Toll Bridges on the Santa Fe Trail

     Departing Franklin, Missouri, on September 1, 1821, William Becknell set out for the Southwest with four companions, a string of pack horses, and $300 worth of trade goods. He had made public his ostensible purposes: trade with Indiana, trap furs, and capture wild horses. Despite those public statements, it is now clear that Becknell headed directly to Hispanic settlements in New Mexico. Arriving there in November 1821, Becknell's party disposed of their trade goods in Santa Fe at a significant profit. Such gain compelled Becknell to organize a second trip to Santa Fe in the following year, with 21 men, three wagons' and $3,000 worth of merchandise. The prospects for vast profits also prompted the Coopers, McKnights, Marmadukes, and hundreds of others who followed in his wake. They were all in search of the proverbial pot of gold, not at the end of the rainbow but at the end of a nine-hundred-mile march to Santa Fe.

     Make no mistake about it. The mission was money, and those who got there the quickest with the most were bound for the lions share. Efficiency became the name of the game. Early in the trade with Santa Fe, pack trains with their limited cargo were superseded by wagons, ordinary farm wagons at first but later with the huge Pitt wagons which carried 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of merchandise. Likewise, the horse was replaced by the sturdy mule which subsequently was supplemented by the ox as the primary draft animal. Oxen could be purchased for one-third the price and outfitted at one-fourth the cost of mules. Moreover, the ox's highly-tuned digestive system could convey the sparse forage of the plains to protein-laden nutrients without the benefit of grain required by mules.

     The road to Santa Fe had been expeditiously charted to avoid all but some thirty miles of mountainous travel, much of the distance being over even prairie and plains. One major obstacle was the streams, many of them insignificant little tributaries; but others were raging rivers during flood stage. And in the drier times, their channel floors, filled with silt and shifting sand, provided less than desirable fords. One of the most costly factors was time. Then as now, time was money; and an inordinate amount of time could be consumed at a crossing for several reasons.

     First, a crossing could be a bottleneck where wagons would be backed up for days waiting for an opportunity to cross. On June 11, 1859, the Leavenworth Herald reported: "Cow Creek [present Rice County, Kansas] is a very bad stream to ford. So great is the travel on this road that wagons are often detained from one to two days on others who were in advance of them."

     Second, floodwaters could remain at such depths that streams could be impassable for weeks. Such was the case in 1844 when William Bent's caravan was stranded at Pawnee Fork for a full month. After finally fording that river on May 21, Bent pushed eastward to Walnut Creek where he waited another month for the water to subside. [1]

     Third, the time spent in crossing a swollen stream was of no little consequence. James Josiah Webb reported in 1844:
     "The crossing of the Arkansas was looked forward to with much solicitude, as at best it was attended with a good deal of risk and labor. The stream is about a third to half a mile wide, with a rapid current and quicksand bottom -- the channel shifting from day to day, forming holes and bars, making necessary much crooking and turning in the stream to avoid miring down so the water would not reach the bottoms of the wagons and wet the goods. I have two or three times had to raise the load by placing timbers on the bolsters as high as we dare and avoid the risk of the shaking off or turning over the loads. Uncle Nick, who had made many trips before this, said that on one or two occasions he found the water so high that they could find no place to ford, and, had selected a wagon body best fitted for the purpose, caulked it as well as they could, and (stretching raw buffalo skins on the outside) made a boat or scow to ferry over. This is no small job to ferry across such a stream seventy-five to one hundred tons of freight, delaying a train sometimes a week or ten days, and under an expense of eighty dollars to one hundred dollars a day." [2]

     Fourth, following a difficult crossing, the oxen were so exhausted that on the following day the animals would have to be rested before the expedition could continue. Additional time was also required to lubricate the axles and repair damage done to the wagons. Such was the observation of Webb subsequent to the 1844 crossing of the Arkansas. He recalled, "The next day was spent in greasing up, making repairs, cooking, and resting teams." [3]

     Fifth, where a quagmire was the culprit, not high water, a huge amount of effort was expended in preparing the stream bed for crossing. The banks were cut away to allow the wagons a safer entrance to and egress from the stream bed. Brush and grass were hauled in voluminous amounts to pack the mud and sand-filled river channels, and men would enter the water to lend their muscle to that of the animals. Josiah Gregg described such crossings at the Little Arkansas in 1831.

