Tourism is a major industry of Colorado. People come from all over to ski at the Rocky Mountain resorts and enjoy Denver. Sometimes, people even stop in at Colorado Springs or Golden or the geographical oddity of Four Corners. However, this severely neglects one major region of Colorado – the eastern plains. Admittedly, the eastern plains lack the grandeur of the mountains and the urban setting of Denver, but those looking for a relaxing day or weekend trip, and unafraid of somewhat long and desolate drives, should venture to them. With that in mind, this column proposes a single day itinerary in north-eastern Colorado.
If travelers plan to begin and end the day in Golden, they should wake up relatively early, eat breakfast, and get on the road. The first stop on the itinerary is about two hours from Golden in Sterling, Colorado at the Overland Trails Museum. The museum offers an assortment of local history, starting with its own existence. Named for a stagecoach route which formerly passed through Sterling, it was built in 1936 by New Deal programs to be a local history museum and has been steadily added to since then. Now, the complex boasts the original museum building, its several additions, a complex of historic buildings, and a bonus museum on energy in Eastern Colorado. Those curious about the history of the museum itself can speak with the very knowledgeable staff upon admission.
Within the main building, there are fairly standard rural museum collections, including arrowheads, historic clothing, handiwork, and electronics. History museum novices are encouraged to take their time exploring these collections. Those with more experience ought to focus their attention on the rural electrification exhibit, showcasing the contributions of the Rural Electrification Act and electricity co-ops to life in Sterling in the mid-1900s.
One thing not to be missed is the collection of detailed outbuildings. The print shop is especially interesting, displaying printing presses, typewriters, and articles from old newspapers. In addition to relatively standard historic buildings including the blacksmith shop, the one-room school, the general store, the church, and the house, the Overland Trail Museum boasts a caboose and a model gas station. Throughout the mock-village, the attention to staging detail is impeccable and even experienced history travelers can lose themselves in examining the artifacts. Also in the village is a building of displays on the history of agriculture and oil Sterling.
After visiting the Overland Trail Museum, travelers should head into downtown Sterling to pick up lunch and gas and perhaps to walk around the town for a bit before getting back on the road. The next stop is a decent drive away through not much civilization, so travelers would do well to deal with any needs before leaving Sterling.
When finished in Sterling, travelers should get in their cars and drive to Beecher’s Island, Colorado to see the Beecher’s Island memorial. Beecher’s Island, in what can only be described as the middle of nowhere, was the sight of a battle between a group of fifty U.S. cavalry scouts and a group of at least 200 Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Sioux under the command of Cheyenne war leader Roman Nose in September, 1868. The Native Americans planned a surprise attack, but the scouts were tipped off and were able to entrench themselves in a sandbar in the Arickaree River. The scouts were able to hold off their attackers by virtue of their repeating rifles and their make-shift entrenchments – the bodies of their horses. On the morning of the second day, two scouts set out for Fort Wallace, some seventy miles distant, for reinforcements. They were forced to crawl three miles to sneak out and walked the rest of the way over the course of four days. When reinforcements finally arrived, the scouts on Beecher’s Island had been trapped for about a week and were subsisting on rotting horse meat. The battle is primarily notable for the death of Cheyenne leader Roman Nose late on the first day. General George Armstrong Custer once described it as one of the plains’ greatest battles.
Today, there is a stone monument and interpretive sign commemorating the event. Although water levels in the Arickaree are lower today than in 1868, the island itself is still visible. The marker was originally on the banks of the river, but was moved further away after it was swept off its base during a major flood in the mid-1930s.
After visiting Beecher’s Island, travelers can either head back to Golden (an approximately three and a half hour drive) or spend the night in an Eastern plains town such as Burlington. The total mileage, assuming a return to Golden, is about 430 miles and the trip is an excellent way to see the neglected side of Colorado.
If you go:
Overland Trail Museum
21053 County Road 26 1/2
Sterling, CO 80751
Tuesday – Saturday: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
Beecher’s Island Memorial
Closest actual address: Beecher’s Island Sunday School
20563 County Road Kk
Wray, CO 80758
GPS coordinates: LAT 39°52’19″N LONG 102°11’08″W
There are signs – follow them
Local Travel – Overland Trail 1 – The Overland Trail Museum’s outdoor village features a house from the early twentieth century.
Local Travel – Overland Trail 2 – The Overland Trail Museum’s outdoor village features an old-style gas station.
Local Travel – Beecher’s Island – These file titles are pretty self-explanatory.