Downing and Kelso

On Sunday October 7th, starting at 4 o’clock, the public will get an opportunity to visit the Downing Cemetery and learn a bit about the history of Kelso and Downing from the folks who live there.  Kelso is 6 miles northwest of Council Grove as the crow flies, and Downing Cemetery is less than a mile west of the Kelso Cemetery.  Larry Timm, lifelong resident of Kelso, will share what he has learned about the cemetery and the historic Military National Road.  Ralph Peterson will give a talk on the Railroad, and following there will be a dinner provided by Steve and Diane Euler at the old Kelso School, now Methodist Church.  Meal is by reservation only.

Photograph of Kelso school taken March 30, 1906. Built in 1887. (Courtesy of Carole Day.)

According to family history, William Downing settled in the Kelso area in 1858.  It was this same year that the Board of Supervisors, or what we call commissioners today, established three new voting precincts in the county.  One at June Baxter’s on Clarks Creek, one at Conn’s Ranch on Diamond Creek and one at Downing’s on the Neosho.  We are not told which Downing this was; there were two different Downing’s that had land on the Neosho River just south of Kelso.

Although Mr. Downing settled at such an early time, the history of the Downing/Kelso area goes back a little farther.  We may, with propriety, date its beginning to the time Ft. Riley was established.  In the fall of 1852 a surveying party selected a location where the Republican and Smokey Hill Rivers flow into the Kansas River.  This spot was thought to be the geographical center of the United States (and so it is marked on an 1856 map of Kansas) therefore it was named Camp Center.  On June 27th 1853, Camp Center was renamed Ft. Riley in honor of Major General Bennett Riley who is credited with leading the first military escort over the Santa Fe Trail, huzzah!

But what has this to do with Downing?  Well, the military road between Ft. Riley and Ft. Scott passes right by Downing Cemetery and Kelso.  The great number of unmarked graves in Downing Cemetery suggests that it was in use before the Downing and neighboring families were using it.  From the C.G. Rep under Kelso news of June 21st, 1895, we read that there were more than 100 burials in the Downing Cemetery at that time.  We find that Siloma Downing deeded the cemetery to the County June 5th, 1893.  In 1895 the county put up a new wire fence and gates at the cemetery.

What we know today as Kelso began as Downing Station in 1870. The Katy Railroad finished the line through there and established the station but gave no facilities.  A few years after this a side track was put in, the citizens providing the timbers and doing the work.  We learn quite a bit about Downing Station from the Report of the Board of Railroad Commissioners of November 30th, 1895.  Although the Station was established in 1870 it wasn’t until October 11th of 1895 that the depot was completed and the doors were open.  J. L. Downing, acting as trustee of Neosho Township, along with 46 other citizens of Downing Station filed their request for a depot on December 30th 1894.

From the records of the Katy Railroad Historical Society we find a description of the depot.  It was a one story frame building with office, waiting and freight rooms.  It had a 1,000 square foot platform and stock yard with two cattle pens.  One measured 36 by 33 feet and the other 26 by 48 feet.  It also had a scale, drilled well, and a passenger platform.

To date there are no known photographs of the Downing depot. However, this floor plan of the depot has been preserved. At some unknown date (possibly in the 1930s) this depot was moved into Council Grove and placed on the property of Bill Young at his Rainbow Gardens. It was believed to have served as one of the motels on the grounds. Whatever became of the structure after that is a complete mystery.

We also learn from the Commissioner’s Report that between 1883 and 1892 one firm shipped from 100-300 car loads of grain annually from the station.  There were also a good number of cattlemen in the area and it was stated that a great number of cars of livestock were shipped.  1893 to ’94 was a poor crop year and the shipments in and out of the station were only 42 car loads for a nine month period ending April 21st 1894.  The previous commission used this as an excuse to not build a depot at Downing.

After a study was complete, the current commission decided there was good reason to put up a depot.  They listed 26 buildings and 60-75 people living at the station proper.  Plus, the 500 or so people living in the area made it a promising location for a depot.

From the historic paper trail we have, it appears that Downing Station and Kelso were one and the same.  The Railroad recognized it as Downing Station, while at the same time the State recognized it as Kelso.  We can date the name of Kelso to the time the post office was established August 1st, 1881; the post closed June 30th, 1942.  The first plat we find of Kelso is dated the 11th of August, 1884.

Bridge over the Neosho River south of Kelso. (Courtesy of Morris County Historical Society.)

There are a couple stories I have come across as to how Kelso got its name.  I personally don’t believe either of them, but I’ve found a lot of things lately that I don’t believe.  Since I have no better explanation I give them for your own consideration.  It was passed down through the Downing family that William donated the land that the depot was built on, under one condition.  He did not like a Mr. Kelso and desired that the depot be named Downing rather than after Kelso.  The reason I don’t believe this is true is because I have only found one Kelso[e] that ever lived in Morris County, and he lived in the 20th century, long after Kelso was established.

The other story was found in the Morris County Historical Society archives, from ‘A Brief Sketch of the History of the Kelso United Methodist Church’.  “The conductor of the first passenger train that ran thru Kelso asked, ‘who owns that small building over there?’  Someone said, ‘Kahl’, the conductor said ‘Kahl, so?’  The town was called Kelso.”  W.D. Kahl was a landowner around Kelso and he was a charter member of the Council Grove Odd Fellows Lodge which started April 29th, 1869.  Since the railroad named and recognized the stop as Downing Station in 1870, I don’t think a conductor had any cause or authority to name the stop otherwise.

There are currently just a few farmhouses where Kelso once stood and Downing Cemetery, although public property, is surrounded by private land with no access road.  It’s funny, the commissioners were petitioned over 100 hundred years ago to put in a road to the cemetery and it is still pending.

Kelso United Methodist Church 1891-1960. (Courtesy of Carole Day.)

Addenda:  Ken McClintock found a warranty deed dated June 18th, 1892, conveying lots 3 &4 of Block 2, Kelso, to J.H. Kelso, of Kelso.  In turn, he deeded those lots to John B. Rader on September 13th, 1892.  Rader was a great-great uncle of Ken’s.  This could be the Kelso the town was named after.

During the presentation Ralph Peterson gave of the Katy and Kelso history, he stated that Ralph Scott and some other old timers that once lived there remember the side track.  Peterson wass doubtful that there ever was a side track because there is no evidence of it, the plats never show a side track, and it doesn’t appear there would be enough room for the main line, depot and a side track.  But the old timers remember the depot sat between the tracks, and it was the practice of the MKT to place sidetrack at each town it passed through, and the Railroad Commission Report stated that a sidetrack was put in.

James M. Moore was the first appointee to the Kelso post office.


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