When the pioneers left Independence they dipped south and followed the Kansas River westward. They eventually crossed the river and started following the Big Blue River north to Nebraska.
For my journey, I decided to get out of the urban areas and drove west on I-70 past Topeka. This got me into the rural Kansas country side. I got off the highway and started following the Trail along Rt 24 which follows the Kansas River.
My first stop was the little town of St. Marys. This place was a stop over for the pioneers on the Trail. There was a Jesuit mission here that was working with the Potawatomi people who had been resettled into eastern Kansas. The mission was a friendly place to camp and do repairs.
Today, St. Marys is a lovely town of 2,500 people. There’s a small museum, the Potowatomi Pay Station Museum that has trail history and artifacts. Unfortunately, on my visit is was closed.
On the site of the original mission is St. Mary’s Academy and College. This is a Catholic secondary school that is run by a very traditional Catholic organization called the Society of Saint Pius X. This group was formed in the 1960’s when it split from the regular Catholic Church. The Vatican Council changes in the 1960’s didn’t sit well with some so this group formed to maintain the traditional Catholic doctrines (e.g. saying mass in Latin, no meat on Fridays).
I spent the night at the Riverside Park in St. Marys. This is a nice municipal park with ball fields and a swimming pool. They have 3 RV parking sites with electricity and water. They are first come first serve. You have to go to City Hall to fill out 2 forms, pay ($10/ night), pay a $25 refundable security deposit, and get a key to unlock the electrical post. It’s a little involved but the sites are worth it.
While at St. Marys I got to experience the friendliness that characterizes many people from the mid-western states. The town clerk was super friendly and helpful with getting me signed up for the park. I met a store owner who I spent time with chatting about my travels and about the town. There were 4 ladies who were camped next to me having a reunion of sorts. All were engaging and gave me some insights about the town. And I met some of the city park workers who were fixing an electrical problem in park. All were super nice folks.
The next day I headed north to Marysville. Once they crossed the Kansas River, the pioneers began following the Big Blue River north into Nebraska. I followed Rt 99 which parallels the river. There were a couple historic stops along this route.
One was Scott Springs just outside of Frankfort. This a nice little park with some history plaques and a tall grass section.
The other was Alcove Springs. This was a popular stop over for people on the Trail. I decided to skip this stop because it’s 7 miles of dirt road to get there. The morning I was going to stop it had rained heavily and I didn’t want to turn my RV into a mud caked adobe colored box.
My main reason for stopping at Marysville was to visit the Hollenberg Ranch, which is about 10 miles west of town. This place is now a State Historic Park. It was closed on the Sunday that I visited but I still got to walk the grounds and see the actual Oregon Trail.
The original ranch was used as a stop over beginning in 1854 when Gerat Hollenberg started his ranch. It was a place to camp for the night, buy a oxen or mule, get some supplies, and get a repair done. In 1861, it became a stop over for the Pony Express. It was a treat to be able to stand on the actual trail and envision what it might have been like with numerous wagons camped nearby.
Here’a a short video I shot of my visit to Hollenberg Ranch.
I spent the night camped in Marysville’s City Park. This park has about six sites with electrical posts that can accommodate a small RV. There’s a similar number of tent only sites. It’s free to camp overnight in the park. There are restrooms but no showers. But if you walk next door to the Aquatic Center (i.e. town swimming pool) you can get a free shower.
Marysville is a nice town. I was here last year and visited the Pony Express Station that is right in the town center. It’s the only original station still standing in its original spot. There’s a small museum next to the station.
Seeing the Present / Reflecting on the Past
I love driving on the back roads through the rural Kansas country side. Eastern Kansas has rolling hills and is partially wooded. There’s also plenty of tall grass prairie to see. The small towns I pass through are so charming and timeless. Many towns have Main Street businesses housed in old red brick buildings from the late 1800’s that line the street.
As I soak up these present day scenes from my windshield, I catch myself flipping back in time thinking about the pioneers who walked this terrain 170 years ago. I see a beautiful rolling prairie and then think about how difficult it was to get the wagons up over this terrain. As I cross a bridge over the Big Blue River, the water is running high and muddy. Then I think about how the pioneers had to find a place to ford and hoped everyone made it across safely.
I strolled in the tallgrass at Hollenberg Ranch marveling at the scenery,. But, then I quickly watched my steps as I remembered that many pioneers and their livestock were bitten by rattle snakes while walking on similar ground.
This flipping back and forth is all part of my journey. While on a section of road, I’m in 2017 looking at a grain elevator in the distance. I crest the next hill and I’m in 1846 wondering what landmark the pioneers used for dead reckoning to find their way.
It’s all good and it’s these reflections that are making this trip so enjoyable.