Prairie Ghost Town

 

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Vernon, Colorado

            Located on the north central plains of Eastern Colorado, the little village has more memories on Main Street then pedestrians.  It is a country settler’s village that has hung on.  There are no major highways through town or a railroad.  Yet the town has maintained a small population of around 30 souls.  Main Street is empty, boarded up and the sidewalks are rolled up.  Down at the DSC03076 (800x600)end of the road is the Post Office, there are enough residents in the area to keep it going. 

 

            For one weekend a year, Vernon comes to life, people stroll the town park, tractors pop and sputter and horses have the right of way.  Vernon Days is celebrated just before Labor Day.  It is a day to remember when their forefathers came into the area and homesteaded.  The few town folks roll out the old time carpet to celebrate yesteryears. 

 

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            Otherwise the other 51 weekends are pretty noiseless as the sleepy little goes about life.  Surrounded by farmland, the whirr of farm equipment is more common the laughter of school children, from the now shuttered school house.  The little country church is well kept and hears the word on occasion.  The shops of Main Street remind one of when they could stop in and pick up supplies.  Across the street is the town park square, well groomed and cared for.

 

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            Off in the distance on a ridge can be seen the community cemetery.  Looking at it one could see that the area was populous at one time.  Yet like so many prairie towns, the people left to try and find greener fields in the city. 

 

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            Those that remain have different pace of life, the nearest towns with shops are miles away.  Sometimes the bus ride to school can be over 100 miles.  Yet the people take it in stride and live out a life from the land. 

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Town in the bend of the river

 

River Bend

            Situated on a bend in the river, the RR stop had a logical name of River Bend.  Today River Bend is a vacant spot in a pasture next to the railroad tracks.  The Interstate has an exit sign for the village that sat on the bend in the river.  Old River Bend, Colorado is back west from the Interstate exit a few miles behind the ridge.  Old highway 40 outline can still be seen following along the Interstate.  South of the exit are a few ranch houses, which is considered River Bend.  To the north on the hill is the town cemetery, a Boot Hill. 

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            Outside of the exit sigh and cemetery, River Bend is a paragraph in most history books and sometimes only a sentence.  Yet in the 1870’s it was an important RR town on the plains of eastern Colorado.  Here the buffalo hunters arrived by railcar to safari into the nearby hills to hunt.  Colonel Reno used River Bend for his headquarters when General Custer’s 7th Calvary was assigned to protect the new railroad building across the plains. 

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            As a result, River Bend was a pretty tumultuous town of saloons, brothels, and assorted characters.  With the various early day conflicts, boot hill had a good assortment of customers.  One of the locals at the museum talking about the cemeterary grimaced when describing some the evil folks buried up there on the hill. 

            In the area are remains of the stage stop, a military fort, ruts of the Smoky Hill Trail and assorted artifacts.  Metal Calvary buttons, Indian arrowheads, spent shell casings, wagon parts and rusted tin cans.  During the mid 1860’s, it was a crossroads for various trails/wagon roads going to the gold fields.  It also was great buffalo hunting grounds for the local Indians. 

            Flying down Interstate 70, River Bend exit doesn’t get much more than a glance.  The lone tree on Boot Hill, goes unnoticed.  Cattle dot the land, drifting along munching grass as cars and trucks whiz by.  It is a pretty quiet scene.  No more buffalo to hunt, no more Indians to do battle with and the gun fighters RIP.

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Kuhn’s Crossing

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            One of those places where I was a few days late and a whole bunch short.  Situated off Hwy 94 and down a dead end road a short distance, was Kuhn’s Post Office.  This where one could cross Bijou Creek and continue their journey westward.  Off and on for years I drove past this location, not knowing what was located just over the rise. 

            Back in the trees lining the creek I could a barn with its silo and the other ranch buildings.  It was a very pastoral scene as I whizzed by on the highway.  Back down the road had been Kuhn’s Crossing Schoolhouse and there were some log cabins. 

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            Over the years these structures had weathered and collapsed into piles of lumber scrap heaps.  The markers of the little pioneer community were gone.  Down the road a ways were some ranch houses and outbuildings after crossing the creek.  A rubble heap sat on the ridge where the school had once been.  I took too long to go looking and found not much. 

            It is a fascinating area to drive through.  To the south a ways was a stage stop and a branch of the Smoky Hill Trail.  To the north on another road is another branch of the Smoky Hill Trail.  There are some other communities nearby and some wide open range land.  Cottonwoods line the creek bottoms and stately pines dot the ridges.  It is a varied land of rolling grasslands, towering ridges, 7000-8000 feet in elevation.  The Indians would roam here in the summer

            Today, many of the pine trees have grown back, ranches dot the land and cattle graze the grasses.

