Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Flint Hills!

This is my tribute to a most beautiful area of Kansas.  I start with a general discussion of the region, followed by a digression concerning geology and its many theories, concluding with an analysis of the forces that created this place.  Railroad photographs then follow.  Those of you who have forgotten how to read anything longer than four sentences (the number in this paragraph, if you're interested) can skip to the photos.

A Nineteenth Century World

I am driving on Kansas Highway 177, which runs north off Interstate 35 at Cassoday and roughly follows BNSF’s Emporia Subdivision to Bazaar, Kansas, through the heart of the Flint Hills.  You should not drive this narrow, two-lane road if you are in a hurry.  Those short of time stay on the interstate where SUVs and gigantic trunks zoom like bullets, where the scenery is extraordinary but mostly unobservable because you must watch the road constantly to avoid being run into the ditch by someone driving even faster than you – and you are driving as fast as your vehicle can go without shaking apart. 

On Kansas 177, however, the world changes, as though you have walked through a door in a modern luxury home and found yourself standing in a 19th century room without plumbing or electricity.  You look out the window and see nothing but green hills extending to the horizon – no highways, no gigantic trucks, no electric lines, nothing but unadulterated green grass.  On Kansas 177, the speed limit is 55 miles per hour.  You can drive faster, because the road is lightly patrolled, but why?  You have chosen this route because you want to see the Flint Hills, not because you don’t.

When I drive this route, I pull off the road near Mercer Creek, a small turnout created by I know not whom for reasons I do not understand.  But the turnout has been there since the day I first drove this road, and it remains today.  The native blue stem has not invaded.  It looks as though someone mows it every month or so.  Perhaps someone does.  Perhaps someone knows I like to stop here.

I park in a grove of dwarf trees, climb out of my Jeep, cross the tracks, climb a shallow embankment and walk north about 50 yards, where the railroad runs due north-south, and the green hills rise behind it like a curtain.  If I am traveling on business, I do not remain long.  Sometimes I see a train, sometimes not.  If I am not traveling on business, I stay for hours and see many trains.  The air is always as clear as polished glass, except during the fall burning season, which I avoid, and the only sounds are the occasional vehicle on the narrow country road, the equally occasional whoosh of a BNSF freight and the omnipresent wind blowing through the blue stem.   

The Flint Hills extend from Marshall County in north Kansas to Cowley County in the south.  (In Oklahoma, they are called the Osage Hills.)  

Although this section of Kansas is far from treeless, the only trees in the Flint Hills grow in bottomland along creek beds.  The hills are covered with grass, primarily blue stem.  The lack of upland trees has two causes:

(1)  The upslope soil is thin and rocky, with solid limestone only a few inches below, not conducive to large tree development, though small trees and bushes could survive, as they do in the Osage Hills of Oklahoma.

(2)  Flint Hills ranchers follow the Native American practice of burning the ground every fall (unlike many in Oklahoma).  The flames kill all tree and bush seedlings, but the native grass comes back with a vengeance in the spring.  One of nature’s most amazing displays occurs in April when the dead hills of eastern Kansas turn as green as Ireland.

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County and the Konza Prairie southwest of Manhattan in Riley County provide two excellent locations to experience the Flint Hills. Both have miles of hiking trails, while Pillsbury Crossing Wildlife Area southwest of Manhattan provides access to a waterfall flowing over a limestone ledge on the south branch of Deep Creek. The Chase County Courthouse in Cottonwood Falls, one of the most unusual public buildings in Kansas -- French Renaissance (Second Empire) -- is one of the many buildings in the Flint Hills constructed from local limestone.

Chase County Courthouse
Like the Flint Hills themselves, Cottonwood Falls is caught in a time warp, the seat of a county (Chase) with a total population of a few thousand.  (The population of Cottonwood Falls is maybe 500.)  The one high school in the entire county sits in Cottonwood Falls and is not called Cottonwood Falls High.  Instead, it is Chase County High.  Many students arrive from 50 miles or more. 

The main street, which runs north from the courthouse through the two-block downtown, consists of brick pavers from the nineteenth century.  The last time I drove there (2018), the western wear store was still in business, and I bought a pair of boots.  I chatted with the owner, who was as thin as one of the fence posts in the surrounding ranches and who told me that he lived in Wichita and drove north every Saturday to check on his property.  During the week he held a day job.  I thought it inappropriate to ask if the store made money, so I asked why he kept what seemed to me such a hectic schedule.  (Full disclosure:  as I near 70, almost everything seems hectic.)

