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 Fort Hays 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 townsite. The first was William F. Cody, who had been hunting buffalo for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, and a partner named William Rose, who established the townsite of Rome in June 1867. The town grew quickly and by the end of July, the fledgling settlement boasted over 2,000 citizens.
Cody 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 townsite 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 of Rome 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 businesses 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 characters.
Hays, like 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 Abilene.
Hickok; 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 boxcar.
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.
This 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.
Not the least of those transactions which darken the pages of this city’s history was an event that occurred in 1869. That year, the government had accumulated more military supplies at Fort Hays 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 to 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.
The 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.
While 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.
Another 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.
In Hays City there is a patch of ground known as “Boot Hill,” and why it was thus named will sufficiently indicate what kind of place Hays City 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.”
Five 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 Hays City 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 – their bodies afterward were thrown into a dry well. From that time, on the residents of Hays City were determined that law and order should rule.
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.
In 1873 bonds were issued to build a courthouse, 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 courthouse. The Hays City Times newspaper was also established in 1873 by Allen & Jones but its existence was very short.
In 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-1870s the railroad had extended its tracks farther west and with it went the teamsters, railroad workers, soldiers and famous characters of the day. Hays City 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 Antonino, Catharine, Schoenchen, Victoria and several others. That same year, the Star newspaper was established by J. H. Downing, which quickly became the “official” newspaper of the city.
In 1877, 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.
Unfortunately, Hays 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.
In 1881, a larger grain elevator was built by Simon Motz and a 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.
In the 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.
In 1895, 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 Fort Hays 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 Fort Hays Experiment Station (part of Kansas State University) and set apart about 4,000 acres for the Western Branch State Normal School.
By the 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 in 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 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 establishments.
Over the next century, 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.
But Hays 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.
In 1917, 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 the population.
By 1950, 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 a 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.
Today, as 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 Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau located at 2700 Vine St. Frontier Park, located directly across from Historic Fort Hays, which includes 89 acres of land that features several walking trails, waterfalls, and scenic views, as well as a buffalo herd.
Hay Convention & Visitors Bureau
2700 Vine Street
Hays, Kansas 67601
Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of Kansas, updated May 2021.