Nebraska is recognized for beef production – number 1 in the United States for cattle in feed lots, 2.49 million cattle
Nebraska is recognized for the Ogallala Aquifer – The largest fresh water aquifer in the world, 3 billion acre feet of water
Nebraska is recognized for their Sandhills – The largest area of sand dunes in the U.S., 19,300 square miles of sand dunes stretching 265 miles across Nebraska
And home of the only underground chalk mine in the world!
The Happy Jack Peak and Chalk Mine at Scotia, NE
Friends and I met at the Happy Jack Peak and Chalk Mine on a light and lovely day in June. Jesslyn Weiner, Chalk Mine manager and Katrina Roy, tour director welcomed us at the park entrance and invited our group to begin the tour with a hike to the peak.
The name of Happy Jack’s Peak likely originated with a fellow who was hired as a look-out in the early years of European settlement in the North Loup valley. Happy Jack lived in a small house near the peak, and his life’s work seems to have been looking out for the safety of the settlers in light of bandits and raids from his vantage point on the peak. His dedication to duty and possibly his congenial personality gave him naming rights to the highest point in the North Loup valley, thereby Happy Jack’s Peak.
Rising to 300 feet above the valley, I marveled at the long view of prairie and river valley. The sight transported me to a time before the European settlers tied the villages with electric wires and ribbons of concrete and the clutter of modern civilization. As I sat on a ledge and marveled at the expansive view, I felt like an insignificant figure in a Chinese painting or an ant in relationship to the wide open aqua sky and sight of the North Loup River curling across miles and miles, as far as I could see, of sand and grassland. Bird song erupted behind me to mark this singular moment in time.
The day’s adventure was oriented around the Happy Jack Chalk Mine so we broke away from the mesmerizing views on high and descended to the entrance of the mine where we paid the admission price and stepped into a dim and cool cavern. Our path into the mine led us downward, and soon all light was extinguished, and our guide switched on her lantern. We were encased in the gleam of white chalk – floor, walls, ceiling. The chalk felt moist and soft to the touch. The air smelled fresh and clean.
Our guide explained that 6-10 million years ago in the Miocene Epoch, water from a huge lake splashed over the Scotia region, and the lake deposited layers of sediment made of tiny algae-like organisms called diatoms. Diatoms eventually form a soft rock called diatomite that is made of calcium carbonate, the same chemical compound as lime stone.
The soft rock, diatomite
Prairie dog burrows come to mind as we walk the corridors and step into circular caverns blasted from the walls of chalk. Our guide reinforced the notion when she explained that the occasional dark stains evident in the walls were burrows dug by prehistoric rodents maybe similar to today’s prairie dog. We admired the domed ceiling and half-moon entry ways and touched the uneven surface of hand-carved walls.
More than 6,000 feet of underground caverns were excavated by miners. They blasted the rock loose, loaded it into a crib and later the chalk was shipped in carload lots to Omaha where it was manufactured into paint, white wash, and cleansers. At one time, chalk was cut into building blocks. Two chalk rock buildings stand side by side in Scotia, one housing the Steffen Garage and the other used for storage by Wegner & Van Slyke Implement Co.
Little Brown Bats
Little Brown Bats, Scientific Name: Myotis lucifugus live in small numbers in the Happy Jack Peak chalk mine. The bats are 3 to 5 inches long with a wingspan of 8 to 11 inches, and reddish brown in color. They squeeze into cracks and crevices in the chalk ceilings. Because the mine is a constant temperature in all seasons, the bats live all year in or nearby the mine.
The North Loup region is considered the little brown bat’s most southern location in the northern hemisphere. The bat colony also is notable for its resistance to the white-nose syndrome, a fungus that most often kills little brown bats. Biologists are researching the genetics of the chalk mine bats to understand their resistance to the deadly white-nose fungus.
I feel at-ease as I walk in the gleaming chalk corridors, under domed ceilings, and touch the sculpted round pillars. The moist, dark, quiet atmosphere of the chalk mine stills my busy thoughts, and I feel relaxed similar to the peace following a meditation. I wonder if the greater purpose of the chalk mine may be restorative. A refuge from a loud, hectic and nervous society? Maybe a cure for anxiety? Maybe a prescription for de stressing ? Meet me there.