Clearing the Western Trail

The Western Trail was the main route that Texas cattlemen drove north to markets. Between 1866 and 1890 as many as six million cattle made this trek. The town of Dodge City, Kansas was once known as “cowboy capital of the world.” The towns of Ogallala, Nebraska; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Miles City, Montana and Medora, North Dakota also served as trading posts for cattlemen.

During its heyday the trail was crowded with wagon trains, army units, hunters, missionaries and traders. This heavy traffic created many problems including cholera, smallpox and firearm accidents. Water was a major problem as well. The western trail was dotted with small springs and streams that were usually contaminated by the many wagons passing through. Food was another concern as supplies were often scarce and rotten. Then there were the wild animals that could overrun a wagon train and cause serious injury or even death.

The most common causes of death were accidents, disease and hunger. Accidents were caused by negligence, exhaustion and guns. Children often fell off or under a wagon and were crushed to death. Other deaths resulted from handling domestic animals. Shootings, animal attacks and falls were also common. Wagon accidents were particularly deadly as wagons moved over uneven and rocky terrain. People also died from exposure to cold weather, hot sun and wind. Diseases such as cholera and smallpox were rampant on the trail as well as food poisoning and infectious diseases like tuberculosis.

A large part of the herds that plied the Western Trail were driven by contract cowboys who bought cattle cheap in Texas and then drove them to market on their own or for other ranchers. By the time barbed wire was introduced and cattle breeds grew to be beefier, contract drives were less desirable. In addition to the low profits, homesteaders and ranchers resented the herds because they competed for grazing land. By the end of the era of the contract drive in 1885, Kansas and other northern states passed laws that barred Texas cattle from entering their territory during the summer months.

GWTA is working hard to clear the Western Trail from Windsor through Severance to Eaton in preparation for construction of a new trail corridor. This work will include the removal of trash, trees and weeds and the bladed surface of the old rail bed. This work will also facilitate weed abatement and grading for the construction of the new trail. While this work is going on, we ask that you please be courteous and stay on the trail and respect neighboring property owners. Please be sure to wear proper footwear, and keep your dogs on leash as you travel the trail. Thanks for your help in preserving the heritage of this trail! GWTA will be holding a public meeting on October 5 at the Performing Arts Center in Windsor, CO. This meeting will be an opportunity for the community to provide input on the project.

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