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Hiding in the Breaks

The Last Indian Village

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            Tucked back in the Limon Breaks was a small band of Indians that refused to go to the reservation.  They managed to stay out of the governments’ sights until the 1940’s, the beginning of WWII.  The breaks is a rugged wilderness of steep ravines, gullies and canyons, dotted with thick stands of cedars, pines and scrub brush.  At an elevation that ranges from 6000 feet to almost 8000 feet, not many people settled in the breaks. 

            It was too rugged for large scale farming and the weather makes for some nasty winters and springs.  This type of landscape made for a great place to Indians to live and thrive. 

            Scattered among the hills are numerous springs, feeding small streams.  It is a haven for wildlife, there was water, ample feed and protection down in the ravine bottoms.  This was great buffalo country and the Indians had been coming to the area for centuries.  There are caves among the cliffs, providing shelter for the Nomads that roamed the area.  Deer roamed the land, as did rabbits, antelope, coyotes and numerous other critters.  These provided food and clothing for the Indians.  There was wild fruit in the breaks, such as choke cherry, a variety of herbs and tubers grow along the bottom meadows.  For a subsistence life, it was everything a person needed to live. 

            At the end of the 1800’s most of the Indian wars had ceased.  The Indians had been carted off to reservations to become domesticated.  Not all stayed on the reservation.  They would wander off and return to the lands they knew and set up living like they used to.  The buffalo had almost been exterminated but the Indians managed to live on the prairie.  There are stories of ranchers running across small bands living on their ranch. 

            For the most part, the cowboys let things be and left the Indians to their devices.  A few would help, bring food, blankets or clothing.  Eventually the government would hear of these little groups, round em up and take them to the reservation.  The band in the Limon Breaks avoided detection for a number of years.  The ranchers in the area would help them and even offered them livestock if they were hungry.  Quietly the Indians went about their life in the woods and ravines.  The caves they used are marked with smoke from their fires.  Rings of rocks can be seen where they had their tepees.  Fire pits can be seen nearby.

            Driving on Interstate 70 across eastern Colorado, one would not even consider there would be a thick forest to the north of Cedar Point.  On the ridges to the north can be seen groves of cedar stretching to the north for miles.  Over the ridge, the land drops down into steep ravines climbing back up cliffs to mountains of about 7500 feet.  There are no homes back in there and it pretty much open rugged wilderness.  Wildlife still roam the area, it is cattle now that graze the land.  Here for about 40 years, a group of Indians avoided the long arm of the government, living off the grid. 

Comanche

Picture Canyon

            Situated in the SE corner of the state of Colorado is the Comanche Grasslands, owned by the Federal government.  The government bought up scores of acres and turned them is to grass in the attempts to slow down the dust bowl of the 30’s.  It also created recreational areas on the prairie, opening up wide variety public lands.  The nearby states also have huge sections of grasslands in the corners of their states. 

            The grasslands of New Mexico and Kansas encompass parts of the old Santa Fe Trail, following the Cimarron River, mostly dry.  There is the flat rolling land that is prone to blow and there is the surprise of the canyons and mesas in the area.  Just north of the Oklahoma border, in Colorado is a large area of land broken with canyons and rocky cliffs. 

            Tucked back in these areas are springs, trees and rocky overhangs, where the Indians could have shelter and carve in the rocks.  One such place is Picture Canyon, about 12 miles due west of Campo and a few miles south.  Here one drives out of the flat lands into scrub forest and rocky gulches. 

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            The rock walls made great easels for early many.  The Indians left their mark with Pictographs and petroglyphs.  They were not alone the early European explorers left their mark also.  There are some petroglyphs that archeologists speculate may have been Viking/Celtic in origin.  Which raises the questions, were the Northern Europeans, exploring in Western North America. 

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            No matter what, it is still a fun place to drive back into and watch the land change.  Looking at the cliffs, there are the occasional overhangs/caves that show signs of soot on the rocks.  Here in late summer the Indian could sit here and work his buffalo meat into pemmican.  For here in the canyons are a variety of fruits, Choke Cherry, Hackberry and others. 

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            There are also the remains of cabins that were built, late 1800’s.  It was a good area to graze cattle for summer pasture and a cabin for the trail rider. 

            It is an area to delve back more than a few thousand years.  The Folsom Point man roamed the area, before the present day plains Indians showed up.  The Comanche Indians are the contemporary residents of the area, living, hunting, working and playing in the canyons. 

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Two Lane Blacktop

Anton, Colorado

 

            Across the plains of Colorado, small little towns dot the prairie.  Many have faded into yesteryear, a few hang on and some have prospered.  US highway 36 begins or ends on the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Out across the eastern plains it is marked by numerous small towns.  Most have a population of some kind and some are just markers on the roadway. 

