Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Some Articles about the Smokey Hill Trail

Post by Doris McCraw

aka Angela Raines

Photo (C) by Doris McCraw

A few years back I ran across an article about the Smokey Hill River Trail. This month I thought I'd share just a couple that mentions that trail here in Colorado. The stories continue to call me back again and again. Of course, the trail came through an area just north of where I live so...

Parker Old Fashioned Fourth (The Aurroa Advocate, June 30, 1971)

The Parker Jaycees will hold an “old ^ fashioned celebration” Saturday, July 3, in Parker, celebrating the Smokey Hill Trail. In September 1874, Mr. and Mrs. James Sample Parker bought the land and ranch on which the Twenty-Mile House stood. The Smokey Hill Trail provided heavy traffic from the people heading for the gold fields of Clear Creek and Pikes Peak. Ox trains loaded with lumber from the sawmills in the area were particularly active on the Smokey Hill Trail. Mr. Parker opened a blacksmith shop to shoe oxen. It was very difficult to shoe oxen because they had to be suspended in the air. This was done by hoisting them up with a wide belt from a four-posted scaffold. 

Photo (C) Doris McCraw

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ROAD BUILDING (The Salida Mail, March 3, 1914)

Written for the Colorado Good Roads Association by Dr, F. L. Bartlett I

All the early histories of the mountain and plains region of the Rocky Mountains are strangely silent regarding the building of. the first roads, and such information as 1 have is mostly gleaned from the old settlers. The first wheeled vehicles came over the Santa Fe Trail in 1828 eu route for Santa Fe, New Mexico, just touching the extreme southeast corner of our state, following the Cimmaron River. A few years later, about 1852, the trail was changed and went by the way of Fort Bent and down Timpas Creek, with a branch running up the Arkansas River to Canon City for the purpose of reaching the trapping stations located along the river. For twenty years great wagon trains, often numbering as high as 400 teams passed over this great natural highway, each caravan doing its own road work as the case demanded, which was just sufficient to get them through. Five thousand pounds of freight was about the limit for eight mules or three yokes of oxen. There were no bridges and it often required 40 or 50 head of mules to pull one wogan across the river beds, while at flood times the caravans simply had to camp and wait. For a long time, the lowest going rate for freight from Independence, Missouri to Slant Fe was 10 cents per pound. The first overland stage and mail line was started from Independence on July Ist, 1849. These stagecoaches were elegantly built and beautifully painted, designed to carry eight passengers, with a guard of eight men on the outside fully armed. They were built water-tight in order to use them for ferries when the streams were too high for fording. The fare per passenger was $240 each way, 40 pounds of baggage being allowed, any excess being at the rate of 50 cents per pound. The trip was made in two weeks when the Indians were not too thick and the weather was fairly good. There are many places to be seen even at this late day on the old trail, showing the deep ruts made by the old coaches, covering sometimes a space 200 feet In width. Meantime, along between 1850 and 1858 two other trails were laid out, one from Leavenworth, called the “Smokey Hill” Trail, headed towards Denver, the other from Atchlnson along the Platte River towards Colorado and Utah, called the “Overland Trail.” The first real stage line to Colorado was the Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Express Line, which made its first starting March 27th, 1859, reaching Denver June 7th, a trip of 71 days; this was mainly over a new and untravelled route, the stage company having to build the road as they progressed. A short time afterwards Horace Greeley was a passenger over this line and helped out with the shovel and pick. The route followed was along the divide between the Solomon and Republican River, thence northwest to the south side of the Republican to its source, thence southwest to the headwaters of the Beaver, Bijou, and Kiowa Creeks, thence along the pine ridge to Cherry Creek, thence along the high ridge on the north side of Cherry Creek to Denver. The route was laid out by B. D. Williams, our first territorial delegate to the Congress of the United States, who certainly knew his business as he kept on high, dry ground all the way. The total distance was 687 miles; afterwards the distance was reduced to 600 miles, and the average time each way reduced to 10 or 12 days. About 1860 the line was reorganized and called the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company, a survey was completed over Berthoud Pass and along the Green River to Utah, and the road was partially completed, but after spending enormous sums of money the company went broke and the line was abandoned for the time being. In 1861 Ben Holliday had bought up many of the old stage lines and then controlled 3,300 miles of stage routes. Between 1861 and 1865 the Government was paying Holliday $1,000,000 yearly for carrying a daily mail from the Missouri River to Placerville, California, a distance of about 