Time goes forward, yet there is a rear view mirror. Where we have been is often reflected in museums and books, showing what it was like in times past. There are the stores and shops along the byways that ply on these memories. Many were tourist stops along the road, roadside attractions. Over the years, many of these things have faded back into nature. With discerning eye one can find bits and pieces from past centuries and with some imagination relive some of these times.
Early roads across the plains were dusty ruts bouncing over the prairie, going from watering spot to the next water hole. Then the railroads showed up on the prairie and many roads shifted to follow the iron rails. Twisting and turning the Iron Horse made its way westward, passing many a Prairie Schooner. Soon there were horseless carriages mixed in with the wagons. The demand for improved roads grew and the government started highway departments to meet the new travelers of the country.
Roads were graded and covered with gravel and soon concrete or asphalt. These new highways continued to follow beside the rails and the paths the pioneers had blazed decades earlier. The railroad had curved along beside a creek bed for an easy grade. It was also the long way to go from point A to B. The highway surveyed new grades for the highway and they straightened out lots of the curves. No longer was it important to follow the rail ribbon. Now it was important to move the traveler cross country in a hurry.
As roads were realigned, many towns lost their thoroughfare. Business either moved to a new location or closed up. The government was changing the pattern of life on the plains. What had been a busy street through town was now becoming a dusty ole roadway with no travelers passing by. Over there is where the highway had moved to, isolating may downtowns and or cutting some towns off.
The Golden Belt Route was a road laid out from St Louis, Missouri to the goldfields of the Rocky Mountains. It was the shortest most direct route from the river to the mountains. US Highway 40 followed this route across Kansas to Colorado on its way to the Pacific Ocean. To make it shorter it was moved numerous times to make travel easier. In the process many towns were becoming ghost towns. Yet this changing has also created a slice of other days. A portion of the old route remained as a country road for the local ranchers and farmers. This bypassed route can be followed today and see where the pioneers had traveled. It is a gateway to another era. It is something of a living museum that one can pause and ponder what happened years ago.
The east end of this forgotten slice of other days is south of the junction of US Hwy 40/287 and SH 96. Traveling south on the state road one will approach a railroad crossing. On a knoll to the east is the Aroya School house and turning down the dirt road towards the school is the ghost town of Aroya. For years the town had set vacant until recently a couple of residents moved in to keep the ghosts of the past company. Here a few old buildings stand, a gas station, garage and shop, commercial buildings and a couple of old homes. Aroya had its beginnings in 1870 as a stop for the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Along the rails can be seen some rubble piles from the railroad days.
Turning west the road follows the railroad tracks and just over 3 miles is the stage station for which the town of Aroya was named for. Nothing left of the stage stop and it is in a pasture south of the tracks next to a gully. Here this road follows the old railroad right of way which was a part of the South branch of the Smoky Hill Trail. Wells Fargo operated the stage line through here and Hughes and Company was the operator as the railroad moved westward. In spots the ruts from the wagons and stage can be seen. In most places the road is on the old trails going west.
The west end of this remnant of the Gold Belt Route is a now closed rest area. Leading to the south is a country road. In the distance can be seen a building sitting in a pasture and beyond that is the woods of the Big Sandy Creek. This road leads to the Ghost Town of Clifford. The building in the pasture is the one room school house. When the road curves to the east, is downtown Clifford. Here are concrete footers from structures now gone, depressions for basements/cellars and other footers. Tall stately cottonwoods line the railroad tracks where the depot used to be. Across the railroad tracks is the crown of all haunted houses. A private road leads to the rancher’s sheds and equipment plus the Montgomery Ward house that is barely hanging one. The porches have collapsed, the windows are gone and the winds of time moan through the old house. The owner is also very protective of his property and doesn’t like people to wander onto it.
Clifford is the site of all kinds of western things. Indian Sweat Lodge, Indian raids on the stage station of Mirage, nearby. There was a robbery of a military payroll wagon and the stories of buried gold in the gulches over the ridge. Indian attacks on the railroad workers, General George Custer being assigned to the area to protect the railroad workers. A notorious outlaw gang rode in the area robbing weary travelers and trains, there were cowboys the saloons and frontier camps. Whatever western movie Hollywood made, it happened here. Cattle drives covering the land like a carpet, Buffalo hunters searching for their game, shoot outs. There was also plague and pestilence. Just past the curve is a small grave yard. A family is buried here, possibly from influenza or anthrax. The prairie had a way of humbling people.
Coon Creek is the east edge of town. Here there is a large sized pool the little stream has carved into the knoll on its way to the Big Sandy Creek. It is on the banks of this stream the Indians built their Sweat Lodge. With the woods nearby they had wood for the frame of their lodge. Building a fire in the rock ring the Indians would begin their ritual. Water was brought up from the creek in animal bladders or gourds and poured over the steaming rocks. Buffalo robe covered the wood frame and the low chant of the Indians could be heard within. Soon the cover was opened and into the pool of water the Indians jumped. For decades the Indians had been using this spot, then, the white men showed up. For water on the prairie was precious on this pond had abundant water.
