Historical Highlight: Climbing Vinegar Hill
I don’t know exactly how it got its name, but I know Vinegar Hill was an early road famous for being a challenge to climb since the day it was put in. It was on a main section road that connected Caldwell and Clinton Counties. Located on the old Mormon Trail from Far West to Ft. Leavenworth, the hill was very steep. It was difficult to go up and dangerous to go down. There are common stories about how horse and wagon teams would lose their loads of supplies while trying to climb Vinegar Hill.
Locals tried to improve the hill once automobiles were introduced. Like an unvanquished King of the Hill champion, Vinegar Hill refused to give up. Model T Fords and similar cars would have to drive up the hill in reverse. If they tried to go up forward, the fuel wouldn’t flow to the gravity fed carburetor. The vehicle would stall and roll back down the hill. Other early cars couldn’t make it up the hill without the help of horses.
When vehicle technology improved, the hill was still a challenge. Here is how the Cameron Weekly Newspaper described it in September 1923. “Vinegar Hill has long been the “thorn in the flesh” for motorists aspiring to go up on high, but on Wednesday of this week the Jewett Six touring car owned by Stafford & Thomas was driven over the top three different times.”
By the late 1930s, cars had gotten better, but it was still a great obstacle. Dr. Bob Compton remembered Vinegar Hill from his childhood and said “If you had a car that made it to the top of Vinegar Hill in high then you had the best car on the road, if you had to put it up into 2nd, you just had an average vehicle.
In 1939, when the WPA put in Wallace State Park, they created a bypass around Vinegar Hill to make it easy for travelers to visit the park. Eventually, Vinegar Hill was abandoned. It’s now somewhat hidden by trees and brush. Other similar hills like Thrill Hill, Murphy Hill and Hahn’s hill were all beaten into submission by endless rounds of road construction, additional ballast and heavy machine work. Vinegar Hill on the other hand, retired, having never capitulated to the demands of modern transportation.
Even though you can’t drive on it, you can clearly see it every time you go to Wallace State Park from Cameron. As you’re driving east on 121 toward the park, just after the “S” Curve at Jones road, look straight ahead. There’s a little bridge at the bottom of the hill and straight ahead of it is a cutout for utility poles. The poles run along the side of the old roadway. The next time you drive by on your way to the park, you can look up and wonder what it might have been like to be Climbing Vinegar Hill.
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Note: The photo is from August 1939.