Ellsworth, Kansas

History

Ellsworth County

Wickedest Cowtown of the West

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Ellsworth, KS icon  
     The beginnings of Ellsworth were troubled times.  Natural disasters and other incidents plagued the fledgling town and threatened its very existence.

     The plans for Ellsworth were put forth in January 1867.  The settlement would be on the western edge of the Fort Harker military reservation.  The proximity of the fort offered protection, and the Smoky Hill River nearby offered a ready water supply.

     However, the river proved to be all too eager to provide water that June.  Days of heavy rains caused the river to flood the surrounding countryside.  The new town found itself under four feet of water.  To compound this problem, Cheyenne Indians began causing trouble in the area.

     The coming of the railroad was a much anticipated event in Ellsworth.  The expectation that Ellsworth would be the major cattle market had brought numerous people to the town.

     However, the extension of the rails into the area in late June and early July brought more than new faces to the county.  An outbreak of Asiatic cholera swept through Fort Harker and Ellsworth killing more than 300 people.  The exact cause of the epidemic was never completely known.

     Because of the flood of June, the town created a "New Addition to Ellsworth" two miles northwest of the original townsite.  The town had a North Main Street and South Main Street on opposite sides of the new railroad tracks; the space in-between was known as the Plaza.  Businesses were established on both Main Streets, and this area was later referred to as "Snake Row."

     Although the town was expected to be the major cattle market, this trade was hampered by the influence of Abilene and the established Chisholm Trail from Texas.  Ellsworth began efforts to lure the trade to the town in 1869.  Some men were positioned on the Arkansas River crossing of the trail to steer the drovers toward Ellsworth.

     Efforts began to pay off in 1871 as 35 thousand head of cattle were shipped from Ellsworth.  The big surge, however, was helped by the creation of the Ellsworth Reporter, the town's first newspaper, in December 1871.

     The Reporter sent a circular to Texas in February 1872 proclaiming the importance of Ellsworth as a cowtown and that Abilene was dying.  As Ellsworth increased as a cattle market that year, people of all sorts moved with the trade.  Gamblers, thieves, gunmen, prostitutes, as well as more respectable businessmen, came to the newest, important cowtown.  Nauchville became the shady area 1/2 mile east of town with its brothels, saloons and gambling joints.  Even Drover's Cottage, a hotel from Abilene, was taken apart and rebuilt in the new cowtown.

     Although 1872 was a great year for Ellsworth, 1873 would prove to be even more profitable.  Two hundred-twenty thousand head of longhorn cattle were shipped from Ellsworth that year.  The creation of Cox's Trail, or the "Ellsworth Cattle Trail", shortened the trip from Texas.  Three days, or 35 miles, were saved by using this fork off of the Chisholm Trail.

     The most notable incident of 1873 in Ellsworth was the killing of Sheriff Chauncey B. Whitney.  The shooting of Sheriff Whitney is re-enacted yearly during the Cowtown Festival.

     The days of the cattle trade soon faded for Ellsworth.  By 1875, most of the cattle market moved south as more railroads were completed.  But, Ellsworth had made a reputation for itself.  Although Abilene was the first cattle town and Dodge City the last, Ellsworth was know as the "wickedest."  One newspaper of the era once stated, "As we go to press, hell is still in session in Ellsworth."

     Fires were also a problem of early Ellsworth.  Four major fires along the main streets gutted or destroyed homes and businesses.  The Hodgden House was the first residence rebuilt after the 1875 fire.

     Today, this structure serves as the Ellsworth County Historical Society Museum.  Along with a county school house, a Baptist church, a livery stable, and other buildings, the museum offers a view of early life in the county.


- Reprinted with permission of the Ellsworth County Economic Development Director
and written by the Kansas State University Community Service team, 1991.

 
Historical marker in downtown Ellsworth
City of Ellsworth
(785) 472-5566 • FAX (785) 472-4l45 • cityadministrator@ellsworthks.net
121 West First Street, Ellsworth, Kansas, 67439
 
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April 5, 2006/ Mary Smith / Ellsworth, Kansas / msmith@csbanc.com

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