     "Early the next day we reached the Little Arkansas, which, although endowed with an imposing name, is only a small creek with a current but five or six yards wide. But, though small, it steep banks and miry bed annoyed us exceedingly in crossing. It is the practice upon the prairies on all such occasions for several men to go in advance with axes, spades, and mattocks and by digging the banks and erecting temporary bridges to have all in readiness by the time the wagons arrive. A bridge over a quagmire is made in a few minutes by cross-laying it with brush (willows are best, but even long grass is often employed as a substitute) and covering it with earth-across which a hundred wagons will often pass in safety." [4]

     Travelers on the Santa Fe Trail had little difficulty in fording most streams which bisected the road in Missouri. There was a ferry across Tabo Creek a few miles east of Lexington. The Big Blue River was sometimes difficult, and the famous Red Bridge was erected there in 1859. Most streams southwest of the Arkansas River all the way to Santa Fe presented few problems, except during a brief flood. The streams which presented the most problems were located in that portion of Indian Territory which is now Kansas where white settlement was prohibited by the Indian Intercourse and Trade Act of 1834. Consequently, only one toll bridge was in operation on the Santa Fe Trail prior to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 which opened the territory to white settlement.

     That bridge was situated near present Burlingame on a stream originally named Bridge Creek. As early as the 1825-1827 survey of the Santa Fe Trail, Joseph Brown advised, "The bed of the creek is muddy and must of necessity be bridged." By 1846 the stream was known as Switzler's Creek, so called for John Switzler who built a bridge at that point. [5] Switzler was able to circumvent the prohibition of white settlement by marrying an Indian woman and thus becoming a member of her tribe, not an uncommon practice in those days. The toll bridge was later operated by I. B. Titus. According to James Mead, who visited Burlingame in 1859" Titus took in a toll of $20-$30 a day. [6]

     With the 1854 opening of Kansas Territory for settlement, six other toll bridges were established in Kansas along the Santa Fe Trail. Geographically, east to west, the first of these bridges was built in 1854 at 110 Mile Creek, a few miles west of present Overbrook, by Fry P. McGee. McGee, one of the original members of the Town of Kanzas (later Kansas City) Town Company, arrived at 110 Mile Creek in August 1854. While the Kansas-Nebraska Act was signed into law on May 30 of that year, the territory was not opened for settlement until months later. Regardless, McGee promptly opened a store and began to sell provisions to travelers on the Santa Fe Trail and to other emigrants who, like McGee, were squatting on Kansas land. Other ventures included a saloon and a toll bridge. Marc Simmons reported that the toll was 25 cents per wagon. [7]

     Approximately 28 miles to the southwest, near the present town of Allen, Charles Withington arrived with his family at 142 Mile Creek in June of 1854. Like McGee, Withington illegally settled in the territory before it was opened to white habitation. He had been long associated with the Sac & Fox tribes in Iowa as a government blacksmith before coming west with the tribe to present Franklin County, Kansas, in 1846, where he continued to serve the tribes as blacksmith, gunsmith, and interpreter. In 1851 Withington moved to Council Grove where he gained employment with the Waldo Hall Mail Company.

     When he moved to 142 Mile Creek in 1854 he operated a store, saloon, mail station, blacksmith shop, and toll bridge. Traffic on the bridge was immense. Withington reported for the period of May 21 to November 25, 1865: 4,472 wagons, 5,197 men, 1,267 horses, 6,452 mules, 32,281 oxen, 112 carriages, and 13,056 tons of freight. [8]

     Twenty miles farther southwest was Council Grove in present Morris County, the little town which had its origins in the single log building constructed on the west bank of the Neosho River by Seth M. Hays in 1847. Quickly, the little community grew with the addition of a mail station, the Kaw Mission, and numerous other businesses. By the time of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Council Grove had illegally developed into a fair sized community within the boundaries of the Kaw Reserve. The crossing of the Neosho had a firm rock bottom; but by 1860, a toll bridge was erected of sturdy oak timbers cut from the groves of hardwood; which populated the Neosho River valley. S. M. Hays and Company reported westward traffic on the bridge for the period of April 24 to October 1, 1860, as follows: men, 3,519; wagons 2,667; horses, 478; mules, 5,819; working cattle, 22,738; carriages 550; tons of freight, 13,422. [9]

     Southwest of Council Grove no stream was bridged until the Trail reached the Little Arkansas River, 91 miles distant in present Rice County. In February 1858 the Kansas Territorial Legislature granted E. F. Gregory and Associates a charter to build a bridge across "the Little Arkansas River where the Santa Fe Road crosses the same."

