PIONEER HISTORY OF KANSAS
by Adolph Roenigk
THE REPUBLICAN RIVER IN THE DAYS
BEFORE BRIDGES WERE BUILT
As an example that at times truth may seem stranger than fiction, we will imagine an old settler in Clay Center who is telling us stories about the wild and wooly West before Clay County became settled. Of course, he claims his stories to be gospel truth, and goes on telling about a steamboat coming up the river from Kansas City to that vicinity. The listeners feel sorry for the poor man; they charge all this up to the distortion of his mental faculties. Others less sympathetic pronounce him to be the biggest liar that ever walked the streets of Clay Center. The old man claims to have lived on the west side of the river; then apparently forgetting the steamboat story, switches off on another topic and tells of the time before bridges existed, how he used to cross the river with an ox-team, which happened every time he went to Clay Center.
The idea of a steamer running in a stream that could be waded and crossed with teams. Of course, such contradictory stories could not be true, and were not believed, especially by the younger generation. Some people might have thought the old man ought to be in an asylum where he might be taken care of. But another old fellow listening to these stories remembered that they did have ox-teams, and did cross the river less than half a century ago; but how about that steamboat story? Let us investigate.
There are many things that happened years ago that have been forgotten, and that the younger people have never heard of, or would scarcely believe them should they hear of them. Perhaps there is not a person in a hundred who knows of the Kansas river traffic before the coming of railroads, the Kansas river and some tributaries, at one time was claimed to be navigable and that for years many trips were made from Kansas City to Fort Riley. Not only that, but steamers from Cincinnati, Ohio, St. Louis and other main river points made trips direct to Fort Riley. More than thirty steamers ran on this river. I could give the names and details but space forbids. Many boats were built especially for shallow river traffic, and made regular trips when sufficient water permitted it, and when these steamers were stranded on a sandbar and had to wait for the water to rise to let them proceed then these trips
became irregular. One steamer, the Gus Linn, made one trip to Junction City. (See N. B. The Kansas River; Its Navigation, Vol. 9; Kansas Historical Collections.)
In regard to the steamer which ran on the Republican we copy the following extract from page 333: The Financier No. 2 was a side-wheeler of 125 tons burden and accommodation for fifty first class passengers. She arrived at Lawrence, May 21, 1855, and received a cordial welcome. Proceeding up the river she ran aground at Grasshopper Bar, opposite Lecompton, and again at Tecumseh Island, and was three days in making the run from Lawrence to Topeka, a distance, by river, of forty miles. At the latter point she took on the freight for upper points, discharged by the Emma Harmon, and proceeded on her way.
Upon arriving at Fort Riley and discharging her freight she proceeded up the Republican, a distance of forty miles, as an experiment, returning in safety the following day. This would make the highest point reached by the only steamer that ever navigated the Republican about where Clay Center now stands. We quote further: The boat proved to be too large for the Kansas, and upon her return to the mouth of the river she sought business elsewhere.
Again we quote: (St. Louis Post Intelligencer, June 8, 1856.) For a delightful trip, with pleasant officers, we recommend the fair ladies and pleasure-seeking gentlemen who read this to step on board the good steamer Brazil, Captain Reed, and proceed with that boat to the Kansas river; she leaves this evening, and will proceed, if found practicable, to Fort Riley, some two or three hundred miles from the mouth. The traveler on this route will have the opportunity of seeing some of the finest land on the globe; wild and unsettled to be sure, but more interesting on that account. These steamers ran from 1854 to 1866 when the Kansas river traffic was abandoned.
So we can see what may seem a ridiculous, unbelievable story may in reality be the truth. As to crossing the river with ox-teams, that was an everyday occurrence. I took a homestead of Uncle Sams domain in the Republican valley and only team we had the first years was an ox-team. We were located on the west side, and the town of Clay Center was on the east side of the river, there being no ferry boats or bridges, the only way to get across was to wade or ford the river, which we had to do every time we went to town.
During the summer months, perhaps while having fair weather in our vicinity, there were heavy rains in the northwest, up the river, which meant a rise in the stream of which we were unaware when going to town, as we lived some distance west. If for provisions or for other reasons it became necessary to go to town, we arrived at its banks and found the river swollen all we could do was to return home and try again as soon as the water receded.
There were several crossings we could use, but on account of quicksand in many places we generally crossed at Rocky Ford, four miles northwest of Clay Center. Here, from the bluff, the road led down a steep incline to the waters edge. There was no room to turn around, and the only way to return was to unhitch the team and pull the wagon up the hill backwards. This ford had a rock bottom as the names implies. In the ordinary stage of the water it was knee deep in the deepest place and the track formed a slight half circle; beyond this track down stream there were hidden boulders and deep places which made it dangerous in high water.