To the north is a small grove of trees, roughly 3 miles. Here is coon springs, the feed water for Coon Creek. This was the north fork of the Smoky Hill Trail. It also became a relay station for the Butterfield Overland Dispatch Stage Lines. No longer was Coon Creek a quiet place of solitude for the Indians. There were travelers with gold fever tramping through the Indians sacred place. When BOD ceased stage operations, the Wells Fargo began operating the stage line. They shifted their station to the south, closer to the pond Coon Creek had created. Even closer now was the invaders.
The heist of the Army payroll was the main attraction for many visitors to Clifford. In 1864 An Army payroll wagon was crossing the plains. When it approached Mirage, some bandits jumped the guards and wagon and were able to rob the Army payroll. The highwaymen managed a get way but not very successful for the troopers were after them. The crooks were caught but they did not find the gold for the payroll. The bandits said they had buried it in dutch ovens in a gully over there. The burial site was not found and the legend of the buried gold began. Even today some of the locals say it is still buried out there in the pasture some place.
Numerous people have wandered the area, walking the gullies looking for the buried gold. In the early 1900’s a gentleman showed up at Clifford to go treasure searching. He spent months walking the area looking for the gold. He left saying he had found nothing. Would you tell if you found the gold. Robbers still roamed the land back then a whiff of found gold would draw them out in a hurry. Yet for a few, the dutch ovens are still buried in the gully over there.
The Montgomery Ward house still stands but just barely. The porches have collapsed and the weather pounds on it. Like so many things at Clifford, it too shall soon become a memory.
There had been numerous conflicts with Indians along the Smoky Hill Trail and stage stations. Here at Coon Creek there was more intensity because of the sacred spot of the Indians. In 1870, the conflict came to a boil. The railroad was following the trail and construction crews were scattered along the route of the Kansas Pacific RR. That spring the Indians launched a series of attacks on the railroad workers and the stage stations from Kit Carson to Lake Station, CO. The Indian raiders were in groups of a dozen. Railroad workers were killed and wounded during these raids and the crews fled back to Kit Carson for protection. There was a small garrison there but not enough to deter the Indians. Washington DC was telegraphed asking for help.
General Custer was reinstated to his command and sent to Kit Carson to protect the railroad workers and stage line. Custer bivouacked at Kit Carson and Colonel Reno was bivouacked at River Bend CO. They patrolled the railroad for six months with no major incidents after they arrived. The Indians had retreated to Oklahoma or went north to join the Sioux in their battle where they would meet Custer again.
The railroad was completed to Denver before the end of the year and Clifford became a stop on the new railway. There was a depot, water tank and section houses built. A few people moved in and set up shops and a saloon. Ranching was the main business in the area and cattle were shipped.
Venture on down the road, it crosses coon creek. In this area was the sweat lodge. Look at the bridge, it is a throwback to when concrete was to be the solution to road construction, it dates the 1910’ or 20’s. Most of these old crossings of concrete have disappeared. Bounce on down the road, here is where the early day pioneers plodded along in their covered wagon. The nearby railroad tracks were a guide and kind of a safe haven for the early traveler.
Time rolls back on this rutty old road. When the highway was realigned, the county got the old right of way and they took care of it as a county road. To that end a small piece of early history was preserved in part. This bouncy roadway probably had its beginnings in the 1850’s when the military marked the Smoky Hill Trail.
The land is still rangeland, no longer do the buffalo roam, it is now cattle that keep the grass shorn. Otherwise the land is the same it was centuries ago. Oh there are fence posts and the railroad. On ridges can be seen the watchers, antelope. Warily they watch the interloper pass by. The grass land is loaded with birds. The prairie warbler, Western Meadowlark, will serenade in the summer. Other birds flit among the grasses catching a variety of bugs, others search out the seeds of the grasses. The gimp wing killdeer screeches when one gets to close. High overhead floats the hawk or maybe a prairie falcon. The kestrel Darts over the land hunting. The woods of the sand creek house the majestic bald eagle and the owl stoically watches things unfold. The land has not changed much. Man’s mark is very small.
Bouncing on down the road brings one to the village of Boyero. Here is a little ghost town that clings to its past. There are a couple of residents that still call Boyero home and there are some nearby ranchers. If one can catch one of them out and about, they are amiable and will talk about the town they live in and its early history. The streets can still be seen, the livery is there as is the boarding house. The store collapsed a while back and is gone, a concrete pad marks its spot. There are some other old building and sheds still standing.
The railroad had built a cistern there for water and they allowed the townspeople to get water from it. The water of the creek is kind of rank. Yet one guy told there was a spring on its banks and when he was younger, mom sent him to the spring to get water for her to wash her hair in.
A state highway used to pass on the southern edge of town on its way to highway 40. Now it is a dusty country road crossing the southern edge. Boyero was also a section town for its railroad workers. There had been some section houses here to house the employees.
It was a bustling town for years and even today people in the area still refer to it as a town. There ghosts of all types that roam the land here. There are spooky stories if one can find the right story teller. There are stories of grim times and happy times. Here time is on hiatus and awaits the seeker with imagination.
On down the road wanders the soul, passing ranches, cattle grazing, the jackrabbit jumps up and leaves a trail of dust over the prairie. The coyote prowls along looking. Life here has its own rhythm and doesn’t change much. There are more old concrete bridges to cross. A stage station to pass.
Across the land a herd of cattle saunter along, cowboys riding along by them talking, dog trotting beside them listening. A dust devil swirls up. Listen to the song of the plains.