The Rockies disappear in the rear-view mirror. Ahead, Interstate 76 stretches mile after monotonous mile on a northeasterly sweep toward Nebraska. Grandeur is scant. Wheat waves, cattle graze and the loftiest point visible is often the next town’s water tower. The unpretentious plains of northeastern Colorado seem an unlikely place to find a scenic and historic byway.
About a third of the way between Denver and Omaha lies the South Platte River Trail, shortest of Colorado’s 21 designated byways. The entire route traverses a 19-mile riverside rectangle, which even a plodding driver could cover in an hour. This interlude off the interstate offers a chance to slow down and feel the past.
“The signs say scenic byway, but in order for it to be scenic, you’d have to lie flat,” admits community activist Anna Scott. “We are really one of the state’s true historic byways.”
The loop begins in Julesburg, a 1,500-population community that lies so close to Nebraska some folks unapologetically paint their homes Cornhusker red. Far from the tourism treadmill, it sports only three motels. The finest dining may be the truck stop, and the only fast food is a new Subway franchise. There isn’t even a traffic light in the entire county.
The byway starts at the Julesburg Welcome Center, where buffalo silhouettes graze amid metal teepees. In front stands a 10-foot-tall statue of a Pony Express rider. This corner of Colorado represents the only place the legendary mail run nicked the state. It was here that a 14-year-old kid named William Frederick Cody hired on as a rider. He later became known as Buffalo Bill.
Eleven banks of award-winning interpretative signs hang nearby. Combining art, photos and text, these colorful placards explain events along the route. Like Julesburg’s Pony Express station, most of the historical structures have been moved, burned, dismantled, grazed over or plowed under.
Devil’s Dive is an exception. A mile west of the Welcome Center, a steep draw once impeded transportation. Although wagons often detoured, stagecoaches generally ran the ravine. Drivers descended at full speed, hoping to maintain enough momentum to gain the opposite bank. Wheel ruts still scar the hillside.
Atop the dive stands the remains of a house built by Italian immigrant Uberto Gibello, Julesburg’s Digger Man. When not excavating wells, he tunneled mole-like into hillside rock.
“I not work, I get seek,” Gibello is quoted as saying.
At the time of his death in 1910, he had completed nearly a half-mile of underground passages, wells, shrines and a subterrain gallery. An “Italian Caves” nameplate hangs near the tunnels, which are now closed to the public. Long before byway designation, the Boy Scouts signed this and other stops along the route.
“Their goal was to increase pride in our history,” Scott says. “It was so locals would know they came from somewhere significant.”
The road turns to graded gravel. Windmills touch a sprawling sky, cattle graze across bucolic hillsides, and a thick wall of cottonwoods lines the distant river. In pioneer days, this waterway would have been treeless, thanks to the vast herds of buffalo that treated seedlings as salad bar delicacies.
Through its 145-year history, Julesburg has occupied four different locations. The road passes the second, now a farmer’s pasture. Three and a half miles later, it reaches the equally vacant site of the first. Here, around 1859, a French-Canadian named Jules Beni established a trading post, which he modestly named for himself. A stage station followed, and a community soon grew. All was well until February 1865 when a band of native warriors turned Julesburg into a giant bonfire.
The townsfolk retreated to nearby Fort Sedgwick, where about 100 soldiers and 50 civilians spent a restless night fearing attack from the Indians who surrounded the fortification. The next morning, they found their adversaries gone. It seems the Indians had also nabbed local cattle and a liquor caravan bound for Denver. The braves apparently celebrated victory with barbecues and hangovers.
Pavement returns as the byway veers toward Ovid. This once-thriving community became the sleepy, Sominex of farm towns when a Great Western Sugar factory closed in 1985. A chain-link fence now guards the plant’s perimeter and boards block its windows. Across the street sits a lot filled with rows of abandoned farm equipment ranging from horse-drawn plows to rusty tractors.
“One of our local residents gathered it,” says Pat Smith at Ovid’s only market. “He had a little money he didn’t know what to do with, so he collected.”
The byway follows plowed fields along the north side of the river back to Julesburg. Near here spread the Upper California Crossing, where the South Platte ran a mile wide and two feet deep. It was a place stagecoaches, prairie schooners and Pony Express riders could safely ford. In fact, the entire town waded across in 1867 when it moved to be near the burgeoning tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad. Rife with saloons and gambling halls, the third Julesburg soon earned a reputation as the Wickedest City in the West, and its visiting critics included journalists Mark Twain and Henry Morton (“Dr. Livingston, I presume”) Stanley.
