Kansas: Finding the Forgotten Prairieland
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.
Motorcycles & Gear
2008 KTM 990 Adventure
2014 BMW F 800 GS Adventure
Helmet: Schuberth C3 Pro
Jacket and Pants: Klim Badlands Pro
Boots: Vega Touring
Gloves: Klim Element Short
I lay down my bedroll for the night in Winfield. Seeking their fortune in the California Gold Rush, prospectors followed the “Old California Trail” through this area in 1849. The first train arrived on September 30, 1879, and by 1887 five railroads connected in Winfield—a critical factor in the town’s survival in the 20th century and beyond.
Trains, Planes, and Motorcycles
It’s another beautiful morning, if a bit warm, for hitting the trail. I saddle up and ride north. I’m soon kicking up rooster tails of dust on a succession of Kansas farm roads before landing in a place that must be seen to be believed.
Owing to its abandoned buildings and diminished population, Beaumont is considered a ghost town—but not all of its inhabitants are of the ethereal variety. Motorcycles are parked outside the restored Beaumont Hotel, which has been converted into a B&B. Today, the hotel is hosting a Sunday brunch, alfresco style, for bikers and small plane pilots, and a band is keeping the mood festive.
A small plane lands on the town’s grass runway and taxies near me on Main Street, coming to rest in the ample airplane parking lot next to the hotel. The fliers disembark and make a beeline to the hotel’s restaurant for some tasty vittles. Next to the lot, an enormous water tower gives mute testimony to Beaumont’s halcyon days, when it was a notable stop on the Katy Railroad Line.
Zigzagging north along gravel roads, I see in the far distance a jagged monolith perched atop a hill—it must be Teter Rock. Erected by James Teter in the late 19th century, Teter Rock served as a guidepost for homesteaders heading west to the Cottonwood River. At the rock’s base, I meet up with Kansas riding friends Eddie and Ann McLiney who have escorted a group of riders here.