     Evidently Gregory abandoned the project as the legislature, in February of the following year, passed an act authorizing William T. Williamson and others to build a bridge at the same location. The legislature set the toll rates as follows: wagon or vehicle, 50 cents; each large animal, 10 cents; each small animal and person, 5 cents; man and horse, 10 cents. Apparently Williamson and Company also gave up the project. [10]

     Gold-seeker Charles Post confided to his diary on May 20, 1859, "The bridge built last season by Gains and Wheeler, owners of it and the ranch, twenty-five cents toll and ten gallons of water or 25 cents for the gallons of water and use of the ferry. [11] The further identity of Gains remains moot; but Wheeler was William Wheeler who, in 1861, advertised his enterprise in the Council Grove Press.

Little Arkansas Ranche
     The Traveling Public are respectfully informed, that the undersigned is located on the Little Arkansas, where the great Santa Fe Road crosses the same. I keep always on hand, Provisions, Groceries and Liquor

     Also are prepared to accommodate travelers. I have several large corrals for penning stock. AIso, have built a strong and substantial bridge across the Little Arkansas for the accommodation of the traveling public.
W. D. Wheeler. [12]

     Twenty-one miles southwest was Cow Creek Crossing, four miles west of present Lyons. There, in 1858, Dr. Ashael Beach established a trading ranch following a brief association with the Gregory venture at the Little Arkansas. Soon after, Beach's son Abijah, recently graduated from an Ohio medical college, joined his father. The Beaches received a charter to build a bridge at the difficult crossing, but before they could complete construction, another bridge was built nearby by William Edwards and Associates in the autumn of 1859.

     The Beach bridge was not finished within the time allowed, but the 1860 legislature granted a one-year extension, and the work was completed by March 1860. The toll was set as follows: wagons, 30 cents; every animal attached thereto, 10 cents; pleasure carriages, 15 cents; every animal attached thereto, 10 cents; loose stock, hogs-sheep-goats, 1 cent; every person on foot, 5 cents. The elder Dr. Beach never lived to collect a toll. He died in February 1860.

     Perplexed by Edwards's intrusion, the younger Dr. Beach wrote Council Grove attorneys seeking to sue for an injunction on the Edwards's bridge which was built within the geographical limits of the charter issued to the Beaches. Evidently Beach's threat was successful. In short order, he bought Edwards bridge for $50. However, Edwards returned to build another bridge in the spring of 1861, charging only 10 cents per wagon. In June Beach took matters into his own hands. Leading a group of employees to the Edwards's enterprise, he ordered the bridge dismantled and removed. Thus ended the problems with Edwards which had persisted over a two-year period. [13] Beach's bridge and trading ranch were later owned and operated by William "Buffalo Bill" Mathewson.

     Twenty-three miles beyond Cow Creek, was Walnut Creek, located two miles east of Great Bend in present Barton County. Long a well used campsite on the Santa Fe Trail, this crossing was the site of a trading ranch established in 1855 by William Allison and Francis Boothe. Following the death of Allison by heart failure and the murder of Francis Boothe, the ranch was operated by George Peacock, who was killed by Kiowa Chief Satank in September 1860. Peacock's successor was Charles Rath, a former associate of William Bent, married to Making Out Road, reportedly the most handsome woman of all the Southern Cheyennes and former wife of Kit Carson.

     In January 1863 Rath and a number of partners formed the Walnut Creek Bridge Company for "the purpose of building a toll bridge over Walnut Creek, in Peketon County, State of Kansas where the Great Santa Fe Road crosses said stream." This company was granted the first papers of incorporation in the State of Kansas. [14] The creek, typical of tributaries to the Arkansas, was about forty feet wide at the point where the bridge was built. But due to the rampaging floods that characterized each spring, the bridge spanned a distance of some 300 feet. [15]

     In 1867 Rath was ordered off the Fort Zarah military reservation which by that time had encompassed his holdings. The army charged that he was responsible for providing the Indians with both weapons and whiskey. The charges were without substance, but the matter was academic so far as the bridge was concerned.

