Podcast Episodes

The Great Prarie Highway

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue.

Listen below, or on any podcast app:


I’m standing on the Powder Mill Pedestrian Bridge, which spans Interstate 435 in southern Kansas City, Missouri. I’m looking south at the confluence of I-435, I-49, I-435, I-470, U.S. 50, and U.S. 71. Over 250,000 cars a day pass through here, making —which is known to the locals as Grandview Triangle—one of the busiest interchanges in the country. In fact, this has been one of the most traveled stretches of road since before there was a road.

The Grandview Triangle officially goes by another name — the 3-Trails Crossing Memorial Highway. Two hundred years ago, about 15 miles north of this spot, wagon trains set out on their journies along one of three routes towards the largely unknown West.

For about 50 miles, the trails were one before they diverged. This bridge I’m standing on is, in fact, part of the 46-mile 3-trail corridor, as it’s now known. It was erected specifically to allow people to walk or bike the 46-mile journey before the trails separate, through the concrete jungle of Kansas City, passing many historic sites, until it reaches beyond the edges of town, where green grass fields still show the wagon ruts from 19th-century pioneers looking for a better life.

The upper route headed towards Oregon and the middle route to California. The Oregon and California trails were the pathways to the Pacific for fur traders, gold seekers, missionaries, and emigrants. For almost 30 years, beginning in 1841, more than 300,000 emigrants followed this route from the Midwest to fertile Oregon farmlands or California gold fields—trips that took five months to complete.

But the lower route was another matter altogether. It was an international road for American and Mexican traders, until 1848 when the Mexican-American War ended, and New Mexico joined the United States. It became a national road for commercial and military freighting, stagecoach travel, emigration, and mail service.

History of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail:

On June 10, 1821, a 31-year old saltmaker named William Becknell published a notice in the Missouri Intelligencer newspaper soliciting participants for a trip “to the westward for the purpose of trading for Horses & Mules, and catching Wild Animals of every description, that we may think advantageous.” Becknell was bankrupt and facing jail for debts, as Missouri fell under the grip of a devastating depression.

Becknell left Franklin, Missouri, for Santa Fe in September of 1821 with five other men, the first to journey on this particular route to the almost mythical city of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Spain jealously protected the borders of its New Mexico colony, prohibiting manufacturing and international trade. Those that journeyed to Mexico before Becknell had been arrested by Spanish soldiers and hauled south toward Mexico City to serve lengthy prison sentences. Those that made it back told of a land starved for manufactured goods and supplies. Becknell was pleasantly surprised to find upon his arrival that Mexico had overthrown the Spanish, and the new Mexican government – unlike their predecessors – welcomed outside trade.

Not surprisingly, others got into the trade soon after Becknell returned, and by 1825 goods from Missouri were not only being traded in Santa Fe but to other points farther south as well. Some traders used the so-called Mountain Route, which offered more dependable water but required an arduous trip over Raton Pass. Most, however, used the Cimarron Route, which was shorter and faster but required knowledge of where the route’s scarce water supplies were located.

From 1821 until 1846, the Santa Fe Trail was a two-way international commercial highway used by both Mexican and American traders.

Suspicion and tension between the United States and Mexico accelerated in the 1840s. With the American desire for territorial expansion, Texans raided into New Mexico, and the United States annexed Texas. The Mexican-American War erupted in 1846. General Stephen Watts Kearny led his Army of the West down the Santa Fe Trail to take and hold New Mexico and upper California and to protect American traders on the trail. He marched unchallenged into Santa Fe.

After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war in 1848, the Santa Fe Trail became a national road connecting the more settled parts of the United States to the new southwest territories.

Commercial freighting along the trail boomed to unheard-of levels, including considerable military freight hauling to supply the southwestern forts. The trail was also used by stagecoach lines, adventurers, missionaries, wealthy New Mexican families, and emigrants. The Santa Fe Trade developed into a complex web of international business, social ties, tariffs, and laws, passing goods from as far as New York, London, and Paris.

Movies and books often romanticize Santa Fe Trail treks as sagas of constant peril, with violent prairie storms, fights with Indians, and thundering buffalo herds. In fact, a glimpse of bison, elk, antelope, or prairie dogs was sometimes the only break in the tedium of 8-week journeys. Trail travelers mostly experienced dust, mud, gnats and mosquitoes, and heat. But occasional swollen streams, wildfires, hailstorms, strong winds, or blizzards could imperil wagon trains.

