Hays, Kansas - Lawless in the Old Days
The county seat of
Ellis County, Hays is located a little south
of the center of the county at the point where the Union Pacific Railroad
crosses Big Creek. When
was established in the early part of 1867, and that same year, the Kansas
Pacific Railroad planned to make their way to the area, a number of people
thought it profitable to establish a town site. The first were
Cody, who had been hunting buffalo for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, and a
partner named William Rose, who established the town site of Rome
in June, 1867. The town grew quickly and by the end of July, the fledgling
settlement boasted over 2,000 citizens.
and Rose however would make a fatal mistake when they refused to take on a man
named Dr. William Webb as a partner in their town site venture. Unknown to them,
Webb had the authority to establish town sites for the railroad, and when Cody and Rose refused him, he
established the Big Creek Land Company, which platted the town of Hays City, on
the other side of Big Creek about a mile east of Rome.
A rivalry at once sprang up between
the two places, but the railroad company threw its support to Hays City and
Buffalo Bill Cody and William Rose
were soon giving free lots away to anyone willing to build or erect a tent in
the town. Despite their promotional efforts, many of the citizens and businesses
soon moved to nearby Hays City to be closer to the railroad. A year later, there
was nothing left of Rome.
Hays City, in the meantime, was prospering as
hundreds of people flocked to the new town, especially after the railroad
arrived. Within no time, the town boasted numerous business and dozens of new
houses. Many of those that were previously located in Rome
were moved to Hays City, including the Perry Hotel, which was renamed the Gibbs
House, and the Moses & Bloomfield general store. In October, another hotel was
built by a man named Boggs and a post office was established. Most of the early
buildings were frame structures but the first substantial improvement was a
stone building used as a drug store. The city’s first newspaper, called the
Railway Advance, also was established that first year. For several years,
Hays would be the point from which the west and southwest obtained supplies
before the railroad was completed to Dodge City. Within a year, the town boasted
more than 1,000 residents.
The city had a brief setback when the railroad
pushed westward to Sheridan in 1868, and many businesses moved their buildings
to the town. While it put a temporary check to the business of Hays, it also had
its advantages, as it eliminated from the town, many of its desperate
Junction City and
Great Bend, was never a major cattle market, but during the time it was the
western terminus of the railroad, it had its days of notoriety.
It was one of the most stirring, as well as one of the deadliest
places in the West. Business was exceedingly lively, as it became
the outfitting station for all wagon trains following the Smoky Hill Trail
eastward. At the same time, it became the railhead for which thousands of head
of cattle were driven northward from Texas to be shipped eastward. Within no
time, numerous notorious characters flocked there, giving the place anything but
an enviable reputation. Business houses, many of which were only of a temporary
character, sprung up like mushrooms, and saloons were opened by the dozens. At
the first meeting of the Board of County Commissioners no less than 37 licenses
to sell liquor were granted in two days. For a time it seemed as if all the
disreputable characters of both sexes on the frontier were centered in Hays
City. Saloons and brothels flourished, and against the characters that
frequented these businesses, the better element of the community was powerless.
Hays City was not an exception
to other frontier towns that sprung into existence as the railway stretched
westward, but the sheer numbers of disreputable characters that came there
was a curse to the place. The early history of Hays City is one of
bloodshed and the class of desperados placed
but very little value on human life.
The town was the scene of
many an exploit of
Wild Bill Hickok
from 1867 to 1869, who served as a “Special Marshal.” Hickok's
character for daring and recklessness, his established reputation for
expertness in getting the "drop," and sureness of aim, made him the dread of
others equally bad and reckless as himself. Believing that such a man was
the best person to protect the law-abiding people against the thugs, the
citizens employed him to help clear the town of lawlessness. While he was
employed, he killed two soldiers, two citizens, and wounded several others.
After killing the soldiers, he fled to evade military authorities and was
next heard of at
however, was far from the worst character that found his way to Hays City
during its early days. A man named Jim Curry was one of the most depraved
specimens that ever visited the western country. He was said to have been
disreputable and wicked, without a single redeeming quality.
