Residents in the Flint Hills are hoping to preserve a piece of Santa Fe Trail history, a spot in Morris County where wagons once crossed a place called Rock Creek. It's hard to imagine now, but this quiet and serene spot once boasted thousands of wagons loaded with goods and gold headed up and down the Santa Fe Trail. Commentator Rex Buchanan recently visited the area to see what he could see.
Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, traveler and director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey. He lives in Lawrence.
Production assistance for this commentary was provided by KPR News Intern Taylor Smith, a junior from Salina, studying news and information at the University of Kansas.
I tend to think of the Santa Fe Trail was the I-70 of 19th Century Kansas. In the 1800s, wagons on the Trail hauled goods from the Kansas City area to New Mexico, at least until the railroads were built and put the wooden freighters out of business. Today’s U.S. Highway 56 pretty much follows the route of the old Trail through Kansas.
Even though thousands of wagons took the Trail, for the most part you’d be hard pressed to find much evidence of it in eastern Kansas, where cultivation and erosion have erased most of its presence. In western Kansas, where it’s drier and there’s less cultivation, wagon ruts are still visible in places.
Out in the Flint Hills of Morris County, locals are working to identify and preserve the spot where the trail crossed Rock Creek, about five miles east of Council Grove. Council Grove was the last place for westbound travelers to pick up supplies or fix wagons--a jumping off point on the Trail. Rock Creek, which runs south into the Neosho River, is the last stream travelers had to cross before Council Grove.
For the most part, the Trail stuck to ridge tops. Travel was smoother and easier up there, avoiding the ups and downs of hills or creek crossings. But sometimes creeks had to be forded. At the Rock Creek crossing, a layer of flat, solid limestone, under the stream, made crossing easier.
Folks in this area have gotten a grant from the National Park Foundation to build a short hiking trail to this spot where thousands of wagons rumbled through the shallow water.
Yet in spite of decades of trail traffic, identifying that crossing is tough. In the intervening 150 years, Rock Creek has flooded and changed course. The surrounding bottomland now grows corn and soybeans, not the tallgrass and wildflowers of before. During trail days, there was a general store just east of the crossing, and a settlement called Agnes City a few miles away. But they’re long gone.
The lesson in all this, maybe, is the swiftness of change, how quickly the landscape is transformed. This summer I did some field work near an old farmstead in central Kansas. In the 1960s, there was a big white house here, a barn, some corrals for cattle. Today all that’s left is the house’s concrete foundation, so overgrown with poison ivy, elm trees, and cedars that it’s hard to find. Evidence of the recent past is extinguished, like it was never there.
That seems to be true not just of man-made features in the landscape, but natural features too. We think about rock outcrops as static and permanent. But a hard rainstorm, and the topography is transformed, rearranged. A few decades, a generation or two, and the land looks completely different. Imagine what centuries can do.
Maybe that’s why it’s important to preserve places like the Rock Creek Crossing. Otherwise, we might forget about the Trail and role it played in our past. In a few years, when the hiking trail to the crossing is finished, that change will be a new part of the landscape. But it won’t be permanent. Nothing ever is.