At dawn, trail hands scrambled in noise and confusion to round up, sort, and hitch up the animals. The wagons headed out, the air ringing with whoops and cries of “All’s set!” and soon, “Catch up! Catch up!” and “Stretch out!”

Stopping at mid-morning, crews unhitched and grazed the teams, hauled water, gathered wood or buffalo chips for fuel, and cooked and ate the day’s main meal from a monotonous daily ration of 1 pound of flour, 1 pound of bacon, 1 ounce of coffee, 2 ounces of sugar, and a pinch of salt. Beans, dried apples, or bison and other game were occasional treats. Crews then repaired their wagons, yokes, and harnesses, greased wagon wheels, doctored animals, and hunted.

They moved on soon after noon, fording streams before the night’s stop because overnight storms could turn trickling creeks into raging floodwaters. At day’s end, crews took care of the animals, made necessary repairs, chose night guards, and enjoyed a few hours of well-earned leisure and sleep.

Westward from Missouri, forests gave way to Kansas prairie. Long days traveling through seemingly endless expanses of tall and short grass prairie, with a few narrow ribbons of trees along waterways, evoked vivid descriptions. “In spring, the vast plain heaves and rolls around like a green ocean,” wrote one early traveler. Another marveled at a mirage in which “horses and the riders upon them presented a remarkable picture, apparently extending into the air. . .45 to 60 feet high. . . At the same time, I could see beautiful clear lakes of water with. . .bulrushes and other vegetation. . .” Other travelers dreamed of cures for sickness from the “purity of the plains.” As the route was mainly commercial, once most wagon trains made it to Santa Fe, they turned around and headed right back.

As void of human presence the prairie landscape might have appeared, the lands the trail passed through were the long-held homelands of many American Indian people. Most early encounters were peaceful negotiations centering on access to tribal lands and trade in horses, mules, and other items that Indians, Mexicans, and Americans coveted. As trail traffic increased, so did confrontations, as the travelers disrupted more and more traditional ways of American Indian life. Mexican and American troops began providing escorts for wagon trains.

In 1862, the Civil War arrived in the West. The Confederate plan for the West was to raise a force in Texas, march up the Rio Grande, take Santa Fe, turn northeast on the Santa Fe Trail, capture the stores at Fort Union, head up to Colorado to capture the goldfields, and then turn west to take California. They pushed up the Rio Grande Valley into New Mexico. Albuquerque and Santa Fe fell. But the tide turned at Glorieta Pass, on the Santa Fe Trail. In the most decisive western battle of the Civil War, Union forces secured victory when they torched the nearby Confederate supply train. The Confederates abandoned any hope of reaching Fort Union – and with it, their foothold in New Mexico. The Union Army held the Southwest and its vital Santa Fe Trail supply line.

The close of the Civil War in 1865 released America’s industrial energies. The railroad pushed westward, gradually shortening and then replacing the Santa Fe Trail. Within two years, rails had been laid across central Kansas, and by 1873, two different rail lines reached from eastern Kansas into Colorado. As lands were parceled out for railroads and the bison were hunted nearly to extinction, Native people were pushed aside or assigned to reservations.

Because the Santa Fe Trail hauled primarily commercial goods, the railroad expansion meant that the trading caravans needed to traverse increasingly shorter distances. During the early 1870s, three different railroads vied to build rails over Raton Pass in order to serve the New Mexico market. The winner of that competition, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, reached the top of Raton Pass in late 1878. In February 1880, the railroad reached Santa Fe, and the trail faded into history.

The Santa Fe National Historic Trail:

For nearly 60 years, goods were exchanged on the Santa Fe trail, as well as knowledge and culture. It’s no accident that there are towns in Missouri named Mexico and Santa Fe.

The Santa Fe National Historic Trail spans 900 miles of the Great Plains and traverses five states. The route was commemorated in 1987 by the National Park Service as the Santa Fe National Historic Trail. A highway route that roughly follows the trail’s path through the entire length of Kansas, the southeast corner of Colorado and northern New Mexico has been designated as the Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway. Museums, interpretive centers, and historic sites pepper the journey today – places like Fort Dodge, Fort Union, and the Cimmaron National Grassland.

The National Trails website on NPS.gov does a fantastic job of showing the hundreds of sites along the route, and you can find a wealth of information at SantaFeTrail.org, the website of the non-profit Santa Fe Trail Association. For more information about the 3 Trails Corridor, visit 3trailscorridor.com.

