Established in 1867, Ellsworth became a thriving cowtown in the early 1870s, at one time, eclipsing Abilene as the leading cattle shipping point in Kansas. In 1873, one Ellsworth dry goods company specializing in cowboy related items reported $150,000 worth of business during the five-month season. The creation of Cox's Trail, or the "Ellsworth Cattle Trail", shortened the trip from Texas. Three days, or 35 miles, were saved by using this fork off of the Chisholm Trail.
The plans for Ellsworth were put forth in January 1867. The settlement would be on the western edge of the Fort Harker military reservation. The proximity of the fort offered protection, and the Smoky Hill River nearby offered a ready water supply. However, the river proved to be all too eager to provide water that June. Days of heavy rains caused the river to flood the surrounding area leaving the town under four feet of water.
The town created a "New Addition to Ellsworth" two miles northwest of the original townsite. The town had a North Main Street and South Main Street on opposite sides of the new railroad tracks; the space in-between was known as the Plaza. Businesses were established on both Main Streets, and this area was later referred to as "Snake Row."
Like many cowtowns, Ellsworth gained notoriety as a wild and wicked place. Although Abilene was the first cattle town and Dodge City the last, Ellsworth was know as the "wickedest." One newspaper of the era once stated, "As we go to press, hell is still in session in Ellsworth."
The days of the cattle trade soon faded for Ellsworth. By 1875, most of the cattle market moved south as more railroads were completed. But, Ellsworth had made a reputation for itself and as the last of the Texas longhorns were trailed to Ellsworth, environs settled down to an agriculturally based community.
Today the "plaza", the two-block site of Ellsworth's original commercial district, still remains relatively uncluttered by modern intrusions.