“I love it,” he told me.  “I absolutely love it.  Wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Hard to argue with that.

“Need another pair of boots?  Half price for the second pair.”

I guess salesmanship is born in the blood.  I told him I already had too many.  Then I bought a second pair.

Apart from the small downtown, Cottonwood Falls consists of 50 or so houses, some in disrepair, some looking as new as the day they were first occupied.  One prairie palace in particular always catches my imagination – brown brick, three stories, with five dormer windows that look out across the vast Flint Hills to the horizon.  I often wonder who would construct such a mansion in such a place, and I see a cattle baron who brings his new Boston bride to the tall grass to be the queen of Chase County.  But she soon grows bored, flees back to Boston, and he sits alone in the monstrous house, brooding year after year, until he dies of loneliness, and the house sits empty until it is rescued by the local historical society, which must rid the basement of about 100 cats that have grown accustomed to their accommodations.  None of that is true, but it shows how I think.

Now you may be wondering how the Flint Hills were created.  Certainly, no one was around at the beginning.  And no one has been alive for 500 million-plus years to watch the development.  Truthfully, no one knows for certain where the hills came from, but over the past 200 years, geologists have made a series of educated guesses that have convinced other geologists of their accuracy.  That is why theoretical geology is as much like poetry as science.  No one will ever know what happened 500 million years ago.  Often, the most beautiful theory carries the day.

A Geological Digression  

The first geological theory with which I am familiar was called Neptunism, propounded by Abraham Gottlob Werner of the Freiburg School of Mining.  The son of Abraham David Werner, the inspector of the Duke of Solm’s ironworks, the younger Werner spent his early years first as a student at the Freiburg School of Mining, then as an employee of the Saxon Mining Service.

In 1773, Werner wrote “On the External Characteristics of Fossils,” which described minerals based on their physical characteristics and helped geologists identify rocks in the field.  Shortly after publication, Werner dropped out of school without a degree, but his book became so popular that the Freiburg School later hired him to curate the university mineral collection and teach classes in mining.

Werner remained at the school until his death, 40 years later.  During that time, he developed his theory of Neptunism, claiming that all rocks on the earth originally precipitated out of an ocean that once covered the planet, which virtually everyone in the western world assumed to have been Noah’s flood.  Thus, Biblical imprimatur was stamped on Werner’s forehead.

At that time, the earth was generally considered to be about 6,000 years old.  James Usher, an Irish Archbishop, had counted generations in the Bible and determined that the earth was created in 4004 BC.  Moreover, geologists had discovered marine fossils on high mountain peaks.  The only way such fossils could have been deposited on mountains, the geologists believed, was through a gigantic flood, thereby confirming Werner’s theory. 

Werner believed that granite, serpentine and gneiss precipitated first and thus were the “primitive” rocks that formed mountains.  “Transitional” rocks such as slate had been deposited underwater on tall mountain slopes.  When the flood receded and the sun came out, “secondary” rocks such as sandstone and coal were deposited in flat layers, to be followed by “alluvial” rock in the coastal plains.  

Werner never described where all the water went.  Nor did anyone else.  It just went “somewhere,” and that was good enough for the theory.  

Werner also did not believe that basalt is volcanic.  In his theory, volcanoes resulted from the spontaneous combustion of coal.  

Because Werner remained at Freiburg his entire life, his theory was based on a small group of local rocks, all well stratified and consistent with his theory.  As geologists began searching outside Germany, however, they quickly noticed rocks and geologic structures incompatible with Neptunism.  Because the theory was consistent with Biblical teaching, its Catholic adherents labeled all criticism heresy, which effectively meant that in the western world, new theories would be propounded by either Protestants or atheists.

Thus enters James Hutton, considered the founder of modern geology.  Born in Edinburgh in 1726, he studied medicine but gave that up to run the family farm, where he first began to wonder how the land around him could withstand wind and rain.  He saw topsoil constantly washed downstream and realized that if something did not replace it, the land would eventually disappear.  He also realized that soil eroded gradually, in increments so tiny that the earth surely must be older than 6,000 years.  He slowly formulated, as slowly as the soil washing off his farm, a completely novel theory of how the earth developed and where it was headed – a science that had only recently acquired a name:  geology.

