Lawrencians and others took advantage of unseasonably pleasant weather Saturday to spend time downtown learning about and reflecting upon the events 150 years ago that shaped the city.
As a prelude to Wednesday's 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence, the Watkins Museum of History sponsored a string of Saturday events. Those interested in learning more about the raid, its aftermath, its victims and its survivors had the chance to join a morning walking tour highlighting some of the important spots during the raid, to see a significant new museum exhibit or to listen to an afternoon performance of Civil War-era music.
Commemorative events continue today with a program at 6:30 p.m. at the South Park Gazebo that will include a presentation on the significance and history of the raid, a reading of the names of the victims and music of the era performed by the City Band.
Museum officials were pleased with the participation they saw at Saturday's events. The museum unveiled to the public a new $300,000 permanent exhibit highlighting Quantrill's Raid survival stories small and large. Artifacts in the exhibit included charred floorboard from the house of Quantrill victim John L. Crane and furniture from the Eldrige Hotel salvaged as it burned, eerie reminders of the tragedy.
The new permanent collection attracted hoards of visitors. By 2 p.m., just four hours after the exhibit’s public unveiling, Watkins Museum collections intern Cole Finley said he had counted 750 visitors.
“We are seeing record-breaking numbers,” Finley said. “It’s been a fantastic day.”
Watkins Museum education and programs coordinator Abby Magariel said that while the museum staff was prepared for large crowds, she was still blown away by the floods of visitors. “The exhibit is a huge improvement to the museum, so we were anticipating a good turnout,” Magariel said. “but this has surpassed our expectations.”
The turnout can also be attributed to the historical talks throughout the day held on the first floor of the museum, supplementing the information found in the second-floor exhibit. John Nichols and Deborah Barker, of the Franklin County Historical Society, began their lecture on Quantrill’s Raid from an unusual starting point: a couple of hours after the raid was over, with Quantrill and his men 45 miles from the security of the Missouri border.
The two described William Clark Quantrill’s background before plunging into his escape from Kansas during their presentation titled “Fire and Fall Back: Quantrill’s Leave-taking from Kansas.”
They explained the route Quantrill took out of Lawrence to the city of Brooklyn in south Douglas County, then on to Baldwin City and by the area that would be Ottawa. While mapping out his journey, Nichols and Barker recited the stories of those who sighted Quantrill on his way.
“It was a hot August day, there was sunshine and it was very dry,” Nichols said. “Eastern Kansas was mostly prairie with trees only along the rivers. People could see them coming. Their horses would kick up dirt and dust.”
The Kaw Valley Cornet Band took Nichols and Barker’s place after their lecture, playing tunes that might have been heard by Lawrence’s abolitionist settlers. Guests were treated to songs such as "Rosalie, the Prairie Flower" and "Washington's Grand March" at the cornet band’s free concert on the first floor of the museum.
Magariel said Watkins Museum wanted to offer its visitors a nice, educational way to unwind. “Quantrill’s Raid is a very serious, sad subject to learn about all day,” Magariel said. “So we this was a fun, upbeat way to finish the day.
About 90 of them had started as early as 8:30 Saturday morning when they gathered outside the Watkins to begin guided walks. The crowd split into three smaller groups and streamed down the sidewalks from Eleventh Street to New Hampshire, up to Seventh and back down Massachusetts.
One of the walks was led by Lawrence historian Katie Armitage, who stopped periodically to explain a raid-era building that is still standing or hear a story about a survivor, victim or widow of the raid.
At times, Armitage would point to an area and try to paint a picture of what the scene would have been like 150 years ago.
“You have to use your imagination; the people screaming, the dogs barking, the sounds and smells of the horror of that day cannot be recreated,” Armitage said.
Armitage focused the group’s attention on New Hampshire Street for much of the tour. The street was heavily populated, she said, and bodies were left lying in the streets. An estimated two hundred men and boys were killed during the raid, leaving 85 widows and 250 orphaned children.
“It was chaotic,” she said. “This is a horrifying story.”