If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our America’s National Parks Facebook group.

Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.

Pick up your own “From Sea to Shining Sea” gear in the America’s National Parks Teespring store.

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For more great American destinations, give us a listen at our new See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one.
If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

Podcast Episodes

Toward a Dark and Indefinite Shore

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted and written by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue.

Listen below, or on any podcast app:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

That’s the conclusion of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. It’s not Lincoln’s most famous speech, but it’s close, and those last words are as fine as anything he ever wrote or spoke. A month later, the war was over after the surrender at Appomattox.

Lincoln waited two days to speak. He opened, “we meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart.”

“Gladness of heart” was something quite different from happiness. Lincoln was looking ahead to the reconstruction of the nation, but it would take place without him.

His would-be assassin, a notable stage actor, was at both speeches, biding his time until the moment arrived on his home turf.

Ford’s Theatre was first constructed in 1833 as the First Baptist Church. In 1859, the structure was abandoned as a place of worship. John T. Ford, a theatre entrepreneur from Baltimore, leased the building in 1861. A church board member predicted a dire fate would fall anyone who turned the former house of worship into a theatre. In 1862, Ford renovated the theatre and performances began, setting in motion events to follow that would shake America to its core.


John Wilkes Booth was born in Maryland into a family of prominent stage actors, including his older brother Edwin, the greatest actor of his time. John became a famous actor too and national celebrity in his own right, in fact, Abraham Lincoln, was a big fan. He had seen him previously in a play at Ford’s Theater and had repeatedly invited him, without success, to visit the White House.

Booth was no fan of Lincoln, however, a fact which had eluded the President. During the civil war, he was an outspoken Confederate sympathizer.

In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant, then commander of the Union armies, suspended the exchange of prisoners of war with the Confederate Army to increase pressure on the South, who were strapped for men.

Booth decided to get involved. He concocted a plan to kidnap Lincoln, with the goal of holding him hostage until prisoner exchanges resumed. He recruited five men to help — Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, and John Surratt. On March 17, the conspirators planned to abduct Lincoln as he returned from a play at Campbell Military Hospital, but the President changed his plans at the last minute and instead attended a ceremony at the National Hotel. In a strange twist of fate, Booth was living at the National Hotel at the time. Had he not gone to the hospital for the failed kidnap attempt, he might have been successful.

As the war drew toward a conclusion, Booth continued to believe in the Confederate cause and sought a way to salvage it. Meanwhile, he attended Lincoln’s speech at the White House in which he promoted voting rights for blacks. Booth said that it would be the last speech Lincoln would ever give. It wasn’t. In fact, Booth also attended Lincoln’s second inaugural in the closing days of the war.

Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln told of a dream he had. One in which he entered the white house to see mourners and a military guard. He asked someone who had died. “The President,” came the response.

On the morning of April 14, 1865, Lincoln told people how happy he felt. He told his cabinet that he had dreamed of being on a “singular and indescribable vessel that was moving with great rapidity toward a dark and indefinite shore.” A dream, according to Lincoln, he’d before “nearly every great and important event of the War.”

While visiting Ford’s Theatre in daylight to pick up some mail, Booth learned that Lincoln and Grant were to see the play “Our American Cousin” that night. No stranger to the staff and layout of the theater, Booth knew the perfect opportunity to attack Lincoln had presented itself.

The conspirators met at 7 p.m. Booth assigned Lewis Powell to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward at his home, with David E. Herold as a guide. Meanwhile, George Atzerodt would kill Vice President Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood Hotel.

Booth planned to shoot Lincoln at point-blank range with his single-shot Deringer, after which he’d stab Grant. The conspirators would simultaneously strike shortly after ten o’clock.

Despite what Booth had heard, General Grant and his wife, Julia had declined the invitation. Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris would accompany the Lincolns. Mary Lincoln had developed a headache and intended to stay home, but Lincoln told her he must attend because newspapers had announced that he would.

The president arrived late to the play, which was haldted for the orchestra to play “Hail to the Chief” for the 1,700 standing spectators. Lincoln sat in a rocking chair that had been selected for him from among the Ford family’s personal furnishings.

