Published May 4, 2017 in the Weekly Register-Call
To the Pike’s Peak Country in 1859 and Cannibalism on the Smoky Hill Route – Part I
* Henry Villard was a young newspaper correspondent who joined the Pike’s Peak gold rush early in 1859. The article here presented was his first story to his paper, the Cincinnati Daily Commercial, and appeared June 3, 1859. It was dated “Denver City, Mouth of Cherry Creek, May 17, 1859.”
In 1853, at the age of eighteen, Ferdinand Heinrich Gustave Hilgard (who later changed his name to Henry Villard) had come to the United States from his home in Germany. He worked at various jobs in the Middle West, learned English, and became a newspaper correspondent. After returning from the Pike’s Peak country in the fall of 1859 he wrote an interesting book, The Past and Present of the Pike’s Peak Gold Region. (St. Louis, 1860.) Some years after his visit to the Pike’s Peak country Villard experienced a spectacular rise to fame and fortune, becoming president of the Northern Pacific Railroad and a person of power in the financial world. He died Nov. 12, 1900.-Ed.
It was some four weeks ago that I entrusted my bodily self to one of the coaches of the Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Express Company, and bid farewell for some months to the pleasures as well as vexations of civilized life. The prospect of being freed once more from the drudgery and mechanism of a reportorial existence was so elevating to me that it was with feelings of impatience that I had awaited the day of my launch upon the broad prairies of the Far West. And when the driver’s whip gave forth its first cracking, and the wheels commenced to revolve, no “liquid signs of weakness” coursed down my cheeks, but I felt as though I was to burst into a shout of delight at the severance of ties that had, up to that moment, prevented me from enjoying the invigorating freshness of border life.
From Leavenworth to Junction City the route of the Express Company follows the old military road to Ft. Riley. It leads over undulating prairies that occasionally change into hilly elevations; are traversed by many streams of water, and combinedly form landscapes whose claims to beauty are as well founded as that of any other section of the West. Many towns are springing up on the banks of various creeks that course across the country toward the Kaw River, among which Easton on the Stranger, Ozawkee on the Ozawkee, and Manhattan on the Big Blue, and Junction City, a short distance from the Republican, are the most prominent. The high, well timbered bluffs of the Kaw River began to serve as a background to the scenery as we approached Manhattan, and heightened its attraction to a considerable extent.
A short distance this side of Fort Riley we came upon the ruins of Pawnee and Riley cities, consisting of two or three storehouses on both banks of the Kaw, which were considered but a few years ago as the beginning of surely great cities. It was here that Gov. Reeder wanted to locate the state capital, for the purpose of subserving the land interest he owned in this vicinity. But in this, as is well known, he signally failed, and the aforementioned edifices will stand as monuments of a speculation that overleaped itself.
At Junction City, which is a combination of about two dozen frame and log houses, which derives its name from being at the Junction of the Kaw and Republican rivers, and is situated 140 miles west of Leavenworth, I fell in with some officers from the Fort who were celebrating their Easter Sunday in a manner that was truly military, but by no means in conformity with the sacredness of the day. Wicked as you know me to be, I was easily induced to join in their peculiar mode of observance, and had what I thought the very best spree for some time to come, for the thorough enjoyment of which the laying over of the coaches till next morning gave me ample opportunity.
During my stay at Junction City I paid a visit to the “Sentinel” office, the most westerly located newspaper establishment of eastern Kansas. Its office is a most original institution. It serves the purposes of a printing house, law office, land agency, and tailor shop, and the followers of these different avocations appear to live; and sometimes starve together in unbroken harmony.
From Leavenworth to Junction City, which represents Station No. 7, the express route is in the very best working order. I came through in 22 riding hours, which is better time than even the oldest stage lines are able to make, and fared as well on the way as though I was making a pleasure excursion along a highway of eastern travel.
After leaving Junction City we at once entered upon the unmodified wilderness of the seemingly endless prairies that intervene between the waters of the Missouri and the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. Having no company but a speechless mail bag the first few days of my journey were rather dull and found me in anything but good humor. The arrivals at the different stations, however, the meeting of numberless trains of emigrants, with which I never failed to have a chat, the sight of herds of buffalo, antelopes, and other game, the frequent intercourse with roaming bands of aborigines of various tribes, soon contributed to the diversification of the trip, and every sensation of mental weariness disappeared entirely.
From Junction City to the last mentioned place the route is divided into four divisions of five stations each, so that Denver City figures as Station No. 27. The distance between the several stations averages 25 miles. Care has been taken to locate the stations on creeks, in order to furnish the necessary supply of wood and water. From 18 to 24 miles, under the charge of a station-keeper, his assistant and four drivers, are kept at each of them to furnish relays for the coaches from the East as well as the West. From two to three stages are made a day by the latter. Passengers obtain three meals a day and plenty of sleep in tents, which will soon give way to log and frame houses.
The road is an excellent one. It was surveyed expressly for the Company by a party of engineers of large experience on the plains. Water, grass and timber, the indispensable necessities of the navigators of the former, are plentiful throughout with the exception of the valley of the Republican, the extremely sandy character of which renders it destitute of timber. For the 125 miles that the road follows its course, grass and water is, however, ample. The existence of grass on sandy desert I ascribe to the strong pregnation with alkali and plentiful natural irrigation of the river valley.
It is a very common notion to suppose that the country between the Missouri and Rocky Mountains is a dead level, without the slightest undulations of the surface. Although I did not fully entertain that opinion, I yet supposed to find few ups and downs. I was, however, surprised to find myself riding over a succession of steadily rising, rolling prairies, the altitude of which often approached that of respectable hills. Ravines intervene between most ridges, revealing the washing of transient courses of water. When reaching the divide between the waters of the Republican and those of the South Platte, the traveler finds himself several thousand feet above the level of the ocean.
Many objects of interest will be discovered by those that will follow the route of the Express Company. Among these I would mention extensive beds of iron ore between stations 8 and 9; a curious elevation with a rocky cap, between 13 and 14; hundreds of prairie dog villages and plenty of game all along the road; the sudden sinking of the Republican between 21 and 22 into a dry bed of sand, under which it continues its course subterraneously to its sources; beautiful pine groves from 24 to 27, and last but not least, a full aspect of the veritable snow-browed Pikes Peak, which becomes already visible at station 13—a distance of 100 miles. It first looks like a cloud, but, as one comes nearer, assumes clearer and greater dimensions, and when arriving on the last ridge before running down into the Cherry Creek valley, its eastern front is completely revealed to the eye, together with a long chain of peaks, partly covered with snow and partly with pine, and extending in a northward direction as far as Long’s Peak. I have seen the Alps of Switzerland and Tyrol, the Pyrenees and Appenines, yet their attractions appear to dwindle into nothing compared with the at once grotesque and sublime beauty of the mountain scenery upon which my eyes feasted before descending into the valley above referred to.
After striking the Santa Fe tract the road appears as well traveled as any country road in Ohio, and enables the different kind of vehicles to make a good speed for the common point of destination.
Colorado Magazine, V.8, November 1931