals was a stable hand by the name of James Butler Hickok.

In the summer of 1861 the company fell behind on its installment payments. The company agent at Rock Creek Station – Horace Wellman – and David McCanles’s twelve year old son – Monroe McCanles – made a trip to nearby Brownville for cash and supplies. On the way back Monroe stopped to meet his father at a nearby ranch while Wellman returned to the East Ranch at Rock Creek Station. Monroe and his father along with two hired men then went to the East Ranch to inquire about payments. A key point to the story here is that they were unarmed McCanles having lent his rifle to the station for its defense.

At the front doorway to the house McCanles was confronted by Wellman’s common law wife and Hickok who refused to allow him to enter. McCanles then went around to a side door and as he entered it he was shot through a curtain at an angle by Hickok using McCanles’ own rifle. Hickok then shot and wounded the two unarmed hired men who were then tracked down and killed though the details are somewhat sketchy. Young Monroe McCanles fled into a ravine.

At a subsequent trial all of the defendants were acquitted of murder on grounds of self-defense. Monroe McCanles was not allowed to testify due to his age.

There are more fanciful versions of this story but most trace back to questionable secondary sources in the contemporary popular press. One of these accounts contends that David McCanles prior to his shooting death had been in the habit of taunting Hickok concerning the unusual shape of the latter’s nose. McCanles in this account refers to it as akin to a duck bill. In any case ‘Duck Bill’ Hickok would become better known as the gunslinger ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok. 'Wild Bill' would later meet a Hollywood western style shooting demise while playing poker in Deadwood, South Dakota – shot from behind holding aces and eights. The McCanles family appears to have simply suffered and dispersed.

Now back to the botany. There are close to four hundred (mostly prairie) plants at Rock Creek Station. This is really a wonderful publicly accessible prairie. From the visitor center there is a quarter mile down slope trail to the historical properties that is bordered by a long prairie garden that identifies almost all of the local prairie grasses and many forbs. Beyond on the east side of Rock Creek the trails fan out into hundreds of acres of hilly prairie. There is a long looping equestrian trail here and leashed pets are also permitted.

Finally, it should be mentioned that a few miles southwest is the Rose Creek Quarry that yielded what was once a contender for the oldest complete fossil example of a flower. Records are made to be broken and older flowering plant fossils have since been found elsewhere (notably Archaefructus sinensis from northeast China and the Koonwarra Flower of Australia ). However this fossil (from the mid-Cretaceous) remains the oldest fossil of a flower with all major parts intact that looks something like a modern flower. The ‘Rose Creek Flower’ is now on display at Morrill Hall in Lincoln. It has five petals and to my undiscriminating eye the size and shape of a prairie rose. However this plant apparently was not a rose. The first flowers are now thought to have been pollinated primarily by such terrestrial insects as beetles and ants. Birds and more specialized flying insects apparently evolved later as did most roses with all of their bright colors and distinctive fragrance. The ‘Rose Creek Flower’ was not a rose by another name nor most likely did it smell as sweet.