• Last modified 705 days ago (June 18, 2020)



The famous "lost" spring, so named because it at times vanished, was a stopping point on the historic Santa Fe Trail. This undated photo of the spring, probably from the 1890s, was taken after the trail had largely fallen into disuse but before monuments were erected honoring its various stations, including one near the present-day town of Lost Springs, which was named for the spring.

Santa Fe Trail nears its bicentennial

Staff writer

The historic Santa Fe Trail that crossed northern Marion County will celebrate its 200th anniversary next year.

Among events planned include Symphony in the Flint Hills, which will return after a year’s hiatus to honor the trail with a concert in the Flint Hills near Council Grove.

The trail became a regularly traveled commercial route in 1821. It stretched from the Missouri River to the central square of Santa Fe, New Mexico, which at the time was part of Mexico.

Mexico had been ruled by Spain, and the few American explorers or traders who ventured there in the early 1800s were immediately seized and imprisoned.

In late 1821, however, when several parties of traders once again neared Santa Fe, they were greeted by Mexican riders happily informing them of Mexico’s independence from Spain. The American traders and their goods were more than welcome.

Large caravans soon were organized as traders could exchange American goods for Mexican silver. The spectacular success of the trail led the U.S. government to send out surveyors to mark the route and secure permission from indigenous Native American tribes to pass through the region.

The first 25 years were the trail’s heyday. It was an international route to the west, used by Yankee traders from New England, French and Canadian émigrés, Spaniards and Mexicans, and German political refugees.

Soldiers often accompanied trading caravans. Fort Riley was established in part to provide military protection for the trail.

As the American frontier began expanding, the trail also became a migratory route for settlers seeking to homestead the land.

For many of the trail’s early years, Council Grove was a last stop to stock up on supplies before heading out across the prairie.

Eventually, the government encouraged construction of additional supply stations along the route.

The trail continued through northern Marion County, with prominent stopping points including one at a “lost” (as in, occasionally disappearing) spring near what is now Lost Springs and another near Durham, where the trail crossed the Cottonwood River.

Both were founded by a man named George Smith and both stations provided food and shelter for travelers and livestock in addition to places to hang out.

Much time was spent drinking beer and playing cards. In fact, Smith lost his Lost Spring Station to settler named Jack Costello in a card game.

The trail’s use as a cross-country route began to end in 1866, when railroads reached Junction City. It continued to be used locally for several more years. However, after rail lines were laid in Marion County in 1871, the old stations were abandoned as the railroad provided faster, easier, cheaper transportation for overland freight and travelers.

When rail lines were completed all the way to Santa Fe in 1880, newspaper headlines proclaimed: “Santa Fe Trail passes into oblivion.”

The trail, however, was not forgotten.

Daughters of the American Revolution, organized in 1880, set markers at several points along it, including one at Lost Springs and another at Tampa.

Old settler J.B. Shields was instrumental in gathering donations and establishing a monument at the “lost spring” site 2½ miles west of Lost Springs in 1908.

The route continued to be the general basis for several cross-country motor routes, including what eventually became US-50N (later renumbered US-56) and US-50S (later just US-50).

In recent years, three Marion County sites have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and informational kiosks have been set up at each.

These are the Lost Spring Station, Cottonwood Crossing (1½ miles west of Durham), and French Frank’s Trail Segment (north of Lehigh on 245th Road, two-tenths of a mile west of Chisholm Trail Rd.).

According to Steve Schmidt, president of the Cottonwood Crossing chapter of the Santa Fe Trail Association, 17 other sites of interest line the old trail route in the county.

Tourists can locate all of them by picking up an tour guide at Lost Spring Station, Cottonwood Crossing, or a stone monument on US-56 at the McPherson County line.

The guide also can be downloaded at

Several trail-related geocaching sites also are in Marion County. Details can be found at

Last modified June 18, 2020