African-American History and its links to Kansas trails

February is Black History Month, and Kansas has connections to the Civil War and Civil Rights that also tie in with some of our state’s trails.

Bleeding Kansas

In the 1850s and early 1860s, Kansas Territory was in a series of skirmishes with neighboring Missouri. The battles were so intense, they earned the nickname Bleeding Kansas or Bloody Kansas. The focus of these fights was, primarily, slavery. A few months before the Civil War officially began (some say the first shots of the Civil War were at what is now Black Jack Battlefield), Kansas entered the Union as a free state. You can walk along trails through the historic Black Jack Battlefield – featured as a top history trail in our Kansas Trail Guide.

Nicodemus Visitor's Center. Photo by Mark Conard

Nicodemus Visitor’s Center. Photo by Mark Conard

Nicodemus

Kansas was the “promised land” for newly freed slaves, and the town of Nicodemus was created in 1877 as a refuge. It was the first black community west of the Mississippi. While the town’s population fell after the railroad didn’t make it a stop, the community still survives. You can take a self-guided tour of the National Historic Site where some of the original buildings still stand.  From the National Park Service:

The land on which Nicodemus and other black communities stood in Kansas was not the most advantageous for agriculture, and natural drought cycles frustrated efforts to raise crops. Even so, in the decades following the Civil War, this part of the West offered African Americans a chance at a life usually unobtainable in much of the South. The courage and spirit that motivated African Americans to leave their homes and move to the Midwest after the Civil War to places like Nicodemus also helped propel them toward equality of opportunity in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas roughly a century later.

The small town is less than a 15-minute drive from Webster State Park. The Coyote Trail in the park feature signs and interpretive information that can help you learn more about the flora and fauna of the area.

Brown v Board of Education

With Brown v Board of Education, racially segregated public schools became officially determined as unconstitutional. It was clearly a complicated time for race relations, as the Board of Education was pro-segregation, and a group of Topeka parents advocating for their children had to take the issue to the United States Supreme Court. You can visit the Brown v Board of Education site at 1515 SE Monroe Street, Topeka, KS, 66612. This national historic site is free to visit, and it is in the location of the former all black Monroe school. Inside is a series of exhibits on the history of racism, segregation, education, and justice in the state and the country. And it’s the start of the Landon Nature Trail, a 38-mile rail trail that will connect the Shunga Trail in Topeka to the 117-mile Flint Hills Nature Trail.

Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence

Visiting Black Jack Battlefield was just step one of my jump into the history of the Bleeding Kansas era. While in Lawrence, thanks to the help of the Lawrence Convention & Visitors Bureau, I was put up in The Eldridge Hotel in downtown Lawrence.

History

Lobby fireplace

Lobby fireplace

The first hotel on the site of the current Eldridge Hotel was called the Free State Hotel, a very politically charged name for the 1850s. Built in 1855 by settlers from the New England Emigrant Aid Society, the hotel stood for just a year before Sheriff Sam Jones and a pro-slavery group burned it down.

Colonel Eldridge rebuilt the hotel, including an additional floor, and said that each time it was destroyed, he’d build it back with another floor. Sadly, he had to do just that after Quantrill’s raid in 1863 as much of the city, including the Free State Hotel, was burned.

Colonel Eldridge stayed true to his word and rebuilt the hotel, and it was renamed The Hotel Eldridge. From the 1860s, the hotel has gone through some changes. Torn down and rebuilt to reflect its former glory in 1925, it was then closed as  a hotel on July 1, 1970, and it was converted to apartments.

In the 1980s, a multi-million dollar transformation turned it back into a hotel, and another influx of money and work in 2005 restored the hotel back to its “original 1925 grandeur.”

Hotel Features

The Eldridge is all about service and style. All the rooms are suites with a separate sitting area, mini-refrigerator, flat screen TVs, and free WiFi! That’s right – a higher end hotel that doesn’t charge an extra fee for WiFi – harder to come by than you might think.

While its definitely a 3+ star hotel, it’s not stuffy or unapproachable. The lobby furniture is comfortable, and the staff are friendly and helpful. Best of all, or at least for me, it has real character. Thanks to its history and design, its a unique spot and you won’t wake up and not know where you are, like in some chain hotels.