No person was safe against his attacks -- his murderous weapons aimed at all
alike. During his short stay in the city, he killed several black men, some
of whom he threw into a dry well and he killed a man named Brady by cutting
his throat, after which he threw him into an empty box car.
Another time he was going up the street, and meeting a quiet, inoffensive
youth, named Estes, who was about 18 years old, told him to throw up his
hands. The youth begged that he would not kill him, but the villain, deaf to
all such appeals, placed a revolver to the boy's breast and sent a bullet
through his heart, stepped over his dead body and walked away.
cowardly act aroused the citizens, and they then determined to protect
themselves, dealing out vigilante style punishment upon all offenders against
life and property. This action had the effect of driving many of the evil-doers
away but a great deal had to be accomplished before the town would be tamed.
least of those transactions which darken the pages of this city’s history was an
event which occurred in 1869. That year, the government had accumulated more
military supplies at
than could be stored in the room provided, and a large quantity were piled
alongside the track, covered with a tarpaulin. To prevent the goods from being
stolen, two watchmen looked over them, relieving each other at midnight. The
name of one of the watchmen was John Hays. One night while Hays was on duty, he
stepped across the street to Tommy Drumm's saloon to see what time it was at
about midnight. Just as he was about to open the door, three black soldiers came
along, one of whom shot Hays dead. These soldiers belonged to the Thirty-eighth
Infantry, at that time stationed at Fort Hays,
and had come to town that evening and became intoxicated.
While in this condition they undertook to enter a brothel but were
refused admission and began raise a ruckus. They then went to a barber's
shop, where they began to smash things up and caused the black barber to
flee for safety.
They then resolved to
go out and kill the first man they met, and Hays was unfortunately the first man
they saw -- unceremoniously shooting and killing him. Next morning the barber
related to the sheriff how the three soldiers had acted in his shop and what he
had heard them say, whereupon the sheriff, taking the barber with him to
identify the soldiers, went to the fort to arrest the men. The troops were drawn
up in line, the three soldiers identified and arrested.
murderers were then locked in a cellar in Hays City to await further examination
the following morning. However, that evening, they were taken from the cellar by
vigilantes, who took them to the trestle-work that crosses a ravine about 400
yards west of the depot, where ropes were adjusted to their necks. They were
then lifted up and dropped down between the ties where they hung until morning.
Railroad men found their lifeless bodies the next day and cut them down. Their
remains were then taken back to the fort, where they were buried.
many of the worst characters left and followed the railroad to Sheridan, Kansas,
the majority of the brothels and saloons remained, and in these took place many
a bloody encounter. In the spring of 1872, a dispute occurred one evening in
front of Kelly's Saloon on North Main Street. At that time, Peter Lanahan was
the County Sheriff, and upon hearing of what was going on, went down to quell
the disturbance. Pistols were being freely used and when the sheriff tried to
interfere, a man named Charles Harris, who at that time, was working as a
bartender for a man named Thomas Dunn, fired at him, hitting the lawman in the
abdomen. With the sheriff shot and wounded, a woman named Em Bowen, the
proprietress of a noted brothel, ran out with two revolvers which she gave to
Sheriff Lanahan. The lawman then immediately commenced firing, killing Harris
instantly. Though mortally wounded Lanahan then went into the Kelly’s Saloon
where the guns were blazing.
man named Kelly, who kept a saloon in another part of the town, was a
participant and when the sheriff commenced firing, this younger Kelly crept
under a table, and while there Lanahan reached over and fired four shots at him.
However, the lawman was becoming weak and unsteady from his wound, his aim was
uncertain and Kelly escaped unhurt. Lanahan, becoming exhausted, then sank to
the floor and was carried into Em Bowen’s brothel, where several people rendered
him the best assistance they could. While there, the younger Kelly, who had
escaped from Kelly's Saloon, returned with a rifle, and placing himself in front
of the brothel where Lanahan lay dying, commenced firing into the house,
wounding a man named May in the knee. The sheriff was then carried to the
courthouse where he died the following day.
