Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Legend of Burnett's Mound

How many times have you seen some Hollywood teen type movie with cars parked at the top of a hill overlooking a glorious valley below. Teenagers would park their cars at the top of the hill and "make out" with their girlfriends or boyfriends. There might be any number of cars parked there with steamed up windows on colder evenings. If Stull Kansas is possibly one of the Seven Gateways to Hell, then perhaps Burnett's Mound, lying at the southwest corner of Topeka, Kansas is quite possibly the Stairway to Heaven. I suspect that a larger than normal number of virginities were lost, or given away, near the top of this mound overlooking the skyline of Topeka. The 250 ft mound is named after Abram Burnett a Potawatomie indian chief who had quite a colorful and "larger than life" reputation, both as a tough negotiator for the native Americans he represented and as an accomplished drinker of intoxicating beverages. It is said that he could drink anybody under the table, and at a reputed weight of 450 lbs he would have enjoyed some advantage in being able to consume mass quantities of alcohol.

Here is a link to more info about the chief

And here is another picture.

As a child I spent much time on this hill. We rode our bicycles up there, explored the area and even attempted to ride our bicycles on some of the motorcycle trails that existed near the hill at the time.

The city of Topeka had placed a huge water tank on the northeast side of the hill, that tank essentially serving as a water tower and providing much of the southern and western parts of the city with drinking water. From the top, the yellow structure is the water tank.

The scene from the top of the hill can be quite a spectacular view of the city skyline a few miles away. There is a good view of the State Capitol Building and the downtown area.

We used to hunt for fossils up there. The area where the water tank was placed was partially cut into the hill and provided a great opportunity to explore the layers of ground that made up the hill itself. We spent many enjoyable hours on that hill as kids doing what kids do.

As we got older, the nature of our activities on the hill changed as well. For instance, when we were in high school, we felt that it was important for our girlfriends to experience the sublime nature of the scenic views from the top of the hill. It would have been selfish to keep these experiences to ourselves and not share them with our friends.

On my recent trip to Topeka, one of my picture taking expeditions was to go back to Burnett's Mound and see if things had changed. It had been a long time since I had been up there.

I arrived at about 9:00 am and found the gate closed.

