Chestnut Street District
Historical Chestnut Street
Hays City was founded in August of 1867 as the Union Pacific Railway Eastern Division worked its way west. The town was named after Fort Hays, the army's military post, which was located south of Big Creek. The United States Army established Fort Hays, (founded in 1865 as Fort Fletcher, renamed Fort Hays in 1866) to provide protection for settlers and railroad workers from Indian resistance. Fort Hays was named in honor of General Alexander Hays, who was a Union General, and had been killed during the Civil War in 1864 at the Battle of the Wilderness. Because many of the first citizens of the rapidly growing town were railroad workers, desperados and other notorious characters, the early days of Hays City were wild and dangerous. The soldiers from nearby Fort Hays also created a rowdy atmosphere when they came to town because many of the first businesses in Hays City were saloons, brothels, gambling houses, dance halls or other liquor establishments. Skirmishes with some of the local "rough" citizens and the soldiers only added to the reputation as a lawless and tough "end of the tracks" town.
During several months in 1869, James Butler Hickok served as the acting sheriff after several incidents prompted the citizens to form a vigilante committee. "Wild Bill" Hickok, as he became known, apparently was not elected, but served at the will of the vigilante committee. The vigilante period from July of 1868 to December of 1869 was marked by 15 homicides. The lawlessness, bloodshed and feuds that occurred during the time when General George A. Custer and his wife were encamped near Fort Hays, prompted Elizabeth Custer to comment, "There was enough desperate history in that little town in one summer to make a whole library of dime novels". Between August of 1867 and 1873, there were over 30 murders in and around Hays City. The reputation as one of the most violent towns on the Kansas frontier quickly spread.
The road in downtown Hays City, that is now known as Main Street, was originally called Chestnut Street in the late 1800's and early 1900's. The word "City" was officially dropped from the name Hays City in 1885. By 1930, the streets were renamed at the request of the postal service for a more orderly naming scheme. Chestnut Street was renamed "Main Street." The historic markers, buildings and streets in the Chestnut Street District provide visitors the opportunity to step back in time and relive the history of downtown Hays.
Today the Chestnut Street District is a great place to meet with friends, dine, shop and enjoy entertainment opportunities. Downtown Hays is undergoing a process of restoration driven by the desire to preserve the history and community pride while creating the excitement of the old fashioned main street.