Kansas: Finding the Forgotten Prairieland

Text: James T. Parks • Photography: James T. Parks

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Kansas was a major transportation crossroads: immigrant trails led pioneers west, cattle routes passed through from Texas, and a network of railroads bisected the state. This land was also home to many of America’s quintessential small towns. Most of Old Kansas has disappeared, largely forgotten in the 21st century. But some of the artifacts of those days gone by are still out there, and I’m itching to saddle up and find them.

Outlaws and Cowboys

Coffeyville, KS, is famous for one event: it’s where the Dalton Gang, in 1892, tried to rob two banks at the same time. In the ensuing running gun battle, four members were killed by Coffeyville’s well-armed citizenry. The fifth survived, but only after being … uh … well-ventilated. The bank buildings are still standing and the path of the gun battle is well marked. The Dalton Defenders Museum displays a number of interesting artifacts associated with the event. 

I head west on my KTM 990 Adventure under blue sky and moderate spring temperatures. In a couple days, I’ll swap it for a BMW F 800 GS Adventure. Before long, I’m off pavement and in deep gravel on my way to a ghost town. Elgin, barely north of the Oklahoma border, is a former cattle town, but now it’s just a shadowy apparition of its colorful past. Although not as well known as Dodge City or Abilene, Elgin was a major beef shipping point in the 1890s and as equally wild and lawless as those other, better-known Kansas cow towns. 

Elgin, in its glory days, had a population of 2,300, but vacant brick and limestone buildings are the only vestiges of the once-vibrant community. Wind whistles through old windows and doors, as if to say, Come inside if you dare. Although a few brave souls still call this place home, not a single human is about—spooky.

Following a gravel road west, I stop at a creek crossing to photograph Caney River Railroad Bridge, an abandoned stone arch structure over the Caney Fork River. Before splashing through the shallow water, I’m joined by the mailman. Apparently the air conditioning in his old Impala isn’t working, because all of the windows are down and a thick layer of dust covers the car’s interior. I inquire if the current gravel road leads to a main road. 

“Don’t rightly know,” he replies, “I’ve never been that far.” Sure enough, after splashing through the water crossing, I meet the mailman again, coming back the other way.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the September/October 2017 back issue.