An odd feature of my Dust Bowl trip is that I drive for hours with little or nothing to see beyond the awesome natural beauty of the Great Plains until it’s punctuated by a tightly-bound space overflowing with geographic anomalies and historical sites. One such place is Morton County in the far southwestern corner of Kansas.
View Larger Map
I’ve marked my path in case anyone would ever wish to replicate it. Alphabetic markers on the embedded map correspond to sites listed below. It’s based largely on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sea of Grass brochure.
(A) Morton County Historical Society Museum
We began our afternoon at the Morton County Historical Society Museum in Elkhart. Apparently they don’t get a lot of foot traffic on random middle-of-the-week days in the late winter (imagine that). The docent, quite friendly and happy to see us, turned on the heat and all of the lights so we could walk through the surprisingly large facility. I’ve noticed on this trip that that citizens of these small communities seem to have an exceptional interested in preserving their heritage. Nearly every county, no matter how small has at least one museum. Many of them exhibit a level of quality befitting cities of much larger size. These museums have been a joy to visit. I’ve made sure to stuff a few extra dollars in their donation boxes to do my part.
Elkhart is the gateway to the Cimarron National Grassland. It’s a fine place to start an adventure.
Buffalo, well Bison actually and my older son would admonish if I uttered otherwise, once roamed the vast grasslands of the Great Plains. That’s a thing of the distant past now, largely relegated to specialty ranchers and museum exhibits. Farmers moved into this part of the plains in large numbers around the turn of the last century, then practiced poor soil management in an area generally receiving less than 16 inches of rain per year, and triggered the horrific 1930’s "Dust Bowl" disaster. The places I’ve driven through track closely with Ken Burn’s Dust Bowl documentary. The legacy runs deep out here.
The Federal government purchased depleted lands from many of the destitute farmers and restored grasslands in several locations. The Cimarron Grassland alone stretches more than a hundred thousand acres.
(B) Colorado – Kansas – Oklahoma Tripoint
I bagged the first tripoint of the trip at the edge of the Cimarron Grassland, at Eightmile Corner. The roads were rather descriptive here. From Elkhart I drove down Stateline Road, a route separating Kansas from Oklahoma, and arrived at the tripoint eight miles later. That’s the spot where Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma all join together, as marked by a 1903 windmill. Actually the true spot is found under a brass plate in the middle of the road. That’s not nearly as photogenic as a windmill so that’s what I’m posting.
Tripoints are usually abbreviated by their state initials represented alphabetically. That would make this one COKSOK, a rather unfortunate acronym that sounds more like a method to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Anyway I photographed COKSOK. We backtracked from there towards Elkhart, stopped briefly to examine a prairie dog village about a half-mile closer to town — lots of burrows visible although no cute or cuddly creatures saw fit to pop from the holes for our amusement — so we continued onward.
The windswept terrain seemed vast and empty. The situation changes just below the surface.
The mighty Ogallala Aquifer, more a shallow underground sea actually, hides directly below the High Plains all the way from South Dakota to Texas. Anyone flying over this feature can see the results, the thousands of lush green cropland circles watered by center-pivot irrigation systems in an otherwise semi-arid climate. Its presence can also be tracked through the ubiquitous windmills dotting the plains, dipping straws into the aquifer and pumping water to quench the thirst of grazing livestock. This particular specimen is known as the "Miracle Well" where the aquifer comes so close to the surface that it sometimes seeps from the ground naturally without a pump.
This might be the real Miracle Well. Oil pumps seem to sprout everywhere in the Dust Bowl more common than weeds, set amid farmland fields or in the middle of town or in all sorts of unexpected spots all pumping away. This one was located within the physical boundaries of the Grassland. Wells within the park are operated by private companies as concessions with royalty payments going to the government. A Federal law designates a portion of the proceeds to pertinent local governments. This well helps fund road maintenance and public education in the two Cimarron Grassland counties.
There are about 500 oil pumps on the Cimarron Grassland as opposed to 200 water windmills according to the Fish and Wildlife Service brochure, just to give one an appreciation of their frequency.
(D) Santa Fe Trail – Cimarron Route
The Cimarron Grassland contains history much older than the Dust Bowl. The Cimarron Route of the Santa Fe Trail passed directly through the park. The trail traveled from Missouri to New Mexico, splitting into two options; one to the north through the mountains and the other to the south through the plains. They both terminated at Santa Fe. The Cimarron Route was the southern path, both shorter and flatter than the northern route. One might wonder why many people avoided the Cimarron Route since it was such a remarkable shortcut.
The Morton County museum described it as "Direct but Dangerous." The Cimarron Route had little water, and what existed was often intermittent or difficult to find. There were few natural landmarks so it was easy to get lost especially in the early years before wagon wheels cut ruts into the ground. Native Americans also weren’t thrilled with a constant, steady stream of travelers traipsing through their homeland. Finally, if that were not enough, both man and beast could break a leg stepping into prairie dog burrows while daydreaming along the tiresome trail.
The trail is clearly visible in a couple of different places in the Grassland. The best spot is probably on Route 16 (see wagon ruts in Satellite View). Notice the granite marker in the foreground and a limestone marker a little further back on this photograph.
(E) Point of Rocks
Point of Rocks was one of very few easily visible, completely recognizable natural features. It became important for all who lived in or traveled through the plains, from the time of the Plains Indians all the way through the Trail years. From the FWS brochure:
Native Americans possibly scouted for buffalo from this third-highest point in Kansas, and in 1541, Coronado’s expedition made not of the formation for future explorers. During the days of the Santa Fe Trail, Point of Rocks served as a major landmark.
Middle Spring was located nearby, the only reliable source of water for a 40-mile stretch along the trail. This made it a common, practically mandatory stopping point for any wagon train that rolled the dice by taking the Cimarron Route.
It’s difficult to imagine the hardships of early pioneer travelers as one zips along in an automobile, covering the entire feature in a couple of hours.
The Dust Bowl Adventure articles:
- Part 1 – Getting There
- Part 2 – Sea of Grass
- Part 3 – Geo-Oddities Overflowing
- Part 4 – On the Road
- Part 5 – Epilogue