PARALLEL ROAD, CENTRAL BRANCH AND KANSAS WHITEWAY: A LOOK BACK
by Morris W. Werner
Growing up in Nemaha County in the 1930s, I knew the road along the south boundary of the county as the "Parallel." Conventional wisdom held that one could follow this road due east and enter Atchison on Parallel Street, but I knew no one who had tested the theory. "Down on the Parallel" applied to farmers who lived in the area, and the road could be identified wherever encountered because north/south section line roads offset a hundred yards or more where they intersected the 1st Standard Parallel South. The boundary between Kansas and Nebraska Territory was established in 1854 at 40 degrees north latitude, and was the base line for all public land surveys in Kansas and Nebraska. The south boundary of Nemaha County was five townships or 30 miles south.
In 1859 when gold was discovered near Denver City, KT, Atchison business men sought to take advantage of their geographical location and open a new road to the mines which would follow the 1st Standard Parallel as closely as possible. Jones and Russell of Leavenworth had established a stage line to Denver in the Spring of 1859, but it followed the well-established military road to Ft. Riley, and then swung north and west up the Republican River to its headwaters in southern Nebraska before crossing the high plains to the head of the South Platte. Atchison folks reasoned that about 60 miles could be saved by a road due west which would join the Pikes Peak Express route in present Jewell County.
The road was surveyed by E. D. Boyd, the same civil engineer employed by Jones and Russell. It followed the Ft. Laramie Military Road to the crossing of Little Grasshopper Creek about seven miles south of Horton, then continued west, crossing the Delaware (Grasshopper) River at Muscotah, and Spring Creek at New Eureka P.O. (1858) south of Netawaka. It then followed the north side of Mosquito Creek, crossed Elk Creek about a mile south of Bancroft and Soldier Creek two or three miles north of Soldier, reaching the Parallel at America City, which was founded in 1857. The town company was organized in Atchison, so this portion of the road already existed. The Red Vermillion was crossed at this point, and the road continued west about ten miles, crossing Coal Creek and French Creek at Neuchatel P.O. 1864. It then left the Parallel in a northwesterly direction to the head of Irish Creek (South Fork of Black Vermillion), where a post office named Wyoming was established in 1862.
The Cornelius Gilliam Co. bound for Oregon from St. Joseph may have camped here on June 4, 1844. Gen. Gilliam rode ahead from this campsite and reported ten wagons of Nathaniel Ford's Co. from Independence about ten miles away west of Clear Fork of Black Vermillion. A portion of the old road still exists at the crossing about a mile south of Lillis, but there is no way to be certain that it was used in 1844.
Beyond Wyoming the Parallel Road reached the head of Cedar Creek and followed it to Barrett's Mills on the Black Vermillion, settled in 1857. The Black Vermillion crossing of the Parallel Road is only a short distance east of the Oregon Trail crossing, but it avoided the difficult Clear Fork crossing which caused problems for the Gilliam Co. in 1844. Perhaps some travelers on the Parallel Road crossed Clear Fork at LaGrange, settled by E. F. Jones in 1857, and intersected the Oregon Trail some six miles south of the Black Vermillion. North of the crossing, the road passed nearly due west along present State Route No. 9 to reach the Big Blue River at the mouth of Elm Creek (present Blue Rapids).
West of Big Blue River the road continued about six miles, crossed the future townsite of Waterville, and intercepted the 1854 Mormon Road southeast of Washington, which it followed for twelve miles. The Salt Creek crossing of the Parallel Road five miles south of Belleville was the site of the first settlement in Republic County in 1861. The Republican River was crossed near Norway, and the road continued almost due west to the crossing of Buffalo Creek at Jewell City. A. J. Davis made the first permanent settlement in Jewell County at this location in 1869. Some twelve miles west of Davis Crossing the road intersected the Leavenworth and Pikes Peak Express Road at the forks of Limestone Creek about four miles south of Ionia.
What part did the Parallel Road play in the Colorado gold rush? Apparently none. Frank Root of the Overland Stage Co. said flatly that the road, once laid out, was never used by a single Pikes Peaker. Perhaps he is correct. After three months, Jones and Russell moved the Pikes Peak Express to the Platte River route to take over Hockaday's mail contract which required mail delivery at St. Joseph. Fifty-niners seeking a short cut to the mines shifted their attention to the Smoky Hill Trail.
