Tag Archives: Travel

Ghost trains on the low plains: a Kansas railroad story

The first time I noticed it, I was curled up with a book on our old sofa in our new house. The lulling and soothing sound of a train in the distance had kept us company many, many nights during our years in Emporia.

My husband, Jim, noticed the sound, too.

Our little old house, built in 1925, is one of thousands of homes within a stone’s throw of the Santa Fe tracks in Kansas. But unlike Emporia, where the trains still rumble down the tracks, Ottawa’s trains were long gone.

“Ghost train,” I said.

Ottawa didn’t start out as a railroad town.

Franklin County — with Ottawa at its heart — grew around the various Native American settlements and a religious university.  In its earliest years, settlers passed through it along the Santa Fe Trail in the northern part of the county. The little town’s future was not secure until 1868, when the ambitious Leavenworth, Lawrence & Fort Gibson Railroad Company, whose plan it was to lay tracks from Lawrence, Kansas to the Gulf of Mexico, laid tracks to Ottawa.

LL&G Railroad roundhouse sign, on display at the Old Depot Museum in Ottawa, Kansas.

With the railroad came prosperity. This little flood-prone town on the Marais Des Cynges River suddenly had the resources to build a public school and buy a steam fire engine. The Ludington House hotel had rooms to rent and the Ottawa Mills & Elevator opened for business on Main Street. By 1872, the LL&G had built a roundhouse and car and machine shops, bringing hundreds of jobs to the little town, whose population had climbed to 6,250 — nearly half of its present-day population.

LL&G RR Car Works, Ottawa, Kansas.

But the LL&G was in financial peril, and in 1878, it was sold to a new group, who renamed it the Leavenworth, Lawrence & Galveston Railroad Company. Yet the push to interconnect Kansas towns did not lose momentum. Operations in Ottawa continued to grow as the LL&G became the Kansas City, Lawrence and Southern.

In 1880, the Santa Fe Railroad gained control of the KCL&S stock.

Ottawa became one of the hubs of Kansas.

A new depot, designed by the great Kansan architect George Washburn, was built in 1881 and remained in use until 1962. The Depot became the the heart of all of the comings and goings, welcome hellos and tearful goodbyes, of generations of Kansans.

I think about where my house is located,  within walking distance of the Depot, and wonder what it would be like to be able to walk down the street and purchase a train ticket to almost anywhere in North America during a period in time when most people where traveling by horse or wagon. Even today, with so many modes of travel at my disposal, I am limited by how far I can drive first. To catch a train, I must drive to Topeka or Kansas City; to catch a flight, I must first make my way to Kansas City or Wichita for a commercial airplane.

An example of a 1903 train schedule shows how easily Ottawans could move from city to city. On display at the Old Depot Museum in Ottawa, Kansas.

The last train rumbled past our little old house more than 30 years ago. For twenty years, the little towns were disconnected. Some old depots, like Ottawa’s were saved and repurposed into restaurants and museums. Other depots were not so fortunate.

Author Michael Perry once wrote, “Maybe that’s all you need to know about this town–the train doesn’t stop here anymore.” And many of those little towns, whose hotels and diners depended on railway traffic, shuttered their windows and locked their doors. The story of these little towns was approaching a sad ending as the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe (ATSF) Railroad sold the line to the Kansas City Terminal Railway Company, who promptly filed for abandonment.

Built in 1881, the former Santa Fe Depot in Ottawa, Kansas, now serves as the Old Depot Museum. This grand building was lucky enough to find new life as a museum and trail head for the Prairie Spirit Trail.

But it’s not the end of the line. Thanks to the vision of the  Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and countless volunteers,  the old rail lines that once carried passengers from town to town are being reconnected through a rail-trail park called the Prairie Spirit Trail. Ottawa, Princeton, Richmond, Garnett, Welda, Colony, Carlyle and Iola can all be reached by foot or bike. The rail line, the connection, the web that strings together communities, is growing stronger as other rail-trail parks repurpose old railroad lines across the state.