            Anton is one of those little towns that would make a nice little ghost town, except it is loaded with more businesses then residents.  Homes are pretty scarce, yet here one can stop at the local restaurant, get some gas, buy some groceries, mail a letter or get the car fixed and while waiting there is a motel or camper park.  The grain elevator sees lots of trucks and the highway department has shops on the corner.  On the edge of town is a small church.  There is no downtown of any sorts, it is strung out along the highway and the junction with the state highway. 

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            Could not find any census data on the village, so I doubt it is incorporated.  Mostly Anton is a wide spot on the road junction.  Years ago, before the Interstate era, Anton was on a busy highway.  Its famous counterpart down the road is Last Chance but unlike Last Chance Anton was able to keep some of the businesses going.  What’s interesting is the population of Last Chance is probably the same as Anton.  

            There is one remaining ghostly feature of years gone by.  Next to the Post Office was a small group of cabins.  Well neglected and not much TLC.  Here is where the traveling harvest crews would stay.  Before the big luxury RV’s of today, these little cabins were a luxury for the harvest crews.  Lots of the crews, years ago, would sleep under the stars, trucks, machinery and shave and clean up under a water barrel. 

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            The harvest crews would start in Texas, traveling north with the harvest season, sometimes as forth north as Canada.  Back then it was long hard days in the hot sun, sunrise to sunset.  There was no air conditioning and water was out of a canvas bag or burlap wrapped jug.  Meals were in the field, the bathroom was over there by the post.  So to have a shack with a roof over it, with a bed, place to shower and clean up with toilets…… the height of luxury. 

            Like lots of things today, Anton is a reminder of things gone by the way side.  The few people in the little village keep on going much like their ancestors did years ago, just lots more comfortable. 

The Tornado

Thurman, Colorado

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            The former town of Thurman, probably has one of the saddest stories of any ghost town ever.  Situated on the High Plains of East Central Colorado, Thurman was a growing city.  During the early 1900’s, the population was approaching 600 people,  There were banks, stores, shops, blacksmiths, small factory, movie house and all the conveniences of a thriving settlers prairie town.  Thurman was surrounded by great farmland and the homesteaders had staked out their future. 

            Spring had brought high hopes, the rain was plentiful and crops were in the ground and growing.  That afternoon, the thunderheads boiled up and with it came the funnels.  A tornado ripped across the land, in its patch was a farmhouse that would soon be scraps of wood and piles of rubble.  Seeing the damage, neighbors gathered up their families and took their wives and children to another neighbor’s house.  The men struck out to help the neighbor that had been hit by the funnel.  Hustling across the prairie to the tornado damage, the men paused, a loud roar was behind them.  Looking back over their shoulder, they saw a huge funnel dropping out of the clouds.  Right in its path was the house where they had left their wives and children. 

            In disbelief the men watched as the twister reached the home, picking it up, shredding it to pieces.  No more was there a building standing there.  Flat land now covered with debris and their families.

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            Soon the wheat market would crash after WWI, then the market crash bringing the great depression followed by the Dust Bowl.  Soon the prosperous town of Thurman was in decline.  Many people had lost their families and then their hope.  Over there were greener looking pastures to move to.  In a short time, what had been one of Eastern Colorado’s largest towns had dwindled into a Skelton.  The store, gas station and Post Office lasted into the 50’s.  The drought was the death knell for Thurman as it was for many of the other plains towns.  Dreams were gone, hopes were dashed and a new page had to be started some other place.  There are a few descendents in the area that survived all the catastrophe. 

            Hearing about Thurman and the stories of the tornado, I decided to go looking.  I got general directions on where it was and north down the gravel highway I went.  Bouncing down the road passing farms and ranches I went.  One of the ranches had a huge red barn.  Stopping I took a couple of pics of it.  On down the road I went and past the Thurman cemetery I went.  Oops…. Too far I had driven.  Making a U turn I retraced my tracks and just past the red barn I saw some of the buildings and open lots.  I had driven past Thurman thinking it was a large ranch complex. 

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            Most of the town was gone, the store was still there and there were some other buildings nearby.  I was now looking at vacant land where once almost 600 people had called home.  Standing there, the sorrow of the land eased past on the breezes.  The lament of other days was a still moan on the land. 

            At the cemetery were numerous headstones with the same date and how many were unmarked I have no idea.  It is a kept graveyard for somebody had recently mowed.

            Couple years later I dove that way again, hoping to get some pictures in different light.  Again I almost drove past, if it hadn’t been for the big red barn, I would have driven right on through.  The few remaining buildings had been razed.  Small depressions marking where cellars had been. Otherwise, the buildings of Thurman were gone. 

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            All that’s left to mark Thurman today is the country cemetery north of town and the red barn.