The Atchison Globe, Oct. 22, 1920, says that stage coaches made use of the road, but this is debatable. A post road and hack line was established in 1862 from Atchison to Louisville, Kansas, but none of the post offices served were on the Parallel. However, the road did have an impact on the settlement of the Central Kansas counties which it served. Following the Civil War, Sen. Pomeroy and other Atchison business leaders secured a charter for the Central Branch Union Pacific Railroad which would closely follow the Parallel Road. One hundred miles of rail line was authorized, and the venture was assured when the company was selected land agent for the Kickapoo Indians when their reservation was reduced in size. During the next 25 years more than 6,500,000 acres of land was opened for settlement, and the Central Branch actively promoted land sales in Europe and the Eastern United States by offering special passenger and freight rates to land seekers.
By 1867 the Central Branch was completed to Centralia. After a hiatus of several months a bridge was constructed across the Big Blue at Irving (now defunct) and the line was extended to a railhead named Waterville by railroad officials. For several years this was the point of departure for emigrant and stage coach lines serving Central Kansas. Waterville became a cattle town rivaling Abilene, Newton and Wichita when Texas drovers decided to winter their herds in the area and market their stock the following Spring. An unusually severe winter in 1872 put a crimp in this practice; thousands of Texas cattle froze to death on the range, bankrupting the drovers and stranding scores of Mexican herders. In 1871 C. E. Gaylord operated a stage line from Waterville via Clyde to Concordia. The line was later extended to Beloit, Cawker City, Downs and Gaylord in Smith County. All these towns are now on State Route No. 9.
The Missouri River was bridged at Atchison in 1875, providing direct rail connections with the St. Joseph and Hannibal Railroad. This enabled the Central Branch to construct another hundred miles of rail. Downs, in eastern Osborne County, became the terminus. Atchison was a wholesale center for a vast agricultural area, although the Central Branch failed to serve any county seats on its route. Today the Central Branch (Missouri Pacific) continues to function, although many of the towns along its route have faded to a shadow of their former importance.
After World War I motor vehicles increasingly replaced rail service. One of Kansas' first state highways followed the Central Branch west from Atchison. It was called the Kansas Whiteway until 1925 when it was designated State Route No. 9 under the Federal Highway numbering system.
The Parallel Road, long unused and forgotten, can be identified today only at widely scattered points. Cut-downs at creek crossings, eroded rut swales in uncultivated fields, and local traditions passed down from pioneer settlers remain to memorialize the old trail. The road was never accorded the protective status of a Territorial Road, and settlers east of the Big Blue soon fenced off segments and forced abandonment or relocation to section lines. Counties west of the Big Blue were organized after the Civil War as the census of settlers indicated a need. These settlers reached their claims by many routes, but it is noteworthy that the first settlements in Republic and Jewell Counties were made along the Parallel Road. The Central Branch also played a key role in developing the area. It subsidized settlers, many of whom shipped their possessions to the railhead and reached their claims in covered wagon.
POST OFFICES ON THE PARALLEL ROAD 1857-1868:Lancaster* 1858, 9 m. west of Atchison. COC&PP Express in 1859.
Spencer* 1860, 3 m. North of Effingham.
Muscotah 1861 at crossing of Delaware (Grasshopper) River
New Eureka 1858 1 « m. South of Netawaka at crossing of Spring Creek
Ontario* 1862 SE1/4 S36 T5S R13E.
Smithfield* 1867 2 m. north of Soldier at crossing of Soldier Creek.
America City* 1859 6 m. south of Corning at crossing of Red Vermillion.
Neuchatel* 1864 8 m. west of America City at crossing of French Creek.
Wyoming 1862 at head of Irish Creek (S. Fork of Black Vermillion).
Barrett 1857 at crossing of Black Vermillion.
Blue Rapids 1857 at crossing of Big Blue River (mouth of Elm Creek).
Waterville 1868 4 « m. west of Blue Rapids (terminus of U.P. Central Branch).
*Indicates post offices located on 1st Standard Parallel. By mid-1860s the Parallel Road was probably located on the Standard Parallel from Atchison to a mile beyond the east boundary of Marshall County, at which point the 1886 USGS 30 Minute quad shows a diagonal road leading northwest to the head of Irish Creek at Wyoming.