From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.
Built Nearly 85 Years Ago, It Has Been the Scene of Much Bloodshed--Lincoln, Stephen Douglas and Many Other Famous Persons Stopped There.
If one were asked to select the best remaining monument to Leavenworth's great past, he would not choose the Fort Leavenworth Indian wall, a gravestone, or the Eight-mile House of Buffalo Bill fame.
He would choose the Planters House.
This still serviceable hostelry, overlooking the river that was the touchstone of Leavenworth's growth, has a truly remarkable past. It has housed Abraham Lincoln, General Grant, Horace Greeley, General William T. Sherman, Sarah Bernhardt and a host of others whose names have gathered even more fame than that to which they honestly are entitled.
The Planters House has been the bull-pen for murders, kidnaping of fugitive slaves, and pro and post election rights. It also has been the social rendezvous of prominent families whose descendants today make up a generous portion of Leavenworth's business and professional life.
Its barroom once supported two bartenders, a northerner and a southerner, who were among the nation's finest diplomats. It weathered the Civil war and remained prosperous for a time, even when guerilla bands gathered on the river???????????????????????????
Significantly, the Planters was opened in the late fall of 1856, at the bloodiest period of the Missouri-Kansas border warfare. It was not the first hotel here, but the second.
"Uncle George" Keller opened the Leavenworth House at the northwest corner of Main and Delaware streets in October of 1854, aided by E. T. Kyle, whose daughter, Cora Leavenworth Kyle, is said to be the first white child born in this city (December, 1854).
"Uncle George" was a remarkable man. He had been a cattle drover, a gold prospector and a trapper. He was a free-soiler, and anti-slavery man, a conviction in those days that was difficult to maintain. His hotel, over which he ruled as factotum and genial host, was a gathering place for the still small group that opposed the enslavement of Negroes. His wife is remembered as "Aunt Nancy" Keller--nothing more is recorded.
For some obscure reason, there is a general reluctance to credit economic factors in the growth of civilizations. Leavenworth grew because of the money flowing here from the business of a freighting company. The Planters House, which ordinarily is said to have been built to give southern sympathizers a place to gather, more likely was a practical consideration. Space was needed to house the transient business men attracted here by the firm of Majors, Russell and Wadell.
In the natural course of events, Leavenworth would not have sprung, mushroom-like, into the leading city of the west unless it had been made the outfitting point of this incredibly-extensive transportation company. And the freighting company probably would not have entered here unless it had been for the government contracts obtained at Fort Leavenworth.
Lovers of rhetorical treatment of western history have missed a great bet in the activities of this firm. It was one natively-American company deserving the most sweeping flights of imagination.
In 1855, Majors, Russell and Wadell made Leavenworth the outfitting point for their wagon trains. In January of that year there were 200 inhabitants here; within six months 100 buildings had been erected. Literally overnight the population reached into thousands. The firm constructed stores, blacksmith shops, wagon and repair shops, and huge mercantile houses. It employed more than 500 wagons, 7,500 head of stock (oxen, horses and mules) and employed nearly 1,800 men. The first year here, it transported freight, at a contract rate of seven miles a day, to the amount of 8,000,000 pounds.
Horace Greeley, who visited his daughter and son-in-law here, Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas V. Smith, gives this description in his unrestricted style in the New York Tribune:
"Russell, Majors and Wadell's transportation establishment between the fort and the city is the greatest feature of Leavenworth. Such acres of wagons! such pyramids of extra axle-trees! such herds of oxen! such regiment of drivers and other employees! No one who does not see can realize how vast a business this is nor how immense are its outlays as well as its income. I resume this great firm at this hour (1866) has two millions of dollars invested in stock, mainly oxen, mules and wagons. They last year employed 6,000 teamsters, and worked 45,000 oxen."
The same year the freighting company started here, the Planters company was formed. In November, 1855, a subscription list was circulated by H. P. Johnson, familiarly known as "Hog" Johnson, who was killed during the battle of Morristown, in 1861, while commanding the Fifth Kansas Cavalry. One of the conditions of the subscription paper was that the hotel should be controlled by southern men and conducted on exclusive "southern Principles," that is, to permit no abolitionist to become a guest of the house.
The original owners were W. H. Russell, of the freighting company; "Hog" Johnson and Amos Reese. Ground was broken, and in a remarkably short time, the building was completed. The operators???
