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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The Chisholm Trail
Rides Again

by Clay Coppedge
Anyone wanting to follow the Old Chisholm Trail through Bell County would find part of the quest relatively easy, at least as easy as driving on IH-35. The old trail roughly paralleled the Interstate from Salado to Belton.

After that following the old trail might get a little trickier, though anyone who spends much time here passes or crosses it many more times than they could ever know. If you've ever been to downtown Belton or Salado, you've no doubt been on the old trail, not that you had any way of knowing it.

The Old Chisholm Trail, the primary route out of Texas for livestock, was considered one of the wonders of the western world in its day. From 1867 until 1884, more than five million cattle and a million mustangs followed the trail, making it the largest migration of livestock in history.

Despite a short history, the legend of the Chisholm Trail and cattle drives in general endures. Larry McMurtry found that out when he won the Pulitzer prize for his cattle-drive adventure story, "Lone-some Dove."

"For more than a dozen tempestuous years, beginning in 1867, the Chisholm Trail was the Texas cowhand's road to high adventure," Wayne Gard wrote in his 1957 book on the trail.

"It held the excitement of sudden stampedes, hazardous river crossings and brushes with Indian marauders. It promised, at the end of the drive, hilarious celebrations in the saloons, gambling parlors and dance halls of frontier Kansas towns."

Gard noted that the trail, on a map, would resemble a tree. The roots were feeder trails from South Texas, the trunk was the main route from San Antonio through Indian Country and the branches were extensions to various railheads in Kansas

Following the trail into Bell County from the south, you would come through Corn Hill in Williamson County on FM 1105 and make your way to IH-35, through Prairie Dell. The trail crossed Salado Creek and the Lampasas River at the Old Shanklin Crossing.

The Camp Tahuaya Boy Scout Camp near there is one of a few places where evidence of the trail can still be seen. Wagons wore ruts in the limestone there that survive to this day, and will survive for many more days. Similar reminders of the trail are scattered here and there, mostly on private property.

Up until this point, you have roughly been following the Old Military Road, which old timers usually called the Old Corn Road. It was actually an old buffalo trail that the Army used as a supply route between a string of forts in West Texas. It went from San Antonio into Bell County, roughly along the path IH-35, then branched off into two forks.

The prairie grasses through this area were rich and luxuriant. The drives usually started about the first of April, passing through Central Texas during the height of wildflower season. Herds varied in size from 500 to 10,000 and averaged between 2,500-3,000 head. The Longhorns ate their way north, until they reached market, at which point they became the food.

Before leaving the county, you cross Stampede Creek, the scene of the largest stampede in the history of West. About 3,000 cattle, apparently spooked by a thunder-storm earlier in the day, simultaneously bolted that night, under clear skies, and about 2,700 plunged to their death off a bluff along the creek. It happened on July 4, 1876, America's 100th birthday.

Barbed wire and a Kansas quarantine law put an end to the Chisholm Trail. But its existence spurred the building of railroads in the state and did more than anything else to pull Texas out of poverty in the wake of the Civil War.

Today, the state historical commission and towns along the old trail are relying on it again. The commission has a slick color brochure touting the old trail and tourist stops along the way.

Belton uses its connection to the historic trail to tout Bell County tourism, and the historical commission's brochure highlights a stop at the Bell County Historical Museum, which has an exhibit on the Chisholm Trail.

More emphasis on the trail is in store for the future. Salado sculptor Troy Kelly is working on a bronze sculpture for the museum. It's expected to be completed in about 16 months, Bell County Museum director Stephanie Turnham says.

In the meantime, the museum is a good place to learn about the trail.

After all, you will practically be standing on the old trail as you learn about it.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
June 11, 2006 column

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Texas Ranches & Ranching
Cattle Drives

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