The Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road
A Ladder Of Rivers


     David K. Clapsaddle, of Larned, Kansas, is the Program Director for the Wet/Dry Routes Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail. His research on the Santa Fe Trail, as well as its many related branches, through Kansas has been published in numerous periodicals.

     The biography of cattleman I. P. Olive, The Ladder of Rivers, was titled as an allusion to the many streams crossed by the Texas cattle trail during the latter part of the nineteenth century. [1] The same device could well be employed to interpret the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road by way of the several waterways that bisected its seventy-five-mile length. If the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road analogy is thus used, the top rung would be Big Creek, an otherwise insignificant stream that flowed between Fort Hays and Hays City, Kansas. Flood waters of Big Creek devasted the original Fort Hays fifteen miles to the east in June 1867. Subsequently, in the following August, the post was moved to a new location close by Hays City, surveyed in June 1867. [2]

     Fort Hays generally is considered to be the eastern terminus of the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road. A more precise location would be the depot of the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division, whose tracks reached Hays City in October 1867. A marker on Tenth Street between Main and Fort Streets, in Hays, Kansas, identifies the location of the depot which received freight, passengers, and mail from the East. On November 1, Barlow, Sanderson, and Company initiated a thrice-weekly mail and passenger service to Fort Dodge and on to Santa Fe. Subsequently, freight wagons traversed the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road which became for a brief eight-month period the far eastern leg of the Santa Fe Trail. [3] A portion of the 1870 Map of Kansas compiled by 1st Lt. Henry Jackson showing The Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road.

     Just southwest of the Fort Hays parade grounds (present-day Frontier Historical Park), a pronounced set of ruts points the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road to the second rung of the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road, the Smoky Hill River, ten miles distant. The ten-mile figure was derived from an itinerary complied by Lt. Col. John W. Davidson, Inspector General, Department of the Missouri, in December 1867. Davidson noted that the Smoky Hill was, "Good water, grass, some wood and good crossing." [4] Davidson's singular observation is in keeping with the more generalized report of Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock. Writing to Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, his replacement as the commanding officer of the Department of the Missouri, Hancock opined:

     My impression is that the real route of travel for emigrants hereafter will be from Fort Hays or [Fort] Harker (most probably from Hays) directly across to some point a little west of Dodge, crossing Walnut Creek and branches of Pawnee Fork, where the country affords excellent grass, good running water, plenty of wood, good roads--wood, water, and grass at convenient intervals. [5]

     At the good crossing described by Davidson, a myriad of ruts ascend the south bank of the Smoky Hill, testimony to heavy traffic on the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road. [6]

     A third rung was Big Timbers Creek, eight miles farther, according to Davidson who wrote, "Wood, grass and water in pools never failing." Five years later, William Holland of the topographical engineers recorded,"A few good trees and a single pool." [7] Timber for construction of the stables at Fort Hays was cut on Big Timbers Creek after Davidson made his report. Perhaps such is the explanation, in part, for the discrepancy between Davidson's account and that of Holland. At this location, the creek curves in the form of an S, necessitating three separate cutdowns. All of these remain within a hundred-yard radius. [8]

     Seven miles more brought travelers to the fourth rung, Walnut Creek, so named for the species of trees that to this day populate the banks of the stream. At the Walnut, Davidson observed: "Very bad crossing requires one span bridge." Holland's report confirms Davidson's remarks. At the time of his visit, the creek was flowing twenty-feet deep and three feet over a corduroy bridge that was built at some unknown date, probably in conjunction with the nearby trading ranch established during the post-Santa Fe Trail era of the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road. The modern traveler who crosses Walnut Creek at this point will have little difficulty in believing Holland's report. The stream is still marked by steep banks and a deep channel. On the north banks of the creek is a cutdown dredged in recent years by well-meaning citizens. No evidence of a cutdown remains on the south bank. Local lore says that it was filled by blowing dust during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930's. [9]

     Descending the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road twelve miles, the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road reached Pawnee Fork, so called for its tributary relationship to the Arkansas River. Known also as the Pawnee River, the stream was identified by Israel C. Woodruff in 1852 as the north branch of Pawnee Fork and named Heth in honor of 2d Lt. Henry Heth then stationed at Fort Atkinson, the little post on the Arkansas River just west of present-day Dodge City, Kansas. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Heth resigned his commission to join Confederate forces. A West Point graduate, he quickly rose to the rank of major general. [10] The crossing at the stream once named for Heth was described by Davidson as " a very bad crossing, requires bridges, probably two spans." The modern-day bridge that now spans the Pawnee at this point confirms Davidson's assessment. Immediately north of the bridge, a deeply carved cutdown approaches the river: on the south side of the Pawnee, several ruts strike off to the southwest. [11]

     The fifth rung was Buckner Creek. According to Davidson, it was thirteen miles down the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road. The stream, named by Iarael Woodruff and characterized as the middle branch of the Pawnee River, is actually a tributary of the Pawnee. The Buckner designation was made in honor of Bvt. Capt. Simon B. Buckner, the commanding officer at Fort Atkinson at the time of Woodruff's reconnaissance. Buckner, like Heth, rescinded his allegiance to the United States to accept a commission in the Confederate Army. Also a graduate of West Point, he attained the rank of lieutenant general. After the Civil War, Buckner was elected governor of Kentucky and was nominated for vice-president of the United States in 1896. [12]

