If you’ve picked up your 2021 Nebraska State Park sticker, you’ll be sporting one of Northwest Nebraska’s premier spots on your vehicle this year. The newest park sticker features Chadron State Park, which is celebrating its 100th year in 2021. The park was the first established in Nebraska and also represents the creation of the modern-day Nebraska Game and Parks agency.
“In 2021, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is celebrating 100 years of inspiring outdoor adventures at our state park system,” says the website dedicated to the celebration. “It began a century ago in 1921 with the establishment of Chadron State Park, nestled among distinctive buttes and canyons of the Pine Ridge. Now, Nebraska’s 76 parks are top destinations for Nebraskans and visitors from around the world to enjoy breathtaking landscapes, unique wildlife, and abundant recreation opportunities.”
Chadron State Park traditionally celebrates its anniversary with a one-day slate of activities in June. The centennial, however, is being planned as a two-day celebration June 11-12. While plans are subject to change in light of the COVID pandemic, the Nebraska Game and Parks centennial website notes that Chadron State Park’s event will include a food truck rally and wine tasting June 11 and “continues into the weekend with the annual Run for the Hills 5K, canoe regatta, family games and activities, live music and more.”
While the Chadron State Park’s rich history will be celebrated in 2021, park officials are equally excited about improvements and additions that will continue to make Chadron State Park a favorite destination.
One of the most noticeable additions is the construction of an indoor facility for pellet gun and archery shooting. Park Superintendent Gregg Galbraith said the new facility south of park headquarters will feature a shooting gallery complete with 3D targets for a “state fair” gallery atmosphere.
“That will be a new activity for us,” he said, adding that the facility is projected to be operational this spring. The new facility will not replace the already established outdoor 3D archery, but will provide opportunity for people to get some instruction in safety and shooting from park staff.
Children and their families will also notice a change to the playground amenities this year.
“We’re going with just one playground,” Galbraith said. Consolidating the playground into one complex will be accomplished by installing new equipment, including swings and climbing towers, over safe rubberized landing surfaces.
Other recent or planned improvements include:
•Upgrades to the 18-hole disc golf course
•Electrical upgrades throughout the park
•25 additional 50-amp camping pads, converted from 30-amp
•Construction of a new shower house
•Improvements to the rustic cabins, including new ceilings, cabinets and countertops
•ADA improvements to Cabin 3 and the Central Building
•A remodeled kitchen and flooring at the Central Building
•New siding on the cabins
•Improvements at the Trading Post, including additional educational exhibits, new flooring, counters and displays
•Renovations on the duplexes, including new countertops, central air, updated showers, plumbing, electrical and hot water heaters
Not including the forestry work, the list of improvements totals more than $1.6 million. The funding has come from a variety of sources, including park permits and fees, grants, Nebraska’s LB309 Task Force for Building Renewal, the Nebraska Outdoor Recreational Development Act and the Game and Parks Commission’s Capital Maintenance Fund.
A final project for 2021 will improvements to the park’s roads. Bids for the project have been accepted, and the park has made changes to how it will reserve cabins from now through May to accommodate the work.
“We’re also finishing our thinning project west of the campground, and will then move behind the cabins,” Galbraith said. Thinning projects are designed to strategically reduce trees and brush to prevent out-of-control forest fires like those experienced in 2006 and 2012.
With an estimated 200,000 visitors annually, Chadron State Park navigated the COVID pandemic in 2020 with an altered booking schedule for the cabins. Offered only on Thursday through Sunday once they re-opened, the cabins were full, and the park saw increased day use and camping, said Assistant Superintendent Josh May.
“Camping increased significantly. We had to turn people away,” May said.
There were 231,000 visitors to the park in 2017, according to Galbraith, and numbers continued to increase, with 239,000 in 2018 and 289,000 in 2019. Due to COVID-19, the visitor count dipped back down to 237,000. Galbraith pointed out the campground numbers increased this past year, but cabin visits decreased due to the “barrier” of two or three days between stay to allow for cleaning and disinfecting. The pandemic also meant cabins did not open up until early July, and the popular pool area was closed until Independence Day weekend.
Both Galbraith and May believe Chadron State Park offers something special to visitors.
“I think the aesthetic value of this area, this park, and the people make it a great place,” Galbraith said. “It’s a special area up here in the Pine Ridge. There’s no place else like this in Nebraska.”
May was unfamiliar with Northwest Nebraska before joining the staff at Chadron State Park three years ago. Today, he sees it as a distinctive place that provides a unique combination of outdoor adventure and historical importance.
“The Pine Ridge has a lot to offer, and I like the added value of the historical aspect of the park,” May said. “The abundance of wildlife in the park is great too. You see all sorts of stuff,” he added.