The Prairie Spirit Trail as it runs past the beautiful courthouse in Garnett. There’s something magical in knowing that I could follow this all the way home.

I peek through the blinds of our living room window as the sound of the ghost train dies down and the air grows unnaturally still, far more quiet than the air ever was in Emporia.

It is drizzling and dark, but the well-lit Prairie Spirit Trail is still in use. A bicyclist rides north; a man and his dog walk south.

When the next ghost train passes by, I settle in to the comforting sound.

The Prairie Spirit Trail in Ottawa, Kansas. If you listen closely, you can hear the echoes of ghost trains passing through on still nights.

Special thanks to the Old Depot Museum for their excellent displays and information on the history of the Santa Fe Depot.

Sunset in Silkville

Sunset in Silkville, Kansas

An unusually warm December day ends in a beautiful sunset near Silkville, Kansas.

Two Decembers ago, East Central Kansas was buried under snow drifts six feet deep. This year, we’re closing the calendar out with 50-degree weather and beautiful skies. In the wide open spaces between Williamsburg and the Franklin-Coffey county line, where only hints of ghost towns remain, the sunsets can take your breath away. Every second is a different color, a different texture, a different experience. Just a hundred yards or so from the sign identifying what is now the Silkville Ranch, the sky churned with more life than the land beneath it.

A century ago, this land was not so barren.

In 1869, Ernest Valeton de Boissière, a native of France, purchased 3,500 acres from the Kansas Educational Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He established Silkville, a self-sustaining commune whose primary export was silk ribbon. De Boissière built elaborate facilities, including a 60-room building to house Silkville’s residents, a winery, an ice house, a school house, and the structures needed to grow silkworms and produce silk. Silkville’s library was the largest library in Kansas at that time. For a short time, Silkville thrived.

As other companies began to compete in the domestic silk trade and the commune’s residents discovered they could earn better wages elsewhere, the commune began to fail. By the 1890s, the commune was gone, and de Boissière deeded the land to the International Order of Odd Fellows (I. O. O. F.) to establish an orphanage, but after de Boissière’s death, a legal battle over the property’s ownership ensued between the I. O. O. F. and de Boissière’s sister, Madame Corrine Martinelli. In 1903, Martinelli won the suit and seven years later, the land and its structures were sold for $130,000. Six years later, the 60-room house burned to the ground.

Today, most signs of Silkville–other than the Silkville sign itself–are gone. The structures have long since disappeared, and most of the mulberry and Osage orange trees planted to feed the silkworms have been cleared away to make room for grazing cattle. The area where most of the buildings were is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Western settlement.

De Boissière’s idea of Utopia may have failed, but on a warm winter evening, when you can get out of your car and feel like you have the whole sky to yourself, it still seems pretty close to perfect.

Learn more about Silkville at the Franklin County Kanasas History Portal, or read Phyllis M. Jones’ recorded memories of the community that no longer exists.

O little town of Williamsburg

At least three days each week, our travels take us through the little town of Williamsburg, Kansas, population 370. Now that winter has set in and the days are shorter, the tiny three-block main street–Old U.S. Highway 50–is a cheerful and bright respite sandwiched between miles and miles of darkness.

Just three blocks long, the commercial district of Williamsburg has more Christmas lights than people. I spent five minutes standing in the middle of the main road to take this shot.

I was going to write about the efforts little towns make to sparkle during the holidays. Emporia and Ottawa also string up the lights and baubles to infuse holiday cheer into an otherwise dreary, dark and cold season. But it wasn’t until I began to research the buildings in the shadows behind the lights in Williamsburg, trying to match them with historical photos, that I began to understand why Williamsburg is such an interesting town.

It shouldn’t have survived.

“Look at this old picture,” I said to my husband as I flipped back and forth between my shots of Williamsburg and an old picture I found of the business district, shot well before cars replaced buggies. The historic photograph of the Williamsburg business district, which I found at the Franklin County Kansas History Portal,  included a furniture/undertaker shop, a grocery store, and a post office.