Policeman John Frederick Parker was assigned to guard the President’s box. At intermission, he went to a nearby tavern along with Lincoln’s footman and coachman and was not at his post. Navy Surgeon George Brainerd Todd saw Booth arrive, saying: About 10:25 pm, a man came in walking slowly and I heard a man say, “There’s Booth” and I turned my head to look at him. He was still walking very slow and was near the box door when he stopped, took a card from his pocket, wrote something on it, and gave it to the usher who took it to the box. In a minute the door was opened and he walked in.”

Once through the door, Booth barricaded it by wedging it with a brace he had prepared. A second door led to Lincoln’s box.

Booth knew the play by heart and waited to time his shot with one of the best lines of the play, one which was sure to get a loud laugh. He opened the door, stepped forward, and shot from behind with a derringer while Lincoln was laughing.

Lincoln slumped over in his chair and then fell backward. Rathbone turned to see Booth standing in gunsmoke and jumped from his seat wrestling the pistol away. Booth drew a knife and stabbed him in the left forearm. Booth jumped 12 feet from the box to the stage. His riding spur became caught on the flag decorating the box, causing him to land awkwardly on his left foot. He began to cross the stage, and many in the audience thought it was part of the play.

Booth held his bloody knife over his head, and yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannus!,” a phrase Marcus Brutus utters after killing Julius Ceasar. It means “thus always to tyrants.” He followed it in English with “The South is avenged!”

Booth ran across the stage and exited through a side door, stabbing the orchestra leader on the way. He escaped on a horse he had waiting in the alleyway.

Army surgeon Charles Leale was in attendance that night, and after the commotion, he drove through the crowd to Lincoln’s box but couldn’t open the door. Rathbone noticed and removed the wooden brace Booth used to jam it shut.

Leale found Lincoln with his head in Mary’s arms. “His eyes were closed and he was in a profoundly comatose condition, while his breathing was intermittent and exceedingly stertorous,” “he said. Thinking Lincoln had been stabbed, Leale shifted him to the floor. Meanwhile, another physician, Charles Sabin Taft, was lifted from the stage into the box.

After Taft and Leale opened Lincoln’s shirt and found no stab wound, they found the gunshot wound. The bullet was too deep to be removed, but they were able to dislodge a clot, after which Lincoln’s breathing improved. They decided that Lincoln must be moved, but a carriage ride to the White House was too dangerous. They took the President to one of the houses across the road, that of tailor William Petersen. It rained as soldiers carried Lincoln into the street. In Petersen’s first-floor bedroom, the exceptionally tall Lincoln was laid diagonally on the bed.

More physicians arrived, all agreeing that the wound was mortal. Throughout the night, as the hemorrhage continued, they removed blood clots to relieve pressure on the brain. Eldest son Robert Todd Lincoln arrived sometime after midnight but twelve-year-old Tad Lincoln was kept away.

Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15. According to Lincoln’s secretary John Hay, at the moment of Lincoln’s death, “a look of unspeakable peace came upon his worn features.”

Ten days prior, Secretary of State William H. Seward had been thrown from his carriage, suffering a concussion, a broken jaw, and a broken arm. On the night of the assassination, he was confined to bed at his home in Lafayette Park. As Booth was making his way to the Ford Theatre, David Herold was guiding Lewis Powell to Seward’s house. One of Seward’s servants answered the door and Powell told him he had medicine from Seward’s physician, and that his instructions were to personally show him how to take it. Powell was admitted and made his way up the stairs. At the top of the staircase he was stopped by Seward’s son, Assistant Secretary of State Frederick W. Seward, who, suspicious, said his father was asleep. Daughter Fanny emerged from a room and said, “Fred, Father is awake now” – revealing to Powell where Sewards location. Powell turned as if to start downstairs but suddenly drew his revolver. He aimed at Frederick’s forehead and pulled the trigger, but the gun misfired. He knocked Frederick unconscious with it, instead.

Powell then went in the room and stabbed at Seward’s face and neck, but the splint doctors had fitted to his broken jaw prevented the blade from penetrating deeply, saving his life. Seward’s son Augustus and Sergeant George F. Robinson, a soldier assigned to the home, were alerted by Fanny’s screams and rushed into the bedroom. Both received stab wounds struggling with Powell. As Augustus went for a pistol, Powell ran toward the door, where he encountered a State Department messenger and stabbed him in the back. He then ran down the stairs and out the door. Once outside, he exclaimed, “I’m mad! I’m mad!”. Whether that was a code to alert Herold, or an attempt to frighten pedestrians outside remains unclear, regardless, by the time Powell made his way out of the house, Herold had already ran off, leaving him to find his own way in an unfamiliar city.