A Fourth of July Celebration Attended by Difficulties
In the spring of 1871 many homesteaders came and the country became pretty well settled. Seasonable rains had produced a luxurious growth of blue stem, feed for stock, breaking of prairie and opening up the farms made steady progress. When the time came a grand Fourth of July celebration was advertised by the town people of Clay Center. There was to be a regular old-fashioned barbecue and all its accompanying features promised in handbills and advertisements.
It was welcomed by the settlers and their families to break the monotony of the everyday drudgery. From our neighborhood eight young people went; four couples in one wagon. Almost everyone had ox-teams those days, but one of these young men had a horse-team which he generously used to take us to the celebration. The distance to town was twelve miles and we started in good season to celebrate a full day.
It was a jolly crowd along the way and arriving on top of
NOTE: The early settlers in Clay Center were composed of Americans and a number of foreign nationalities. In certain localities the Swedis predominated; in the southern part we had a British colony; in the northwest French-Canadians were in majority; in our neighborhood were mostly Americans and Germans. Our Fourth of July party was of the latter nationalities. As they were all newcomers they had been acquainted with each other but a short time.
the bluff near the river, we were too busy having a good time and gave no thought to investigate the state of the river but drove right down the step incline to the edge of the water, when to my disappointment I saw the river was swollen and if by myself would not have attempted to cross, but to my horror the rattle-headed driver drove right into the water before anyone had a chance to protest.
My hair raised on my head. I could swim some and might have had a chance of getting out of the turbulent waters, but how about these girls, whom we were duty bound to protect. A very uncertain feeling as to our fate took possession of me while we were crossing; the current was swift and the water deep, but the heavy load of eight persons kept the wagon box from floating and the wagon steady. The horses were in the water nearly swimming depth but kept on their feet, and without mishap we proceeded, the driver knew the rounded shape of the crossing well, and we landed safely on the other side.
Soon the dangerous crossing was forgotten and our crowd was as merry as ever, and gaily we went to the grounds for the celebration. Every part of the program seemed to be carried out as advertised and apparently all had a good time. Several times during the day one of us boys went to the river; which flows a short distance from the townsite, to see if the water was receeding so as to be able to cross the river in the evening going home, but we found the river still rising and we soon realized that we were obliged to stay on that side of the river for the night. There was only one hotel in town, kept by a Mr. Selts. The boys, after a short consultation, found there was only half enough money in the crowd to pay the bill for the night for all of us, so we made arrangements for the girls to stay at the hotel while we slept outdoors.
This inconvenience did not bother us in the least, for we were all used to roughing it, as the slang phrase had it at that time. Had we not camped out and slept in our clothes many times before? Not only that, but we had slept sound and peaceful on the prairie with nothing more for a cover than the canopy of heaven, where we might have had a rattlesnake as a bedfellow, because there were plenty of rattlers on the prairies of Kansas in those days. Our wagon stood on a vacant lot near the hotel, and as I remember it now, we got some hay for our beds and two of us boys slept in the wagon box and the other two under the wagon.
I was up bright and early the next morning and went down to the river to see the stage of the water so as to be able to figure on the prospect of getting home. The river was booming high, and as I think of it now, of the possibility of a steamboat coming up that river. This not only seemed possible but there appeared to be water enough to float a battleship.
Another consultation was held that morning. Here we were stranded, away from home, the girls on our hands and not a cent of money in our pockets. We were all newcomers, practically strangers in town; we did not ask for credit. Here we put on our thinking caps. There was a settler eight or nine miles up the river who had a boat, not a ferry boat to take the team across, but a skiff where we might get across the river and walk the rest of the way home. There was no use in us hanging around town waiting for the water to to recede, so we at once started on our way up on the east side of the river. On the way an observer might have noticed a difference in the spirit of the merry party of yesterday going to the celebration and the more sober-looking crowd going home; the unexpected termination of the celebration had put a damper on merry making, but everybody took the situation good-naturedly; there was no complaint.
Arriving at the bank of the river opposite from the settler who had the boat we hailed him with Hello, until he heard us and came over in his boat. It was a small skiff, holding only two or three persons at a time; several trips had to be made before the party was set over, except the driver who stayed with the team until the water receded enough for him to cross.
All being landed the party separated as there were no roads, each brother and sister together went their way through the grass over the prairie to their homes three or four miles away. As for the driver I cared not if he stayed there a week, a month would not have been punishment enough for him who risked the lives of the party in crossing the river.
The driver and another young fellow married their sweethearts within a year--the girls being sisters, they became brother-in-laws. These were among the first weddings that took place in Bloom Township. All of these young people except the driver became well-to-do and are now living a retired life at ease. The rattle-headed drivers plunge into the Republican river which
might have ended in disaster was characteristic of other plunges he made in business affairs. He was an honest, hard-working man but when he died a few years ago he left nothing to his family except a modern life insurance policy.
Conclusion: Look before you leap.