Saturday, June 7, 2014

Following the Sante Fe Trail

The Sante Fe Trail was one of the major travel routes between Mexico and the United States.  The southern part of the trail was pioneered by a Frenchman named Pedro Vial in 1792.  The full trail was established in 1821 and it stretched from Franklin, MO to Sante Fe, NM.  Unlike the other western trails, the Sante Fe trail was a two way trail carrying goods between Mexico and Missouri.  It was used for almost 60 years until the railroad made it obsolete.

A significant portion of the trail traverses Kansas and there’s a highway route that lets you follow much of it across Kansas.  We got off the Interstate at Emporia, KS and took Routes 50, 150, and 56 to connect with the trail outside the town of McPherson.  Before we got there, we made a stop at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  This is a 10,000 acre preserve established by the National Park Service in 1996 that preserves one of the last undeveloped stands of tallgrass prairie in the US.  It looks just like it did from prehistoric times.  It even has a buffalo herd.  Prairie grass stretched from Kansas to Colorado and the entire width of the US.  Tallgrass started on the eastern most edge of the area to central Kansas.  From there to Colorado, the shortgrass took over.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
The Park Service used to provide bus tours into the prairie but the roads had recently washed out.  To get into the tallgrass you need to hike one of the several trails.  It had rained heavy just before we got there and many of the trails were still flooded.  We did catch some glimpses of the prairie and get to tour the farmstead grounds at the Visitor Center.

From there we followed Rt 56 west and picked up the Santa Fe Trail outside of the town of Canton.  From there the trail goes due west along Rt 56 to the town of Great Bend.  Along this road you get to experience the small towns of central Kansas each with their small main streets, grain elevators, and water towers.  Its like going back in time because visually, it seems like not much has changed in some of these towns in the past 50 years.  Walmarts, billboards, and fast food places are few and far between in this area.  Large Court houses dominate the town squares along with Post Offices in historic buildings. 

Court House in Lyons Kansas
Its flat in central Kansas and it becomes more treeless the further west you travel.  

From Great Bend, the trail bends southwest.  Here’s where more historical sites occur.  There’s Pawnee Rock which was a gathering point for the plains Indians.  It’s also prominent landmark that stands out along the horizon.  It was used as a navigation point and overnight stop by the trail travelers.  It’s now a State Historic Park.

Monument at Pawnee Rock
In Larned, there’s the Sante Fe Trail Center, which is a museum with exhibits and artifacts from the Sante Fe Trail.  Here's some interesting facts I learned at the center.  The wagons on the trail usually traveled four abreast to cut down on the amount of dust that the following wagons had to deal with. It took 8 oxen to pull a wagon along the trail.  The oxen fed on the grass along the trail (that's why they were used vs horses or mules) but as the grass got sparse near the southern part of the trail, the oxen lost a lot of their weight.  By the time they got to Santa Fe, the oxen were so decimate and their hooves worn down they were usually sold for slaughter.  It took 50 lbs of flour, 50 lbs of bacon, 10 lbs of coffee, and 20 lbs of sugar to feed a typical person along the route.  They also hunted for wild game and picked berries but there were few vegetables.  The travelers used dried buffalo dung ( "bois de vache") as fuel to cook their food since wood was scarce. 

Nearby, there’s Fort Larned, a historic Army outpost built in 1859 to protect the trail and provide escorts for the mail route.  The fort was used until 1880 when the railroad made it obsolete. The fort has most of the original buildings that have been restored.  Near the fort is a viewing area to see some original wagon ruts.  This viewing are was 5 miles down a gravel road, so we avoided this stop.

Names inscribed in the soft sandstone of the forts buildings
Infantry Barracks at Fort Larned
 Outside of Dodge City is another area where you can view wagon ruts.  They're depicted by large bans of swales in the grass.  Here's a picture.  The rusts are marked by the darker bands in the grass.  Over 130 years has passed since these tracks were left.

Santa Fe Trail Wagon Ruts outside of Dodge City
Overall, it was fun getting off the interstate and following this historic trail.  We got to see some history and experience the small towns of central and western Kansas.

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