Archive for Sunday, August 6, 2000

Taking the toll of neglected heritage

State grant will help explore a gateway to Bleeding Kansas

August 6, 2000

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Napoleon Bonaparte Blanton was Lawrence's original toll booth operator.

Long before the Kansas Turnpike was built, before U.S. highways or even township gravel roads existed, the main route to Lawrence from the south was across a wooden bridge Blanton had built across the Wakarusa River.

With the help of a state grant, the remains of a stone building
near the Wakarusa River will be studied to determine their
historical significance. The building was located near what was
known as Blanton's Bridge, which may have been used by the likes of
John Brown, Quantrill's raiders and many less notorious visitors to
Lawrence as an important gateway to the city from 1854 to 1866.
"You could say this is where Bleeding Kansas began," said Karl
Gridley, above, a stone mason and historian.

With the help of a state grant, the remains of a stone building near the Wakarusa River will be studied to determine their historical significance. The building was located near what was known as Blanton's Bridge, which may have been used by the likes of John Brown, Quantrill's raiders and many less notorious visitors to Lawrence as an important gateway to the city from 1854 to 1866. "You could say this is where Bleeding Kansas began," said Karl Gridley, above, a stone mason and historian.

Used by the likes of John Brown, Quantrill's raiders and many less-notorious visitors to Lawrence, Blanton's toll bridge was an important gateway to the city from 1854 to 1866.

With the help of a $10,588 state grant, the area around the crossing will be getting attention this fall. The money, with matching funds from the city, will pay for a study of the remains of a stone building near the historic crossing, which is near East 1400 Road south of Lawrence.

"You could say this is where Bleeding Kansas began," said Karl Gridley, a stone mason and historian. "For that reason alone, it is a treasure."

Gridley's comment refers to one of the first skirmishes between the pro-slavery and Free State factions that had set up around Lawrence in the 1850s.

In November 1855, a group of Free Staters ambushed Sheriff Samuel Jones and his posse just south of the crossing and rescued a Free State man the sheriff had in custody.

The incident sparked the Wakarusa War, during which the sheriff and as many as 1,500 men laid siege to Lawrence. "Jones goes to Missouri, summons a posse and says the territory is in insurrection," said Tim Rues, curator of Constitution Hall in Lecompton.

John Brown's own diary describes crossing Blanton's bridge when it was held by pro-slavers, who decided against confronting the notorious abolitionist. "He's in a wagon just filled with arms and ammunition," Gridley said.

In 1863, the bridge was William Clarke Quantrill's route out of town after his raid on Lawrence. Gridley said Quantrill tried unsuccessfully to burn it as he passed.

Early commerce

Blanton came to Douglas County soon after Kansas was opened to settlement by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, Gridley said.

He received permission from the territorial government to build the toll bridge along the route of the Oregon Trail and set up a store and a post office next to it.

Blanton also operated a voting precinct in 1855 when Kansas voted itself a slave state, thanks to a boost at the polls by day-tripping Missourians. The vote was later reversed.

It is likely that the stone house south of the river came later, though Gridley is sure it served the same purpose. A square cut nail found in one of the walls indicates the building was constructed before 1870, Gridley said.

"It's definitely related to the crossing," Gridley said.

Blanton departed in 1857 to found the town of Humboldt.

And newspaper accounts tell of the deterioration of his bridge, which was washed away in an 1866 flood.

With that, history stopped passing through.

Uncovering the past

The rediscovery of the stone building came after Kansas Supreme Court Judge Fred Six and his wife, Lilian, bought the property in 1993.

By then the remaining walls of the building were mostly buried by debris cast off by the residents of a long-defunct mobile home park.

The walls also were obscured by trees that had grown up in and around the building.

Several weekends of labor during the last year by the Sixes, Gridley and Rues have uncovered what remains of the 15-foot-by-24-foot building.

The 18-inch walls of limestone and sandstone still show the markings of the stone cutter's ax. There is a brick-lined cistern, which would have caught rain water, and a fireplace.

A crockery remains submerged in the ground. There is a tree stump where stairs to the second floor might have been.

Stone-framed square openings in one wall below ground level might have been a cool place to store milk, or perhaps they were windows or even gun loopholes, depending on where the ground level was, Gridley said.

It is one of the questions that might be answered with more study.

Fred Six said he doesn't want the building to be forgotten again and hopes to have it preserved for educational purposes, whether or not it holds a link to Blanton himself.

"It may turn out to be of just minor interest," he said. "However it turns out, we want to preserve the old, stone structure."

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