So where did the new soil come from to replenish the land?  Hutton theorized that it must derive from mountains slowly eroded by rain, wind and frost, slowly over unimaginably long times ground down from boulders to pebbles to sand to silt to mud by a summit-to-ocean system of rivers and streams which, while carrying this detritus to the waters, would during floods deposit some of the new rich soil as fertile plains.  This cycle would be repeated again and again until enough heat and pressure would fuse what had once been new top soil into rock.

Somehow, however, new mountains had to be created as old ones eroded away.  To solve this mystery, Hutton focused on the marine fossils discovered at the summits of the highest peaks.  He did not believe that the fossils had been deposited by a great flood.  Instead, he believed – an insight as startlingly original as Einstein’s that measurements of time were not fixed but rather dependent upon the speed of the observer – that the great mountains had begun as ocean floor and then had been lifted and folded into the sky.

His further insight was that the geological processes necessary to raise the ocean floor were caused by heat deep within the earth, heat caused by the enormous pressure of soil and rock, heat that created hot springs and volcanos, heat far in excess of burning coal, heat that created granite and basalt.  That same heat caused the crust to expand, forming mountains, tilting, folding and deforming rocks such as those he examined at Siccar Point in Scotland.  Basalt, Hutton said, had not precipitated out of water.  Instead, it had once been molten, with “the liquefying power and expansive force of subterranean fire.”  

Another of Hutton’s amazing insights was his belief that geological forces of the present were similar to those of the past.  Erosion and sedimentation were constant over time, making it possible to estimate the years required to erode a mountain range to the level of the surrounding plains.  Hutton thus envisioned the eons required by geologic processes.  This did not mean that erosion or mountain building were perfectly constant over a million or a thousand million years.  (Geologists avoid the term “billion,” which has different meanings in different parts of the English-speaking world.  In England, for example, “billion” means a million million.). These incredibly long geologic processes were punctuated by thousand year floods and ten thousand year earthquakes.  It is often said that mountains rise one earthquake at a time and fall with each flood.

The mind, said Hutton, faltered at how long it would take to erode a mountain range.  And how long would it take to create one?  Hutton called the process of mountain creation, mountain erosion, new soil creation, new soil erosion and then more mountain creation “the Great Geological Cycle” that had been repeated over and over again since the beginning of time.  And when did the cycle commence?  When would it cease?  In a paper presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785, Hutton announced:  “The result, therefore, of this physical enquiry is that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”  James Hutton, in short, repudiated Neptunism and the Biblical view of geology.  The same crisis that Galileo brought upon the Catholic Church was forced upon Protestantism by Hutton.

English geologist Charles Lyell, born the year Hutton died, whose book “Principles of Geology” introduced the western world to Hutton’s theory, said: “The imagination was first fatigued and overpowered by endeavoring to conceive the immensity of time required for the annihilation of whole continents by so insensible a process.” This “plan of such infinite extent” revolutionized our concept of the age of the earth, giving new meaning to the concept of "ancient."

Just how ancient was worked out in the 19th and 20th centuries, beginning with English geologists who found coral skeletons in the limestone of Devonshire similar to those in Old Red Sandstone of north Britain.  Coral skeletons found above and below the Old Red Sandstone were of slightly different shape, leading the geologists to infer that (1) the Old Red Sandstone was of a different age than the rock above and below, and (2) the Old Red Sandstone of north Britain and the limestone of Devonshire were of approximately the same age.  And here is where geology becomes poetic.  Thereafter, rock of that age anywhere in the world – Russia, South Africa, Pennsylvania – was called Devonian.  In the twentieth century, scientists were able to date Devonian rock and determine that it was about 360 to 408 million years old, a time span that indeed staggers the mind.

Even today, when the enormous age of the earth is understood, my mind really cannot comprehend what I write on this page.  400 million years?  To a human who may live 80 years, 400 million years is meaningless.  I have trouble remembering three days ago.  Unless something monumental happened, like an earthquake, events of last week are lost to me.  As of the date of this post (January 2020), I was born 69 years ago, which divided by 400 million equals 0.0000001725, rounding to zero at seven places!  It is easy to see why the Biblical view of geology was shattered like an old window.

Geologists then discovered that coal beds in Europe lay on top of Old Red Sandstone, so here was another geologic epoch labeled Carboniferous – about 290 to 360 million years ago.  Further discoveries indicated that entire groups of species were contained in certain layers of rock but not others, demonstrating that mass extinctions had occurred on our planet more than once.  Paleontologists have identified five, named for the geologic epoch in which they occurred:  Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic-Jurassic and Cretaceous-Tertiary.

