JOHN CHARLES FRÉMONT AND THE TOPEKA FORT RILEY ROAD
The origins of the old road that descends from the Flint Hills down the eastern flank of Mount Mitchell will probably never be known. Trailblazer Jedediah Smith may have been the first American to use the trail during the 1820s. This route West, on the south side of the Kansas River, became known for its ease of passage because it kept to the high ground and avoided having to cross streams.
In 1842 Congress authorized a survey of the Oregon Trail, the main route of westward emigration between Missouri and Oregon and California. John Charles Frémont was made leader of the expedition.
The mountain man Kit Carson was Frémont's guide on this and other expeditions between 1842 and 1846. The 1843 expedition most likely used the trail that traversed Mount Mitchell.
When Fort Riley and Topeka were established in 1853 and 1854 this old reliable route began to be called the Topeka Fort Riley Road. A popular stage line advertised it as the “Nearest and Best Route between Fort Riley and the eastern part of Kansas”.
Between 1857 and 1861 enslaved people seeking their freedom in Canada, used this road on what was probably the westernmost branch of the Underground Railroad. A dramatic account by Charles Leonhardt called The Last Train documents an 1860 trip along a route that travelled up the Wakarusa, to Bloomington, Auburn, and the Harvey Settlement. From there went northwest, joining the Topeka Fort Riley Road near present day Paxico, then on to Wabaunsee. After crossing the Kaw River they continued on to Centralia, eventually joining the Lane Trail at Nebraska City.
Today, this portion of the trail is recognized by the National Park Service as an authenticated Underground Railroad Site in their commemorative Network to Freedom Program.
Visitors to Mount Mitchell can stand in the ruts of this historic road and imagine the stories of those who passed over it.