Route 66: Across 1930s Kansas

(Joplin, Mo.) -- Galena -- Riverton -- Baxter Springs -- (Miami, Ok.); US 66

Missouri Line to Oklahoma Line, 13.2 m.

  • Paved roadbed.
  • Usual accommodations in larger towns.

This route passes through the lead- and zinc- mining region of southeastern Kansas.

US 66 crosses the MISSOURI LINE, 0 m., at a point 6 miles west of Joplin, Mo. , entering the heart of the State's lead- and zinc-mining, a portion of the productive tri-state region of Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. The trees of this formerly heavily timbered area were cut in early days for mine timbering and log houses.

Today, where mining operations have not encroached, a second growth is almost impenetrable. Lying in all directions from the highway are man-made white mountains of chert, residue from the mines, topped occasionally with gaunt black mills and separated by dusty roads, railroad tracks, and patches of rock and cinder-covered wasteland. The chert, or "chat," as it is more commonly known, is used in this region as railroad ballast, for road surfacing, and in concrete aggregate.

The GALENA SMELTER, 0.5 m., a great gray hulk surrounded by a maze of chat-covered roads and railroad tracks, is said to be one of the largest of its kind in the world; 200 tons of lead concentrates (ore as it comes from the mine) are smelted daily into 150 tons of pig lead (molded blocks of metal small enough to be handled and shipped to the manufacturer). Operating 24 hours a day, the smelter employs 250 men. Its buildings and yards cover 20 acres.

GALENA (Lat., lead ore), 1 m. (874 alt., 4,736 pop.), pioneer lead- and zinc-mining town, is surrounded by smelters, mills, and chat piles that have destroyed the original beauty of the country. The portion of town north of Short Creek has been undermined to such an extent that cave-ins are common and residents must constantly repair streets, damaged homes, and business houses.

This section was once Empire City, bitter rival of Galena in the early mining days. When lead was discovered in the vicinity in 1877, investors and workers flocked to this site. Galena, south of Short Creek, and Empire City, north of the creek, sprang up almost simultaneously. Each town took on the aspect of a frontier mining camp. Red Hot Street, the first business street of Galena which led down toward Short Creek, was soon lined with saloons and gambling houses. Most of the early mines were north of Short Creek and residents of Empire City built a timber stockade ten feet high and approximately half a mile long between the two settlements to prevent a direct route from Galena to the diggings. This was burned by residents of Galena soon after it had been completed.

As mining operations spread to the south and east, Empire City began to decline and was annexed to Galena in 1911.

Left from Galena on an improved road is SCHIMMERHORN PARK (swimming, boating, fishing, picnicking), 2 m., comprising 160 acres of wooded land along Shoal Creek. Rock ledges and caves along this creek once sheltered Quantrill, the Daltons, and other notorious badmen.

US 66 at 3 m. enters Spring River Valley. The large trees, deep grass, and wild flowers that cover its slopes contrast as sharply with the barren ugliness of the mining area as Spring River, a broad limpid stream that flows over a clean rocky bottom, differs from Kansas' usual brown muddy waterways. Many descendants of the Quakers who settled this valley still live on farms west and north of Riverton.

In RIVERTON, 4 m. (910 alt., 383 pop.), on the west bank of Spring River, is the EMPIRE DISTRICT HYDROELECTRIC PLANT, furnishing power to 30 communities in Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Its brilliant lights are visible at night from the concrete bridge on which US 66 crosses the river.

Left from Riverton on an improved road, 0.6 m., the POWER DAM of the Empire District Electric Co. above the mouth of Shoal Creek causes the water to back up into both streams and forms 400-acre LAKE LOWELL. Public and private resorts line the river banks (boating, swimming, fishing; cabins at moderate rates); the region is the home of thousands of waterfowl.

BAXTER SPRINGS, 9 m. (842 alt., 4,541 pop.), surrounded by lead and zinc mines, has more homes beautified by interior decorators and more attractively landscaped lawns and gardens than most small Kansas towns. Several mine operators live in its shady residential district. It was named for A. Baxter, its first settler, who arrived in 1850 and built a shack and a sawmill beside the springs near the present town's northern limits. As stories of the water's curative properties spread, Baxter built a tavern to accomodate visitors and soon a few stores and a bank were added to the settlement.

In the 1860's Texas cattlemen drove thousands of longhorns to the fine pasture land around Baxter Springs. Especially large drives in 1867 and 1868 boomed the town. When the railroad was built in 1870 Baxter Springs became a wide-open cow town and shipping point so crowded with be-pistoled cowboys and cattlemen that it was called "the toughest town on earth."

By 1888 the railhead had advanced westward and Baxter Springs, having lost the cattle trade, concentrated on the expansion of her industrial, agricultural, and resort possibilities.

The old military trail from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Gibson passed down the town's only thoroughfare -- the present Military Avenue.

The SITE OF THE BAXTER SPRINGS MASSACRE is at the end of E. 7th St. On the morning of October 6, 1863, the Federal garrison of a small post here, consisting of one company of cavalry and 65 or 70 colored infantrymen, was attacked by Quantrill's men (see Lawrence), while part of the garrison was away on a foraging expedition. After 20 minutes of disorganized fighting, the invaders withdrew. They had lost two men and killed nine Federals.

Maj. Gen. James G. Blunt, accompanied by his staff, a regimental band, and a detachment of troops, approaching Baxter Springs on his way from Fort Scott to his new command at Fort Gibson in Indiana territory, mistook the departing raiders for a welcoming escort, and was quickly surrounded by Quantrill's men who captured almost his entire detachment.

Although reports of witnesses state that Quantrill had already shot all his captives including the wounded, he sent a messenger with a flag of truce to the garrison to suggest an exchange of prisoners. This, according to Quantrill's own report, was to "see if we had any wounded there."

Blunt, who escaped with only seven or eight men, reported: "I soon discovered that every man who had fallen, except three, who escaped by feigning death, had been murdered, all shot through the head. The brigade band, teamsters, and all headquarter's clerks who were first captured were murdered the same way." Eighty-seven of Blunt's men were killed.

In LIBRARY PARK, corner of 10th and Park Aves., is an OLD CONFEDERATE CANNON made in Macon, Ga., and captured at Pea Ridge, Ark., in 1862.

On HANGMAN'S ELM, between Park and Military Aves., two blocks south of the park, 19 men are said to have been hanged in the early days of the town.

US 66 turns south from here and crosses the OKLAHOMA LINE.

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