     By 1866 the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division, arrived at Junction City, 120 miles to the northeast. Immediately, the little city near Fort Riley became the railhead for the Union Pacific, the official depot of the U.S. Postal Service, and the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Road. Freight, passengers, and mail, which previously had been dispatched from the Kansas City area through Council Grove, were shipped by rail to Junction City and thence over the Fort Riley-Fort Larned Road to strike the established route of the Santa Fe Trail at Walnut Creek, the site of Raths bridge. Thus, overland traffic on the Santa Fe Trail east of Walnut Creek ceased and the bridges at 110 Mile Creek, 142 Mile Creek, Switzler's Creek, Council Grove, Little Arkansas River, and Cow Creek lost the majority of their revenues. Reduced to serving local traffic, they fell into disuse and were soon abandoned. [16]

     In 1867 the railroad built farther west, to Ellsworth and then Hays City, which became the terminus of Trail traffic. This made the Walnut Creek bridge obsolete too.

     In 1868 another toll bridge was constructed on the Trail, at the Dry Route crossing of Pawnee Fork just east of the Fort Larned military reservation, by A. H. Boyd. By that time, however, the westward expansion of the railroad had eliminated overland traffic on the Santa Fe Trail in the Fort Larned area. Boyd's bridge was destroyed by a flood in 1869. [17]

     Between 1854 and 1866 freight wagons by the thousands, to say nothing of the military movements and stagecoaches, made great use of these toll bridges. No physical evidence of the structures remains, but their legacy is lasting. Perhaps no other technology contributed so much to the efficiency of the Santa Fe trade in such a brief tenure as did these seven bridges.

     1. David Lavender, Bent's Fort (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1954), 231.

     2. James Josiah Webb, Adventures in the Santa Fe Trade, 1844-1847 (reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 55.

     3. Ibid., 56.

     4. Josiah Gregg, The Commerce of The Praries (New York: Citadel Press, 1968), 44.

     5. Louise Barry, The Beginning of the West., Annals of the Kansas Gateway to the American West, 1540-1854 (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1972), 549.

     6. James R. Mead, Hunting and Trading on the Great Plains, 1859-1875 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), 46.

     7. Barry, Beginning of the West, 359, 360; A. T. Andreas, History of the State of Kansas (Chicago: A. T. Andreas, 1883), 1530; Marc Simmons, Following the Santa Fe Trail: A Guide For Modem Travelers (Santa Fe: Ancient City Press, 1984), 75.

     8. Andreas, History of Kansas, 845; D. E. Schiessen, "History at Allen, Kansas," Our Land-A History of Lyons County, Kansas (Emporia: Emporia State Press, 1976), 40,

     9. John D. Cruise, "Early Days on The Union Pacific," Kansas Historical Collections, XI (1909-1910), 533.

     10, Louise Barry, "The Ranch at Little Arkansas Crossing," Kansas Historical Quarterly, XXXVIII (Autumn 1972): 287-289.

     11. L. R. Hafen, ed., Overland Routes to the Gold Fields, 1859 (Glendale: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1942), 37-38.

     12. Council Grove Press, March 23-July 20,1861.

     13. Louise Barry, "The Ranch at Cow Creek Crossing," Kansas Historical Quarterly, XXXVIII (Winter 1972): 416-426.

     14. Louise Barry, "The Ranch at Walnut Creek Crossing," Kansas Historical Quarterly, XXXVII (Summer 1971): 121-146.

     15. The Hancock Expedition, Letters Received by the Office of the Adjutant General, 1867, RG 94, Microcopy, roll 563, National Archives.

     16. David K. Clapsaddle, "Conflict and Commerce on the Santa Fe Trail: The Fort Riley - Fort Larned Road 1860-1867," Kansas History (Summer 1993): 134-137.

     17. David K. Clapsaddle, A. H. Boyd: Entrepreneur of the Prairie (Larned: Tiller and Toiler, nd), 14-15.
Used With Permission of the Author:
David Clapsaddle

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