George Atzerodt, meanwhile, had rented a room directly above Vice President Andrew Johnson, who was staying at the Kirkwood House in Washington. Carrying a gun and knife, he went to the bar downstairs, where he tried to get his courage up. He eventually became drunk and wandered off through the streets.

Within half an hour of the shooting, Booth crossed the Navy Yard Bridge into Maryland where an army sentry questioned him about his late-night travel. Although it was forbidden for civilians to cross the bridge after 9 pm, the sentry let him through. David Herold went across the same bridge less than an hour later. After retrieving weapons and supplies they had stored away, Herold and Booth went to the home of Samuel A. Mudd, a local doctor, who splinted the leg Booth had broken jumping from the presidential box.

After a day at Mudd’s house, Booth and Herold hired a local man to guide them to Samuel Cox’s house. Cox took them to Thomas Jones, who hid them in a swamp for five days until they could cross the Potomac River. On the afternoon of April 24th, they arrived at a tobacco farm in King George County, Virginia. Booth told the owner he was a wounded Confederate soldier.

The hunt for the conspirators quickly became the largest in U.S. history, involving thousands of federal troops, who tracked them to the farm.

Booth and Herold were sleeping on April 26th when soldiers surrounded the barn, then threatened to set fire to it. Herold surrendered, but Booth cried out, “I will not be taken alive!” The soldiers set fire to the barn sending Booth scrambling for the back door with a rifle and pistol.

Sergeant Boston Corbett crept up behind the barn and shot Booth in the back of the head, almost exactly where he shot Lincoln. He died on the porch of the farm two hours later.

The remaining conspirators were arrested by month’s end – except for John Surratt, who fled to Quebec then Europe until a friend from his school days recognized him in there in early 1866 and alerted the U.S. government. He was finally captured in Egypt in November 1866.

Mourners lined up seven abreast for a mile to view Lincoln in his walnut casket in the black-draped East Room of the White House. Special trains brought thousands from other cities, some of whom slept on the Capitol’s lawn. Hundreds of thousands watched the funeral procession, and millions more lined the 1,700-mile route of the train that took Lincoln’s remains to Springfield, Illinois.


Following the assassination, the government appropriated the theater, with Congress paying Ford $88,000 in compensation. An order was issued forever prohibiting its use as a place of public amusement. Between 1866 and 1887, the theater was taken over by the U.S. military and served as a facility for the War Department with records kept on the first floor, the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office on the second floor, and the Army Medical Museum on the third. In 1887, the building exclusively became a clerk’s office for the War Department, when the medical departments moved out.

On June 9, 1893, the front part of the building collapsed, killing 22 clerks and injuring another 68. This led some to believe the facility was cursed. The building was repaired and used as a government warehouse until 1911.

A Lincoln museum opened on the first floor of the theater building in 1932, and in the following year, it was transferred to the new National Park Service.

In 1964, Congress approved funds for the building’s complete restoration, which began that year and was completed in 1968. Ford’s theater became a venue for live entertainment again. Vice President Hubert Humphrey dedicated the restored theater at a gala performance.

The theater was again renovated during the 2000s. The re-opening ceremony was on February 11, 2009, to commemorate Lincoln’s 200th birthday. The event featured President Barack Obama, Katie Couric, Kelsey Grammer, James Earl Jones, Ben Vereen, the President’s Own Marine Band, Broadway star Audra McDonald and more.

The Ford’s Theatre Museum beneath the theater contains Lincoln artifacts, including some related to the assassination, like the Derringer pistol used to carry out the shooting, Booth’s diary, the original door to Lincoln’s theater box, and the blood-stained pillow from the President’s deathbed.

Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site is open every day except for Thanksgiving Day and December 25. Tickets are free and required for entry. The theatre is an active performing arts venue, and there are times when it is closed for matinees, rehearsals and special events. In most cases, the museum and Petersen House, where Lincoln died, will remain open even if the theater is closed for performances.

A performance is another opportunity to see the historic theater. Regular runs of exceptional quality plays and musicals can be attended by anyone willing to purchase a ticket. The presidential box is never occupied.



Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.

Pick up your own “From Sea to Shining Sea” gear in the America’s National Parks Teespring store.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 69434150_735914166836084_179055030496657408_n.jpg

For more great American destinations, give us a listen at our new See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one.
If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and me as we travel the country with our three boys at Our Wandering FamilyParagraph

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

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