The building I was especially interested in identifying was one that looked like it had only recently gone out of use. The windows were mostly blocked by the building’s contents, and we’ve never seen cars parked in front of it during our rides through town. Yet the words “Lucille’s Cafe” are neatly and fairly recently painted on the window glass.

A snowflake hovers in front of the storefront that was once Lucille's Cafe. Williamsburg, Kansas.

“None of these buildings look quite right,” Jim said, flipping back and forth between the two tabs, old and new. “Of course, that first picture is at least a century old.”

What began as a fun little Christmas post turned into a quest for photos and the history of downtown Williamsburg. According to William Cutler, whose History of the State of Kansas is still considered one of the first places you look for early Kansas history, the 30,000-acre township of Williamsburg had a strong start as a railroad and coal mine community. The Williamsburg Coal Company was able to mine over 25 tons of coal a day. By 1870, the town had a school, wood frame and stone homes, drug and grocery stores, a wagon shop, a church, and a mill. Within the next decade, there were banks and hotels, hardware stores and blacksmith shops, physicians, a newspaper and more about 400 inhabitants.

The town’s greatest folly, long before Interstate 35 moved in and turned U.S. Highway 50 into Old U.S. Highway 50, was its peculiar determination to burn itself down. Repeatedly.

According to “Williamsburg,” from The History of Franklin County, Kansas,

…there were four general stores, two butcher shops, two drug stores, three lumberyards, two hardware stores, a post office, a printing shop, a grain elevator, two livery stables, a jewelry store, a tin shop, two blacksmiths, two wagon shops, two boot and shoe shops, two harness and saddle factories (Ringer’s and Magrath’s), and eventually two banks—E.M. Bartholow’s, established in 1881, and F.W. Olson’s, established in 1882. There were two hotels—Stauffer’s with rooms for 40 guests, and The Lamont. A newspaper, the Gazette, was established on April 3, 1880 by Frank Bennett.

There were also cheese factories, a saw mill, a flour mill, and law offices.  The town was on its way to being a prosperous, growing community.

In 1890, a fire destroyed half the town. A few years later, lightning caused another fire that burned down the barn and carriage sheds behind one of the banks. Later fires would destroy the hotels, and yet more fires would ultimately burn down every single building on the business block except for the D. Fogle store, a stone building Fogle purchased shortly after it was built in 1869.  As one final insult, the school’s auditorium-gymnasium burned down in 1942.

And yet.

Despite the relatively few remaining buildings downtown, despite the fact that other previously thriving nearby communities like Silkville and Ransomville are now nothing more than the names of ranches, despite the redirection of a main trans-Kansas thoroughfare, despite the fact that the railroad tracks were removed for good in the 1970s, Williamsburg is a tidy community with a stable and young population. The town has held on to its elementary school. Their local watering hole, Guy and Mae’s Tavern, produces the kind of BBQ ribs barbecue lovers dream about and connoisseurs are willing to travel long distances to eat. Williamsburg’s most recent achievement is the new community library, a charming community gathering place that offers books, technology, and meeting space.

Despite the fact that the town has a few gaping holes where buildings stood a century ago, despite the fact that its streets are quiet enough that I once had to pass a deer walking down the center of the business district, Santa will be coming to town, because Williamsburg is still a a living, breathing town.

And Santa, Guy and Mae’s will pack you a to-go order of ribs.

Santa hangs out just a few doors down from Guy and Mae's Tavern, home of some of the state's most famous BBQ ribs. Williamsburg, Kansas.

And now for some laughter: Welcome to Ottawa, Kansas!

Sometimes it’s the lack of big-city amenities that give a small town its charm. Don’t believe me? Just watch this kid sell you on vacationing in Ottawa, Kansas.  His gosh-golly goodness in this vacation video spoof is proof that not every kid is spending the summer developing brain rot in front of a television.

Just imagine what a local historian could do with this in a hundred years.

Why everyone should take a drive through rural Chase County on a summer afternoon

Because the cows want to share the magnificent view with you.

Because driving across low-water crossings makes you feel adventurous.

Because Chase County is one of the few places where you can stand alone, experiencing the hum of the earth.