In 1865 Butterfield’s Overland Despatch was established by Dave Butterfield in the southern part of what later became Trego County. It was originally established to run freight on and then later carried passengers. The trail followed the Smoky Hill River from Fort Leavenworth to Denver and was the shortest route between the two but was not always the safest.
The stations in Trego County included Stormy Hollow, Bluffton, White Rock, and Downer. Downer Station was the only home station in Trego County. The BOD was used until 1878 when the railroads moved west. Today the trail is marked and you can still see some of the wagon ruts.
The site of the city of WaKeeney was selected in 1877 and surveyed and plotted in 1878 by Warren, Keeney & Co. of Chicago. Founded in 1879, the city’s name was formed by combining the last names of Albert Warren and James Keeney, owners of the Chicago land company. WaKeeney was originally planned as “The Queen City of the High Plains.” The two founders had grand ideas for their city, including the 80-foot wide brick streets.
Trego County was also organized in June 1879 with WaKeeney designated as the county seat. Trego County was named after Edgar Poe Trego, a Captain in the 8th Kansas division who was killed in the Battle of Chickamauga in Tennessee.
WaKeeney’s future was assured once the Kansas Pacific Railway came through the city. An ornate stone depot was completed in 1879. It was constructed of limestone found along the Saline River and Big Creek. On July 4, 1879, Warren, Keeney & Co. held a grand celebration to advertise their land sales. The Governor was present and made a speech from the platform at the new depot. This magnificent, stone railway depot was described as the best and most modern facility between Kansas City and Denver. It was later acquired by the Union Pacific Railroad and used until the 1930’s.
In 1879 and 1880 the WaKeeney Opera Block was formed by J. F. Keeney and the Opera House was erected in 1884. This large, attractive building was the center of WaKeeney’s activities, sponsoring many fine forms of entertainment. The impressive opera hall, with a seating capacity of 400, featured ornate murals on the ceiling and the walls and a large brass chandelier with Rochester electric lamps. It also housed a number of offices and business firms. A fire in 1895 destroyed this impressive building.
The cornerstone of the Trego County Courthouse was laid in 1888, and the building was completed in 1889. It was constructed from Trego County hard stone and finished with Manhattan stone because they could not find enough Trego County hard stone. The building was designed by George R. Ropes, an architect from Topeka, Kansas. It featured the American Queen Anne Style with an Elizabethan frontage. The highest cupola reached 100 feet in the air and the original tin roof was imported from Europe. In 1951-1952 the original roof was removed to make it a “modern-looking” building. The roof was also in disrepair and this was the method chosen to repair it. Since the main portion of the building remains the same, the Trego County Courthouse is one of the oldest still in operation in Kansas today. In June 1974 several scenes of “Paper Moon” were filmed in the Courthouse. The jail in the basement was also used until it was condemned in 1976. Presumedly, the Jail was pre-made elsewhere and shipped in. It’s unusual features included flat bars instead of round ones and a different locking system.
Today, WaKeeney is known as “The Christmas City of the High Plains.” An honor it has held since 1950. The holiday display is highlighted by a 35-foot tree and over 6,000 lights. The original idea was born in 1948 with two local businessmen and the first display was lit in 1950. The 35-foot tree is manmade of fresh greenery and is the centerpiece of the display. It is decorated with red and green lights and topped with four white stars. The tree rests under a canopy of heavenly blue lights in the middle of the main intersection. A four-square block area around the tree is draped with greenery, other Yule decorations, and lights. In all, there are over 6,000 lights in the holiday display. Plus all the buildings are outlined with perimeter lights. The greenery is trucked in fresh each year. Many man-hours go into preparing the display for the tree raising. City workers and utility workers, as well as many volunteers, donate many hours in preparing for this annual event. The Annual Christmas Tree Lighting is always held on the Saturday night following Thanksgiving and the display remains up through the holiday season until New Year’s. This holiday display has been billed as the “largest between Kansas City and Denver.”