Moving Frontiers and Moving People
An early explorer, Edwin Thomas with Major Stephen Long’s 1820 expedition, labeled the Great Plains as the Great American Desert in his published account of their trek across the space between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River valley. For years that description stayed in the public perception. Mountain Men and fur trappers would venture out onto the plains and into the mountains but not many others.
The Plains had always been peopled by nomadic groups going back to the Clovis hunters. The Indians still lived out there and seemed to be successful. The very idea of a settled and sedentary white population living on the Great American Desert was not widely accepted. But frontiers creep forward. Historians talk about the “moving frontier” and the notion of several different kinds of frontiers – a mining frontier, a cowboy (cattle) frontier, a farming frontier, etc. The idea of a widely populated Great Plains, with sedentary towns and cities, is a fairly recent concept largely made possible by the invention of the railroad and the availability of cheap and accessible land.
Vázquez de Coronado and his Conquistadors were probably the first Europeans to fully experience the Great Plains. He and his expedition, which included over a thousand Hispanicized Indians from Zapotec, were on a fool’s errand looking for fabled cities of gold. We imagine Coronado and a small band of brave Conquistadors out on the plains but he had a relatively large gang of people and livestock. He and his people marched from Mexico well into eastern Kansas before he gave up and went back. Lewis and Clark mostly followed the major rivers west to the Pacific Ocean. That gave them a different and wetter view of the plains. Stephen Long’s expedition ventured out onto the plains but concluded that the plains were “unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture.”
Free Enterprise turned a blind eye toward Long’s and others’ admonitions and in 1821, William Becknell pioneered the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri’s Boonslick communities across the plains, following the Arkansas River, into what was then just becoming independent Mexico to the northern town of Santa Fe, the capital of Nuevo Mexico. The northern region was being cut off from commerce and government authority in Mexico City by the aggressive expansion of Comanche Indian dominance and the turmoil of the recent separation from Spain. The Santa Fe Trail turned out to be the interstate highway of its day. By the 1840s at least half of the traffic along the trail originated in Santa Fe and even from the south in Chihuahua with Spanish/Mexican traders making the trek eastward to Missouri. Traders from Independence, Missouri, were going the other way. The trail became a military road in 1846 when the US Army marched down the Santa Fe Trail to occupy New Mexico during the Mexican-American War. New Mexico (actually named after the Aztec empire, not the country) became part of the United States officially in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Under American control, the plains became ranching country with only a few settlements. The Buffalo herds were largely relegated to the northern plains by then, so cattle ranching spread out of Texas and cattle trails took up the space. The railroads moved west with new towns dotting the routes where there was water and, soon, cattle stockyards. The railroads civilized the plains by offering land for sale to farmers.
Some areas provide a concise history of the plains. Dodge City, in Kansas, sits on the Arkansas River, the route followed by Coronado in 1542, the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, and the US Army in 1846. There was an Army fort there by 1850 and the railroad arrived around 1872 greeted by thousands of unenthusiastic Texas longhorn cattle heading to eastern markets. This was the Cowboy Frontier and there was a good deal of lawlessness for a few decades, stretching into the early 1900s. Dodge City was not alone. Many similar towns in the west went through a similar sequence of events. Some had more Mountain Men or miners, but it was a rough existence in the early years.
Well, I managed to yammer for over a full page before getting to my trip, but the background and the history is part of the story. I was traveling along the Santa Fe Trail from the Rio Grande valley in New Mexico near Bernalillo (1620 – reestablished 1693) and going to the place of my birth, St. Louis on the Mississippi River (1764). I made earlier partial trips along the trail beginning twenty years ago but never covered the entire route. This time I closed all of the gaps. I stayed in three historic hotels along the way and I’ll cover them in some detail in a second posting HERE. This post will touch on some of the other interesting stops along the way.
I started out heading north along what was once the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro that connected Mexico City to Santa Fe in colonial days. Today it is mostly part of Interstate 25 and was once part of Route 66. This is also part of the Pan-American Highway that connects Patagonia to Alaska. I picked up the Santa Fe Trail about thirty miles from my house near Santa Fe and headed east, still on Interstate 25. The route crosses Glorieta Pass and the Pecos River along the southern edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains – the southern limit of the Rockies.
I don’t drive very long before I hop out of the car for some reason. My first stop was in Las Vegas – in New Mexico. This, the older Las Vegas, was once the largest city in New Mexico. The town has done a very good job at maintaining its century old buildings thanks to a citizens group dedicated to preservation. Thanks, also, to a man with vision – Alan Affeldt, who seems on a mission to preserve and restore some of the great old western hotels. He restored the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona, then moved to Las Vegas and preserved the Plaza Hotel on the town plaza and is now working to restore the Castaneda Hotel, also in Las Vegas. The La Posada was the last Harvey House hotel, built in the 1930s. The Castaneda was the first Harvey House hotel, built in the 1898.
