Driving north on US Hwy. 77 from Blue Rapids Kansas, I had a particular National Register Historic Site in mind… I knew that it was on a side road along the Big Blue River so I put the location in our car’s GPS system and off we went!
We passed this old abandoned stone farmhouse along the way. It’s sad to see beautiful old structures like this slowly crumbling and falling down. We wondered what stories it could tell…
FYI… While old homes like this just go mostly unnoticed and undocumented, there is an extensive list of Ghost Towns in the State of Kansas on Wikipedia. You can go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ghost_towns_in_Kansas.
Then we came to the point where our GPS took us off US 77…
After about 200 yards we found ourselves on a muddy 1-lane dirt road with no opportunity to turn around. So we forged on…with Laurie unhappy because her new low wheelbase car was throwing and accumulating more mud with every turn of the wheels! The good news was that we didn’t get stuck and we eventually reached a muddy but passable 2-lane gravel road. After several more miles we were able to ‘churn’ on to our destination…
The sign on the fence above reads “Emigrant Camp”. We had arrived at Alcove Spring Historic Park. This spot was a popular campsite on the Oregon Trail near the “Independence Crossing” of the Big Blue River. We were definitely off the beaten path… It was another 20 minutes before we saw a local ranch truck roll by, the first vehicle we’d seen in about 45 minutes.
You could almost feel the spirits of those who had passed through this spot…as well as those who never made it past this point on the Oregon Trail.
Alcove Spring is the final resting place for many emigrants, most notably Sarah H. Keyes, the mother-in-law of James F. Reed of that famous group of people...the Donner Party. She was “buried at the foot of a monarch oak in a neat cottonwood coffin made by men of the party, and her grave was marked by a headstone." The exact location of her grave is unknown today.
· If you aren’t aware of the story related to the Donner Party, they were a group of American pioneers who set out for California in a wagon train. Delayed by a series of mishaps and mistakes, they spent the winter of 1846–47 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Some of the migrants infamously resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. To learn more, just go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donner_Party.
Thousands of emigrants camped near this site while waiting to cross the Big Blue River, which was frequently in flood stage when they reached this part of their trip. While Native Americans and trappers had certainly used the site previously, it was ‘rediscovered’ in 1846 when the Donner party was delayed by high waters on the Blue River.
· John C. Fremont camped near there on one occasion. He was an American military officer, explorer, and politician who became the first candidate of the anti-slavery Republican Party for the office of President of the United States. During the 1840s, he led 4 expeditions into the American West. Accordingly the press and many historians of that era called him “The Pathfinder.”
I took this photo of Laurie looking down the walkway leading down to Alcove Springs. We didn’t venture very far into the surrounding fields and forest as everything was soaking wet or partially underwater.
· One of the first emigrant groups to cross the Big Blue River at Independence Crossing was the Bidwell-Bartelson Party in 1841. Nancy Kelsey, who was a member of the group of pioneers, is believed to have been the first white woman to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
· Its significant to point out that this area was mostly devoid of trees except along larger streams when the settlers passed through here. During most of their journey across the plains, they wouldn’t have seen much except for miles and miles of tall prairie grass.
Due to the wet conditions and standing water, this ‘borrowed photo’ shows what we missed…the spring and its accompanying waterfall!
The site is well known for the waterfall shown above which is near the spring. It is called Naomi Pike Falls after the young member of the Donner-Reed party. Its water is supplied by a wet weather spring. Consequently, there is only a waterfall in the spring of the year. By early summer it ceases to flow. There are many carvings on the ledge of the waterfall and rocks in the surrounding area. Some of the carvings are thought to date from the emigrant era.
This wagon swale marks the trail or path of hundreds of wagon trains that moved along the Oregon Trail. It’s amazing to us that this evidence of their passing is still clear to those who are looking for it… This meadow was a campground for the emigrants and it has many wagon swales traveling from north to south that led to Independence Crossing, where the wagons crossed the Big Blue River.
· Marshall County Kansas, where this park is located, is the “Trails Capital of Kansas”. Parts of at least 9 historic trails pass through the County. In addition to the Oregon-California Trail, they include the following: Pony Express Route; Overland Stage Route; St. Joe Road; Otoe Trail; Pike’s Peak Trail; Military Road; Chisolm Trail, and; The Mormon Trail.
The Alcove Spring Historical Park is owned by the Alcove Spring Historical Trust of Blue Rapids and operated by the Alcove Spring Preservation Association. In 2006, Alcove Spring was named a "Certified Historic Site" by the National Park Service. They’ve erected this little shelter with information permanently posted on the walls to inform visitors about the history of this place.
· The Topeka Symphony Orchestra will be traveling to Marshall County this September for an outdoor concert at Alcove Spring Historical Park. “The Orchestra on the Oregon Trail Concert” will be at 6 p.m. Sept. 6 on a meadow at the historic park along on the Oregon-California Trail. This event will kick off the Orchestra’s 70th Season. Other activities will include tour-guided and self-guided nature walks, wagon rides, a pioneer encampment, other musical acts, food and cowboy poetry. Dancing, stargazing and ghost tours will follow the concert.
The road leading us out of the Alcove Spring Historic Park led us through an area that is very lightly populated… There were a few ranches or farms but they were quite scattered. A number of deserted stone and wood farmhouses sat along the road.
It turned out that there were better roads into the Alcove Spring Historic Park than the one we took to get there. While they were all gravel, they were wide and fairly smooth. You can’t always just rely on you GPS for the ‘best’ route!
We passed one farm or ranch that had a number of peacocks on the property. They aren’t something that you normally see in rural America…especially in the prairie states.
· During the Medieval period, the poorer populations (such as serfs) consumed more common birds, such as chicken. However, the more wealthy gentry were privileged to less usual foods, such as swan, and even peafowl were consumed. On a king's table, a peacock would be served as much for ostentatious display as for food.
One more very large deserted and gloomy stone house along the route. Its appearance matched the weather and the feeling of the emigrant’s presence back at Alcove Springs Historic Park…
While looking around the Internet, I came across a You Tube video that features deserted farm houses in Kansas. The video provides some striking images even if they are simultaneously a bit sad… You can have a look at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypjL5IMPnns.
(We finally got all the mud off the car when we arrived in Omaha. Laurie was very happy!)
Just click on any of the photos to enlarge them…
Thanks for stopping by for a visit!
Take Care, Big Daddy Dave