I know, I know, I’ve been working on this post for months now. The pictures are from late summer and fall. But the wonderful thing about searching for Santa Fe Trail ruts and landmarks in Osage County is that they’ll be easier to see in the winter, when the tree branches are bare and the vines and grasses have gone dormant. The hardest part is knowing where to look, as you’ll see in our adventures.
Armed with a detailed map from the Santa Fe Trail Association and feeling confident after our successful Santa Fe Trail exploration in Douglas County, Jim and I decided to tackle the next section of trail, which crosses through present-day Osage County. After studying the section-by-section trail map and the areas identified as trail ruts on Google Earth, we hopped into Jim’s truck and headed west past Simmons Point, which we discovered on our Douglas County adventure.
Osage County is very proud of its Santa Fe Trail history, and it’s easy to find trail information online. The towns of Overbrook and Burlingame consider the Santa Fe Trail an important part of their identity. With so much information online, we figured we would hit all of the trail highlights and identify some trail ruts in just a few hours of exploring.
Wrong. But I’ll get back to that.
Looking at the map, you can see that the trail runs very close to present-day U.S. 56 as it stretches through eastern Osage County, then continues along present day K-31 in western Osage County . As we headed west from Simmons Point (moving in the same direction as travelers on their way to Santa Fe), our first stop was the last marker in Douglas County, which identified a major trail crossing point and the Baden Post Office, which operated intermittently between 1883 and 1891.
It was after this sign that we made an important discovery: unlike Douglas County and Lyon County, Osage County is not as generous with signage. Jim and I are both map enthusiasts, but as outsiders, trying to locate the trail as it “runs through the old Bryson farm” is not an easy feat without land records or a county native to guide the way. Despite having detailed notes and circles on maps, it is actually very difficult to find trail ruts in high summertime, when the land is overgrown by foliage.
It’s also very easy to see fake trail ruts everywhere, almost like water mirages in the desert. According to Ed Harmiston, the Overbrook Chief of Police and a serious Santa Fe Trail history buff, trail ruts are more than just wagon tracks. You have to picture not just what the wheels were doing to the ground, but the way the hooves of hundreds of thousands of oxen and other animals would have churned up the dirt and mud as they pulled heavy wagons down the trail. This movement gives the land a very different type of scar than, say, a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
You’ll notice on the map I created that there are several pins for places where trail ruts have been reported but were not immediately visible to us from the road. (NOTE: The Santa Fe Trail was once a public road, but the land it now runs through is often private property. Trespassing is never a good idea. Don’t enter private land without permission.)
Our next major stop along the trail was Overbrook, a town that was laid out along the Santa Fe Trail about 14 years after the trail was decommissioned. According to the “Local History of the Santa Fe Trail” by Ed Harmison, the town was founded by W.T. Coffman and J.B. Fairchild, who each contributed 30 acres to start the town. It was named by a railroad foreman, who hailed from Overbrook, Pennsylvania. Overbrook celebrates its trail roots each year with the Santa Fe Trail Festival, and Harmison presents the local history of the trail and craftspeople demonstrate skills that would have been in high demand along the trail, such as soap making and blacksmithing.
While in Overbrook, we visited the cemetery, where Overbrook’s departed rest in the path of the trail, and ruts can be seen in the northwest section of the cemetery. There is a also marker commemorating a hitching post that once stood within the boundaries of the cemetery. A spring that to served as an important watering spot was once located in the 200 block of Ash Street, but the area is now covered by a housing development and there are no signs of the spring.
One of our greatest disappointments on this stretch of the trail was finding nothing marking the location of what was known as the Boneyard, which was supposed to be about four miles west of Overbrook. According to Ed Harmison, a wagon train was caught in a blizzard, and while the men made it safely to the 110-Mile Creek Crossing (where the McGee-Harris Stage Station was located), their animals were left behind and died n the storm. A giant pile of their bleached bones were a landmark along the trail for many years afterward. I have not yet found a date for the blizzard, but I have found online sources–such as this transcribed 1865 Santa Fe Trail diary–that mention it.
Further west at Osage County Lake, trail ruts are supposed to be visible just north of the lake. In fact, the ruts are supposed to run several tracks wide in this area. A house was recently built in the middle of them. Alas, the weeds were too tall in August, and we were unable to see much land beyond the fence line. We’ll make another trip to look for them some time this winter. There is also nothing left to see of the McGee-Harris Stage Station and 110-Mile Creek Crossing.
Feeling a little discouraged, we continued through Scranton and headed southwest toward the Switzler Creek Crossing, which was named for John Switzler, who constructed a toll bridge there in 1847. After crossing the creek, we found ourselves in Burlingame. U.S. 56 briefly turns into Santa Fe Avenue, the town’s main street, which is also the trail itself. The brick-paved road is said to be extra wide because it was designed as a place where wagons could safely pass each other through town. Santa Fe Avenue turns into K-31, which continues west along the trail (U.S. 56 turns south).
After several attempts at searching for trail ruts and the Dragoon Creek Crossing, we almost gave up and headed home. In fact, we were a little worried our trip was going to come to a bad end when we turned down what was technically a county road–a road that should have been marked minimum maintenance, I might add–and discovered it was in worse shape than most of the trail ruts were were trying to find. That leg of our adventure involved a conversation that went like this:
Diana: According to Google Earth, there should be trail ruts running east and west across this road.
Jim: Look at this road. Are you sure we’re not driving in the trail ruts? Because this road is pretty bad.
Fortunately, we didn’t give up. If we had, we would have missed the most scenic Santa Fe Trail site in Osage County: Havana Stage Station.
The Havana Stage Station was an important stop. Fifty German and French families had settled here, and there were several buildings that offered services and shelter to travelers. Today, only the remnants of the hotel and stage station remain. Its deterioration has progressed markedly during the past 80 years. Two pictures available through the Kansas Historical Society’s Kansas Memory website–a postcard from the 1930s and a photograph from the 1950s –show the stage station to still be a substantial structure even 60 and 80 years after the trail fell out of use.
West of the Havana Stage Station are visible ruts of the Santa Fe Trail.
Even in Kansas, there aren’t many places where you can truly escape modern noise. Along this stretch of K-31, however, vehicles are few and far between, leaving nothing but the sounds of the wind, birds, and insects. It was startling and beautiful, as was the scenery.
Our last stop along the Osage County stretch of the Santa Fe Trail was the grave of Private Samuel Hunt, a Dragoon with Company A, who died of an “inflammation of the bowels.” His was the first military burial along the trail. Although the grave location is well documented and is supposed to be marked, we could not find it. Either we were looking in the wrong place, or the grave has been damaged–the area where we believe it is supposed to be is also a place where KSDOT is depositing torn-up roadbed concrete and is marked “no trespassing.”
Although Osage County’s section of the Santa Fe Trail is not the easiest to explore, wandering through little towns like Overbrook, Scranton, and Burlingame was interesting and fun, and the Havana Stage Station is definitely worth a stop. If you’re on the hunt for trail ruts, though, I recommend waiting until winter, when the tree leaves and grass are less likely to block your view of the land. In fact, because the major stops are accessible by highway, this may be a great get-out-of-the-house trip during those cold winter months.