The Plaza Hotel
Affeldt knows how to use the properties to help pay for their own preservation. He uses the state’s film industry tax credits to help fund the projects. The Plaza Hotel was the filming site for scenes from “No Country for Old Men” and the Castaneda was the filming location for the TV show “Midnight Texas”.
The Castaneda is a work in progress but enough of the restoration had been completed when I stopped by to open about ten rooms for hotel guests. The Amtrak Southwest Chief train connecting Chicago to Los Angeles still stops in front of the hotel every day… the classic old Santa Fe station is next door. I’m looking forward to staying at the Castaneda Hotel on a future trip. The Fred Harvey hotels were famous for the Harvey Girls who waited on the hotel guests in a very prim and proper fashion. In Las Vegas they lived in a boarding house across the street – still standing and also in the process of restoration.
My next stop, a few miles east of Las Vegas, was at Fort Union – a military post and supply depot on the Santa Fe Trail. At one time there were 4,000 people residing at the fort working in a military capacity or as outfitters and suppliers for the Santa Fe traders. The officers’ families were also in residence.
Fort Union is a grim and ghostly ruin today. Built of adobe, it has slowly given way to the elements. When I visited it was even more ghostly due to the fog and April snow showers. It was cold and miserable, and I imagine the soldiers stationed there were pretty miserable at times. The fort kept two crews working in the nearby mountains just cutting firewood for heat and cooking fires.
The Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts are still visible at Fort Union. Unlike the popular idea of single file wagon trains, the freight wagons usually went four or five abreast, so the ruts are spread out over a wider area.
Fort Union exists today as a National Monument with two park rangers on duty. They were not very busy when I visited, and I had the place to myself.
I crossed Raton Pass and entered Colorado just south of Trinidad. Coal mining was important to the local economy beginning in the 1860s and numerous mines and company towns sprung up along the foothills of the Rockies. One such place was Ludlow. The miners were mostly foreign born from eastern or southern Europe while the mine owners were prominent eastern “Robber Barons” of the era; people like John D. Rockefeller and John Cleveland Osgood. Working conditions at the mines were unfair and dangerous. Miners were not paid for needed shoring up the shafts or laying track or other “dead work” secondary to actual coal extraction.
A miners’ strike in 1913-1914 brought out strike-breakers from the east and some violence broke out. The National Guard, who, along with mine guards employed by mine owners, opened fire with machine guns on a tent encampment of 1,500 miners at Ludlow killing twenty miners, women, and children. Most died when their tents were intentionally set on fire. Only six of the dead were adults. The enraged miners retaliated with a ten-day war against local mines from Trinidad to Walsenburg – over sixty miles of skirmishes and mine property destruction. About 200 people died before President Wilson sent Army troops to stop the carnage. The strike ended when the miners ran out of money and supplies and returned to work empty-handed…but public opinion largely sided with the miners.
Some of the mines reopened but others were shut down throwing many miners out of work. In 1917, 120 miners died in a disastrous fire at the Hastings mine in Ludlow. The mine was owned by John Cleveland Osgood, who opposed the miners during the strike of 1913. The United Mine Workers established a memorial park and monument at the site of the Ludlow Massacre. The Town of Ludlow has all but vanished.
My first night’s stop was at Walsenburg, Colorado, located near the Spanish Peaks, twin mountains that sit as an outlier from the main front range of the Rockies. These peaks, reaching 13,600 feet, were probably the first actual mountain landmarks the traders on the Santa Fe Trail encountered from out on the plains. From here they turned south to climb over Raton Pass (7,800 ft.). Walsenburg was also the scene of some of the worst fighting during the 1914 coalfields war with almost thirty people killed.
I stayed at the La Plaza Inn, a local historic hotel established in 1907. The La Plaza is a small place with eleven guest rooms and a nice restaurant with two dining areas. The rooms are furnished with antiques and decorated in the style of the early 1900s.
There were probably more rooms at one time but modern travelers need private bathrooms and a bit more space than those of 1907. The owners consider the place to be a Bed and Breakfast but it straddles the line and falls more on the Inn classification in my estimation. My room was nicely furnished with a vintage iron bed, antiques and a nice bathroom. It had a definite cowboy feel to it – not fancy but comfortable. The hotel has a fine restaurant and two dining areas. The specialty on the menu for Saturday night was Prime Rib — it was very good. There is a microbrewery in town about a block away, but I decided to skip it for this trip. A full breakfast is provided in the morning — I don’t think anyone goes away hungry from the La Plaza Inn.
