Tag Archives: Trail Ruts

Exploring the Santa Fe Trail: Osage County, Kansas

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.

The official historic Santa Fe Trail route is marked in black; our path, which is restricted to roads, is marked in red. Important locations have pins. Click on the map to explore in detail. (This map was created with Google Map Engine Lite.)

The official historic Santa Fe Trail route is marked in black; our path, which is restricted to roads, is marked in red. Important locations have pins. Click on the map to explore in detail. (This map was created with Google Map Engine Lite.)

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.

The Santa Fe Trail Crossed Here: commemorating Simmons Point and the Baden Post Office.

The Santa Fe Trail Crossed Here: commemorating Simmons Point and the Baden Post Office.

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.

Picturesque, but not Santa Fe Trail Ruts.

Picturesque tracks in the grass, but not Santa Fe Trail Ruts. Shot near Osage County Lake, where we missed seeing the real trail ruts because of an overgrown fence line.

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.

Havana Stage Station, looking east.

Havana Stage Station, from the west.

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.

Moving Along the Trail

It was supposed to be for one year.

I was living and working in Los Angeles, which I enjoyed, but my fiance was working on his master’s degree in Kansas. It was easier for me to find a new job and move (at least, in those days, it was easier to find a job) than it was for him to transfer in the middle of a degree program. So I took a deep breath and packed up the contents of my apartment into the back of a Penske truck and my then-fiance-now-husband and I traveled across the desert and the Rockies and landed in Emporia, Kansas.

As I said, it was supposed to be for one year.

Jim was supposed to finish his master’s degree and we were supposed to move on. But life has a funny way of making decisions for you. We bought a house. I traded in my job at the university for a job at the library. And I began to learn about the state I swore I’d never return to. We realized, having grown up in the Kansas City metro area, that the state was foreign to us. Our perception of Western Kansas was everything west of Topeka. We’d never seen what was out there.

We began to explore. We took a weekend trips we called Whirlwind Tours of Kansas. We packed the car with a couple of changes of clothes, some food, and some maps and just drove to see what was out there. We took in the the landscapes, the history, the people, the food. We were more than a little in awe of places we didn’t even know existed despite growing up our entire lives in this state.

I fell in love with this little area of Kansas. I didn’t mean to; when I first moved here, I was perfectly prepared to walk away. But then I saw the Flint Hills and and the Tallgrass Prairie and the little towns in Lyon County and learned about the people here and without even realizing it, they became my hills and my people in a way I had never connected to the people and places growing up in Kansas City or during my years in Los Angeles. I walk down the rows of graves in any of the forty-plus cemeteries and I feel like I know these people and their stories.

Which is why I’m a little teary-eyed to be moving away from Lyon County almost a dozen years later.

My husband and I took our last easy field trip in Lyon County this past weekend. By now, we’ve traveled almost every county road and seen almost every county cemetery.

“Where do you want to go?” Jim asked.

Agnes City,” I said. “And supposedly, there are still trail ruts from the Santa Fe Trail.”

We climbed into the truck and headed to northwest Lyon County.

Thinking about packing got me thinking about early Kansans and pioneers just passing through on the Santa Fe Trail. As I taped shut more than thirty boxes of books, I thought about those early settlers making sometimes heartwrenching decisions about the family mementos they would leave behind in order to fill their prairie schooner with the things they would so desperately need out on the open plains. Especially in those early years, when towns were only whispers on a map, it was about survival.

We would have had to leave the books behind back then.

The city of Agnes City no longer exists. Today, the moniker lives on in the name of the township and the cemetery, which houses more people in a few acres than anywhere else in the township. This was not always so. In 1854, before Kansas was a state but settlers were finding their way into the territory and the Santa Fe Trail was still heavily traveled, Arthur I. Baker rode past Charles Withington’s place at 142 Mile Creek and became the 33rd settler of what was then Breckenridge County. He named his homestead and store Agnes City in honor of his mother. Within a year, he was named a Justice of the Peace.

Baker was no stranger to Kansas, having worked as a blacksmith for the Mississippi Sauk and Fox Indian Agency in Osage County since 1849.  When he settled down in Agnes City, he helped the little town he founded prosper. He became the postmaster in 1860. He ran one of only a handful of stores in the area where settlers could get supplies. His only stroke of bad luck, it seemed, was with his neighbors.

William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson and his family also lived in Agnes City Township.

In 1862, the Andersons approached the store under the guise of wanting to buy supplies. The unsuspecting Baker descended the steps into the cellar under his store and was shot and killed. The Andersons set his store on fire with Baker’s body in the cellar beneath it.

And that was the beginning of the end of Agnes City. People hit the trail and moved on.

When I wrote the story of Columbia, I came across the story of the Willis family and the sorrow the elder Mrs. Willis felt when she realized she had left behind a perfectly good house in Ohio to move into an abandoned cabin with no windows or doors in Lyon County. Even when we’re settled and comfortable, there is still something that drives us to wonder if there is something better somewhere else.

Thousands of people gave up families and friends and good houses with amenities to ride across the open prairie and live on next to nothing, hoping to stave off starvation and disease long enough to establish a new home on their own land. They traveled on long trails where babies were born and the sick died. They worried about not having enough water; they worried about floods and mud. They worried about attacks by people and animals. But they drove on, ready to give a new life a go.

My husband has spent the better part of the past six years commuting 55 miles each way to work in Ottawa, Kansas, where he teaches at the high school. This year, I found a job there, too. During the past six months, we commuted together along the highways, a stretch of driving that takes us an hour today but would have taken at least two, possibly three days in a covered wagon on one of the trails.

A few weeks ago, we sold our house.

Lyon County is fortunate; there are several places the Santa Fe Trail is still visible. The D.A.R. placed markers along the trail in the early 1900s in an effort to preserve the trail’s history. Development, both commercial and agricultural, obliterated the remnants of the trail in parts of the state. But there are places–mostly pasture land–when the grass is at just the right height and the sun is shining at just the right time of day, that the remnants of the trail live on.

The D.A.R. Santa Fe Trail marker in Agnes City Cemetery, Lyon County, Kansas.

We found the first D.A.R. marker in Agnes City Cemetery. A sign down the road said, “Santa Fe Trail Ruts” with an arrow pointing east.

“Do you see them?” I asked Jim.

“No,” he said.

The sign pointing to Santa Fe Trail Ruts near the Agnes City Cemetery, Road E just north of U.S. 56.

We found the second D.A.R. marker on Road 370, just east of Road M. A short jaunt down the street and we discovered the sign commemorating Withington’s toll bridge on 142 Mile Creek.

The sign commemorating Charles Withington’s Toll Bridge on 142 Mile Creek in Lyon County, Kansas.

Still no obvious signs of the Santa Fe Trail.

We drove on to the next sign.

“Look,” Jim pointed, and we stood back, studying the undulations in the ground. We had found one of the places in Lyon County where the trail ruts could still be seen.

Trail Ruts visible on Road N, north of Road 370 in Lyon County, Kansas.

Trail ruts. Scars left behind by thousands of wagons and horses and cattle and oxen, all moving along the path, looking for something more and better down the road.