Happy Jack Chalk Mine and Peak and St. Paul
On the Bucket List
Something I have seen advertised as a central Nebraska attraction that I have been wanting to visit for some time is the Happy Jack Chalk Mine and Peak, near Scotia, Nebraska. Today we planned a Sunday afternoon trip to go.
The sandhills scenery heading north to the mine were beautiful with random windmills, rolling hills and streams, cattle and sheep, and even some interesting shaped bluffs that looked like mushrooms that I regret not getting pictures of. Nebraska is NOT flat. I guess it could be considered a bit monotonous after a while, but it is very peaceful and serene. We did see some roads that were not marked “minimum maintenance” that definitely looked like they should be — previously gravel, now a muddy mess. Our suspicion is that the flooding that affected much of Nebraska this year caused damage.
All at once, on the side of the highway, you see a sign for the mine. We pulled into a nearly empty roadside parking area. It took us a half a minute to locate the path that actually led down to the mine. The little clearing in the valley was quite pretty. There was handicap access to drive down closer for those who needed it. There was a pretty area with plants, a wishing well and benches next to a cute little wood cabin where the entrance to the mine was located. Up some (muddy) stairs as a trail and path and alongside it was a bird feeding area and a little play house. The playhouse was adorable but only had an old chair inside. The ladies told us that they were looking for small furniture to put inside. I would suggest plastic! It was pretty dirty but if kept up better would be a fun area for children.
Going inside the cabin was a bit disappointing. Although there were some (a bit faded) displays on the wall of newspaper clippings, history of the area including prehistoric history, a map of where visitors had come from (all over the world!), posters from research studies done in the mine, and a check- in area, it was crowded with personal items of the staff. I don’t begrudge the volunteers their arm chair (although it could have been tucked away better in a corner instead of nearly the middle of the room) or their office space, but I did begrudge them the giant ashtray filled with cigarette butts! That was the most negative thing about this experience. The moment we got close to the cabin the smell of smoke washed over us. One of the volunteers who guided the tours had a lit cigarette in her hand. Although I certainly appreciate volunteer efforts (I think they were volunteers and not paid), it’s just not cool to expose visitors, especially those with young children, to smoke in an enclosed space. I would imagine it isn’t great for the mine preservation either! There were pros and cons to this being privately managed, and this was definitely one of the cons. This is a major deterrent for many visitors and the value of a volunteer has to be weighed against how many people are unwilling to visit because they don’t want to breathe an ashtray. Plus, it’s just unkind and inconsiderate to do this in a place where visitors are invited.
There was a door marked “employees only” that we were then offered when we mentioned we needed a bathroom. The bathroom was very cluttered with things like couch cushions. Later we noticed that there were two out-houses outside but the women’s was marked to encourage visitors to go inside. I would think it would be appropriate to tidy up this bathroom a bit, perhaps store excess items in some sort of shed next to the cabin, and to appropriately mark it as a public restroom. It is sort of “in the middle of no-where” and people arriving likely do need to use a restroom.
A positive though, was that we were able to take a tour right away. With two tour guides, one was able to take our family through and then take the family that came shortly after us through a bit later. I was very grateful that they were willing to finish stamping our passport books while we were in the mine and even pay after we got out so we could go ahead and get started. I had not realized that they did not take credit/debit cards so we were very grateful that they were willing to take a check since we didn’t have cash with us! This was a Nebraska passport stop (bonus!) but it was on my “list” previously, so I guess we lucked out that we were able to make the trip the year it was a passport stop.
The first tour guide did not know the history as well, so she instructed us to go back to the first tour guide for the history later. The mine itself was neat but it was sad that it had been damaged. A private group of 4 men, we were told, had bought the mine from the state of Nebraska to restore it. We had watched a little video on their website before we went with music that badly needed updated (my husband commented – “the 1980’s called and wants their clarinet back”) but it explained that the project was still being renovated and stressed that donations were needed because they got no state or federal funding. That was made clear with our visit.
The area was a former chalk mine. Millions of years ago the land was filled with a shallow sea. A volcanic eruption from Yellowstone filled the area. The chalk had been formed from the waste of sea creatures. We were also told that there were no fossils in the area since chalk destroys fossilized bone. There were some imprints from animals though, along the walls. Chalk miners harvested chalk privately. The area was taken over by the state who decided they didn’t want it and sold it locally, to those wanting to preserve the area.
The entrance to the mine was well done and the mine was well lighted. One difference from it and a recent cave we visited in South Dakota was that the “rooms” were large and the ceiling quite high, so it felt less claustrophobic. We were taken into several different sections but although there are apparently 6000 feet of mine, we only were able to see a few hundred. The rest may be restored at some time.
