Ancient ruins, canyons make this Kansas park one of the nation’s best

Lake Scott State Park

Greg Mills, Lake Scott State Park manager, talks about the historic sites around what's already considered one of the best state parks in the nation. (Video by Michael Pearce / The Wichita Eagle)
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Greg Mills, Lake Scott State Park manager, talks about the historic sites around what's already considered one of the best state parks in the nation. (Video by Michael Pearce / The Wichita Eagle)

National Geographic once rated Lake Scott State Park one of the 50 best in the nation. Active Times, an online magazine, ranked it in the top 25 for scenic beauty.

But Greg Mills wants you to know the place he manages is not just another pretty park.

“There are a lot of good state parks with natural history, but probably none that can match what we have for sheer number of sites,” Mills said.

Lake Scott State Park is home to the ancient El Cuartelejo Pueblo ruins, the home of a band of Taos Indians who in the 1660s fled Spanish rule and settled in the canyons of what is now western Kansas. It is believed to be the northernmost pueblo in North America.

Last spring the Kansas Legislature officially changed the park’s name to Historic Lake Scott State Park.

“It’s just a great way to showcase the great history we have in this entire area,” Mills said. “Every time we do a project (that requires digging) we need to get the preservationists to come and give approval, to make sure we’re not destroying things like pottery shards or other artifacts. Any place you walk in this park there can be history under the ground.”

The discovery

What’s now the state park was one of Kansas’ must rugged canyons when pioneers Herbert and Eliza Steele bought a farm near Ladder Creek in 1893. The first year they lived in a hole dug into the side of a hill. The next year they built a stone home atop the dug out area.

The land was fertile, with several springs that fed the creek that bisected their land. Steel worked the land and took advantage of what appeared to be irrigation ditches already in place.

One day while working west of the creek he got a hint of who had built those ditches to carry water to crops. They were an ancient people, the Taos, who had come and gone long before the American Revolution.

“There are two theories how to how Steele found El Cuartelejo,” said Dennie Siegrist, a history buff from nearby Scott City. “One was he was farming and plowed up a bunch of shards of pottery. Another was that he kept noticing mice come up out of the ground with pieces of corn (stored long ago).”

Siegrist said in the mid-1600s the Taos tribe came from what’s now New Mexico to escape Spanish enslavement and murder. After about 20 years the tribe returned to their homeland. Several other times Native Americans lived in the same shelter made of dirt and sod.

“This is the most northern most pueblo in America,” Siegrist said. “They say it was also where the first white people lived in what’s now Kansas. Some French traders opened up a trading post and ran it for a while in the mid-1700s.”

Since Steele’s find, 26 archeological sites have been located in or near the state park. El Cuartelejo (also spelled El Quartelejo), which means old barracks or buildings, is the largest and is impressive enough to be designated a National Historic Landmark. Currently there are just short stone-walls built in modern times to show the size of the seven-room Pueblo. There’s no doorway. Siegrist said the dwelling was mostly accessed through the roof.

Mills said plans are being made to build a shelter above the site, with educational information.

In 1927 the Steeles began selling their land to the state of Kansas with the stipulation it become a public area, with a lake and water recreation, according to Mills.

Part of that package was the original Steele home, preserved and now listed on the National Historic Register. Many of the family’s possessions are still inside.

“This place really gives people a look at what life was like out here around 1900,” said Mills, as he turned the crank of an old record player built around that time, and gently set the needle on the spinning disk and listened as crackling music played.

Eliza’s loom sits in a corner of the basement. Many of Herbert’s tools still hang from the rafters.

Outside, volunteers have been working to rejuvenate Eliza’s flower gardens. The couple’s stone spring house, where the water gushing from the ground kept food cold, still stands.

As well as preserving the home, local people erected a shelter house and monument to the Steeles atop a ridge above the stone home. The hike to the top is a challenge, but the view of the lake and valley is spectacular.

As per the Steele’s request, the state built a dam on Ladder Creek and created Lake Scott. When a flood destroyed the dam, another bit of history came to the valley in 1933.

Mills credited the Civilian Conservation Corps with repairing the dam. The Corps was part of a federal program that employed young men for $1 a day to help bring the nation from the poverty of the Great Depression.

And about a mile south of the state park, on land owned by Scott County, the public has access to a canyon that’s also earned the rating of a National Historic Site.

It’s called Battle Canyon, the site of the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork, the last engagement between Native Americans and U.S. troops in Kansas.

“This is where Cheyenne Chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf decided to make their stand against the soldiers who were following them,” said Larry Hoeme, another history expert from Scott City.

Standing atop the east edge of the canyon, Hoeme pointed to still visible rifle pits protected by stones the Cheyenne had placed by hand at different parts of the canyon in September of 1878. As he spoke, a group of visitors came in and out of one of the largest caves in Kansas. It’s where many of the hundreds of Cheyenne women and children took shelter during a fierce battle.

The Cheyenne had just fled a reservation in Oklahoma, hoping to make it to their true homeland on the northern plains, like eastern Montana and the Dakotas. Accounts say the Cheyenne lost between one and seven of their 93 men. Hoeme said only one soldier, Lt. Col. William H. Lewis, was killed. It could have been far more.

“If one young Cheyenne hadn’t fired a shot too early they might have drawn all those troops into an ambush that could have ended up like the Little Bighorn,” said Hoeme, referring to Custer’s Last Stand.

Instead the Cheyenne escaped into the night, leaving many of their supplies behind. Their trip northward began the last Native American raid in Kansas, one that saw dozens of white settlers killed.

About half of the Cheyenne surrendered in Nebraska. The others made it to their homeland.

Mills said Scott Lake State Park has long been popular with serious history seekers, like archeologists, dedicated authors and college-level instructors and history majors.

He’s hoping the park’s new name will make it more attractive to the general public who want to mix some history in with camping, fishing and hiking at the state park.

“That’s one reason why we changed the name, to hopefully get more attention from the public,” Mills said. “About any place you go in this entire area there’s important history. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible to share it with the public.”

Lake Scott State Park

Location: 255 miles west of Wichita, just west of Highway 83.

Cost: Daily vehicle passes are $5. Camping rates start at $10. The park has accommodations that include primitive sites, graveled sites with all utilities and cabins a few yards from the gorgeous, 100-acre lake.

Information: 620-872-2061. As well as campsite availability, check to see when the Steele Home is open for public viewing because hours vary.

History: More about Battle Canyon, and the historic sites within the state park can be found in the El Quartelejo Museum in nearby Scott City. Hours are 1-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

Nearby attractions

About 15 miles northeast of Lake Scott State Park are Monument Rocks. Signs on Highway 83 point down the gravel roads that lead to the towering rock formation rated as a National Historic Landmark, and date back to when the area was covered by the Western Interior Seaway, 85 million years ago.

Not yet open to the public, the Little Jerusalem rock formations are about eight miles north of Lake Scott State Park, and holds around 250 acres of spires, caves, steep canyon walls more than 100 feet high and narrow passage ways.

The Nature Conservancy of Kansas, which owns the land, hopes to open the rock formations to the public next year.

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