To all intents and purposes, Russell is a prairie county, and for miles and miles, not a sign of a tree or bush can be seen., Standing upon the highest point in the vicinity of the county seat, which is located very near the geographical center of the county, one sees nothing but a wide extent of prairie to the north, south, east and west, with nothing to break the monotony of the view, but a house here and there at long intervals. Stretch the vision to the farthest extent, and one will look in vain to catch a glimpse of a tree. The prairie appears almost as level as the surface of a lake, except that its undulations can be observed rising and falling like the gentle swells of a rising tide. While the general surface presents this appearance to the eye of a person occupying a central position in the county, he will, by a personal survey, discover considerable bluffs in various portions, but chiefly along the Saline River and Salt Creek. The bluffs along these stream (sic) are very high and broken, some reaching an altitude of four hundred feet. Most of the other creeks have very high, steep banks, but not bluffy, as the land extends away from the streams in wide stretches of beautiful upland.
The surface of the county presents no diversity of scenery, except that on Paradise Creek, and Wolf Creek and its branches, in the northern portion of the county, there is some timber, and a little on some of the creeks in the extreme south of the county. The center of the county from east to west is high table land, sloping towards the Smoky Hill River on the south and towards the Saline River on the north. These two rivers run parallel to each other across the county from west to east, at an average distance from each other of about twelve miles, except at the extreme west of the county, where the distance between the rivers is about twenty miles, the Smoky entering the county about two miles north of the southwest corner, and the Saline about six miles south of the northwest corner. After entering the county the Saline runs southeast about seven miles, and the Smoky about seven miles northeast, after which the course of both rivers is almost due east.
The Saline and Smoky are the principal streams in the county, each having several tributaries. Paradise and Wolf creeks are the northern feeders of the Saline, and Salt and Cedar creeks feed it from the south. The tributaries to the Smoky from the north are Big and Fossil creeks, and from the south Langdon, Sellers, Wright, Beaver and Walnut creeks. The Saline and Smoky are almost completely destitute of timber, and that along the other creeks is chiefly confined to long, narrow strips that fringe the streams. The prevailing varieties are cottonwood, elm, ash, and willow, but oak, cedar, and black walnut are found on Paradise Creek. Most of the streams have narrow stretches of bottom land, or valley, on either side, varying from a half to three miles wide. In some portions of the county, but more particularly along the divide between the Saline and Smoky Hill rivers, it is extremely difficult to find well water fit for drinking or domestic purposes, but in others excellent water can be had at a depth of from 15 to 30 feet.
The character of the upland soil is a black loam, and of considerable depth, ranging from three to eight feet, and upwards. The soil of the valleys of the Saline and Smoky is also a black loam, but mixed with a good deal of sand. With anything like ordinary rains all kinds of cereals are of easy cultivation, but the county cannot be relied upon for agricultural purposes, owing to the scarcity and uncertainty of rain. Seasons in which there is a reasonable rainfall, excellent crops are assured, and some immense yields of wheat have been produced in the county. Wheat is more certain than corn, as the spring rains are, generally, sufficient to mature a crop of some kind, but the months when rain is required to make a corn crop are usually the driest, and hence this crop is generally short and very uncertain. As an agricultural county, however, no superior advantages are claimed for it, although there are some very highly improved farms in the county. It may be justly claimed for it, however, that for stock and sheep-raising purposes its advantages are excellent, and these industries are commencing to receive a good deal of attention. There are not, however, a great variety of grasses in the county, the greater portion of the county producing no other kind than buffalo grass. Along the creeks and in the ravines are about the only places where prairie grass for mowing purposes can be found. Hay, however, is not an indispensable article, as but very little of it is necessary for feeding purposes, the buffalo grass furnishing ample grazing through both summer and winter. This buffalo grass grows to about four or six inches in height, and curls over towards the ground forming a regular matting all over the prairie. The characteristic of the grass, is that the bottom grass is always green and fresh, and cattle and sheep can always find plenty to eat. This is one of the great advantages that Russell County has as a stock-raising county. Some attempts have been made at upland farming in the county with more or less success, according to the character of the season, wheat being the principal crop. One great drawback to this kind of farming is the difficulty experienced in finding water for domestic uses, it having in most cases, to be hauled in barrels a distance of two or three miles. Some people have cisterns built of greater or smaller capacity which they fill from distant springs or wells, while others haul daily what they use. This difficulty in finding good water for domestic purposes is one of the great disadvantages to be contended against in upland farming.
The only thing in the shape of mineral yet discovered in the county has been coal, and this has been found, and is being minded, in different portions of the county. It is of rather inferior quality, and is of that kind known as lignite. It possesses none of that brilliancy that characterizes the anthracite and bituminous coal of other States, but yet it burns well and throws out good heat. No happier discovery could have been made for the people, as ninety-nine per cent of the county is destitute of timber. Sufficient developments have not yet been made to establish to a certainty whether the coal deposits exist to any great extent, but the amount mined keeps increasing each year, and each year new banks are opened. The veins yet found run from one and one half to three feet in depth, and the quality of some is much superior to that of others. There are, at the present time, eleven banks worked in different portions of the county, nine by drifting, and two by shaft. Holland Bros.’ mine is located in the south center of the county, between the line of the Kansas Pacific Railway and the Smoky Hill River, and is operated by means of a shaft, which is sixty-five feet in depth. Marsh’s mine, just south of this, is also operated in the same manner, the shaft being one hundred and three feet deep. All the others are worked by drifting in from the face of the bluffs. These banks are located in various parts of the county, two being located almost at the east line, in the vicinity of Wilson, one at Blue Stem, in the northeast, one in the southwest, near the mouth of Big Creek, one on the Saline, about five miles northeast of Bunker Hill, one a few miles southwest of Russell, one northwest of Russell, and three in the south center of the county, and by being thus distributed, fuel is brought within easy reach of every settler in the county. The price of the coal at the banks is $2.50 and $3.00 per ton. In 1878, the coal mined in Russell County was only five hundred tons, whereas, the statistical record in the office of the County Clerk shows, that in 1882, the amount mined was six thousand one hundred and seventy-five tons, being a little over a ton for every man, woman, and child in the county.
There are some excellent salt springs in the county, but, as yet, no attempts have been made to utilize them.
There is an abundance of stone in the county, well adapted for building purposes and flagging. There is a good deal of limestone of fair quality, the greater portion of which is to be found in the western portion of the county, although it is not confined to that particular locality. In building, the limestone is only used for corners, caps and sills, the walls of the building being made of a soft kind of stone strongly resembling solidified clay. It is of a yellowish color and is entirely free from grit, and can be cut with a knife just like chalk. In nearly every place where there is a depression in the surface of the soil this stone crops out. The stone is quarried in layers and is taken out of the ground in large squares, after which they are sawed and dressed into blocks about the size of an ordinary brick, or larger, according to the taste of the person who is going to build. For building purposes it is excellent, being both beautiful and durable.
Source: Russell County, History of the State of Kansas, 1883.