Sadly, there was graffiti on the walls in some areas. Apparently, teens have gotten into the cave through other entrances and left the graffiti. They have tried to remove some but it ruins the walls. There was construction trash left in some areas. Hopefully that will be removed someday. Apparently the owners also keep some personal items in the mine since it’s a big “cooler.”
Some of the local history is interesting. There were a couple remnants of Halloween parties done, likely in fairly recent times, including a fake skeleton hand sticking out of the wall. We were told this local exhibit around Halloween time was banned by the fire marshall. Another example of the private ownership. This sort of thing would probably not happen in a public historic site. We were taken into a large “room” called the “Ballroom.” In the 1940’s local residents would have dances in the cool underground area pre-air conditioning. They would even have a band along one side!
We saw one bat along the top of the cave – so this may not be your place if you don’t like bats! Our boys, however, were thrilled. Apparently there were more bats deeper into the mines.
There were also places pointed out to us where you could see the outline of a sand-dollar, a star-fish and the indentation of two giant sea-worms from prehistoric times.
One of the coolest things about this place was that each of our children were able to take a piece of chalk as a souvenir. I am sure that wouldn’t have happened in a government-run facility and so definitely a perk of it being privately owned.
When we returned after our later hike, the first tour guide was able to tell us the history of the preservation of the mine and the prehistoric history. This is the only chalk mine that can be visited as others are “open pit.”
The stop was appropriately called “Happy Jack Chalk Mine and Peak”. The “peak” on top of the chalk mine was equally impressive. We walked down toward the playhouse and bird feeding area to cross the wooden bridge to stairs leading toward the massive hill. The steps were carved with names of who I assume were donors to the project.
The path up the hill was muddy and slick as there were recent rains. We tried to walk along the grass. Unfortunately, my children are in much better shape that I am and it was hard to keep up! Steep is an understatement! However, the view at the top was worth it!
At the top of the peak we found a bench mark noting that the “peak” was 1116 feet above sea level. There was a bench (a bit muddy) and a cross with lights running along it that we assume might be lit up at night with power lines running to it.
The view was spectacular! You could see farm-scapes all around, the highway and the sign for Happy Jack far below, the town of Scotia off to the east and a beautiful view of the North Loop River. It was quite full after our abnormal amount of spring and summer rain and a very snowy winter. After convincing our boys to enjoy the view for a while, we headed back down.
The path down the other side did have wooden stairs, but they were not very well cared for and very muddy so felt very treacherous. My husband nearly slipped down in one spot. As we reached the bottom, there was a railing (thank goodness!) Again, though, it was a very pretty view going down.
There were paths going up the hill on the other side of the valley. We were too tired to climb another large hill with even muddier and steeper looking trails. The hill was not as high or spectacular looking either.
It struck me that either state or federal resources could have made this a truly beautiful historic and scenic visitor site and I think it is a lost opportunity. There are many other state parks, campsites and historical areas that were not nearly as worthy that receive state or federal funding. With better funding and support, there could be a real visitor center with nicely displayed history, better facilities (like restrooms) and better restoration of the mine. A playground could be added and more picnic areas with tables and shelters as it truly is a beautiful area. It would be a lovely place to camp. The stairs to the peak could be maintained better and more could be added, or railings, including more benches and a picnic area on top of the peak. I do realize that some cool perks like “when you arrive tours” and getting to take home chalk to keep would probably not happen anymore.
St. Paul, NE
After leaving the chalk mine, we had wanted to drop south to visit Loup River Distilling in St. Paul – a Passport stop. However, we learned, with disappointment, that it was closed on Sunday. It is a distillery in Nebraska, on a Sunday, so we should have expected that, but still a bummer.
We did drive through St. Paul to check it out. It looked like a nice place and peering through the window displayed a nice bar and many tables. The Passport program noted that tours of the distilling facilities were available. Alas – something fun for another day.
However, we were very impressed with the town of St. Paul. At just over 1000 population, it was a clean, cute little town with a nice-looking main street. There was a swimming pool and a well-kept park. We let our boys play for a while. I was also quite impressed with the park bathrooms, which I think are the cleanest park bathrooms I have ever seen! Each the mens and women’s bathrooms had changing tables and there was a number on the door to call if there were facility problems.
The Howard County Courthouse was on our way out of town – a nice building with war memorials. Across the street from the park was the Howard County Historical Village – with neat 1800’s style buildings, an old prairie wagon and remnants of railroad cars. Our boys were tired by this point but it looks to be a fun stop if we are back in the area!