The town moved again 14 years later, this time to where the Union Pacific established a fork to Denver. It became the fourth town named for Jules Beni, a disreputable character who met his own tragic end.
“While Mr. Beni was helping Ben Holladay with the stagecoach line, he was also robbing from him,” explains Lenora Troelstrup at Julesburg’s Depot Museum. “Mr. Holladay sent Jack Slade out to relieve this man of his duties. Well, Mr. Beni shot Slade but didn’t kill him. After Mr. Slade recovered, he came back and tied Beni to a fence post. He shot him 26 times but didn’t kill him until firing the 27th right between his eyes. He then cut off both of Mr. Beni’s ears and put one on his watch fob.”
Photos of Beni, Holladay and Slade hang in the museum, which occupies the former train station. Displays include a hodgepodge of relics from Julesburg’s past, including buggies, arrowheads, household goods, hat pins, buffalo robes, meat grinders, chamber pot “thunder mugs” and the doctor’s bag carried by the physician who delivered Troelstrup’s children.
A few blocks away, the Fort Sedgwick Museum offers a collection of historic radios, photographs and temporary displays. Next door stands the Old Ford Garage, a structure that began as a dealership in 1908. Inside, retired barber Lee Kizer displays his personal collection of vintage cars and classic gas pumps. Curtains from a bygone dance hall cover back walls. Their front sides display painted advertising, and on the reverse, performers have written their names. One reads “L. Welk, 1925.”
An old-time barbershop, complete with rotating, red-and-white-striped pole, occupies the front corner of the garage. At a spry 80+ years of age, Kizer still cuts hair.
“I’ve got about 50 old guys who can’t drive much anymore,” he explains. “If I quit, they’ve got nowhere to go.”
Down the street, the Antiques and Artisans cooperative vends a potpourri of collectibles priced to attract Denver dealers. It stands at the corner of a 1900s downtown, complete with brick storefronts, quiet streets and unlittered sidewalks. Walls stand graffiti free.
“In a big city, damaging somebody else’s property means nothing,” says teenager Michelle St. Martin. “Around here, if you damage something, you know whose property it is.”
St. Martin helps a friend hook rainbows at DePoorter Lake, a fishing pond east of town. A quarter-mile beyond lies the byway’s final stop beside the South Platte, where the once great waterway now trickles ankle deep.
Fate has changed this corner of Colorado. The old towns, forts, trading posts and Pony Express stations are gone. Caves and factories have closed, and the only buffalo are made of metal. What remains is a way of life and a pioneering spirit. Folks along the South Platte River Trail are proud of their past, and they are eager to share it with anyone willing to flee the freeway. Those who let their imaginations drop back in time may not have to lie flat to find it scenic.
If You Go
To reach the South Platte River Trail (www.rivertrailonline.org), take Interstate 76 from Denver and drive northeast about 180 miles (about three hours) to the Julesburg-U.S. Highway 385 interchange (exit 180). The byway begins at the Welcome Center just north of the freeway.
For those wanting to spend some time, the Platte Valley Inn (970-474-3336, www.budgethost.com/myhotel.aspx?id=59) offers comfortable rooms at reasonable prices, and they feature a restaurant and lounge.
Other neighboring places to eat include Thad’s in the Flying J truck stop to the north and the Sweden Creme drive-in on the south. Across the street stands the Subway franchise and the Gateway Antiques and Sandwich Shop. In Ovid, check out Kodi’s Kafe or El Alegre on Main Street.
See and Do:
The Depot Museum in Julesburg (201 W. First St., 970-474-2264) is only open from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekends. Its hours run Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m..
The Fort Sedgwick Museum (114 E. First St., 970-474-2061) is open year-round, with summer hours running Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. Winter hours run Tuesday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The privately owned Old Ford Garage sits next door, and if it isn’t open, the museum folks can generally track down the owner.
For shopping, check out Antiques & Artisans (101 Cedar St., 970-474-2363), which is like a super garage sale filled with “stuff.” Hours are Monday-Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Sedgwick County Chamber of Commerce, 800-226-0069, www.sedgwickcountyco.com, or go to www.rivertrailonline.org.
Dan Leeth is a freelance writer who lives in Aurora. Visit his website, lookingfortheworld.com.