Scientists also discovered rock layers containing species that had not existed before and soon realized that Earth once experienced an explosion of new life as remarkable as the extinctions, as though living creatures were being created and destroyed in a cycle comparable to the geologic.  Called the “Cambrian Explosion” for the epoch in which it occurred, this fantasitic and almost unimaginable period began about 540 million years ago when animals with mineralized skeletons first appeared.  The Burgess Shale, about 505 million years old, records the conclusion. The remains from this period were typically small pieces of larger skeletons, called “small shelly fossils,” suggestive of many different types of animals.  Many of the fossils are poorly understood and difficult to classify, but there is no dispute that during this period animals with mineralized skeletons first appeared.

What is most fascinating to me is that the great majority of the phyla that first appeared during the Cambrian Explosion disappeared during the subsequent extinctions, suggesting (to me at least) that the cycle of appearance and disappearance is recurring.  The paleontological record prior to the Cambrian Explosion is sparse, because the soft body tissues of animals during prior periods did not fossilize nearly as well as mineralized skeletons.  That does not mean that there were not previous periods when life first appeared on the planet, only to go extinct millions of years later.  It only means we have found no record of it.  But if the earth if 4.6 thousand million years old, as is generally believed today, then the time from the Cambrian Explosion to the present is only about 10 percent of the planetary history.  We have no idea what happened during the other 90 percent (four thousand one hundred million years).   

Searching for the boundaries of these creations and extinctions allowed geologists in the latter half of the 19th century to pinpoint with remarkable accuracy the recent history of our planet.  And it was complicated.  Sub-epochs in North America and Europe have been categorized differently, but the major epochs are the same.  The following list is long, but I include it to indicate the age and complexity of the planet which we have inhabited for about 200,000 years – which, when divided by the estimated age of the planet, rounds to zero at five places!

 Quaternary – Present to 1.64 million years ago

Tertiary – 1.64 to 65 million years ago

Cretaceous – 65 to 145 million years ago

Jurassic -- 145 to 208 million years ago

Triassic -- 208 to 250 million years ago

Permian – 250 to 290 million years ago

Carboniferous – 290 to 360 million years ago

(In North America, the Carboniferous has been subdivided into the Pennsylvanian [290 – 323] and Mississippian [323 – 360])

Devonian – 360 to 408 million years ago

Silurian – 408 to 439 million years ago

Ordovician – 439 to 490 million years ago

Cambrian – 490 to 544 million years ago

Neoproterozoic – 544 to 1000 million years ago

Mesoproterozoic – 1000 to 1600 million years ago

Paleoproterozoic – 1600 to 2500 million years ago

Archean – 2500 to 4600 million years ago

Notice that after the Cambrian, the epochs grow longer and longer.  The Archean, for example, includes almost 50 percent of the earth’s history.  That is because almost nothing is known about such ancient periods.  Both the geological and fossilized evidence simply no longer exist.  Thus, even though we have accumulated significant knowledge about 10 percent of the planet’s history, we are mostly ignorant of the rest and may remain so.

Back to the Flint Hills

But we need not return to the Archean to make an educated guess about the creation of the Flint Hills.  The following discussion will also demonstrate how geologists think.  (Full disclosure:  In case you can't tell, I am not a geologist, just an interested observer.)

Road Cut Along Kansas 113

Eastern Kansas for hundreds of millions of years has not been subject to any significant tectonic forces.  In other words, the land has not risen nor fallen due to faulting.  In road cuts, sediments lie flat, one on top of the other, like quilts on a bed.  By looking at the various sedimentary layers, one can begin to understand the history of this beautiful hill country.

The above image was taken by Keith Miller and is included in his article "Geological Cycles of the Flint Hills: Ancient Ice Ages, Sea Levels, and Climate Change," which can found at:  https://newprairiepress.org/sfh/2012/flinthills/3

Most of the following discussion is a synopsis of this paper, which goes into much greater detail and is well worth reading.

The photograph shows the distinct sedimentary layers in the Flint Hills.  On top is white limestone.  Next comes a layer of gray mudstone.  Then a darker layer of mudstone.  Then more limestone.  Then almost black shale.  Then more limestone.  We know that limestone is created from the skeletons of marine animals.  Mudstone is created, not surprisingly, from mud.  Shale is also made from mud, but unlike the gray mudstone above, shale is harder and laminated, composed of multiple layers fused together under pressure.  But both the gray and black areas above were all once essentially dirt.