I had other riding plans for the day and decided to do some other errands and come back later in the morning, which I did.
And of course the gate was still closed at 11:30 am.
I surveyed the situation. It was sure as hell light out. Why wasn't the gate open?
Gate closed.
Multiple locks on the gate.
I looked closer at the locks on the gate. I noticed the sequence of locks on the gate. A number of combination locks and then finally a keyed lock.
I envisioned some sort of city or park official in my mind saying this:
"Damn Earl! I don't know the combination! What do we do?"
Earl's response would be: Well, Fred, I suppose we could just put another lock on it. I have another one over here in the truck!"
Two months later, same conversation. I suppose nobody ever thought about cutting off the old lock. Then after a few times of this we have what we see today.
Impressive, huh?
Anyway, I didn't travel 200 miles to be denied by an assortment of locks like this. So I briefly checked the ground clearance on the scooter, jumped the curb and went up the hill anyway. I sure had the place all to myself.
Anybody have a clue as to why that rock seems to be wet?
Along the way up I reach another more serious looking gate. This will be the end of the road today, and looks like it has been the end of the road for some time.
You used to be able to travel a bit further using this road that now looks overgrown and unusable.
The unfortunate thing is that the closed road led up to this parking area.
This parking lot is site of the gateway to heaven for so many teenagers that have been, and may still be, quite literally at the mercy of their own hormones.
I may be exaggerating. Then again maybe not.
If you proceed to the top of the mound, you take these steps.
The very top of the mound looks pretty overgrown.
And here is a nice view to the northwest.
Now there is a whole lot more to the legend of Burnett's Mound.
You see, the mound is supposedly a Native American burial ground.
There are many legends about this. Another legend says that Topeka should be safe from tornados because of the burial ground.
Another story says that If a tornado were to approach Topeka from this direction, that the topography of the hill would push the storm right back up into the clouds.
We moved to Topeka in 1966. I remember the realtor telling my father that our new home should be safe from tornados because we were just about a mile northeast of the hill, well protected by the legend. Tornados generally travel form the southwest to the northeast and where our home was, we should be very safe.
Buy that?
Yeah right!
One week after we moved there, you guessed it, an F5 tornado (the worst kind)struck the city. June 8, 1966, one of those days indelibly etched in my mind. I was 9 years old. Scared the crap out of me! Our home was pretty severely damaged, but nobody in our family was hurt. Just 200 yards from us though, houses were literally reduced to rubble.
How did the mound do in protecting the city?
. Ever hear about people saying that a tornado sounds like a freight train? Well it is very true, except a whole lot louder. At least it seemed that way to 9 year old ears.
Here's the path of the storm.
Damn storm went right by the mound and proceeded to tear a path clear through the city. The path just missed directly hitting the capitol building, but still managed to tear up part of the dome.
You hear crazy things about what can happen in a tornado.
Not too far from our house there was a car blown up onto the second story of an apartment complex that had severe damage. .
Not too far from the mound there was a house that was lifted off the foundation, sort of like in the Wizard of Oz, a car was blown into the basement, and the house came back down very close to its original position on the foundation.
Would I kid you?
The national guard came out and protected the area from looters. We had to get passes to get in and out of the area where our home was and we ate Red Cross sandwiches for a few days as well.
. This lady was having a great time.
In digging up some pictures for this post I found this next one that I don't remember ever seeing before. It is an aerial view looking toward the southwest. Burnett's Mound is at the top left of the picture. See the water tank?
Note the debris path at the lower right side of the picture. If you go straight up and look at the corner at the intersection, you can see the house where I lived, the one right on the corner.
The side of our house that faced the storm was literally untouched. Because of the circular winds, however, the back side of our house, facing away from the tornado was beat up pretty badly.
. My wife once told me that the reason she married me was because I had already lived through a tornado, and the chances of us together having to face one again were pretty small.
Believe that?
. Some people might be afraid to live in Kansas because of the threat of tornados. But I suppose there are the possibilities of natural disasters wherever you live. Floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, blizzards and other potential disasters are possible anywhere on the planet. Even the threat of pink crocs worries me. . The storm did an estimated $100 million in damage. In 1966 dollars, adjusted to today's pale dollars, it still ranks as one of the worst storms in the history of history.
. There were 16 deaths attributed to the storm. Remarkably, the death toll probably would have been worse If the storm had hit later in the night.
. For many years after that you could still go up to the mound and see the path of the storm because of the very clear path of damaged trees through the city.
. But nature is powerful and the trees eventually repaired themselves. Today there is very little evidence of the storm over 40 years before. The forces of nature are very powerful, both in a destructive and a healing way.
The state motto for Kansas is sort of a wierd phrase:
. Ad Astra Per Aspera
. It means "To the Stars Through Difficulty"
. Years later they placed a statue at the top of the state Capitol building, supposedly a symbol of that phrase.
. Life can present many different kinds of challenges.
. It probably doesn't hurt to Aim for the Stars!


  1. Jim, thanks for a well-written post, and for your first-person history of the 1966 Tornado. One of the things that strikes me about tornadoes is that they are selective - one street gets demolished, while the next is left untouched.

    About the wet rock - maybe large dog???

  2. Dear CPA3485 (Jimbo):

    Stiffie has family in Nebraska, and none of them has ever seen a tornado! They all laugh when I get freaked out about vicious thunderstorms out there. I blew up the shot of your house, and there is a kid in the window with eyes as big as hupcaps.

    There is nothing worse than returning to the scene of so much youthful social exploration, only to discover its closed, rundown, and apparently forgotten.

    But Jimbo, I am damn proud of you for jumping the fences. Way to go!

    Fondest regards,
    Jack • reep • Toad
    Twisted Roads

  3. My, my quite the rebel accountant, slipping past gates in the style of Quantrill.

  4. Lance,
    This was a particularly bad storm and at age 9 it certainly made quite the impression on me. Haven't even been close to one since. This was also pretty big. There are a lot of amaller tornadoes that look more like a rope and do not do the same amount of damage.

    Re: the wet rock. Somebody must have marked their terriory. Sort of a tribal thing , maybe. LOL

  5. Jack,
    We have relatives that have moved away from Kansas, and when they come back for a visit, sometimes the thing they want to see or experience the most is a good old fashioned thunderstorm. Sounds wierd, but thunderstorms can be awesome and fun. We just prefer that tornadoes are not attached with them.
    This trip was sort of like going back home, but home it wasn't. The town has changed a lot. Some things hadn't changed a bit, but others had changed a lot.
    Thanks for the visit,

  6. Conch,
    I just decided at the spur of the moment to go around the fence. After all, what were they goping to do to me. I was just up there to take some pictures.
    BTW, here's hoping that Ida doesn't get anywhere close to you.

  7. Taking the scoot off-road? Steep dirt road grades? A locked gate, circumnavigated?

    Where am I, ADVRider??


    Great post!

