Manhattan For almost a decade, Don Combs has worked hard to preserve the old Military Trail through Manhattan, perhaps harder than anybody in the city.
A retired businessman, Combs, 73, has orchestrated moving 4- and 5-ton rocks for markers along the trail. He's secured thousands of dollars in donations for bronze plaques cast with historical text; built a wooden bridge to make it safer for pedestrians; and dotted its route with yellow survey flags.
Combs can't recall how many hours he's devoted to the trail, which was traversed by covered wagons in the 1800s.
"Lots," he said modestly. "This is something I wanted to do, so it didn't make any difference ... I knew the trail was there. I thought it was a shame that it was overgrown and that nobody knew where it was."
On a recent balmy day, Combs walked the trail, talking about its history. Part of the pathway extends through Warner Park. The area is thick with oak and cedar trees, dogwood bushes and an occasional hedge tree. Combs cleared some of the cedars to rebuild the trail where it was disappearing.
"You literally had to crawl to get through here," he said.
He used dirt hauled in by the city's parks and recreation department to build up the trail and shift it over several yards, away from overgrown oak trees. The trail is 10-15 feet wide in most places.
Combs is disappointed that Warner Park's many users don't help maintain the trail by clearing fallen branches and rocks.
"There's a lot of traffic on this trail, but nobody will do anything," he said. "They'll just walk around it."
Ten years of work
Combs said the city gave him lumber to build a wooden banister and a walking bridge over portions of the eroded trail. It took him about a month to build the structure. A small bronze plaque bears Combs's name and the construction date, 1998.
He first began work on the trail in 1997. He was president of Manhattan Mutual Life Insurance Co. for 21 years until he retired in 1999. He learned his appreciation for the outdoors growing up in the hill country of southern Indiana, with "pure" air and "big trees" - oak, hickory and maple - that four people couldn't get their arms across, he said.
The old trail drops into the Eureka Valley in southwest Manhattan, a faint "swale" or depression in the ground.
"That's the trail, there," Combs says, pointing. "This is just the way it was 150 years ago, where the wagons were going through, and the cavalry.
"There are mysteries on the trail, to me. Like, why they came through the soft bottoms, instead of that ledge," he says, pointing to higher ground.
"There were few to no diaries for the Old Military Trail," Combs remarks, unlike the many that documented the Santa Fe Trail.
He's quick to say that preserving the trail has been a volunteer effort involving others, including former Parks and Recreation director Terry DeWeese, Burke Bayer of Bayer Construction Co., and retired architect Morris Werner, an authority on the Military Trail whose research Combs said he followed.
Bayer made heavy equipment and labor available to move and set five limestone-slab markers from Cottonwood Ledge, a stone ridge in one of Warner Park's hillsides. The stones weigh 4-1/2 to 5-1/2 tons each, the largest being 6 feet tall and equally wide.
"I kind of wanted something somebody wasn't going to carry off," Combs said of the mammoth stones. He used a chisel, hammer and skillsaw to carve the markers, and he set the plaques with epoxy.
Combs would like to see five more markers erected along the Riley County segment of the old road, for a total of 10. Each bronze plaque costs about $1,500. In the past, a couple of donors have paid $750 each.
"At least we'll have some of it marked so people will know where it was," Combs said.
In the mid-1850s, the Military Trail was the only road between Fort Leavenworth, established in 1827, to Fort Riley. Early on, river steamers had delivered food, building materials and supplies to Fort Riley when it was established in 1852. But a land route made easier the transportation of goods year-round between the two installations.
Some residents in the Manhattan area contracted with the military to haul freight, using oxen and mules to draw covered wagons along the 125-mile trail.
Beyond Manhattan, the trail proceeds west to Fort Larned, then north to Fort Kearney in Nebraska.