The various layers in the road cut were deposited sequentially over time.  The lower you look, the older the rock.  The image demonstrates that the Flint Hills were once covered with water, then dry land, then water again, then dry land again, then more water.  

How long did it take to create this mosaic?  This is where the "plan of infinite extent" takes over.  The "hard" rocks in the above sequence are rich with fossils "extending from the latest Pennsylvanian Period through the end of the early Permian. This encompasses a time interval of roughly 20 million years from somewhat before 290 million years ago, to about 270 million years ago."

The top layer of limestone, in other words, was deposited about 270 million years ago.  But in the intervening 270 million, something else must have happened, something else that added to what we see today as the Flint Hills.  What was it?  

The road cut image shows a thin layer of topsoil above the most recent limestone deposit.  The rocks of the early Permian are overlain by dirt from the very recent past -- windblown deposits, glacial lake deposits and sediments deposited by glacial meltwaters, all from the most recent ice age which ended about 15,000 years ago. Fossil bones and teeth of ice age mammals are preserved within these loose sediments.

But there is nothing at all from the Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, Paleocene, Oligocene, Miocene or Pliocene.  Sources that I have consulted refer to a "major erosional period" following the early Permian, but no one seems to know what caused it or why it lasted so long.  All we know for certain is that everything was worn down to the early Permian limestone, which was then lightly covered by debris from the most recent ice age.  Some have speculated that the Rocky Mountain Uplift created enormous erosional forces felt as far away as current eastern Kansas.  If that were the case, then one might think that the further west one travels, the more significant would be the erosion and the older the exposed rock.  However, as you go west in Kansas, the exposed rock grows younger, the result of these younger rocks eroding off the Rockies and the detritus coming to rest in eastern Colorado and western Kansas.  None of the Rocky Mountain detritus made it as far east as the modern Flint Hills, but the same erosional forces may have swept away 270 million years of deposits.    

And what caused the cycles of wet and dry land that created the ancient layers in the road cut?  According to Mr. Miller, during this period of limestone and mudstone deposition, the earth cycled through glacial epochs, causing the ocean depth to rise, fall, rise and fall again.

This discussion leaves one question still unanswered.  Why are these hills called "Flint"?  Limestone is often interspersed with nodules of what geologists call "chert" and the rest of us "flint."  The alternating layers of limestone and mudstone have produced the hills in this country, with limestone and flint (eroding slowly) on top, and softer mudstone (eroding more rapidly) on the slopes.  

The Photographs 

The following images track BNSF's Emporia Subdivision from its southern crossing of the Flint Hills, at El Dorado, to its northern boundary at Saffordsville.  BNSF dispatchers often refer to this single track section of the Transcon as the "short cut," because trains routed through the Flint Hills take a significantly shorter course than those routed through Newton and Wichita.  These two different single track sections together create what amounts to a double track line through east and central Kansas, even though they are miles apart.

Most of the photographs were taken from 2000 to 2006, a period when BNSF ran a wide variety of colorful lashups.  You will see engine combinations in the following images that have not appeared on BNSF rails in years.

Included below are aerial images showing the location of each photograph.  The image immediately below shows the entire range of the photographs.

El Dorado

The following images were taken just north of El Dorado, Kansas, near the overpass at Myers Road and the causeway across El Dorado Lake.  

 1 -- Northeast-bound stacks have left El Dorado and are preparing to enter the Flint Hills.

2 -- A northeast-bound Z-train enters a cut.  The train's power is below oil storage tanks.  El Dorado is a major oil producing region in Kansas.

3 -- Southwest-bound UP auto racks, running on trackage rights, roar through a cut.  El Dorado Lake is about 200 yards to the right of the train.

4 -- Southwest-bound grain.  Again, El Dorado Lake is behind the cut.

5 -- El Dorado Lake Causeway.

North of El Dorado Lake

The tracks have now passed the lake and are headed northeast across a long limestone plain toward Cassoday.  Interstate 35 runs parallel, about one-half mile to the northwest, while Kansas 177 (which sees little traffic) follows directly beside the railroad.

6 -- Southwest-bound trailers prepare to cross underneath Kansas 177.

7 -- Southwest-bound at dusk.

8 -- Northeast-bound.

9 -- Southwest-bound.