  8. cpa3485:

    very interesting with your first hand account and photos. too bad pink Crocs weren't invented yet. They may have had the power to keep you safe.

    We don't get tornadoes in up here, they call them typhoons. I remember when Typhoon Freida hit I was up all night in the attic trying to stop the water coming in. It nearly ripped the whole roof off. The next morning all the power lines and downed trees were scattered everywhere. So I sort of know what you mean

    bobskoot: wet coast scootin

  9. Stacy,
    There was a bit more dirt road riding than usual for me and Max on this trip. I did not however tackle any of the old motorcycle trails. LOL. It was just slightly muddy that day as well, but the ground clearance was great and I had no problems.
    Thanks for the compliment,

  10. Bobskoot,
    I am surprised that a typhoone can get that far north, but know that hurricanes and typhoons regularly spawn off tornadoes.
    I had not thouoght of the protective powers in those pink crocs. My wife has some lime green ones and she used them this weekend as we were working on a tile project on our back porch. Are lime green crocs as powerful as pink crocs, Inquiring minds want to know.
    Thanks for stopping by

  11. Jim, loved the tales here! You've made history come alive, which makes history so much fun to read!

    I got a chuckle out of your generosity in taking females to that place to "share" the beauty and nature. Yeah, right. The photos were amazing--the old and the new!

    I was also struck by your courage...going beyond the gate to explore. I'd be reluctant to do that. I'm glad you weren't!

  12. Sharon,
    Thanks for visiting and commenting. History always goes on. I was distressed to learn, while I was in Topeka, that a house in the northeast part of town, that apparently had played a role in the UGRR had a fire and was almost completely destroyed. It had been a museum. I wasn't aware that it was even there, but now it is a piece of history that will probably be lost.

    If they had arrested me for jumping the curb, I would have pleaded insanity. There would be no contest.

  13. The multiple locks are because there's a lot of different parties who need access. They all have their own lock and can break the link there. I know you knew that, but I just felt like commenting!

  14. I live in Topeka now....and tonight, your story made my point. We are still in a dangerous path. Forget the superstitions, remember God...

  15. I found this cool post here and enjoyed reading your articles, thank you.
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  16. Thank you for the trip down memory lane, or tornado alley, so to speak. My house was on Twilight Drive, the first street north of the interstate highway at the base of Burnett's Mound and one of the first houses to be flattened after the tornado crossed the highway and headed through town. Except for a few possessions we found in the rubble, we lost everything. My birth certificate was returned to me by a person who found it in St. Joseph, Missouri, 80 miles away. I was 13 years old and at a choir practice downtown across the street from the capitol building when the tornado roared past, and I was separated from my parents all night. Pretty hellish. Only 16+1 deaths was amazing (one more died later from injuries); it could have been SO much worse if it had hit the hospitals. As I recall, it missed three of them by only a block or so.

    Thanks, too for the photos of Burnett's Mound--my old stomping grounds as well, and what I was searching for when I stumbled onto your very interesting website. I'm sorry, though, that you chose to take the low road to cast Chief Burnett as the stereotypical drunken Indian, poking fun at his drinking as one of only two things you mentioned about him. I saw that journalist Mike Hall, a columnist for the Topeka Capital-Journal, foolishly did the same thing last June (2015) and was severely chastised by readers, e.g. “I assure you that Gary (Chief Burnett’s great-great-great grandson) and his family find it offensive when the chief’s life is generalized down to the fact that he had a drinking problem in his later years. There is so much more to his story, and seeing your summary of his life in the newspaper today brought me to tears at the injustice of your gross stereotyping of the Chief in our city’s newspaper.”...Carol Yoho. Mike quickly submitted an apology column, entitled "Chief Burnett deserves better."

    I realize you provided a link for more information (thank you) and were just making a passing remark about him, but still...He apparently didn't always have a drinking problem, as evidenced in an excerpt from an 1870 obituary in a Lafayette, Indiana, newspaper: "He had became [sic] entirely civilized, except in an uncompromising aversion to fire-water, as the sod corn whisky of our boasted civilization is termed. He was a sensible man and regarded ardent spirits as the bane of his race." I dunno, but being forced by the U.S. government to walk the Potawatomi "Trail of Death" to move my people from Indiana to Kansas might have led me to an eventual drinking problem, too.

    As an alternative to your remark, here is some good stuff about the Chief at his great-great-great grandson, Gary Wis-Ki-Ge-Amatyuk’s website: (contains both the Indiana and Kansas obituaries...Apparently Kansas newspapers were condescending back then, too with: "Mentally, Mr. Burnett was, for an Indian, a remarkable man.") (some more history about Chief Burnett)