Walsenburg has another claim to notoriety besides the coalfield war (and the midnight trains). The outlaw Robert “Bob” Ford operated a saloon and gambling house in Walsenburg around 1890. This was eight years after he shot Jesse James (alias Thomas Howard) in the back in his home in St. Joseph, Missouri. The “dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard” had to watch his own back after the deed was done. He died in 1892, murdered by Edward Capehart O’Kelley in Creede, Colorado.
The Great Plains
From Walsenburg my route turned east, away from the mountains and out on the Great Plains. I was on two-lane highways for almost the entire day. This was the high plains. If you ever wondered what was out there on the horizon as you crossed the plains on the Interstate highway or by train, I can tell you now that there is practically nothing out there. That being said, for a photographer or an artist, it has a stark beauty and a lonesome appeal.
The few hills that one sees at first as the road leads away from the mountains soon change to an incredible flat canvas where the sky takes over as the most prominent feature.
I could not live here but I am struck by the mighty presence of absolutely nothing. There are ranches out here scattered every dozen miles or so and there is occasional traffic on the highway, but one has the notion of being entirely alone.
As I crossed the plains I encountered the Arkansas River. Out here the final ‘s’ is pronounced (and the middle syllable emphasized) and not replaced with the “saw” as in the state of Arkansas. There are towns that stretch out along the river because that was the way of commerce. La Junta, Dodge City, Garden City, and Great Bend are positioned along the river – and the old Santa Fe Trail. Between La Junta and Las Animas is Bent’s Fort, a way station on the Trail. It was a private commercial fort and trading post run by brothers Charles and William Bent. They ran a commercial and fur trading empire for many years. Charles Bent was named Territorial Governor of New Mexico and was killed during the Taos Revolt of 1847 at the end of the Mexican-American War.
I didn’t take the time to visit the reconstructed Bent’s Fort on this trip as I had seen it several years ago (hence the picture) and I was still in Colorado and had a long way to go.
On that earlier trip I had a wheel bearing go out on my car and I was stranded briefly at Las Animas. The original Spanish name for the place is La Ciudad de Las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio, “The city of souls lost in Purgatory.” A dismal name for a place and I felt like it was very appropriate at the time. The town is at the junction of the Arkansas and the Purgatoire Rivers, probably named by a lonely French fur trapper. The Trail traders and local cowboys pronounced the French river name as “Picket-wire”
There is a lot of agriculture in this part of the plains…an understatement for sure. Every town has a grain elevator standing tall like a Gothic cathedral. You can see them miles before you reach the town. Due to our current political climate and the tariff war, the local farmers are not selling their crops like in previous years. The grain elevators are full and there are piles of grain and soybeans twenty-five feet high in adjoining lots. The soybeans are beginning to smell just a bit. Further east the smell of soybeans is replaced by the aroma of cattle feed lots. You can capture the essence a few miles before you see them if the wind is right.
I hurried on my way through those Arkansas River towns and stopped at Fort Larned, about halfway across Kansas. This was an Army post established to protect the middle portion of the Santa Fe Trail. Instead of adobe, Fort Larned was built of local sandstone and survives nicely today – probably one of the best original examples of a cavalry fort.
Being made of sandstone, the fort’s buildings provided a ready tablet for visitors to carve their names or messages in stone. Once the fort closed it was too tempting. People want to leave their names to show that they were there. I guess we are always seeking immortality. Some examples show some real dedication to the effort.
There’s even a cryptic reference to Kaiser Wilhelm in a couple examples. The fort closed before WW-I so it must have been a visitor — or a spy?
I took a bunch of pictures and spent enough time at Fort Larned that I was running far behind schedule. The rest of my day’s trip across Kansas is something of a blur.
My stopping point for the night was Marion, Kansas. Apart for the fact that Coronado almost made it this far across Kansas, I knew nothing about Marion. Nothing except that I had some distant relatives that settled in the area in the 1870s and the only geographic place-name that matches my surname is a cemetery a few miles north of town. I planned my trip to visit the place.
I was impressed. Marion is a substantial place. This is on the edge of the Flint Hills, the only hilly part of the state and there is some scenic interest. There seems to have been an oil and gas boom here some time ago and the place looks a bit well off. I was staying at another historic hotel – The Historic Elgin Hotel.