Aikman is the 10,000 feet-plus passing siding halfway between Chelsea (the siding by El Dorado Lake) and Cassoday.  Because of its extreme length, which often facilitates moving meets, Aikman contained a mid-point signal.  The following images all record the cantilever that remained in placed through the early 21st century.  One of my favorite locations; I particularly enjoyed shooting at sunrise and sunset.  Alas, the cantilever is no more. 

10 -- Aikman cantilever at dawn.

11 - Northeast-bound at dusk with FRED.

12 -- Southwest at dawn.

13 -- Southwest at dawn.

14 -- Northeast at dusk.

Between I-35 and K-177

Past Cassoday, the Emporia Sub ducks under Interstate 35 and runs north-northeast about three miles until crossing over Kansas 177, which  swings a couple miles to the west before turning back east and crossing under the tracks.  This section of the Transcon is not approachable by any road.  Instead, one must go to the K-177 underpass, then hike south along the tracks, watching for the occasional rattlesnake.  Unlike the Northeast, railroad personnel in Kansas are friendly.  In the almost 50 years I have been taking railroad photographs, I have never been run off property in this state.

15 -- Pushers on a stack train preparing to cross under I-35.

16 -- A pristine warbonnet leads southwest-bound stacks to Cassoday.

17 -- Stacks headed southwest.

18 -- More stacks headed southwest.

19 -- A lash-up that hasn't been seen in a long time.

North of K-177

North of Kansas 177, the Emporia Sub runs due north before making a wide curve to the northeast on approach to Matfield Green.  To me, this area displays the essence of the Flint Hills' long unobstructed vistas.  Standing on one of the hilltops, gazing east toward the blue sky, I am overwhelmed by the immensity of the landscape, as though I have opened the drapes of a living room and stared out into the empty vastness of the universe.  Is that too grand?  Okay, how about; I really like the view?

20 -- A manifest heading northeast has just crossed under Kansas 177.  If you look closely above the space between the second and third units, you can see the water tower located at the Matfield Green rest stop on the Kansas Turnpike (I-35).

21 -- Stacks from Chicago are negotiating the big curve southwest of Matfield Green.  This image shows clearly how trees in the Flint Hills are confined to the lowlands, while the hills are an ocean of grass.

22 -- The big curve.

23 -- Another lashup not seen in years on the big curve.  Even more unusual is that these three BNSF locomotives are pulling a Norfolk Southern Roadrailer.  The train, normally pulled by NS power, is uncommonly long.

Mercer Creek

As mentioned at the beginning, Mercer Creek is one of my favorite locations.  Like a spawning salmon, I return over and over.  I don't know why.  There is nothing rational about it.  Sometimes, there is not even anything conscious.  I just show up and wonder how I arrived.

About a mile and one-half to the southeast, giant trucks and SUVs race across the hills on I-35, but for some reason, probably having to do with the inner workings of the universe and my small place in it, I never hear the road noise.  The twenty-first century sits at my doorstep, but I am interested only in green hills.

I try to imagine what it must have been like growing up here in the 19th century -- no electricity, no telephone (much less cellular technology), no television, no radio, no automobiles, not even Kansas 177.  Just you, green grass and the railroad.  How does the mind work when deprived of all 21st century stimulation?  What do you think about?  Do you think about anything?  Or do you just live life as best you can in tune with your surroundings, quietly, perhaps more aware of the quality of living?  These are questions I cannot answer, though sitting here beside the tracks, I feel a level of contentment that I cannot find on I-35, nor my computer, nor my cell phone.  I will not stay, however.  Eventually, I will head back to all the trappings of the modern world that make me feel advanced.  Perhaps that is why they are called "trappings."

24 -- Southwest-bound stacks at Mercer Creek.  Kansas 177 is just barely visible through the brush.

25 -- Southwest trailers through limestone.

26 -- Southwest-bound stacks racing through the 19th century.

27 -- Stacks negotiating the curve at Mercer Creek.

Matfield Green

We now arrive at one of my favorite villages:  Matfield Green.  The latest Census Bureau estimate (2018) pegged the population at 45.  If you are driving south into town on Kansas 177, you will see a sign that reads:  "Matfield Green -- Next Five Exits."  There used to be a small bar here that was always open when I drove through.  The building appeared to have been constructed in the mid-19th century and not touched or otherwise maintained since.  Dust on the floor, chairs and table tops was thick enough to suffocate a fly.  Unfortunately, the last time I drove through in 2019, the establishment was closed and looked abandoned.

