I was recently given a whole bunch of papers on the history of Rainbow Lake and the nearby Chingawassa Springs. In those pages I found some fascinating history and info that I wanted to share!
Now, some of you might be wondering what Chingawassa Springs is. It’s a group of mineral springs located around four miles northeast of Marion, KS. The springs got their name from an Osage Indian Chief named Chingawassa, which means “Handsome Bird” who often camped by the springs with his tribe. Legend has it that Chief Chingawassa was an honest, friendly chief and was killed by a jealous Kaw chief and later buried near the springs by his avenging tribesmen.
Although this is just a legend and there is no proof that he was murdered by a Kaw and buried there, there is some written history of Chingawassa himself. In Kansas Historical Collections, Vol. XVI (1923-1925), there is a treaty that was signed in St. Louis on June 2 with the name “Chingawassa, Handsome Bird, Great Osage Chief” as one of the signatories. In the same volume of Historical Collections, another treaty signed at Council Grove Aug. 10, 1825 has the name “Shin-gawassa, Handsome Bird, Chief Great Osage.”
In the “History of the Kansa or Kaw Indians” by George Morehouse (also in the Kansas Historical Collection), there is a story of a cunning and tricky chief called Wah-ti-an-ga, who was under the influence of liquor, and decided to follow the Indian agent H.S. Huffaker around one afternoon. It states, “A friend by the name of Ching-gah-was-see (Handsome Bird) did a handsome thing by watching his chance and telling Mr. Huffaker that the drunken chief had made his boast that he would not leave town till he had taken the life of Tah-poo-skah, that being the Indian name for Mr. Huffaker, meaning teacher. Wah-ti-an-ga claimed that it would be a great deed to kill so important a personage. It was fortunate that Handsome Bird informed him, for it is never safe to trust an Indian crazed or foolish with liquor. Ching-gah-was-see was a good Indian and a noted brave, and had the honor of having a spring named for him. The spring is a few miles north of the city of Marion and is noted for its medicinal qualities.”
This is the story behind the name of the springs, now for what happened after this.
The springs were mentioned in Lt. Zebulon Montgomery Pike’s journal he kept of his 1806 – 1807 expedition, but not by the name Chingawassa. Authorities have confirmed that these are indeed the legendary springs, due to the location details. Although the springs were known for many years before 1888, it wasn’t until then that people became more interested in them.
In 1888, the Marion Chingawassa Belt Line was built by Levi Billings. The small railroad started at the Santa Fe Station (now the Public Library) in Marion and ended at Chingawassa Springs. At the springs, Mr. Billings created a large summer hotel and dance hall, which ran from around the first of May through October. Before the hotel, a large depot and “eating house” were erected. At first the visitors would camp in tents, but then the hotel came and change all of that. Walks and rustic bridges were also built for people’s enjoyment. A ticket from Marion to the springs was exactly a dime and the train would stop anywhere along the line to pick-up or drop-off passengers.
During the fall and winter, the train hauled stone out of stone quarries both east and west of Marion, and if a farmer wanted his grain hauled to market, the train would deliver the cars anywhere along the line to be filled. For the handling of each of the cars, the price was only $2.00.
On the opening day of the railroad, July 4, 1888, the train gave 2500 passengers round trip rides. The cash receipts for that day alone were $500.00 and it was a record never beaten.
Al Nienstedt reminisced in 1941 about that railroad. He said, “One time in the fall, as the hotel was about to close for the season, the railroad crew went after the hotel crowd at the springs to take them to a show in Marion and then after the show back again to Chingawassa. The engineer overlooked his water supply for steam and as he passed our place stopped to get enough water out of our well, carried to the engine with pails, to go back to Marion.
The engineer, Frank Wright, says to my sweetheart and future wife, “don’t you and Al want to ride with us to the show and back?” To which we both replied we would be happy to go if they would hold the train long enough to make a change of clothes to our glad rags. The reply was that for 50 cents he would wait for both of us to make the change and bring us safely back. I said “It’s a deal; here is your 50 cents.” I will venture to say that this is the only time in history that a boy and his sweetheart held a passenger train and crew with their consent long enough to make a change of clothes and be taken to a show and back home to their own front yard.”
In 1889, it was noted in the Marion Record that the water was strongly impregnated with Sulphur and other minerals, and possessed healing properties that were tested in successful treatment of rheumatism and kidney diseases. Many sources have said that the water was so clear you could read every line of a newspaper lying at the bottom of the deepest spring, quite easily.
Sadly, the outfit was a financial failure and in three or four years, torn up and forgotten. In 1893, the terse statement “The Chingawassa Railroad is no more” was recorded in the Marion Record. The cross ties were bought for fence posts, one of the coaches bought for a dentist office, and the other a lunch stand. The hotel was bought and the lumber used to build a barn and other things.
In the Marion City Library, there are on file, the 160 shares of stock in the railroad purchased by the city of Marion, a season ticket and a round trip ticket to Chingawassa Springs. This is all that remains of the Chingawassa Springs Resort and Railroad, but those springs still bubble up from the depths of the earth.
On a last note, it is said that if a person will stand, at sunset, above the stones that mark Chingawassa’s last resting place and call: “Chingawassa: Chingawassa: what were you murdered for?” He will answer (and if you listen closely, you will hear him) “Nothing at all. Nothing at all.”