The park sees plenty of return visitors each season, Galbraith said, as well as locals who drive through the park every day or week.
“Every last person who stops me says ‘We never knew this was here,’” May says. “They love it.”
Galbraith noted the Nebraska Legislature passed the resolution to establish Chadron State Park in 1919, but with the biennium it was two years before it was officially created on April 25, 1921.
Senator James Good, a former Chadron resident, wanted the park established. Though a considerable feat to take on, he teamed up with senators who were looking to pass a bill to pave a road out of Fort Crook. It was agreed that Good and other senators representing western Nebraska would provide support for the road bill if the eastern senators would support the bill for the park.
“That’s how it got passed,” Galbraith said, “and the park became reality.” Good was also appointed the original park superintendent, with no pay. He began making improvements to the land, including clearing brush for baseball diamonds and using horse-drawn scrapers to dig out the area for the park’s pond, which was also the first swimming pool. The park also received a lot of support from the town and surrounding communities with monetary donations and equipment such as picnic tables.
The park’s road system followed the cow trails that crisscrossed the area, saving the state from spending money on a survey and engineering work. Local merchants raised $300 for road construction, in a Chamber of Commerce driven effort, and area farmers and other residents donated labor. Community involvement continued to improve the park when the region raised $3,000 for the construction of the swimming pool and lake, according to Steve Kemper’s compilation of the park history. Chadron Creek was dammed and pipeline purchased from an abandoned potash plant in the Sandhills made the lake system in the park feasible.
Eight years after its inception, in 1929, Sen. Good purchased 160 acres of land adjacent to Chadron State Park, and when the state reimbursed him for the cost two years later, the park increased from 640 acres to 800. Galbraith said the senator was concerned bootleggers would set up camp next to the original park area, leading to the additional land purchase.
The Civilian Conservation Corp Camp was established in the park in 1933, and workers spent time clearing dead and diseased trees, cutting lumber, building new cabins and a picnic shelter, repaired the auditorium and improved the water system.
“They did a lot of rock work,” Galbraith added, including the Dutch oven pits, a few of which are still standing at the park. There were originally 30 cabins built by the Corp Camp, Galbraith said, and there are 16 of them left.
Senator Good passed away in 1937, though three years earlier the park superintendent position transferred to A.E. Spear, who died after two months on the job and was succeeded by his wife. She established a Transient Camp that year and laborers improved roads, parking areas, bridges, picnic tables, stone Dutch ovens and landscaping around the swimming pool. Mrs. Speer worked with Warren Olsen, an engineer and the superintendent of the National Park Service Camp, which followed the Transient Camp, to complete all of the projects, according to Kemper’s account.
D.C. Short became Chadron State Park’s superintendent in 1940 and created a long-range strategic plan for the park. The group camp was modernized and enlarged enough to accommodate 200 people, two double latrines, a Boy Scout camp, and new water and sewer lines were added as well.
Clive Short succeeded D.C. Short as superintendent in 1944, but served only until 1947 when L.M. “Jake” Snodgrass took the title. During Short’s time, however, the park increased in size again when E.P. Wilson and Jack Lowe negotiated a purchase of property west of the park.
From 1964-69, new buildings were added including duplexes for camping, the central building and added shelters. In 1989, Galbraith said, work began on the RV and tent camping north of the horse stables, completing in 1992. He noted there are 70 hookups for campers.
In 2012 the park was threatened by the West Ash Creek Fire. The park was evacuated and suffered plenty of tree damage but little in terms of infrastructure, in large part due to the backfires that firefighters set to save the structures and forest.
“I think the only thing we lost was a pit toilet,” Galbraith said, though the tree loss impacted the park’s aesthetic value. Since the fire, park staff have been busy with cutting, dropping and clearing dead trees, as well as thinning around the cabins and primitive camping areas. In 2015, local Boy Scouts moved their annual tree planting efforts from Fort Robinson State Park to Chadron State Park.
Kemper’s account also notes that the State Park Board was created March 18, 1921, to administer Chadron State Park and any other parks created in the future. The board operated under the Department of Public Works. According to the park’s historical marker, the law was amended in 1923 to move the board to the Department of Horticulture at the University of Nebraska. The State Park Board and the Bureau of Game and Fish with the Game Forestation and Parks Commission in 1929. In 1967, it became the State Game and Parks Commission.
Throughout the park’s history, its connection with the Chadron community was a key factor in its success. When Sen. Good passed away in 1937, his efforts to make Chadron State Park a community initiative were remembered in The Chadron Record.
“May the community never forget him for his service rendered and may his efforts be remembered as an example of true community citizenship.”