It was totally worth staying up late and shivering in the cold.
As we drove through Lecompton, Jim and I saw a sign for a “Scenic River Road” and had to follow it. The old road, probably an old wagon trail, twists and turns and winds its way into the hills. Connecting historic Lecompton with Topeka, part of 2190 Road is also marked the Kansas Capitol Trail.
Old trees and older hills shadow the path, but when you look north between the trees, you realize that more than 100 feet below, the Kansas River meanders through sandbars, the water flowing from Topeka to Lawrence.
Novelist E. E. Burke found her inspiration for her Steam! Romance and Rails historical romantic suspense series in Fort Scott, Kansas. To celebrate the launch of Passion’s Prize and Her Bodyguard, she gave away a two-night stay at the amazing Lyons Twin Mansions in historic Fort Scott. I never win anything big, so I was giddy when she e-mailed me to tell me that I was the lucky winner.
So Jim and I packed our bags and headed to Fort Scott a few weekends ago, where we got to stay in one of a pair of elegant twin mansions on National Street. Built by wealthy New York bankers during the 1870s, the mansions were never lived in by their owners, who moved East after their prospects nosedived. Today, both homes are owned by members of the Lyons family, and Ms. Pat is the ultimate B&B hostess. The rooms are airy and comfortable and the house is true to its roots without being overly fussy.
Usually when we’re traveling, we tend to eat on the cheap. But Ms. Pat suggested we head to Crooner’s Lounge, a surprisingly nice little restaurant tucked in next to the historic Liberty Theatre. It’s only open three nights a week and their menu varies night to night, making it a nice place to go out for both locals and the tourists.
What I love about Fort Scott is that the town understands that their history is one of their greatest assets, and they go out of their way to make it accessible. We headed for the visitor’s center and took a Trolley Tour of the town. Even though Jim and I love exploring towns on our own, I recommend Fort Scott’s Trolley Tour. It’s a great way to see most of the town and our tour guide taught us a lot of local history. For example, Fort Scott once had three big brick factories, which is why everywhere you go in Fort Scott, you see locally made bricks in the streets and sidewalks.
Next, we visited the Fort Scott National Historic Site. When I think of early Kansas history and westward expansion, I tend to think of Kansas during the years leading up to the Civil War. But Fort Scott’s roots are much older than that. Established in 1842, Fort Scott was one of a line of forts that was supposed to protect the boundary between white settlement and the lands designated for Native Americans. This was important at a time when the Santa Fe Trail and Oregon Trail were both bringing non-Native Americans across that boundary.
The Fort was originally home to infantry soldiers and dragoons. After the U.S. gained large sections of land once belonging to Mexico, the government’s attitude toward land use changed dramatically and, in 1853, the Fort was abandoned. Two years later, the buildings were sold at auction.
The Fort’s story didn’t end there, though. Being only a few miles west of the Missouri-Kansas border, Fort Scott became an important strategic location during the Civil War. Injured soldiers were hospitalized there, and many of the old buildings were put back into use. Once the war was over, the buildings fell into private hands. Many were destroyed or nearly destroyed during the subsequent decades. During the 1950s, concerned citizens and historians worked together to restore still-existing buildings and reconstruct buildings no longer standing in order to recreate the 1840s version of Fort Scott.
The fort is a treasure. The site does a wonderful job telling the story of what life was life for soldiers in what would have been the edge of the western U.S. boundary during the 1840s. A short video at the Visitor Center gives a great introduction to the fort’s history.
Many of the surviving buildings were in use for years after the military left the fort. One of the Officers’ Quarters was a private family home from 1855 through 1958. Instead of restoring it to a particular time period, the National Park Service chose to use what’s known as the Wilson/Goodlander Home as an opportunity to show how the building transitioned over the decades by peeling back the layers. Literally.
After our trip to the fort, we visited Fort Scott National Cemetery. Originally called National Cemetery No. 1, the cemetery, which was originally a Presbyterian Graveyard, is one of the original fourteen national cemeteries. After it was officially designated a national cemetery in 1862, the remains of soldiers and prisoners originally interred at the old cemetery west of the fort were moved to the new site southeast of town.
The cemetery is the final resting place of the remains of more than 50,000 veterans. The stone wall surrounding the grounds was built in 1873. I was especially moved by the graves of 13 Confederate Soldiers who died as prisoners of war and the mass burials of World War II crew members who could not be individually identified in the days before DNA testing. It is a solemn and beautiful place, with little to disturb it beyond the occasional cries of crows and hawks overhead.
On our final afternoon in Fort Scott, we hit downtown on foot. Despite losing an entire city block during a terrible fire in 2003, downtown Fort Scott is beautiful and very much alive. We wandered in and out of antique stores and walked around the last remaining lunette, or block house, preserved between downtown and the Fort Scott National Historic Site. Several block houses were erected in 1863 as part of the effort to guard the large quantities of supplies stored at Fort Scott during the Civil War.
Finally, we traveled to the outskirts of town to visit the local civilian cemeteries. Thanks to early settlement and early railroad lines, the citizens of Fort Scott had access to finer materials and the cemeteries reflect that. Evergreen Cemetery is a large burial ground with many mausoleums and ornate headstones. Across the road is Pine Lawn, a Jewish Cemetery.
An entire weekend was not enough time to see everything in Fort Scott, which has become one of our favorite historic Kansas towns. It will be worth revisiting again. We’re especially grateful to E.E. Burke and Ms. Pat at Lyons Twin Mansions for making this trip an extra special one.
Kansas is ablaze with prairie fires right now as the farmers and ranchers are preparing their fields for rebirth. Unfortunately for my asthmatic self, I’m stuck inside instead of trying my hand at paying homage to photographers like Larry Schwarm or Dave Leiker by creating a pastiche of their amazing images of this prairie rite of passage. Taking pity, Jim took me for a quick ride around town so I could escape the house.
We drove through Hope Cemetery, which was hazy with prairie fire smoke.
And then, for the first time, we followed the gravel road past the cemetery, where we found a pretty view of the Marais des Cygnes River.
The forecast calls for thunderstorms this week, which will wash away the smoke. In the meanwhile, I’m hiding in the house again.
I’ll write more on Fort Scott and the national cemetery soon. In the meanwhile, I was surprised (and charmed) to discover modern military headstones allow a little personalization.
A local weather forecaster suggested that Kansans needed Dramamine in order to survive the roller coaster that is March weather in the Midwest. When I woke up this morning, there was snow and sleet on the ground. But Friday was beautiful and warm and Jim and I went for a drive to take in the sunshine. We found ourselves driving around Clinton Lake.
I have a few childhood memories of Clinton Lake, but I did not know back then that the lake was relatively new, having been completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1977. The town of Clinton survived; some other unincorporated communities vanished into the watershed district. Near the town of Clinton, though, is Clinton Cemetery, which turned out to be a treasure trove of gnarled trees and old and interesting graves.
Except for in communities with easy railroad access or a local stone mason, elaborate monuments are scarce in Kansas before the 1890s. Headstones celebrating those with birthdays before 1800 are also scarce west of the Kansas City area. And yet, here in Clinton Cemetery, there are several examples of beautiful tree stump monuments, stones with embedded porcelain photographs, and other creative and intricate markers. There are graves for children of men who fought in the Revolutionary War and there is at least one marker for a former slave born in 1799.
Should you find yourself at Clinton Lake this summer, make a little time for the museum (which is open May through October) and this cemetery. It is worth a visit.
Here is a synopsis of Kansas weather these past two weeks.