These little towns were always competing with each other for attention. Marion was the county seat of Marion County and wanted the business that should naturally flow into such an important place. The railroad arrived in 1879. The hotel dates to 1886 when local entrepreneurs decided that what Marion needed most was a good hotel. The Elgin Hotel would be an asset to any town or city, and I was a bit surprised to find it in a small town in eastern Kansas.
I stayed in the Eisenhower Suite. Dwight Eisenhower lived not too far away in Abilene, but I have no idea if he actually stayed at the hotel. There are other named rooms including the Amelia Earhart Suite – she was another local – and the Cowboy Room, complete with a large jetted bathtub.
The hotel is probably one of the best historic places I’ve stayed, and I have seen my share. Sometimes I stay in historic hotels and I’m impressed and sometimes I’m left with the thought that I never want to see a place again. I really can’t figure out a reason to come back to Marion but If I ever do, I would love to stay at the Elgin Hotel once again.
Before I left the area, I made a side trip to visit the pioneer cemetery that bears my family name. It sits alone, out on a seldom used gravel road not far from a tree line from a small seasonal creek bed. The cemetery is small but well kept in a minimal fashion. It was fenced and mowed occasionally to keep the prairie plants at bay. Never disturbed, these prairie cemeteries are the resting place and refuge of the original prairie and plains vegetation. Everything else has been plowed and planted into oblivion, as natural as an asphalt parking lot. There was one elderly cedar tree (the Rhino tree?) planted a century ago over the grave of the cemetery’s namesake.
Carl was born (geboren) in 1818 and survived until 1886. That was a full life for his time. I know from other sources that he was born in Pomerania a few miles from where my great-grandfather was born. They were probably cousins, not brothers. He came to America as a young man, one of three brothers who made the trip, and moved out to the frontier. They settled in Lincolnville, Kansas, and put down roots and descendants. Some of the latter were literally put down in this very cemetery, but in unmarked graves. Life is hard and few children survived into adulthood. The small graves are simply marked by a flat stone slowly sinking into the soil. There was no money out here for a dead infant or sickly toddler’s tombstone. They were better remembered in the family Bible. The few other marked stones were for in-laws or married daughters and sons in law.
St. Louis or Bust
Apart from the usual crazy traffic in Kansas City, the drive into Missouri was uneventful and mostly familiar. I found it a bit odd that the farmers were burning their fields all through that part of the Flint Hills. The smoke was rising in several places and the fields were black along the roadside. I have old friends in Central Missouri where I lived for 35 years so I stopped for three days and stayed with a friend. It was a nice visit and I took a day to revisit Jefferson City where I lived, my daughter was born and my wife and parents passed away. Jefferson City hasn’t changed much except that the Capitol Building is wrapped in white plastic, it’s first true cleaning in a century. The Missouri River was out of its banks with the spring flood.
In St. Louis I stayed with family and reconnected. It has been over two years since we have been together. We walked along Main Street in St. Charles and Cherokee Street in St. Louis’ Benton Park area and visited the Soulard neighborhood for lunch. There was an evening get-together of old friends from the early 1970s. Those early friendships have stayed strong and true for almost fifty years. We are now all a few years either side of seventy but we well remember our twenties. The weather was a bit rainy so the visit was well suited to conversation and relaxation.
Going Back West
With the several rainy days behind me and a new storm front coming in, I decided to get started on the road home. My route took me west on the interstate until I hit Emporia, Kansas, and then onward on mostly two-lane highways to Liberal, Kansas, and then southwest through the Oklahoma Panhandle, skirting Texas, and finally into New Mexico. I didn’t make much effort to see anymore of Kansas – I had seen quite enough.
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There were a few familiar spots where I stop every few years, like Greensburg, a small Kansas town that was nearly wiped off the map by an EF5 tornado in 2007. The tornado was 1.7 miles wide and fully 95% of the city was totally destroyed and the rest damaged by 205 mph winds. Ten people died and another sixty were injured. The city decided to rebuild as a “Green” city in conformance with sustainable LEED environmental standards. Some of that has been accomplished but the population is only half of what it had been before the tornado. It still seems to be struggling.
People on the plains keep one eye on the sky this time of year. I have only seen one tornado and that was enough. Thankfully, my trip west was sunny and warm.
A driver can slip out of Kansas and into Oklahoma and south into Texas without noticing much of a change. Going west on my route, one recognizes a subtle difference when entering New Mexico. The plains begin to show swells and hills and distant mountains appear.. The mountains are part of the Raton – Clayton Volcanic Field and those are old volcanoes on the horizon. Of course there is that welcome sign and you gain an hour as you enter Mountain Time.
