HAYS – In span of six months, Rome rose and fell.
Not that there were ever cathedrals or even a coliseum here. Folks just took down their tents and dismantled their buildings and the town collapsed just like the Roman Empire.
“If Hays didn’t hit a water well it would be a possibility that we’d all be Romans,” said Jaime Schlesinger, assistant curator at the Ellis County Historical Society.
It was more than water that a gave Hays an edge in this early day battle. No Romes lead to Rome these days. The city that once boasted up to 2,000 people by some reports is nothing more than a stone monument, which depicts the vicinity of where the town might have stood.
When in Rome ...
Prairie pioneers are often thought of as homesteaders. They also were town builders.
Every county had three to 10 towns flourishing as pioneers began homesteading the area, remarked Frank C. Montgomery in the Kansas City Journal. But, as Montgomery detailed in a 1912 Kansas State Historical Society publication, “when the collection of abandoned towns has been made complete it will be found that none has more of interest than the town of Rome, in Ellis County.”
With limited settlement in western Kansas, except for the forts along different trails, Rome was the pioneer town of the whole western half of the state, Montgomery wrote. In fact, it was the first town in the newly formed Ellis County.
“If we draw a line from Jewell County south to Harper County, we shall find that west of it is fully one-half of the territory of Kansas and in 1867 Rome was the only town in this vast region,” Montgomery wrote.
The railroad was complete to Ellsworth. With the anticipation of the construction heading westward, Rome was born in May of 1867.
It was the Lull brothers of Salina that first began to develop a town site, setting up the first tent along the bend of the river, Montgomery wrote. The Lulls had a store strategically placed where the railroad was suppose to be laid.
No one is for sure why they chose Rome, but it soon became the hot spot for plainsmen, Montgomery wrote.
It even attracted the infamous Buffalo Bill Cody, who constructed the first stone building, according to an article by W.A. Hill in 1916. Cody saw entrepreneurial promise in Rome. He, along with business partner William Rose, built a two-room stone drug store. Rose was postmaster. Cody was mayor and marshal.
By mid-June, “quite a town” had appeared, which, according to Montgomery, had around “2,000 souls” frequenting the area.
According to the book “Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History” from 1912, Bloomfield, Moses & Co. opened a general store, Joseph Perry opened the two-story Perry Hotel.
The Kansas Pacific reached Rome that summer, wrote Montgomery. Meanwhile, said Schlesinger officials in June were in the process of moving Fort Hays closer to the railroad to protect it.
It was a rough prairie town, Schlesinger said. There were drinking, prostitution and other illicit activities.
According to Montgomery, saloons along the business street included “the Dewdrop Inn,” “The Occidental,” and “The Last Chance.”
But Rome’s roar was short lived. said. Railroad agent W.E. Webb had asked Cody and Rose if he could join them in their investment of Rome.
Webb developed Hays a mile to the east. Meanwhile, when Rome officials went to incorporate their town, they wrote down the wrong section number and their register of incorporation was denied, said Schlesinger.
Cholera also hit Rome, giving her another blow, she said. Moreover, Fort Hays officials threw their support to Hays, due to Rome’s wild atmosphere and the influence it had on the fort’s soldiers.
Not that Hays was any better, Schlesinger said.
Webb insured that Hays got the depot, she said. Then, for flooding purposes the railroad raised its approaches to the Big Creek bridge at Rome, cutting the town off from the fort by a high embankment.
”That was the final nail in the coffin,” she said.
By October 1867, most everyone had packed up their belongings and left Rome for good, Schlesinger said. A few tried to hold on, but, by 1870, there was little left of Rome.
Today, some might drive by the marker near Fort Hays State University. A shooting rock that is said to be near Cody’s home at Rome is located at the museum. However, for the most part, Rome is just a tale in history book.
Next year, Hays officials will incorporate the story into its sesquicentennial.
“It’s not only Hays’ sesquicentennial – Ellis (County) was founded in 1867, too,” she said, adding a celebration is planned. “We’re still trying to nail it out.”