Elk Falls is home to 86 (2019) residents, has a rich history, and is known as The World’s Largest Living Ghost Town. Historic attractions like the Rock Garden, “The Falls” and the Outhouse tour keep history alive here.
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Local students attend school in either the Elk Valley Unified School District 283 or West Elk Unified School District 282.
Highway US-160 runs through Ell Falls, and Independence is under 45 minutes away, while Coffeyville and Winfield are both under 70 minutes from town.
Sitting on a wooded bend in the road not far from the Oklahoma border, the first settler to locate the town site was a man by the name of R. H. Nichols in February, 1870. Soon after, the enterprise of establishing a town site was conceived, and Nichols—with six other businessmen—formed a town site company laying out lots and making plans for the new settlement. Nichols built a small house, which also served as a loan and real estate office. A general store was built, a drug store and blacksmith shop opened, the post office was established and school was taught to twenty-five pupils by Miss Dora Simmons at her father’s residence.
By 1871, the site was named Elk Falls, deriving its name from a nearby waterfall at the Elk River, and became the temporary county seat of Howard County. The same year, a school building was erected in a small one-story frame house, where services for the Methodist Episcopal Church were also held.
By 1883, the new and rising town had attracted many prospects and numerous improvements had been made, increasing the population to more than five hundred residents. Much of the population was children, as the school included more than 200 students.
On November 15, 1892, the board of Elk County Commissioners voted to build an iron truss bridge over Elk River, connecting the dirt roads into the main thoroughfare leading into Elk Falls from the northeast. Built at a cost of $2,000, it was completed in 1893. Pratt Truss Bridge, as it is called, was unique for its type since expansion joints were made from rollers, rather than wheels. The bridge still stands today and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
When Kansas Highway 160 was built through Elk Falls in 1957, the traffic on the old steel bridge dwindled to almost nothing. And, when the Elk River experienced a dramatic flood in 1976, most of the wooden planks making up the bridge floor were taken with the turbulent waters. The old bridge was no longer feasible for repair or vehicular traffic and the Elk County Commissioners voted to condemn the bridge and closed it. However, plans to destroy the bridge were fortunately delayed and in 1983, the bridge was preserved as a foot bridge. In 1992, the bridge was made a historical site by the Kansas State Historical Society and in 1994 was placed on the National Register of Historic Sites.
Today, while Elk Falls describes itself as a living ghost town, it also has to say: "We ain’t dead yet!” Not the typical tourist destination, this off the beaten path town has done its absolute best to stay alive. This is a place where the visitor can slow down, feel the soothing tranquility of the Falls, relax, and see a bit of history without the frenzied pace of a city.
Several years ago, an Elk Falls resident got an idea to draw tourists by calling it the World’s Largest Living Ghost Town. Evidently, at the time of this idea, some of the people really appreciated it, while others weren’t so happy, preferring to remain anonymous in the dying town. However, the idea caught hold. Numerous artists and craftsmen began to converge on the dying town and within a few short years, the ghost town was drawing thousands of visitors each year.
Though many of the artists and performers have since moved on and Elk Falls is once again making good on its "ghost town" claim, its falls are still running and an old attraction known as the Rock Garden, built in the 1930's, has been restored and is home to Elk Falls Pottery, an establishment that has been thriving for three decades.
In the heart of the Kansas Ozarks is the small town of Elk Falls, which touts itself as the World’s Largest Living Ghost Town. Thriving as a mere shadow of its former self, the mid-nineteenth century settlement attracts thousands of yearly visitors to its Outhouse Tours and other eccentric attractions.
"The Falls" can be seen at the east end of Montgomery Street—about three blocks east of the main street in Elk Falls. Be sure to visit this community during its annual Outhouse Tour, which brings hundreds of tourists through the tiny town.
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