The work to designate the Chisholm Trail, and its sister the Western Trail, as a national historic trail is decades old. The effort picked up a boost this week.
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., introduced legislation this week to designate the Chisholm and Western cattle trails as National Historic Trails. U.S. Rep. Ron Estes introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.
The Chisholm Trail runs through Caldwell, Wichita, Abilene, Newton, McPherson and Ellsworth, and the Western Trail runs through Dodge City and other Kansas communities. Both trails were used primarily from 1867 to 1885 to move more than 10 million cattle across the country, contributing to the economic growth of the towns and cities the trails passed through.
"As the country expanded westward, the Chisholm and Western cattle trails helped ranchers move millions of cattle across the plains to train depots, playing an important role in the economy of the country and supplying food for Americans," Moran said. "Designating these trails as historic trails will help preserve the role they played in our nation’s history for the pleasure and education of future generations of Americans and provide economic opportunities for Kansas communities to promote tourism to our state."
A study by the National Park Service announced last month that the trails meet the definition of national historic trails. Congress can now move forward with the designation.
"When we think about advances that moved our country forward, the Chisholm and Western Trails are two of those elements that helped shape the Midwestern economy — with millions of cattle traveling through the Great Plains," Estes said. "Farmers and ranchers from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska have always been a critical part of this country, and the cowboy culture that was evident on the Chisholm and Western Trails are at the very heart of who we are as Americans — hard-working, rugged and independent. Designating these trails is more than just noting paths through the Great Plains, but showcasing the historical significance of the people who traveled the more than 1,300 miles through multiple states, and their way of life."
Newton would be one of those towns founded because of an intersection between the trail and the railroad. The trail passed through Newton. According to the Kansas Heritage Group, the cattle business on the Chisholm Trail moved into Newton in 1871 as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad built to that point on the Chisholm Trail. Newton became one of the most notorious and violent towns from the cattle business in its one-year reign as a prominent cattle town — a violent past that is now recognized by an historical marker on E. Second Street.
Designating these trails as NHT will permit the National Park Services to partner voluntarily with landowners, communities, state and local governments to maintain, conserve and promote the trails. These trails will join the 19 other designated historic trails across the nation, including five trails that run in part through Kansas.
This legislation includes protections for private property rights along the trails, and cooperation by landowners or communities is strictly on a voluntary basis. According to the National Park Service, participation in national historic trail programs is voluntary, and private landowners along the trail retain all legal rights to their property.
The International Chisholm Trail Association has been advocating for the Chisholm Trail to become a national historic trail since 1995. In 2009, Congress passed a bill containing language calling for the secretary of the interior to study the Chisholm and Great Western trails and a possible historic designation.
Examples of other national historic trails include the Oregon Trail, Santa Fe Trail, Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo), and El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. The Santa Fe National Historic Trail passes through Kansas.