Hays was a violent place in its early days as evidenced by these
two dead soldiers, Privates George H. Sumner and Peter Welsh,
in front of a saloon in 1873.
there is a patch of ground known as "Boot Hill," and why it was thus named
will sufficiently indicate what kind of place
was during its early
days. This particular piece of ground was the burial place for those who died
violent deaths – in gunfights or other aggressive manners. These parties were
buried without ceremony, with their boots on, and from the fact that 45 of these
rough characters were buried there, it received the name of "Boot Hill."
years after the murder of John Hays and the hangings of the three black
soldiers, an outbreak among the black soldiers stationed at Fort Hays
occurred in 1874. At that time, the fort was garrisoned by the Ninth
Regiment of Colored Cavalry, who sought to revenge the hangings of the three
soldiers who had killed John Hays.
One night a party of the Ninth went to town prepared to
"clean it out," as they expressed it. The people hearing of this, armed
themselves and determined to resist the premeditated "cleaning out" process. The
black cavalry came into
armed and a fight immediately began between
the soldiers and the citizens. In the end, the citizens were victorious and six
of the soldiers were killed – there bodies afterwards thrown into a dry well.
From that time, on the residents of
were determined that law and order
In the meantime, the law abiding residents of the
town were making progress on establishing a civilized city. The first school was
a private one, established in 1869 and the following year, a public school was
opened. The following year, Hays
became the permanent county seat.
bonds were issued to build a court house, and before long, a stone building was
erected, the basement of which is used for a county jail. That same year $12,000
in bonds were issued for the erection of a schoolhouse, which was built about
two blocks west of the court house. The
Hays City Times newspaper was also
established in 1873 by Allen & Jones but its existence was very short.
February, 1874, the
Hays City Sentinel was established by W. H. Johnson, but
changed hands several times over the next several years. In 1875, the United
States Land Office for the district of Western Kansas was opened in a frame
building on North Fort Street. That same year, H.P. Wilson built a two-story
stone hotel on Chestnut Street that was known as the Pennsylvania House.
By the mid 1870's the railroad had extended its
tracks farther west and with it went the teamsters, railroad workers, soldiers
and famous characters of the day.
gradually quieted down and began serving as a point of arrival for immigrants,
most notably a group of ethnic Germans from the Volga region of Russia.
First arriving in Hays in February,
1876, these immigrants would establish a number of small villages around the
Hays area, including
Victoria and several others. That same year,
newspaper was established by J. H. Downing, which quickly became the “official”
newspaper of the city.
Henry Krueger erected a large two-story stone building on South Fort Street
which was used as a public hall. That same year, the first church was built – a
frame chapel for the Catholics.
suffered a fire on January 13, 1879 which destroyed the
Gibbs House hotel, two grocery stores and harness shop were also swept out of
existence. That same year; however, more substantial buildings were erected
including a two-story stone building on South Main Street that was occupied by
Hall & Son Hardware Store, a one-story stone building by H.P. Wilson which held
the town’s first bank, a small grain elevator near the railroad, a new
Presbyterian Church, as well as a number of handsome residences. The next year,
the Lutherans erected their first church and a good sized grain elevator was
built by Henry Krueger.
a larger grain elevator was built by Simon Motz and large addition was made to
the schoolhouse. In December of that year,
Hays City was again visited by a
fire, which carried away six buildings on South Fort Street. By this time, the
boom days of the area were over, and the population had fallen to about 950.
However, the town was still called home to six general merchandise stores, three
hardware stores, three drug stores, three hotels, a dry goods store, harness and saddlery shop, a millinery establishment, two book and stationery stores, two
jewelry stores, two bakeries and restaurants, two carriage and wagon-shops, two
lumber-yards, two newspapers, and a bank. The rest of the population was
primarily involved in agricultural pursuits. The German-American Advocate
newspaper was established in Hays in October, 1882, which was published in both
English and German.
early part of 1889, it became known that Fort Hays
would be abandoned and the Kansas legislature adopted a resolution asking
Congress to donate the site to the state for a soldiers' home. The fort closed
permanently on June 1, 1889, but no action was taken by Congress on the petition
for a soldier’s home.