It was easily the finest hotel in the west, with the possible exception of St. Louis hostelries. It was of brick, four story, and had a dining room 106 feet long that would accommodate 200 guests at a sitting. The sleeping rooms were light and airy, and the furniture, the best of the period, cost $15,000. the silverware and plate were from the finest New York masters. "A wonder of elegance and comfort," one writer called it. The approximate cost was $50,000.
It might be obscure why the southerners believed they could support a hotel that in much later years brought comment from Mark Twain in his "Life on the Mississippi," while the abolitionists had to content themselves with "Uncle George" Keller's three-story, jerry-built frame establishment. The explanation is easy. The southern planters of Platte county and farther were more prosperous men.
Weston, Mo., their commercial rendezvous, in the 1850's was the largest town on the river. It had four or five large hemp warehouses, two large tobacco pressing establishments, six wholesale and retail general stores, much of whose trade was from the Indians. The Platte county farmers found a ready market for their horses, mules, hemp, tobacco, corn and bacon at Fort Leavenworth, constantly sending expeditions and supply trains to the Indian plains.
But even the prosperous southerners, many of whom came to Kansas territory to lend their influence while it still was vacillating between slavery and free state, could not wholly support the expensive hotel. In 1857, it was sold to Len T. Smith, the railroad builder, and Jep Rice, who modified the policy barring abolitionists.
In brief, the new operating plan was to admit all comers, providing they paid their bills and conducted themselves like gentlemen. In view of subsequent events, it must have been that Rice and Smith amended their policy to include only paying bills, or perhaps their interpretation of a gentleman was broader than ours today.
Border warfare had flared viciously. Leavenworth, whose population yearly included more New Englanders, struggled to gain "free" status, only the river separating them from the powerful slave owners. Much brutality followed, murders and kidnapings. In fairness, this should be remembered. Platte county was "south." Its settlers had come from slave country, where the institution was an integral part of the economics system; one in which they sincerely believed. Not all slave owners beat their chattel; indeed, Lizzie Allen, 100-year-old former slave of Leavenworth, says she never was beaten. She loved her white master.
Leavenworth was founded by proslavers, most of them from Platte county. When Leavenworth was incorporated in the summer of 1854, and subsequently, when territorial elections were held in which the issue of slavery was most prominent, Platte county felt it had a right to have a hand in the proceedings. Against them were many easterners, whose knowledge of the slavery system stopped with "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
For a while after the change in policy Smith and Rice lost the business of the southerners. Gradually they drifted back, still hostile, but attracted by the splendor of the Planters and the excitement of a growing city. To assuage the touchy convictions of their customers, Smith and Rice worked out a novel plan. The barroom and the billiard hall were in the basement, and two kinds of political bartenders were on duty day and night. One was an abolitionist, the other, pro-slavery, while a "free" Negro broke the ice and did the porter's work. Thus they caught the trade of both factions.
"When a pro-slavery man came in," H. Miles Moore says in his history of Leavenworth, "and sunk his knife down in top of the bar and shouted, 'I can lick any man north of Mason and Dixon's-line,' the drink dispenser told him that was the talk and encouraged him. A northern radical who could whip ?????????????????????
line was encouraged likewise by the abolitionist. All manner of talk was acceptable, but the line was drawn when shooting commenced. Then the offender, regardless of politics, was sent down the stone steps at the south entrance of the basement."
The early sixties were the great days. When the late Mrs. D. R. Anthony came to Leavenworth as the bride of the redoubtable colonel in 1864, she lived at the Planters. Looking down on Water street from her window, she spent many hours watching the unloading of freight from steamers into the warehouses on the east side and the loading of the overland freight trains out of the warehouses on Main street.
The drivers and roustabouts kept up a steady din of shouting, singing and swearing. As the majority of drivers were Mexicans, the swearing was in Spanish and did not offend the young ears of Mrs. Anthony.
Majors, Russell and Waddell were at the peak. Their trains radiated across the mountains to California, to Salt Lake City, to Oregon, and to New Mexico. A supplementary concern, the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak, was organized by them in 1860.
Most of the business was carrying supplies to the various military outposts, and when, in 1857, they obtained a contract for supplying Johnston's army in the so-called Mormon war, business reached incredible proportions.
The wagon corral from a window of the Planters house, was a sight to thrill the most urbane. These wagons were destined for the plains, those still uncharted reaches of Indians and buffalo. Weeks of winding over the beautiful grasslands, and nights camped in wagon corrals, were in prospect.
