As a child, I remember driving Kansas back roads at night with my grandparents. It was a black ocean of grass and a sky awash with stars. As I looked out my window, I would imagine what it must have felt like for the people who traveled it before, in covered wagons lurching and creaking across the prairie. Did the boundlessness of it make them feel lonely? Or did they stare up at that gigantic sky with the same wonder I felt?
I didn’t know it then, but two significant wagon trails did pass through Kansas—in fact, both near Lawrence. The Santa Fe Trail went just South of town, through Baldwin City. The Oregon Trail went right over the top of Mount Oread.
And, if you’ve got an afternoon to spare and a good map, you can still travel them both yourself.
Douglas County has several markers and land features, that still exist from both the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. It’s a journey of signposts and fields, mostly, but it’s also a journey of the imagination. It’s one thing to read that wagons crossed the Wakarusa River; it’s another to see the steep banks of the river and think about getting a 2000 pound wagon across. It’s one thing to read that the little trading-post of Brooklyn was the last casualty of Quantrill’s Raid; it’s another to see the blank field and gravestone-like markers, which are all that remain.
Driving the Trails Today
Both trails began in Independence, Missouri, and followed the same route until they split in Gardner, Kansas, just East of the Douglas County line. From there, the Santa Fe Trail went South, while the Oregon Trail went North.
While I’ve hit some of the highlights of both trails below, you’ll definitely want to download a map or pickup a copy of the self-guided driving tour brochure at the Lawrence Visitor Center (402 N. 2nd Street) to get good directions before you head out. Driving each trail should take you about 2 hours, including time for quick stops at the more interesting spots.
The Santa Fe Trail
Beginning at the Eastern side of Douglas County, the first significant milestone on the Santa Fe Trail is the Battle of Black Jack site on Highway 56. While the battle site will also be interesting for Civil War historians, for Santa Fe Trail purposes, you’ll definitely want to see the wagon ruts.
From the parking area at the battle site, follow the easy-to-spot footbridge off into the field, where a sign points to two large indentions that run parallel to each other. The ruts were made by wagons, which traveled as many as four across to ward off attacks.
Next, head towards Baldwin City. Palmyra, which has since been annexed to Baldwin, used to be a booming little community, with several blacksmiths, a hotel, and a well to service travelers. Only the well remains, and, although it has long since been capped off, it’s worth a quick stop.
Several parts of the next section of the trail, which winds through gravel roads, travel right along the original Santa Fe Trail route through a section called “The Narrows”. Wagons used the winding route across the ridge to avoid the getting stuck in the drainage of the rivers on either side (the Kansas to the North and the Marais des Cygnes to the South).
Next, you’ll reach the marker for Brooklyn. Brooklyn was a small village and trading post in the early trail days, until William Quantrill and his men retreated South on August 21, 1863. The raiders burned the entire village, and all that now remains is a sign post and a small trail marker.
From Brooklyn, cross Highway 59 to see Willow Springs—also marked by trail marker—which was a good source of water for parched livestock, as well as their human companions.
Last, about 12 miles West of Baldwin City, you can see Simmons Point Stage Station, where travelers could get fresh mules and a night’s lodging. The remains of the Station are still somewhat visible from the road, but they’re on private property so be sure not to trespass. From there, the Santa Fe Trail loosely follows Highway 56 into Osage County and onward to Council Grove.
The Oregon Trail
If you want to follow the Oregon Trail through Douglas County, I recommend stopping first in Eudora. While Eudora was slightly North of the most common trail route, the Eudora Community Museum (720 Main St.; open Tuesday-Saturday, 11-5 p.m.) is a jewel of information.
As he generously pulled out maps and artifacts for me to see, the museum’s director, Ben Terwilliger, emphasized that while we think of the Oregon Trail as being like a highway, it wasn’t just one road. “It wasn’t just one trail. People were constantly trying slightly different routes,” Terwilliger said.
This is true in the area around Eudora, where some people arrived via the Northern “Westport Road” and others took the Southern route that is more commonly marked on maps today.
But, however they arrived, once they got to Eastern Douglas County, all Oregon Trail travelers had to cross the Wakarusa River.
Earlier travelers—including William Quantrill and his band—most commonly crossed at one of several places now lumped together as Bluejacket Crossing. While much of that area is now on private property, one of the ramps used to get to the river is about 800 yards from the current Highway 10 bridge. While the ramp used to be carved with traveler’s initials, river erosion and construction have washed most of the visible landmarks away.
Later traveler’s had the advantage of crossing at Blanton’s Bridge, which was built by James Abbott in 1854, in an area later claimed by Napoleon Blanton. While the original bridge is now gone, of course, it was located where what is now Highway 40 crosses the Wakarusa.
If you drive the Bluejacket Route, be sure to look to the Southwest for the Blue Mound, a navigational aid on the trail. (You can’t miss it.) If you opt to follow Highway 40 to Blanton’s Bridge, look Southeast as you head up towards the high ground in Lawrence. (The mound is also particularly visible from the top of the hill at 23rd Street and Wakarusa.)
The next significant marker on the Oregon Trail is on top of Mount Oread, in Lawrence. There, a large stone memorial sits on the Southwest side of the Chi Omega Fountain, to mark the path that wagons took over the hill.
From there, the trail loosely joins up with Highway 40 to the edge of Douglas County. While the hilly twists of the highway make for an entertaining drive, wagons would have followed the high ground to avoid expending unnecessary energy going up and down the hills.
Just before you cross into Shawnee County, you’ll reach the unincorporated town of Big Springs. While it is the oldest settlement in Douglas County, its heyday was during the Oregon Trail era. It stopped growing when railroads were built elsewhere—eventually losing its post office in 1903—but the United Brethren Church built in 1856 is still standing, now functioning as a Methodist congregation.
Alas, the story of Big Springs is the story of many of the small settlements on both the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. As railroads made travel faster, safer, and cheaper post-Civil War, the trails fell into disuse. While some travelers continued to use the trails into the 1890’s, by the 1870’s travel had largely dried up.
A proud Lawrence transplant, Meryl Carver-Allmond lives in a hundred-year-old house with her sweet husband, two darling kiddos, one puppy, one gecko, and an ever rotating flock of poultry. By day, she’s a public defender. By night, she writes, takes photos, knits, and cooks up a storm. She chronicles her adventures on her personal blog, My Bit of Earth.