The scenery along Highways 9 and 36 challenges many people’s belief that Kansas is flat and treeless. Even in western Kansas, the road undulates over rolling hills. Trees line meandering waterways that lead into either the Solomon or the Republican River drainages. This undulating, grass covered country makes it easy to understand why native inhabitants fought so hard to continue hunting and living in its sheltered valleys.
Even today, it’s clear to anyone who’s traveled the stark dry and treeless Santa Fe Trail across southern Kansas into Colorado that this northern route has more trees and fresh water. That would explain why partners who successfully ran Majors, Waddell, and Russell freighting business between Leavenworth and Denver would organize a stage line for travelers to the gold fields 1859 using this trail . They named their brainchild the Leavenworth and Pikes Peak Express and charged passengers $125 one-way for a quick one to two week journey to the Rockies (amazing how the definition of quick has changed with the advent of cars and airplanes).
The surveyed course had 26 stations that provided meals, lodging, new horses, and fresh drivers. Unique in this business, the company allowed station operators’ families to join them at these remote outposts located near either the Solomon or Republican Rivers. Little documentation of actual sites exists, but George Root and Russell Hickman jointly published an article in the Kansas Quarterly in 1944 providing some record of these locales.
Station 12 was located “In Smith county, probably a little south of the forks of Beaver creek, about seven miles southwest of present Smith Center.” One diarist recorded the following fact about this site, “At Station Twelve where we dined, the carcasses of seven buffaloes were half submerged in the creek. Yesterday a herd of three thousand crossed the stream, leaping down the steep banks. A few broke their necks by the fall; others were trampled to death by those pressing on from behind.”
Down the road was Station 13, near present day Kirwin. Newspaperman Horace Greeley describes a tent lodging in a journal entry of his trip on the Express. “I write in the station-tent (having been driven from our wagon by the operation of greasing its wheels, which was found to interfere with the steadiness of my hastily-improvised table), with the buffalo visible on the ridges south and every way but north of us. ”
It was a hard day’s journey to Station 14, which was located approximately “12 miles southeast of present Norton and about four miles north of the North Fork of the Solomon River.” There was no description of the building’s construction, but a diarist mentioned the lack of water and trees. One noted, “To-day we have been among prairie-dog towns, passing one more than a mile long. Some of their settlements are said to be twenty miles in length, containing a larger population than any metropolis on the globe. . . . This evening we supped on his flesh, and found it very palatable, resembling that of the squirrel.” Perhaps this abundance of tasty mammals led to the naming of Prairie Dog Creek.
Travelers today can see a replica of Station 15 near Highway 36, on the west edge of Norton, Kansas. According to a Mr. Richardson traveling through in in 1859, “We spent the night at Station Fifteen, kept by an ex-Cincinnati lawyer, who with his wife, formerly an actress at the Bowery Theater, is now cooking meals and making beds for stage passengers on the great desert three hundred miles beyond civilization. Our road, following the valley of the Republican River, is here two thousand three hundred feet above sea-level. . . . Day's travel fifty-six miles.”
According to Horace Greeley’s notes, this was the halfway point between Leavenworth and the goldfields. It took his stage a week to get to this point, and he expected to take another week to reach his destination. Nowadays, we could make this trip easily in nine hours. It’s hard to imagine thinking two weeks was a swift journey.
The Quarterly article details encounters with the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kiowa as well as stage coach wrecks and buffalo related traffic jams. While you’re making good time cruising smooth asphalt, remember those adventurous souls who traveled the Leavenworth Pikes Peak Express, hoping to hit pay dirt in the Rockies.