Comfy king bed

Comfy king bed

The hotel knows that since it’s downtown in a college town, there’s likely to be noise on weekends, so earplugs can be found by the beds. I found it quiet, but I was also there over the summer on a weekday.

Other nice details include the super comfortable mattresses, unquestionably clean linens (hoteliers – always go for white on white bed linens – guests know immediately that they’re clean), and it’s easy to walk just about anywhere in downtown Lawrence. Though, this does mean parking comes at a price – valet parking is $10.

Happy Hour and More

Why have just one restaurant when you can have two? The Jayhawker is the more casual of the two with a 4:00-6:30pm Happy Hour during the week and drinks specials throughout the week. The bar off the lobby fills with natural light from the large windows, and the menu features local brews along with specialty cocktails and wines. For a full dinner (or breakfast or lunch), there’s TEN, on the other side of the lobby with a fancier vibe and what seemed like an older crowd than The Jayhawker.

Haunted

With so much history, for those who believe in ghosts and spirits, it makes sense that the hotel would be haunted. It’s a stop for the Ghost Tours of Kansas, since the spirit of Colonel Eldridge still wanders the halls. He didn’t die there, but apparently just loved it so much, he never left. The most haunted spot in the hotel is reportedly the 5th floor, specifically room 506 where an original cornerstone allows ghosts to move between our world and theirs. Who knows?

Believers may experience unexplained events and feel let down without them. While I had no otherworldly sightings, I was able to easily check out downtown Lawrence and get a great night’s sleep, so I was happy!

If you go:

Rooms from $120

701 Massachusetts Street
Lawrence, KS 66044

800-527-0909
info@eldridgehotel.com

History and Hiking: Black Jack Battlefield

Our book will include “top” trails – top 10 best, best for mountain bikers, best for wildflowers, etc. along with best for history. One of those history trails is at Black Jack Battlefield.

Black Jack Battlefield, near Baldwin City, was the site of one of the first battles of the Civil War, and it was  designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2012. It was described as the place for the first shots fired in the Civil War on a recent episode of the National Geographic show “Diggers.”

Bonus history – this location also has some wagon ruts from the Santa Fe Trail.

To the battle!

To the battle!

The history in Kansas at this time was so violent, it’s been referred to as  “Bleeding Kansas.” The events, in short, that led up to the battle at Black Jack Battlefield:

Abolitionist John Brown led the fight against the pro-slavery forces led by Henry C. Pate from Missouri on June 2, 1856. That’s the same Henry C. Pate who was in the group that burned Lawrence on May 21, 1856. Shortly after the Lawrence was looted, John Brown and others executed five pro-slavery men at Potawatomie Creek, and then three anti-slavery men were taken prisoner by Pate, two of which were Brown’s sons. (Followed along so far?)

The five hour battle ended with John Brown’s side winning and his sons were released in exchange for the pro-slavery men who’d been captured.

Self-guided tours of the site are available, and the brochure explains the history of the battle with nine stops from Pate’s position, the point of surrender, John Brown’s position and more. Free guided tours hosted every Saturday and Sunday at 1 pm through the third weekend of October.

Also linked to the shorter self-guided tour path is a nature trail and mowed grass trails through a prairie restoration area. It’s a pleasant walk through a place of huge historical significance, and the trails are well taken care of and easy to follow with signs on the nature trail identifying different plants and trees.

I always find it to be a bit odd to walk through a battlefield. As you would imagine, over 150 years later, other than the signs pointing out the pivotal moments of the battle, there is no sign that anything had ever happened there, much less something that helped kick off a war that changed the shape of America forever. It’s a quiet place, or at least it seems as though it would be on most days not during the guided tours, and I had the place to myself.

I always kind of expect to feel the weight of history in places like these. To somehow connect with the ones who crossed through in covered wagons or were prepared to die fighting over the issue of slavery. I never quite feel what I think that I should, which is silly since there is no “right” way to feel, but I think the best that can be done is to get out and go to places like these. To pay respect to what happened there by visiting and walking the trails and by appreciating the space that it is now. Walking the trails at Black Jack Battlefield is a way to connect with the simple, natural world of the prairie and with the complicated history of not just the state of Kansas, but with the nation, and there’s not a lot of places where you can do that.

If you go:

Open from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year

Free

163 E. 2000 Road
Wellsville, KS 66092