Gentle breezes whispering through prairie grasses and a sole foundation gives cause to reflect a bygone era. The site located just south of Hwy 50 on the Colorado-Kansas line only offers the cement foundation of a hotel that had once been a part of the "Hellhole on the Arkansas", a common title given to Trail City.
You can almost hear the thundering of the cattle as they are being herded through town, or the sound of gunfire from the six-shooters of the cowboys just in from a cattle drive, out for a night on the town. Can you hear the piano from the Lone Star Saloon or can you envision Olive's Trails' End, the stable and wagon yard down the street. In your imagination, you can see and hear this wild town and then... it's gone.
Wild cattle were thick in the Texas brush and after the Civil War it became common practice to round them up and herd them north and east to market. At the same time, ranches were developing with other breeds of cattle in Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, and Montana. These ranchers didn't want the Texas longhorns using the same forage and crops as their American cattle used. The Texas longhorns also carried the disease-bearing tick that caused tick fever; the Texas longhorns were immunne but not so the American cattle. The ranchers also believed that the longhorns were a danger to other livestock and to their crops.
In 1867, the first of a series of quarantine laws forced some of the Texas cattlemen to move their trails west. Others such as Charles Goodnight had to move east because of the increased population around Pueblo, Colorado City and Denver. The New Goodnight Trail blazed in 1875 followed a route from Texas, through New Mexico, over to Two Butte Creek in Colorado and up to Old Grenada at the Santa Fe stop.
Even Dodge City, a notorious trail town, was being cleaned up, ridding themselves of the "rowdier" elements. Kansas had placed a stricter quarantine law in 1883 that virtually banned Texas cattle in the state. Colorado followed Kansas' example, and Wyoming and Nebraska enacted their own laws, though a little less harsh. By the mid 1880's, the cattle and cowboys were searching for a home.
In 1883, a plea for a cattle trail with established boundaries, was made to the state or federal government. By 1884, the enthusiasm for a national cattle trail had grown and by the end of that year a specially appointed committee proposed a national trail of not more than six miles wide, but an actual route was not proposed until 1885. It would leave the Western Trail west of Camp Supply in Indian Territory heading west along the southern edge of the Oklahoma panhandle and then angling toward the Colorado-Kansas border and then north to Nebraska. It would then head northwest through Nebraska, across a corner of Wyoming into Montana. Congress considered the proposed route but recessed without enacting necessary legislation.
Cattlemen and ranchers along the proposed route were very opposed to the route and through their cattle associations resolved that they would cooperate in preventing the establishment of a cattle trail in Bent County. This would include preventing any civil means as well as prosecuting any person trespassing on private property. A message was sent to all persons at the stateline thinking about driving cattle into the state, that they could not enter Bent County. Those that were already in the county could not cross the Arkansas River because the entire riverfont to the Kansas line was owned by members of the association. The proposed route was adopted anyway in deference to the Colorado ranchers, with a few minor changes. These changes involved more control over the drives which the Bent County cattlement felt were better than being unregulated so nothing more was said.
With the trail unofficially established, it was decided that a trail town would be needed and Martin Culver, a former Texan, selected a site "in and near section 17, township 23, range 41 west, in Bent County, Colorado", now Prowers County, at the Colorado-Kansas border. The National Cattle Trail would cross the Arkansas River and the Santa Fe Railroad at this point. Culver claimed this to be a possible "Cowboy Capital" and with $20,000 in capital stock the town was incorporated, according to one source.
By September, 1885, many businesses were established, "most of them along the town's main thoroughfare, Trail Street, which ran north from the Santa Fe Railroad tracks." Being on the Colorado-Kansas border, buildings on the east side of the street had back doors that opened into Kansas. "This afforded much hillarity in the saloons on the east side of the street as bottles were tossed into 'dry' Kansas."
Trail City earned a colorful reputation but wasn't really any different from most any other western town. The town was quiet until a drive came through. Since it was the first stop on a long, dusty journey, it was also when the cowboys were paid in cash. Trail City did have some law enforcement but being on the line between the two states, known as No-Man's Land, many of the "criminals" crossed the line into Kansas. The closest true court of law was 75 miles west in Las Animas. Its trail-side existence afforded the gunfights, moneymaking, and the general rowdiness.
By 1887, after a severe winter and a decline in the demand for Texas cattle, along with the increase of homesteads, the trail drives dwindled. In the summer of 1886, Trail City had a population of 500, 300 of which were transient. The 200 or so permanent residents had dwindled rapidly. In 1888 the Colorado Business Directory listed Trail City as having a population of 50. It still had a railroad station, a stage stop, and a post office, but by 1889 neither the railroad stop nor the post office were listed but the population was still at 50.
Sometime after this, a few of the hotels were rumored to have been moved to Holly. However, in 1903 one of the hotel buildings was moved back to Trail City and set on a new concrete foundation. The remains of this foundation are all that give evidence to the existence of one of the wickedest towns in the west.Sources:
A Prowers County Historyby Ava Betz, published in 1986 by The Prowers County Historical Society
Prowers Western Passage-Historical Sites, published in 1976 by the Prowers County Centennial Bicentennial Committee