The town, named by David Washington Mercer after his home of Matfield, England, was for a time the terminus of what later became the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad and was the shipping point for cattle out of the Flint Hills.  Matfield was known for its village green, where festivals and cricket tournaments were regularly scheduled, and so the name "Matfield Green" was born.  At least that is what the history books tell us.  However, I think that Mercer included the word "Green" with "Matfield" because of the color of the Flint Hills in April and May after spring rains.

In addition to serving in the American War Between the States, creating the village and becoming its first postmaster, David Mercer operated a general store. He provided funding for his brother Alfred -- plus Alfred’s wife and 10 children -- to join him in Kansas, where the family homesteaded west of town.

Here is an overhead image taken in January 2020:

The closest full-service grocery stores are located in Emporia and El Dorado, both about 30 miles away.  Same for hospitals and hardware stores.  Gasoline may be purchased at Cottonwood Falls (15 miles) or Cassoday (9.5 miles).  So life here is a little isolated.  But how many towns have the Emporia Subdivision in their back yards?  In how many towns can you see the following images (all taken near the end of the passing siding north of town)?  

28 -- Southwest-bound trailers passing abandoned cattle pens once used to load livestock for the trip to Kansas City.

29 -- Northeast-bound manifest "in the hole," awaiting California-bound stacks.

30 -- North end of Matfield Green passing siding.

31 -- Approaching Matfield Green from the north.  The original mainline ran through the valley beside the big white barn but was relocated in the late 1940's to reduce the number of sharp curves.

32 -- The broad Flint Hills of eastern Kansas.


The pun is obvious.  Bazaar is a bizarre name for a village.  I couldn't help myself.  

The word "bazaar" derives from the Persian word "bazar" and describes a marketplace where goods are sold and purchased.  I cannot determine if this village was named after a Persian market.  I do know that at one time, the name was changed to Mary, then a few years later changed back to Bazaar.  The Census Bureau estimated the population at 88 in 2018.  Personally, I don't believe that 88 people live in this community.  My best guess is 25 tops.

Kansas 177 runs about one mile west in the hills that look down upon the little settlement like circuit court judges listening to a first year lawyer.  The only roads (and there aren't many) are all Kansas dirt.

Out of curiosity, today (January 16, 2020) I checked a website listing things to do in various Kansas communities and discovered the following for Bazaar.  (Actually, nothing at all was happening in Bazaar.  The events listed below were all nearby, meaning within 100 miles.)

1.  Women's Empowerment Retreat:  Cottonwood Falls -- "Do you need empowerment in your life and feel like you need to be recharged? Or are you struggling with defining your purpose, need inspiration, or just time for you to focus on your mental health?  If so, this is the retreat for you!  This retreat is ideal for women of all ages and will include motivational speakers, open discussions, breakout sessions with various fun activities, and time for just relaxing!  Come enjoy a relaxing, fun, and rejuvenating weekend away! All meals and lodging are included.  If you prefer to room with another guest, please let us know when you register. The meeting location of the retreat is a renovated 1800's church."

2.  Governance Law and Economics Lecture Series:  Emporia -- Dr. Crystal Dozier of Wichita State University will discuss "The Myth of Primitive Socialism."  (Author's Note:  My wife says this one sounds interesting.  I'm not so sure.)

3.  Dueling Piano Dinner:  Marion -- "Enjoy dinner and entertainment with the HiFi dueling pianos! Live auction with excellent auction items!  Refund Policy:  Contact the organizer to request a refund.  Eventbrite's fee is nonrefundable."

33 -- North of Matfield Green, Kansas 177 crosses above the Emporia Sub.  To obtain an image from the highway overpass, you must risk your life, because there are no shoulders.  None!  The edge of the bridge is the edge of the highway.  This image was taken just north of the overpass, which is close enough for me.

34 -- Same location in summer.

35 -- An oil train with a single unit on point blasts southwest.

36 -- This image was taken at the spot where Kansas 177 begins to diverge from the Emporia Sub.

37 -- South end of Bazaar Siding.


The following three images were all taken at the same location, about halfway between Bazaar and Ellinor.  I don't know if the place has a name, but the tracks run directly in front of a beautiful family farm, with hills rising behind.  Once, while I was parked in my Jeep beside a dirt road, waiting for a train, a family member stopped beside me in a pickup, raising enough dust to choke us both.  He looked to be in his mid-twenties, probably a son, with a wide friendly face and eyes the color of the dust.