Hays City was once again struck by fire, this time a very devastating one, that
destroyed some 60 downtown businesses. That same year, the official name of the
town was changed to simply Hays. Also occurring in 1895, the Kansas Legislature
again asked that the
reservation be donated to the state as a location for a branch of the state
agricultural college, a branch of the state normal school, and a public park.
Again no action was taken, and in 1899 the Interior Department declared the
land opened for settlement. However, in March, 1900, the Kansas delegation in
Congress managed to secure the land and buildings for educational purposes. In
1901 the legislature passed legislation establishing the
Experiment Station (part of Kansas State University) and set apart about 4,000
acres for the Western Branch State Normal School.
turn of the century,
Hays boasted a population of almost 1,300 people. At this
time, the city was run by a unique group serving as its City Council, known as
the "Boys Council." They were the youngest council in the United States to be
governing a city the size of
Hays, with the youngest being just 22 years old and
the oldest was 30. Despite their age, this efficient group was responsible for
reducing the city debt, lowering the tax levy, building and equipping the first
engine house, and building a water tank in the event of fire.
The Western State Normal School began with a summer session on June, 1902, and the
first regular term opened in September, with an enrollment of 23 students. The
school was conducted in the old fort buildings until 1904, when the central
portion of what was the main building was ready for occupancy. By 1910, the
total enrollment had increased to almost 1,000 students.
in the late 1800's. This image available for
photographic prints and downloads
first decade of the 20th Century,
Hays grew quickly, reaching a
population of almost 2,400 residents by 1910. Called one of the most progressive
cities of western Kansas, it had an electric lighting plant, waterworks, a fire
department, a telephone exchange, and in the spring of 1911, completed a sewer
system. In addition to the Western State Normal School, the city also boasted an
excellent system of public schools and St. Joseph's College, a Catholic
institution. Among the industries and financial institutions of the time were
two banks, three weekly newspapers (the News, the Free Press and
the Review-Headlight), flour mills, grain elevators, machine shops,
marble works, a creamery, good hotels, and a number of well stocked mercantile
Hays continued to grow, but was marked by disasters including
devastating floods in 1907 and 1951 and an explosion of three gasoline tanks
owned by Standard Oil in 1919, which killed eight people and injured about 150.
In 1935, Hays, like the rest of Kansas was hit with violent dust storms.
always recovered from hardship and continued to progress. In 1914, the Western
State Normal School separated
from the school in Emporia and
became Fort Hays Kansas State Normal School. It became the Kansas State Teachers
College of Hays in 1923 and its name was changed to
Fort Hays State College in
1931. It was elevated to university status in 1977.
its dirt streets were bricked and by 1920, the population had reached more than
3,900 people. In 1931,
the Palmer Stormkind oil field was founded, bringing more people to the area and
in 1943, the nearby Walker Army Air Field was built adding 1500-2000 people to
Hays had grown to
a population of 9,378 and in 1955, Old Fort Hays
opened as a museum. It would later be acquired by the Kansas Historical Society
and became and Kansas State Historic Site in 1967, which features four original
buildings: the blockhouse (completed as the post headquarters in 1868),
guardhouse, and two officers' quarters.
a center for education, business and culture for western Kansas,
Hays is called
home to about 20,000 people, and continues to display its rich history at not only
Historic Fort Hays,
but also at the Ellis County Historical Museum, Sternberg Museum of Natural
History and the Boot Hill Cemetery. A historic walking tour of downtown provides
25 bronze plaques explain the significance of sites, where the famous and
infamous walked the streets of Old
Hays City. A brochure is available at the
Convention and Visitors Bureau located at 1301 Pine Street, Suite B. Located on
the Fort Hays State University campus is the Plymouth Stone Schoolhouse built in
1874. Frontier Park, located directly across from Historic Fort Hays
is Frontier Park, which in addition to 89 acres of land that features several
walking trails, waterfalls and scenic views, also maintains a buffalo herd.
City of Hays
P.O. Box 490
Compiled and edited by
of Kansas, updated March, 2017.
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