Prairie Tayles: Learning to Read a Vanishing Landscape

Oct 27, 2017

Archeological training teaches students to look for human-altered landscapes. This includes out of the ordinary coloration, unusual shapes or formations that don’t match surroundings, or obvious construction such as cliff dwellings. Southwest Colorado’s sagebrush plain schools the eye to distinguish differing hues of greenery indicating soil disturbances or recognize mounds with donut-like collapsed centers. In western Kansas, students of vanished cultures work harder to identify signs of earlier occupation. That said, historic and prehistoric signs tell stories for those who care to read them.

A trip over Hwy 9 between Highways 281 and 183 is a good place to look for historic construction slowing melting back to the earth. This two lane parallels the old Missouri Pacific Railroad that wound through Gaylord, Cedar, Claudell, Kirwin, Glade, Speed, Logan, Densmore, and Edmond. Each little town had a depot where farmers picked up deliveries or shipped grain, cattle, milk, and other produce. In most places, those distinctive rooflines have gone the way of horse and buggy. However, locals in Cedar and Kirwin preserved their whistle stops in a bright yellow that provides interesting photo opportunities.

From the beginning of this route, observers note an undulating rise out of place from the surrounding prairie. If they recall their history accurately, they realize Jay Gould’s Mo Pac crossed here, stopping at each hamlet. Humans and beasts scraped surrounding soil to build the foundation supporting those clacking wheels. Folks with metal detectors and permission to go on private property occasionally find camp detritus at sites where these workers rested and ate. Until the line folded, train cars carried grass- fattened cattle and sun-ripened grain to market.

With such thoughts in mind, curious wanderers might turn off the main highway to investigate Kirwin Refuge. Just before their detour, those visitors passed well-constructed ductwork carved into a high hill’s base. Such conduits carried run off from the rail bed crowning the rise. After they turn, a straightway descending from the crown and vanishing into the west compels attention. It seems it has no purpose. Now a mowed bed bordered by wild plums, this was a section of the old track.

Over time, farmers have plowed portions of earthen foundations until they blend into surrounding fields. Inattentive passersby won’t notice the on/ off again appearance of the old Mo Pac. Then a couple of miles past Speed, a bridge abutment rising from the middle of nowhere draws attention. This structure is so out of place. Without knowing this was a once a busy avenue of commerce, curious sightseers leave wondering.

I hope that mysterious man- made formations will interrupt the rises and flats between Highways 281 and 183 well into the future. Historians and photographers, amateur and professional, can spend happy hours traversing what began as a game and Indian trail, evolved to a stage road to Colorado goldfields, then became a leg of the Mo Pac route. For now, it’s a quiet byway broken by unnatural colors and unusual formations out of place on a native prairie. Here’s to the stories those disturbances tell.