Some of what its founders planned came to fruition in Atchison in 1858. They’d long believed its geographic position, being a few miles west than any other town along the river in Kansas (Le Grande Detour de Missouri, as the French explorers called it) positioned it to attract emigrants heading overland to the farther West. Mormons used the area for outfitting heavily in 1854, and many other wagon trains followed suit from 1855-1857, but in 1858 the business exploded. Due to one word: gold. In July men who had camped where what would one day become Confluence Park in Denver (through which I ride my bike twice a day) found gold a few miles south (very near my father’s house in SE Denver). And it was on, so to speak. The Pikes Peak Gold Rush had begun.
Atchison was a big part of it. That summer over a thousand men and nearly eight-thousand oxen pulled over seven-hundred wagons out of the rutted streets of Atchison, bound for Denver and Colorado City (Ingalls, 1916). And these were but a fraction of the numbers preparing to leave in the summer of ’59, man and animal and machine sinking into the ruts and mud, tipping the earth into the mighty river astern while the men toppled over the grassy bow pointing West, ever west. But how best to get there? There were several routes out of Atchison, the most popular being to follow the Oregon Trail and the South Platte River. The Santa Fe Trail could also be used, striking north from Bent’s Fort in what is now southern Colorado. Both were somewhat indirect, and in the spring of 1859 word spread that a more direct middle route had been found. Now known as the Smoky Hill Trail, it runs largely parallel to and few miles south of what is now Interstate-70, a route I have driven countless times. It was a dangerous, poorly-marked and under-provisioned trail in 1859, and one need only make that drive once to see how scary it probably was. Between Fort Riley near Manhattan, KS, and Limon, CO, there is little. Little anything. Water, wood, notable features in the landscape. For the inexperienced traveler, which most of the 59ers were, it was just a bad, bad idea.
Many were undeterred, however, due in part to all kinds of press that the route was actually easier and saved some 100 miles off the northern and southern options. As many things in Kansas in the 1850s, newspaper reports were somewhat unreliable, to say the least. And if Ft. Riley to Limon was hard, west of Limon was worse. This section became known as “Starvation Trail.” Though it actually took place somewhat east of this section, part of its nickname came from the horrible story of a party of 16 Pikes Peakers that included three brothers, Daniel, Alexander and Charles Blue. Only 5 of the 16 reached Denver, and the Blue brothers were forced to eat the remains of a man named Solely. Daniel was saved by a band of Arapaho Indians (Blue, 1860). It isn’t the only story of cannibalism in Colorado history (see Alfred Packer’s story), but it’s a particularly horrible one. The Smoky Hill originated where my great-grandfather’s blacksmith shop (which would become my grandfather’s hardware store) in Atchison, and terminates where I caught a bus everyday during college, and with my wife as we left downtown for our City Park apartment when we were first married. It literally links my past and my present, and has a lot of great stories to tell. You can bet it will be included in the Second Song.