After this year’s drought, it’s hard to imagine pastures around Ellis supporting tens of thousands of Texas longhorns. However, for a span of time in the 1870s, Ellis and her Kansas Pacific stockyards rivaled Dodge City as the destination for Texas drovers. Grasslands between the Smoky Hill and Saline Rivers fattened herds while cowboys plumped local merchants’ accounts.
Before the establishment of the Western Cattle Trail in 1874, the L.B. Harris New Trail to Ellis, a subsidiary trail from Texas to Kansas, was identified on A.W. Ziegalasch’s Chisolm Trail map. According to Margaret and Gary Kraisinger’s The Western/The Greatest Texas Cattle Trail 1874 -1886, Harris’s new trail had three spurs: Hays City, Ellis, and Trego Tank. Captain Lytle soon founded The Western Trail, which followed a similar route to Ellis prior to railheads at Buffalo Park and other western towns.
Ellis was desirable due to the Kansas Pacific’s excellent stock pens located north of the railroad in the vicinity of the current ball diamonds and fair grounds on the west side of Big Creek. According to Ellis County Star articles, the Kansas Pacific offered competitive shipping rates. Old photos confirm trails leading into and out of this area, possibly from traveling herds.
According to the May 29, 1876 Ellis County Star article, thousands of Texas cattle began arriving in the Ellis vicinity. The Hickey herd numbered 1,500, joined by the 1,000 strong Taylor herd. These longhorns pastured south of town for several weeks before shipping out. Halstein and Murry delivered over 4,000 head to summer on the Saline a few days after the first throngs arrived.
Livestock business boomed that May as another 20,000 longhorns in 10 different herds arrived within a few weeks. In June, Captain King’s South Texas drovers delivered two herds totaling over 4,000 head to Ellis. The Hays paper reported over 100,000 head of Texas cattle delivered to the Ellis railhead that summer and suggested Ellis stockyards and transport fees were better than Dodge City’s.
By July, The Star described a thriving cattle business in Ellis. New businesses had opened and existing ones were doing well. An August 3 article states, “Our cow-boys are still with us, and a better or more civil set of men, we have never met.” In September, the boom continued with additional cattle shipments.
All good things end, which was true of Ellis’s days as a business rival to Dodge City. The legislature moved the deadline—a designated quarantine line for Texas herds—west of Ellis, making 1877 Ellis’s last year as a shipping point for Texas cattle.
Local articles from those years are missing. To find historical accounts requires visiting Hays Public Library or Kansas Historical Society Archives to read old newspapers. Few photographs of this time exist, and they reveal little of Ellis’s role in the cattle business. Perhaps an undiscovered photo trove exists that will expand information about this part of Ellis’s history.
Those of us with active imaginations walk down 9th Street, once Edwards Street and the main business district, to listen for ghostly boot steps and clinking spurs.