2,000 miles over the Overland Route. D. A. Butterfield was running a line from Leavenworth via the Smokey Hill Route to Denver and Salt Lake, while Holiday was sending a branch line from the Overland Trail into Denver via Juleshurg and Fort Morgan. There was much rivalry and many record runs were made. Holliday made the trip himself for a test from Atchison, Kansas, to Placerville, California, 2,000 miles in 12 days. Albert Richardson made the run from Atchison to Denver in 4 1-2 days, and Butterfield was advertising regular trips from the Missouri River to Denver in 8 days and often made them in 6 days. In these times (the early sixties), the stage roads were said to be excellent, far better than at the present time. This must have been true, otherwise, no such records could have been made. In view of the fact that we are now trying to select the best routes for transcontinental travel, it may be well to look up the routes of old trails. Very little change has been made in the old Santa Fe Trail. The Smokey Hill Route followed what Is now known as the “Golden Belt” Route, as far as Oakley, Kansas, thence followed directly west to Cheyenne Wells, Hugo, Liraon, Deertrail, and Bennett to Denver. It is exactly the Kansas Pacific Railroad route, or the Union Pacific Railroad of the present day. The old Leavenworth and Pike's Peak stage route is now practically extinct. The Overland Trail has been changed somewhat; it now starts from Omaha, and is partly on the north side of the Platte, while in the stage-coach days, It ran from Atchinson and kept on the south side of the river through Julesburg to a point near Greeley, then to La Porte near Fort Collins, thence to Virginia Dale, thence to Rock Springs, Wyoming. Three branches connected the Overland Trail with Denver, one across the plains to a point near Fort Morgan, another connecting at Latham near Greeley, another connecting at La Porte near Fort Collins; these old roads are practically the same as our present roads. Thus It will be observed that the present Lincoln Highway does not follow the Old Overland Trail, had it done so we should have had nearly 200 miles of it traversing Colorado, instead of being side-tracked on an alternative loop as is now the case. I have been much interested in statements of the old timers that in the stage-coach days the roads did not become muddy even around Denver, where we now have after a slight rain very muddy roads, it is stated that In old times such was not the case. The reason given for this is that the top soil undisturbed for millions of years had become covered with a layer of sand, which packed hard under the wide tires of the freight wagons and stagecoaches and became impervious to water. At all events, they were careful not to disturb the natural road bed and their only complaint was of sand. The Overland roads were so good that in 1860 a man by the name of Fortune built a steam wagon 20 feet long with driving wheels 8 feet in diameter intended to run between Atchinson and Denver. It worked well on Its trial trips, making 8 miles per hour. Its first trip to Denver was scheduled for July 4th, 1860. Then, just as in modern times, something went wrong with the steering gear and the excited driver in attempting to get out of town ran in through a building, wrecking both the building and the wagon. The disgusted Mr. Fortune concluded his name was “misfortune,” and abandoned the scheme. Except for this, we might have had the automobile forced upon us 40 years earlier, thus advancing our prosperity to a tremendous degree. Now comes a period from 1862 to 1870 when many stage lines were built The first stage line was built between Denver and Pueblo in 1862, then followed the famous Barlow and Sanderson Lines, which were built throughout Colorado wherever there seemed to be a demand. The first toll road in the state was built in 1863 from Bijou Creek near Fort Morgan by the way of Living Springs, Bennett and Watkins to Denver. It was called the “ cut off.” In 1866, Uncle Dick Wooton built a toll road over Raton Pass and took tolls there for several years. In 1867 the Union Pacific Railroad reached Julesburg, and in June 1870, the Denver Pacific Railroad was completed from Denver to Cheyenne, connecting with the Union Pacific, thus practically ending Overland Staging. Stagecoach roads, however, continued to be built in Colorado for many years. They were built jointly by the stage companies and the settlers.  (there is more to the article, but it covers later constructions)

(C) Doris McCraw

Until Next Time: Stay safe, Stay happy, and Stay healthy.



  1. Nicely done, Doris! I learned some things, thanks.

    1. It has such an interesting and somewhat forgotten history. I find is fascinating.

      Thanks for stoppng by.

  2. Ooh. More interesting historical tidbits. The railroad certainly opened up the west and the ability for people to travel with more comfort and more expediently than by stagecoach, but it always makes me a bit sad when inevitable progress (trains replacing stagecoaches) makes what came before irrelevant and sometimes extinct.

    1. The trek Westward is so full of history and so much of it can be forgotten. It's only been recently I'd learned of the Smokey Hill River Trail, although I had read the story of the Blue brothers some years ago in the newspaper. Doris