How a Rival Town Prospered Over Rome, Kansas

Townsite marker for Rome, Kansas, located in Hays.
Ellis County, Kansas from Cram’s Rail Road & Township Map of Kansas, copyright 1878. Rome was one mile west of Hays City, (now Hays), along the Kansas Pacific Railroad.

Less than 100 miles west of Salina, Kansas, lies what’s left of Rome, Kansas — a marker commemorating the town and its famous cofounder.

According to Legends of Kansas, Rome was founded in 1867 by William Rose, and his more famous partner Buffalo Bill Cody. Some sources also cite the Lull brothers of Salina for cofounding the town.

Buffalo Bill was the cofounder of Rome and a prominent figure in the state of Kansas during this time.

In the mid-1860s, Ellis County, Kansas, was recently established, and townsite venturors, such as William Rose and Buffalo Bill, were enthusiastic about the prospects of settling the land near Big Creek and Fort Hays.

An article by Legends of Kansas said that Cody “expected the city to be the metropolis of the county and they would make quite a profit from the sale of lots.”

Likewise, a man traveling from St. Louis, Missouri, Dr. William C. Webb also had plans to settle the land near Big Creek.

Upon arrival, Webb discovered the settlement of Rome and proposed to Rose and Cody a plan to cofound the town with him. Instead, Rose and Cody refused.

However, Webb was not deterred. Instead, Webb began to set up a rival town, known as Hays City. Immediately, Webb created the Big Creek Land Company and officially established the plot of land comprising the new settlement.

At first, Rome flourished with an excess of saloons and gambling halls. The town’s main residents consisted of the 1,200 railmen working on the Kansas Pacific Railroad near Rome. By July of 1867, Rome already had 2,000 residents.

Although Rome seemed to be more successful at first, Webb’s careful planning for Hays City started to pique the interest of nearby and farther away prospective settlers alike.

While Rome and Hays City had many of the same perks, such as the nearby fort and the easily accessible water source, the railroad access set the two towns apart. Webb had managed to work with railroad officials to establish Hays City as the town that would house the railroad depot.

Once the Hays City Depot was built, Rome residents began to migrate into Hays City. By 1868, most businesses had also migrated to Hays City to garner more customers.

Unfortunately for Rome, the final nail in the coffin was a town-wide cholera outbreak that scared remaining residents into leaving in 1968.

“In 1868 the cholera swooped down on Rome and gave her another impetus toward the goal of oblivion,” stated a 1912 entry from the Collections of the Kansas State Historical Society. “Little by little her population oozed away, and mostly into the new town of Hays, and by 1870 there was little left in Rome save the ruins.”

Now, Hays is home to over 20,000 residents and has grown exponentially.

What began as a simple refusal by Rose and Cody began a rivalry that turned Hays City, now Hays, to the city it is today. Perhaps if Webb was able to join in their venture, the city of Hays would have never existed.

Hear more about the rivalry between Rome and Hays in episode four of Ghosted in America: Frontier Days and Disease.

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