Local Santa Fe Trail enthusiasts plan to improve access to surviving wagon ruts
photo by: Elvyn Jones
Three miles east of Baldwin City and just south of a U.S. Highway 56 roadside park is a patch of prairie that Roger Boyd says is one of the hidden treasures of Douglas County.
Right now, a carpet of thigh-high native grasses green from the abundant summer rains and speckled with yellow, blue, white and purple wildflowers covers the 18-acre Douglas County-owned plot named the Ivan L. Boyd Memorial Prairie Park in honor of the late Baker University professor. His son, who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a Baker biology professor before retiring last year, says the prairie is itself a marvel.
“There’s 250 different species growing there,” Boyd said. “It’s native tallgrass prairie. It’s never been broken by a plow.”
The prairie holds another surprise. Gullies as deep as a tall man and as a pickup trace down the hillside. The eight gullies are actually ruts carved in the hillside from ox-pulled wagons laden with goods that plied the nearly 900-mile Santa Fe Trail from 1821 to the 1870s.
“They are the best example of ruts on the Santa Fe Trail,” Boyd said. “There are other ruts but they aren’t as deep and they’re not on public land. Property owners usually don’t want people walking on their fields.”
Shallower, less impressive ruts on the trail in Dodge City draw thousands of viewers annually, said Boyd, the president of the Douglas County chapter of the Santa Fe Trail Historical Society. The Douglas County ruts, which are across East 2000 Road from the Black Jack Battlefield site, do draw visitors, but he said those would probably count in the hundreds annually. Drawing attention to the site is a replica log cabin the local trail historical society built on ground Douglas County owns on the east end of the roadside park.
Boyd and his fellow members of local trail historical society think there is the potential bring more visitors to the ruts, and they are working with the county and the U.S. National Park Service on plans that would make the ruts more accessible and improve informational signage at the site.
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
Currently, visitors can only access the ruts from the roadside park by a narrow beaten-earth footpath. The path crosses a steep ditch separating the park from the prairie via a footbridge and then provides a stepped path kept in place with concrete blocks up a steep wooded slope to the prairie. The ruts are then accessible from various trails through the tall grasses forged by other visitors.
The plan is to install a 350-foot-long, 5-foot-wide pathway of compacted gravel from the park to the prairie, Boyd said. The pathway will be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The county has agreed to replace the narrow wooden footbridge with a fill-covered culvert, he said. Once the accessible path reaches the prairie, a 1,500-foot-long beaten earth path will follow the hillside’s contours to provide access to the ruts, he said.
The National Park Service also has agreed to provide informational signs about the prairie environment and the Santa Fe Trail, Boyd said. Although the historical society will purchase the placards for the signs, the park service’s commitment to design and print the signage greatly reduces the cost, he said.
The improvements will cost from $45,000 to $48,000 with the county commitment to provide the ADA walking path costing about $20,000, he said.
The local Santa Fe Trail Historical Society is also looking at various ways to increase awareness of the site, Boyd said. Those efforts include a clearer definition of the ruts’ location of official National Santa Fe Historical Society maps and with improved Kansas Department of Transportation signage of U.S. 56 informating motorists of the ruts.
The goal is to have everything is place by May 2021, Boyd said.
“That’s the bicentennial of the opening of the Santa Fe Trail,” he said.