To an easterner like Mrs. Anthony, it must have been highly exciting. In the eyes of another easterner, James F. Meline, it was equally so. He writes, in 1866:
"Returning to town from Fort Leavenworth, I passed numbers of the ox trains used in freighting merchandise to New Mexico. They are remarkable, each wagon team consisting of ten yokes of fine oxen, selected and arranged not only for drawing but for pictorial effect, in sets of 20, either all black, all white, all spotted, or otherwise marked uniformly.
"Each set of twenty oxen draws from 6,500 to 8,000 pounds, and makes the journey from Leavenworth to Santa Fe at the contract rate of seven miles per day."
Leavenworth had entered the period of first elections, to be its bloodiest era. Upon election to the territorial council in 1855, the pro-slavers assured themselves of victory by bringing their voters down the river in a boat and waiting until evening to return. Polls were moved from the Leavenworth House to a saddle shop on Cherokee, near Third street. Ropes stretched from a window, where votes were taken, out into the streets, and all passed between the ropes.
The budge of the "law and order: party, as the pro-slavers called themselves, was a string of hemp in the button-hole, on the hat or around the waist. About 30 Wyandotte Indians voted, or were voted, at that election, which, superfluous to explain, was won by pro-slavers. but it settled nothing, being later contested in federal court on the grounds of fraud.
By 1857, the free-staters had brought some order to the community. So great was their rage upon the murder and robbery of a man in the summer of that year, that they gathered to seize the two suspected murderers, John C. Quarles and W. M. Bayes. The U. S. marshal mounted a box and begged the mob of a thousand to desist. After battering down the door of the jail with a stick of timber, they dragged out the pair, and hustled them to the nearest tree.
Quarles seized the rope and delayed his death, but a member of the mob threw his weight on Quarels' legs and strangled him. Coming to Bayer they encountered????????????????????????????
The most famous incident of violence that took place at the Planters was that of Charley Fisher, a fugitive slave. There are several versions, but the most popular also is the most spectacular. Fisher was from Kentucky, and a barber at the Planters Shop. A pro-slavery customer recognized him and told his master upon his return to Kentucky.
The master came from Kentucky to take his back, probably as a matter of principle. The abolitionists refused to allow Fisher to be placed in jail pending a hearing before the U. S. commissioner, David Brewer, later associate justice of the U. S. Supreme Court. It finally was agreed that two abolitionists and two pro-slavery men should guard Fisher in a fourth-story room until a hearing could be had. At one o'clock in the morning a dozen abolitionists entered the hotel to take Fisher away. The guards refused to give him up and barricaded the door.
The following day threats were made that unless Fisher was surrendered the hotel would be burned. A company of abolitionists went to Kickapoo and captured the old brass cannon, "Kickapoo," a relic of the Mexican war, from the pro-slavery Rangers there, taking them unawares. The cannon was brought close to the Planters House and unlimbered, and to protect the property, Fisher was hurried away secretly under guard.
During a recess in Fisher's hearing before the commissioner next day, the U. S. marshal, James McDowell, was called to the rear of the court room on some pretext and the prisoner was hustled downstairs and away in a buggy at hand. He never was recaptured.
Another memorable night at the Planters was that of the joint debate between a man named Ranson and Mark Parrott. Gerat[sic] preparations were made for it, and instead of speaking from the balcony of the hotel, a special platform was erected. Jep Rice didn't like the platform ideas, feeling that the lumber might be used for another purpose before the night was over. He was right.
Parrott opened the debate, which was fiery, and in closing he worked up his partisans to a high pitch. Shortly after Ranson began speaking a rush was made and the platform was broken down and torn in the lower part of the hotel, the barroom side, were smashed and the mob moved in.
A well-known figure here, significantly named Captain Tough, who later became a liveryman in Kansas City, was stopping at the hotel. Jep Rice had asked the captain to stay near, rather suspicious of what was to come. Capt. Tough, sleeping in his room, was awakened when the mob broke in the hotel. Sliding down the banister, a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other, he called out: "Stop instantly, or I'll make this a slaughter pen." The mob make a hasty exit.
Most of the Planters claim for fame, of course, stems from its famous guests. Abraham Lincoln ranks first. It was in 1859, and Lincoln still was an obscure lawyer struggling for political position. He entered Kansas at Elwood, just across the river from St. Joseph, on December 1. On Saturday, December 3 he came to Leavenworth. He was met at Fort Leavenworth by a large crowd and escorted to the Planters House.
