Two Kansas cattle trails move closer to national designation

The late Tom Frazee was instrumental in getting the Chisholm Trail marked from the Oklahoma state line to Abilene.
The late Tom Frazee was instrumental in getting the Chisholm Trail marked from the Oklahoma state line to Abilene. Eagle file photo

The possible national designation of two Kansas cattle trails is a step closer to reality.

The Chisholm and Great Western trails have been studied by the federal government since 2009, when Congress directed the secretary of the Interior to evaluate the trails to see whether they would qualify to be named national historic trails.

Any additional designations would bring more visibility, prestige and tourists – and possibly even tax incentives for owners of land where historic events occurred.

The National Park Service announced this month its feasibility study was complete and is ready for public comment, another step in the designation process.

“As a historian, I think it would help promote the trails and their connection to Western heritage for future generations,” said Jeff Sheets, director of the Dickinson County Historical Society in Abilene.

Kansas is considered the crossroads for many of the historic trails of the Old West. The state already has four national historic trails: the Santa Fe, the Lewis and Clark, the Pony Express and the Oregon.

Some Kansans, like Sheets, have worked nearly a decade to earn the designation. In addition to his work for Dickinson County, Sheets also is chairman of the Kansas Chapter of the International Chisholm Trail Association, which has advocated for the Chisholm Trail to become a national historic trail since 1995.

“At the least amount, it will mean signage on major highways similar to what has been done along the Santa Fe and Oregon trails,” Sheets said. “It would mean creating partnerships with property owners – who have historic sites and would want to open up their land.

“And the National Park Service could publish a map or brochure highlighting the communities along the trails to promote them. It could bring tourists into these communities.”

The National Park Service conducted 12 public meetings in communities along the trail in 2010, according to a news release. After gathering feedback, it began a four-year effort to determine whether the trails would meet the requirements for national designation.

National Park Service authorities say the trails would follow as closely as possible the original routes. The participation of landowners is voluntary, and landowners along the trail retain all legal rights to their property, Sheets said. If they choose, they can work with the National Park Service to develop visitor access and interpretation of historic sites on their property.

Supporters of the national trail designation say that moment is still a long way from completion. It will take public comment, the National Park Service determining whether the trails are worthy of the designation and then an act of Congress.

The public has until March 5 to read and make comments on the study.

The trails

In its heyday from the late 1860s through the 1880s, the Chisholm Trail served as a cattle pipeline from Texas ranches to the stockyards and railroad hubs in Abilene, Newton, Wichita and Caldwell.

It was an economic lifeline for Kansas, helping to promote the railroad and make ranching profitable. In Wichita alone, more than 230,000 head of cattle were shipped out from 1872 to 1876.

Most historians see the Chisholm Trail as one of the three great byways that crossed the country. The Oregon and Santa Fe trails were east-west migrant and commercial trails, while the Chisholm was a north-south cattle trail.

The trail was developed by Joseph McCoy, an Illinois livestock trader who had the idea in 1867 to drive Texas cattle from near San Antonio north through Fort Worth into Oklahoma through Duncan and Enid and then on to Kansas through Caldwell, Wichita, Newton and Abilene. A branch of the Chisholm also cut off at Caldwell and stretched to Ellsworth.

The Western Trail is also known as the Great Western Cattle Trail, Dodge City Trail and the Old Texas Trail. It was used beginning in 1874 to move cattle to eastern markets. Westward settlement soon forced drovers from the Chisholm onto the new Western Trail, which carried cattle well into the 1880s.

It also started at San Antonio but went north by northwest through Kerrville and Menard, Coleman, Albany and Vernon, Texas, to Doan’s Crossing. From there, it continued into Oklahoma near Altus, Long Wolf, Canute, Vici and May then on north to Dodge City and into Ogallala, Neb.

“The Chisholm Trail is one of the most recognized names in western history,” said Jim Gray, Kansas historian, writer and publisher of the Kansas Cowboy. “These two trails recognize the whole epic story of the cattle drive era.”

Gray, a Geneseo rancher who is also the director of the National Drover’s Hall of Fame in Ellsworth, said the national designation would create more awareness about the Kansas cattle legacy.

“Kansas is laid out on a section-by-section grid,” Gray said. “There are very few places along either route where you can’t go on a township road and look out across the area and understand where the trail went.

“So the idea that you need to go onto private land isn’t necessary. At the same time, there might be some private landowners who would be willing to let people step out onto the land and walk in the swales of those old trails.”

When the cattle drives stopped in the mid-1880s because of the development of the railroads across Kansas, two other events happened to forever change the cattle industry, said Leo Oliva, Kansas historian. The blizzard of 1886 wiped out thousands of cattle on the open ranges of the Great Plains, and the use of barbed-wire fences became more prevalent.

“Those things changed the whole industry from open range to ranching,” Oliva said.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

Trail study

To read and comment on the Chisholm and Great Western National Historic Trail study, go to parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectid=30803.

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