Floating across the Prairie is the remains of a once important thoroughfare. The Golden Belt Route was the shortest distance between St Louis and Denver. US Highway 40 had it beginnings following the railroad across the land. A person needs to back up further to understand why this once thriving route now sits empty and destitute.
Government policy created the route but it was also the policy changes of the government that created the ghost towns and the ghostly remains of stage stops, a highway, trails and other long forgotten incidents.
In this area, there are three ghost towns, four stage stations abandoned, stage robberies, buried treasure, numerous Indian attacks, a band of outlaws, Indian sweat lodge and other lost tales. When the government rerouted the highway, this small portion was left intact and over the years it has been weathered out to trails of ghosts and their towns.
In the mid 1500’s the Spanish roamed through the area in their search for gold. Later it was the French in the search for fur. The land was Indian, Spanish, Mexican, French, Texas and finally US. The government sent military detachments across the land to explore and report back to the politicos in Washington DC.
With the discovery of gold in California, the politicians wanted to expand the US to the Pacific Ocean. A military expedition was sent from Ft Leavenworth to map out a trail to the Rocky Mountains, in hopes they could find a path over their barrier.
In 1859 gold was discovered in the Colorado and another gold rush was on. The trail the government had laid out became a freeway for the gold seekers. The Smoky Hill Trail followed the Smoky Hill River across Kansas to its headwaters in eastern Colorado. Soon stage lines were roaring over this road as gold fever struck hundreds.
To expand the country west the politicians in Washington DC passed the Pacific Railroad Act. This brought out all types of get rich schemers. Government money was being dangled. All types of railroad companies were formed and a few chartered. One was successful in that they revitalized a defunct railroad. They began operations at Wyandotte, Kansas. Their goal was the Pacific Ocean. They adopted the name Kansas Pacific to avoid conflict with the other railroad to the north.
West across Kansas they headed, wanting to beat that railway to the north and get on the Overland Trail to the Pacific. There was a conflict among the key members and one got the boot from the boardroom. Some loyal employees took umbrage with this and in a confrontation with the owner he let him know. They employee was pretty upset, he shot the president of the railroad and killed him. This ended the advantage the Kansas Pacific had so the Overland route was scrapped. They chose the Smoky Hill route to Denver.
The Kansas pacific followed the Smoky Hill River westward, building towns as they laid rail westward. Abilene, Kansas became one of their more famous towns because of all the shootings with the cowboys off the cattle trail. There were other towns along the way that had cattle loading and the gunfights but Abilene got the notoriety.
The Civil War slowed things down but westward they went on government sponsored money. They arrived in Denver the summer of 1870.
Small towns dotted the railroad right of way, small oasis for the settlers that began showing up. Wagons were following along the tracks and more homes were built. Then the Homestead act was changed and more settlers began to show upsetting down stakes for their new homes. Communities were built and the railroad brought mail out to these homesteaders. Government polity was building more towns in the once empty prairie, where the buffalo roamed.
Soon the horseless carriage was bouncing over the prairie. Again the government got involved. A highway department was formed by congress and highways were built to accommodate the new machines. These new highways followed the rails. Like snake paths the roadway wound over the grasslands.
The towns all the rails were thriving with all of this new business. The outlying communities were growing. Supplies were easy to come by, there was mail and materials to build with sat in the towns.
1920 was the roaring 20’s, spirits were high and people were prosperous.
To make travel easier, the government looked at the highway maps. They decided to straighten out lots of the curves that the roads had from following the railroad. Cross country the new highway went. Leaving the towns high and dry. No longer were motorists traveling through their towns. Filling stations closed up, stores shuttered. Ghosts were hovering overhead, waiting to move in.
In the 1950’s the Interstate Highway system began, isolating more towns and changing peoples driving habits.
Along the backloads of the high plains one can find numerous ghost towns that have disappeared because of the changes in government policies. Towns that were once thriving, boasting populations over 500 people, banks, movie theaters, car dealers, multiple grocery stores and gas stations. Now they have a few barren foundations to mark where some buildings had been.
This short stretch of the Golden Belt route is like traveling back in time. There are a few building standing, the streets are visible and few souls still live in them. The Indians roamed here, arrowheads have been found. Their sweat lodge is near a stage station. The buried treasure from the payroll robbery is supposedly still buried in the ravine near by. General Custer and Col. Reno patrolled through here after all of the Indian attacks.
Here one can see the dreams of many, the follies of a few, the impact of poorly planned government polies and the trail of outlaws. Like many things, Mother Nature wants to reclaim. Some of the old building have collapsed, the roads are covered with weeds and the schoolhouse is now shade for the bulls of the rancher.
For one willing to bounce over a dirt road it is an adventure awaiting.