Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Colorado in September

We're setting off for a long trip from Warsaw, Missouri across the state of Kansas, with the ultimate destination of the 50th birthday party of a good friend in Colorado Springs. Along the way, we've got to make quick stops at virtually every little Kansas town to get a picture or two for our Legends of Kansas site, before logging some 480 miles to our first destination -- my dad's home in Ulysses, Kansas.

From Kingman, Kansas we follow the Cannonball Stage Route, which once connected the railroad to towns across southwestern Kansas. Established by the flamboyant and colorful, Donald R. "Cannonball" Green in 1876, the line ran through Pratt to Coldwater and later to Greensburg, Kansas, a town he helped found in 1886. Green's stage line served areas not reached by the railroad, and for a few years carried the mail from Wichita to Kingman. Known for their speed, Green's coaches were pulled by teams of six or eight horses which were changed every eight to ten miles. More than a driver, Green was an advisor and teacher, sharing with passengers his knowledge of southwestern Kansas and the prairie landscape. As the railroads advanced, Green moved his stage service west but stage demand soon dwindled. In 1898 he took a claim in Oklahoma Territory when the Cherokee Strip opened. Although Green also served in the Kansas legislature, he was best known for his stage route between Kingman and Greensburg, the Cannonball Highway, which became U.S. Highway 54.

Continuing on, we make our way through the almost ghost town of Ford, Kansas, and on westward through numerous small farming communities, to arrive exhausted in Ulysses, Kansas.

After a good night's rest, we head north to Lakin to follow the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail into Colorado. This path of the Santa Fe Trail continued to follow the Arkansas River through Gray, Finney, Kearny and Hamilton Counties of Kansas. Though it was farther than the Cimarron Cutoff, it had continuing access to water and was not as prone to Indian attacks as the shorter route through the southwest corner of Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle.

Following the River Road westward out of Lakin, we soon come to “Indian Mound” an important landmark on this portion of the Santa Fe Trail. It was one of the most historic spots between Pawnee Rock in Kansas and Bent’s Fort in Colorado. During those days, it was visible for many miles, but due to natural and man-made erosion it is not as high today as it was a century ago. Southeast of Indian Mound was Bluff Station, a stagecoach and express station where food and fresh horses were kept from trail riders and coach drivers before the railroad was built.

South of Indian Mound on the south side of the Arkansas River was Chouteau’s Island, named for famous fur trader Auguste Pierre Chouteau. Though it has long since disappeared due to erosion by the Arkansas River, it was once an important landmark on the trail. It was near here in the spring of 1816 that Auguste P. Chouteau's hunting party were traveling east with a winter's catch of furs when they were attacked near the Arkansas River by 200 Pawnee Indians. The men retreated to Chouteau’s Island to resist the attack and beat off the Battle of Chouteau's Island.

We continue along the trail through Hamilton County, Kansas into Colorado and take a quick tour through Camp Amache, a Japanese Internment Camp during World War II. Then, back on the trail, we wind through Holly and Granada to Lamar and the old post of Fort Lyon. Also known as Fort Wise and Fort Las Animas, Colorado, the fort existed on the Colorado eastern plains until 1867. The fort was known as Fort Wise until 1862, having been named after a southern Confederate state's governor. However, after the Civil War, it was renamed for General Nathaniel Lyon, who was killed in the Battle of Wilson's Creek near Springfield, Missouri, in 1861. The post is best known as having been the staging point for the Sand Creek Massacre led by Colonel John Chivington in 1864, in which some 150 Cheyenne Indians were slaughtered as they were making their way to their new Oklahoma reservation.

The army abandoned Fort Lyon in 1897 and in 1906, it became a U.S. Navy Hospital. In 1922, it became a Veteran's Hospital and remained so until 2001 when it was closed and turned over to the state of Colorado for conversion to a minimum security prison. The Fort Lyon National Cemetery, which began burials in 1907, remains open.

We continue on through Los Animas to the historic site of Boggsville, an old settlement founded in 1862. A National Historic Site today, this old homstead site on the Santa Fe Trail was once visited by such men as Clay Allison, Chief Black Kettle, and Wild Bill Hickok, and was the last home of famous scout and explorer, Kit Carson.

We forge on to La Junta and Bent’s Fort for our last historic stop of the day. This old post, established by William and Charles Bent, along with Ceran St. Vrain, was built to trade with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians and trappers in 1833. For much of its 16-year history, the fort was the only major permanent white settlement on the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and New Mexico. During the war with Mexico in 1846, the fort became a staging area for Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny's "Army of the West." Disasters and disease caused the fort's abandonment in 1849. Archeological excavations and original sketches, paintings and diaries were used in the fort's reconstruction in 1976. Today, the reconstructed fort is designated a National Historic Site.

We then make our way on to Colorado Springs, where for the next few days, we lay off the "work" and enjoy good friends. Afterwards, we're on to Cripple Creek, Leadville, Central City, and the Rocky Mountain National Park.

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