In pecking about for a fresh topic to tickle the fingertips, it’s important to land one’s literary beak on a morsel of sufficient substance to fill a kilograph when such a task is needed. Today, as I wander once again into the murk of daily writing, I opt instead to snarf down the first pellet I chance upon, even if it should prove to be a salty pebble. With my first click of ‘Random Article’ I was directed swiftly to “Lerado, Kansas.” After nearly seven years of relative inactivity after the end of this project, I’m welcomed back by an entry with four sentences.
One sentence describes the town’s surrounding area as ‘Reno County’. Another tells us which school district would serve the local kiddos. A third sentence claims its post office – called ‘Netherland’ until 1884 – shut down in 1904. And the one snippet of potentially pen-worthy factoidery tells us that Lerado was intended to be named for Laredo, Texas, but someone screwed up and swapped the vowels. It’s a Typo-Town. Neat.
It’s also, as I’d learn after a bit of a deeper dive, a ghost town.
There is, as one site explains it, a single occupied home in the town’s mostly-unmarked perimeter, and it boasts foul-language-heavy signage, warning passers-by to keep on moving. This is most likely because said tourists are seldom ghost-town hunters, eager to check out the still-standing schoolhouse or lodge hall / opera house. They mostly swing by to check out the charred remains where once the Peters family home stood. In 1993, its inhabitants – mom, dad and two little kids – were murdered by a random local, the house then set ablaze. They caught the guy and he wound up sentenced to 51 years in prison, but folks love a crime scene don’t they?
I read enough about this gruesome murder to know I have no desire to focus my exploration of this four-sentence town on that one tragic and senseless night. This is not a true-crime site, and besides – they caught the guy. Like, right away. He was, thankfully, a terrible criminal who stood no chance of getting away with it. Fuck that dude. No, I’m more interested in the town itself. What did this place, now the home of one grumpy-ass resident, hope to be when that postal clerk half-assed his job and screwed up the town’s name?
Fortunately, our researching skills here in the 1000Words word-pit have improved over the last seven years. This is how I found myself checking out the Lerado Weekly Ledger from November 4, 1886. The first item that grabbed my attention was the “Local Hash” column, right dead-center down the middle of the front page. This is where local-interest, hard-hitting events are found. For example: “The Ledger is under obligations to Mr. J.O. Coleman for a very fine squash. Mr. C. informed us that he had blackberries during September.”
I admire a newspaper bold enough to report the past fruit experiences of the townsfolk it serves. We’ve lost that connection to local media. I have no idea what my neighbors might have grown or purchased six months ago, and dammit I have a right to that information.
But back to Lerado.
This same front page boasts a hearty prophecy: “THE FUTURE IS GREAT”. Yes, four – count ‘em, FOUR railroads are building toward Lerado. It will be the hub of the Midwest, or whatever Kansas was considered in 1886. The article admits that, sure, things have seemed bleak in Lerado over the last few years, but don’t worry! That’s all behind us! “Lerado is on the highway to prosperity!”
Except that it wasn’t. This little optimistic town, celebrating the grand opening of the Hammel House Hotel and the laying of the cornerstone of its opera house, never landed even one train. By 1888 the front page of their newspaper was mostly taken up by a chapter of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. There are no entries for that paper after January of that year. News items – again, detailing the mundane minutiae of residents’ lives – were now plopped at the back of The Saturday Bee out of Hutchinson. By the end of the 1920s, most mentions of the town were contained within obituaries.
There was a spike of interest in the area when oil was discovered in Lerado, but that tapered off in the mid-30s. So what the hell happened? Where were those four railroads? How did Lerado’s destiny go from opera-house-worthy to abandonment?
In the end, the death of the town came largely thanks to Dr. John A. Brady, a Louisville physician who scoped out where the railways were expanding then bet the bank on Lerado. The Missouri Pacific was reaching westward and the Rock Island line was heading southwest, and Lerado was right where they’d meet, creating a transportation hub that could only mean a future metropolis and competing frozen yogurt stands fighting it out in the shadows of skyscrapers and flying cars. The Rock Island folks approached Doc Brady and asked for some aid bonds from the town so that they could finance the railroad, and the Doc said no. Why would the town help? These two railroads were heading this way anyway, and the junction would be beneficial for everyone, right? Right?
Nope. The Rock Island execs paid for another survey, then swung their line toward Hutchinson instead. Local Hutchinsonians sweet-talked the Missouri Pacific folks to do the same, and that was that. Lerado, that plucky little typo-town with big dreams of prosperity and phallic squashes, was ten miles off the nearest railroad and its real estate market tanked. Doc Brady lost everything and sulked back to Louisville. By 1915, all that remained was the school house and a country store.
There’s undoubtedly a lesson cloaked beneath this little tale, something about blind hubris and one needing to nudge themselves toward a brighter destiny by helping others, but none of that made it into Wikipedia’s scant four sentences. The grizzly murder has mostly faded into a necessary oblivion and the descendants of the folks who had danced and toasted one another at the grand ball that opened that hotel in 1886 likely have no idea they share part of their lineage with Brady’s bogus blunder in a Typo-Town.
Today the population of Hutchinson is around 40,000, and it’s the county seat for Reno County. The population of Lerado is that one guy. Seriously, stay the hell off his lawn.