His address was delivered in Stockton hall that night; his subject popular sovereignty. Sunday, December 4, was free for social contacts, and it is likely that most of the day he spent with a distant relative, Mark Delahay, who lived here, and who largely was responsible for Lincoln's visit.
The news of Lincoln's Saturday night speech had traveled over the week-end, so that he was asked to speak again on Monday. The crowd was so great that no hall available was large enough, and the people assembled in the street opposite the Planters.
Lizzie Allen remembers that day. Following the talk, she says, Lincoln stood on the west steps and the crowd filed by, shaking hands. Many of them were Negroes.
"He stood there real quiet," Lizzie Allen says. "He was a great big man, wearing a plug hat and a dark suit and with a shawl over his shoulders. When I came up to him he looked down at me and pressed my hand. He was awful ugly. It was the greatest day of my life."
And when Lincoln died, Mrs. Allen says, "the world ended for us colored people."
Stephen Douglas, the "little giant," who opposed Lincoln, made his first Kansas territorial speech from a balcony of the Planters. General Albert Sidney Johnson, famous commander of the Confederacy during the Civil war, was a young lieutenant at the post and a social favorite at functions at the hotel. General Phil "Little Phil" Sheridan, was a Planters guest.
General Sheridan made more than an ordinary mark in Leavenworth. He rode his horse down the main street at top speed one day. Some say he was drunk. A too-zealous police judge fined him $100, and General Sheridan expressed the hope he would live to see the day "grass grows in the streets of Leavenworth."
He bolstered his cause by moving his staff and headquarters from the post to Chicago, despite the fact Leavenworth citizens insisted upon paying the fine and offered elaborate apologies.
One of the most intriguing stories of the Planters House is of the elusive tunnel. More than likely it never existed. Tradition insists that it extended under the river, and was used for transporting slaves to Kansas.
Present occupants of the Planters call the long basement room on the river side "the tunnel" and that may have been impetus for a strange twisting of fact. But more likely is the explanation given by Thomas H. Todd, former slave, who lived for many years at the county hospital.
In 1855, he said, there was a large spring across on the Missouri side, and its water was conducted through a lead pipe over the river to the Planters. then to carry off the waste water a six-inch pipe was run under the bank on the east side o the hotel down the river. It then was called a tunnel, although we now would call it a sewer.
The Civil war brought unprecedened[sic] strife to Leavenworth. The city became a haven for fugitive slaves. In February of the historically cold winter of 1863 a large party of slaves who had been suffering nearly-intolerable cold while in hiding on the Missouri side, crossed the river ice to Leavenworth. Strangely enough, there apparently have been only a few words other than newspaper accounts of the history of Leavenworth curing the Civil war.
Perhaps H. Miles Moore gives the reason in his book: "It was a saddening, blighted period in our history, one which we should like to forget."
It was during the Civil war that Ty Gordon's band of guerrillas would gather at dusk on a sandbar in the river (it was narrower then) and shoot through the east windows of the Planters. It is needless to say that the east rooms were not popular.
Victory of the Union forces in the Civil war corresponded with the start of the slow death of the Planters prosperous era. The south never prospered after the war. The things it touched succumbed with it.
The "golden days" when hundreds of steamboats deposited on the levee governors, U. S. marshals, military and civil officers and judges and colones who considered it fashionable to stop at the Planters, faded away for a dozen reasons. A fist fight, begun at Second or Third street, still was concluded in front of the Planters before a large crowd, but the exultant spirit that made possible the fearful sacrifices of strength and health that built the west, was mellowing.
The days were passing, too, when the bulletin board on the southwest corner of the hotel announced the arrival and departure of the daily and bi-weekly Westport, Lawrence, Lecompton, Fort Riley and Atchison stages.
By 1880, the Planters had lost its original popularity. It passed through a dozen hands, no one making money with it.
The war was a single cause. The arrival of the first railroad in 1866, the Kansas Pacific, also held unfortunate significance. People from all the surrounding towns came here for a giant parade and a barbecue, but the railroads did not fulfill their hopes.
Pushing of tracks farther west hurt the trade of Majors, Russel and Wadell's great freighting company. It became outdated, a too leisurely mode of transportation. Steamboats slowly disappeared from the river; their boilers burst and they were not replaced.
There are few today who have heard of the Rennick, the Woodward, the Shawnee, the Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh, the Merchants, the St. Lawrence, the Harmony, "Poor Jake's"--hotels of this earlier era. All know the Planters; it still stands, resilient to the years..