He asked what I was doing, and I told him, and he said that he had loved trains since he was a small boy, probably because so many roared past the farmhouse each day.

"Did you go to high school in Cottonwood Falls?" I asked.


"How many were in your graduating class?"


I told him that seven was four more than were in my fraternal grandmother's class of three.  (She graduated from Terral, Oklahoma, along the Red River and the old Rock Island north/south mainline to Texas.)  She always bragged that she was the salutatorian.  I always felt bad for the third fellow who didn't make the honor list.  (I know he was male.  My grandmother told me more than once.)

Since I don't know the name of this place, I will call it Erehwon, which looks sort of Gaelic but is actually "Nowhere" spelled backwards.

38 -- NS Roadrailer on the Emporia Sub.

39 -- BNSF warbonnets.

40 -- A Herzog ballast train.

Ellinor to Saffordville

At Ellinor, the La Junta Subdivision (coming east from Colorado) joins the Emporia Subdivision (coming northeast from Amarillo), and the tracks (now a triple-track mainline) run in the valley of the Cottonwood River to Saffordville (not really even a village in January 2020), at which point the BNSF leaves the Flint Hills.  This stretch of the Transcon, because located in a river bottom, is as flat as an old tenor with a sore throat, but hills rise on each side.

Westbounds are often routed on the La Junta Sub from Ellinor to Newton, then south to Wichita and Mulvane, where they rejoin the Emporia Sub, creating (as discussed above) a double-track mainline in which the tracks are separated by 20 miles or more.

Traffic on this section of the Transcon can be ferocious, especially during the weekend.  I have spent more than one Saturday afternoon at Ellinor during which I saw 10 trains roar through in an hour.  Even at slow periods, I don't recall ever waiting more than about 30 minutes for the next train to arrive.

Many years ago, when my wife was a professor at Emporia State University, I loved to drive out to Ellinor at dusk and take sundown shots.  In fact I have devoted an entire article to this passion: https://www.waltersrail.com/2018/02/when-that-evening-sun-goes-down-ellinor.html.  I have included a few additional evening images here.

41 -- A eastbound manifest (with a lash-up that you won't see anymore) has come off the La Junta Subdivision and is preparing to pass under the west signal tower at Ellinor.  In the background, the two tracks of the Emporia Sub are diverging to the southwest.

42 -- A westbound grainer headed to El Dorado passes under the west signal tower at Ellinor.  The east signal tower can be seen in the background.

43 -- Same location at night.  The train was stopped.

44 -- Sundown at Ellinor.

45 -- Westbound stacks between Ellinor and Saffordville in the valley of the Cottonwood River.

46 -- Eastbound stacks in the valley of the Cottonwood River.

47 -- Two westbounds at Saffordville.

48 -- Westbound office cars at Saffordville.

If you look closely at this aerial image,  you will see two westbounds.  One has already headed southwest down the Emporia Sub.  My best SWAG (Scientific Wild Ass Guess) is that the other westbound, currently on Track 2, with the head end power at the East Signal Tower, will be diverted to the La Junta Sub.

When I think of Kansas, I think of the Flint Hills.  I think of tree-lined valleys, green slopes, blue stem grass, limestone-topped mounds, gentle winds -- and I think of BNSF after BNSF freight sliding gently into the night.  Dusk is the favorite hour, when the world resolves to the lowest common denominator, when everything cloudy before becomes clear.  If I had to live my life in one hour, I'd live it at dusk, then drop slowly to dark.  

But I will allow others to have the last word, others with perhaps a different perspective:

"If there should prove to be one real, living Free State Democrat in Kansas, I suggest that it might be well to catch him and stuff and preserve his skin as an interesting specimen of that soon-to-be-extinct variety of the genus Democrat."  Abraham Lincoln

"When I was a small boy in Kansas, a friend of mine and I went fishing. I told him I wanted to be a real Major League baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner.  My friend said that he'd like to be President of the United States. Neither of us got our wish."  Dwight D. Eisenhower

"What Kansas will be 50 years hence is beyond the comprehension of people now living."  Chicago Journal, May 14, 1889

"In Kansas I have a chess school."  Anatoly Karpov

To see my other posts, go to waltersrail.com.  To see my photographs on Flickr, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpwalters/.

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