My route took me through Clayton, the old county seat of Colfax County. The old courthouse is still there. This was the wild west and modern lore makes it seem that there were as many outlaws and regular citizens. Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum, one-time associate of Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch gang, was tried for his crimes in Clayton and sentenced to hang. Unfortunately, the folks in charge of the hanging, over in Union County, didn’t quite know how to manage it and the outlaw’s head popped off – decapitated instead of hanged.
Cimarron – even the name evokes a sense of cowboy shenanigans and outlaw activities. The town grew up in the 1860s as part of the Santa Fe Trail. The Cimarron River flows through town and it is situated where the plains butt up against the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I had to wait for a small herd of Pronghorn antelope to cross the road as I drove into town. There were deer grazing in the yard next to the hotel and marmots running across the road every few minutes. I didn’t see any obvious cowboys or outlaws. I suspect there are a few cowboys around.
One of the oldest places in town is the Aztec Mill, established in 1862. The arrival of a grist mill means that there was grain or corn that needed to be ground, a sign of established farming in the area. There is another large mill in La Cueva, a few miles to the south. The Spanish had been farming and ranching here long before the Santa Fe Trail era.
I was spending my last night on the road in Cimarron at the legendary St. James Hotel, established in 1872 by Henri Lambert, Abraham Lincoln’s personal chef.
Anybody who was anybody stayed at the St. James Hotel at one time or another. It was the vortex of the Wild West with all sorts of shootings, murders and outlaw stories swirling around the place. I think almost every famous outlaw stayed here as well as General Phil Sheridan, New Mexico’s Governor Lew Wallace (author of Ben Hur), and lawman Wyatt Earp. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Annie Oakley stayed here and worked out plans for the Wild West Show. The hotel is well built and well maintained with a more modern annex added across the central courtyard.
I requested one of the historic rooms, not specifying anything in particular. I was put into old Room 14, Jesse James preferred room. Jesse signed the hotel as Thomas Howard, his usual alias. He knew how to pick ’em with an outlaw’s eye for comfort and an escape route. Bob Ford, the “dirty little coward”, stayed at the hotel — maybe stalking Mr. Howard. “Black Jack” Ketchum spent time here – the guy that lost his head over in the next county. There are 26 documented killings – some outright murders – that took place in or around the hotel.
T.J. Wright, who won the hotel in a card game one night, was shot in the back as he victoriously walked back to his room, where he died. His room, Room 18, is sealed and not available for guests due to unexplained happenings. Of course, these old hotels have a reputation for hauntings but I did not experience anything strange during my stay.
The current saloon is impressive and the polished wood back-bar dates to the early 1900s. There is a nice restaurant that was busy but not crowded when I stayed there on a Friday night. Reservations are sometimes advisable. There are bullet holes in the ceiling of the restaurant — the original saloon. I’ve only briefly touched on some of the history and the guests that have stayed at the St. James.
There’s more to see in Cimarron if you decide to stay there. There is a small brewery – Blu Dragonfly Brewery and BBQ. I ate lunch there when I came into town and the beer was good as was the BBQ brisket sandwich and baked potato salad. A few miles south of town, past the hotel, is the public area of the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch. The Ranch is huge and encompasses much of the mountain terrain to the west of Cimarron. There is a scouting museum there open to the public.
Homeward, At Last
Heading for home after leaving the hotel, I decided to go west throuch Cimarron Canyon to Taos and then south to Santa Fe and finally home. The Cimarron Canyon is a state park and the river offers a great place for trout fishing. Unfortunately there was a huge forest fire in the lower section that threatened Cimarron and the village of Ute Park a couple years ago. The state park was spared. The fire scar is clearly visible and is evident on both sides of the highway. Restoration is beginning but there is a serious flood risk in the burned areas.
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The trip ended at 2,500 miles. I enjoyed it but had as much of the Kansas plains as I need for a while. I usually take the train across Kansas but I liked stopping at the historic hotels and some of the history.
Fully 80% of the US population lives within 100 miles of the coastline — Atlantic or Pacific. More are clustered in the industrial Great Lakes cities. The Census Bureau reports that 47% of the United States is unoccupied — nobody lives there. Most of the region I crossed is empty of people but still in some sort of agricultural use. The towns out on the Great Plains are tied to the rivers and the railroad. Even in New Mexico, where I live, most of the population lives along the Rio Grande — almost like the Nile in ancient Egypt. To the crowded coastal dwellers, the vast open and empty spaces seem very alien. I’ve had conversations with a few of them on train trips crossing the plains and they look out the train windows and ponder the emptiness like they are watching it go by on a television screen. I find myself doing that at times. On this trip I had to get out into the plains and I succeeded. You mostly remember the emptiness, the quiet, and the wind. It is good to be home after two weeks on the road.
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