     There were two crossings on Buckner Creek. Davidson described the first: "Wood, water, and grass abundant, bridge required." No bridge was constructed during the Santa Fe Trail period of the Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road. In 1872, however, Holland recorded: "A corduroy bridge in place." Holland also described the second crossing: "A good ford in the area of Buckner's ranch, which was close to the creek south and west of the [first] crossing." Holland mistakenly identified the ranch that had come into existence in the post-Santa Fe Trail days of the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road as belonging to a man named Buckner; this inaccuracy continues to this day as part of the local lore. The ford described by Holland is yet in existence, and nearby are the remains of a dugout that housed the ranch. Other physical evidence is found in a profusion of ruts descending the hillside northeast of the first crossing. [13]

     Thirteen miles farther was the eighth rung, Sawlog Creek. Woodruff identified the stream as the south branch of Pawnee Fork, although it actually empties into Buckner Creek. Woodruff named the creek Shaaff's Creek in honor of Lt. John Shaaff who was stationed at Fort Atkinson. Unlike Heth and Buckner, Shaaff remained loyal to the Union. [14]

     Regardless of Woodruff's cartography, the stream came to be known as Sawlog Creek. David L. Spotts of the Nineteenth Kansas Cavalry, returning from the 1868-1869 Sheridan-Custer campaign, noted in his diary: "There is hardly any timber along the creek and told it was Sawlog Creek we naturally looked for sawlogs. Perhaps the timber had been made into sawlogs." [15] Spotts' conjecture was answered at a later date by Robert Wright, one-time post trader at Fort Dodge.

     The creeks, when the fort was first started, were heavily wooded with hackberry, ash, box-elder, cottonwood, and elm. We cut 1500 cords of wood almost in one body on a little creek six miles north of the fort, all hackberry. There were a good many thousand cords cut on the Sawlog, which stream is properly the south fork of the Pawnee, but the soldiers would go out to the old Hays crossing, chop down a big tree, hitch a string of large mules to it, haul it up on the bank near the ford, and, after stripping off its top and limbs, leave its huge trunk there. In consequence thousands of immense logs accumulated, making the place look as if a sawmill had been established; and these great trunks were sawlogs ready to be cut into lumber. The early buffalo-hunters called the creek Sawlog, which name it bears today. [16]

     At the crossing was a trading ranch operated by a man named Boyd, so wrote Richard Blinn in his April 10, 1868, diary entry. Not the most literate person on the Santa Fe Trail, Blinn spelled the name of the creek "Slige log." For his part, Blinn is best known as the husband of Clara Blinn and the father of two-year-old Willie who were captured by Cheyennes on October 9, 1868, east of Fort Lyon and taken into Indian Territory as captives. Both mother and child were killed during the attack on Black Kettle's Washita River village on November 27, 1868, by troopers of the Seventh Cavalry under Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. [17]

     Davidson's report of the crossing indicated,"abundant water, grass and wood, fair crossing corduroyed." Evidently, a bridge was in place at the time of Davidson's visit, built perhaps by the stage company or army. At the crossing, impressive cutdowns remain on both sides of the stream, as do a well-defined set of ruts that traverse the pasture land in an intermittent fashion for a full four miles starting in the upper right hand corner. Evidence of the dugout used by Boyd's ranch also remains at the crossing. [18]

     The ninth and bottom rung was the Arkansas River. On the river's north bank was Fort Dodge, established in 1865. One-fourth mile to the north of the post, now the Kansas Soldiers Home, are innumerable ruts. At Fort Dodge, the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road merged with the established route of the Santa Fe Trail which followed the Arkansas to the middle crossing or continued westwardly on the so-called Mountain Branch. The Arkansas River, the initial pathway to the Southwest as the Missouri was to the Northwest, has been well documented elsewhere and its scope exceeds that of this study. Suffice it to say that beginning at the big bend of the Arkansas near present Ellinwood, Kansas, the Santa Fe Trail pursued the river to the middle crossing and thence to Bent's Fort, accounting for 272 miles of the trail's total distance. [19]

     With the advent of the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road, overland traffic on the Santa Fe Trail east of Fort Dodge dwindled to almost nothing. The same phenomenon occurred earlier, in June 1866, when the Union Pacific Railroad reached Junction City, Kansas. Thereafter, freight, mail, and passengers were dispatched on the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road to strike the original route of the Santa Fe Trail at Walnut Creek, two miles east of present day Great Bend, Kansas. Thus, overland traffic on the Santa Fe Trail east of Walnut Creek also fell to the point that most considered it a closed chapter in the trail's history. The pattern was repeated in the early summer of 1868 when the railroad reached Phil Sheridan, an end-of-the-tracks town in Logan County, Kansas. At once, Sheridan, as it was generally known, superceded Hays City as the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail, sending freight wagons and stagecoaches on a newly developed road through Fort Wallace and on to Fort Lyon on the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail. [20] Gone were the days when Santa Fe traffic descended and ascended the fort-hays-fort-dodge-road-notes.html of rivers in swift succession.

     Subsequent to the short-lived Santa Fe Trail era of the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road, the army used the route for the movement of troops and supplies. Most notable in this regard was the traffic associated with the Sheridan-Custer campaign of 1868-1869. However, with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway at Fort Dodge in 1872, military traffic on the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road ceased, with two outstanding exceptions. In 1873, Col. Nelson A. Miles marched troops of the Sixth U.S. Calvary down the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road to initiate the Staked Plains campaign in Texas. Then, in 1874, Capt. Joseph Kerrin led a detachment of the Sixth Calvary from Fort Dodge on a futile march to the Pawnee Fork crossing. There, a woodcutter had made a bogus report that Indians were attacking a trading ranch operated by George Duncan. [21]

     Concomitant to the army's use of the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road in the post-Santa Fe Trail period and in the years subsequent to the arrival of the railhead at Fort Dodge, civilian traffic increased dramatically with the influx of settlers to the area. Trading ranches were established at various intervals along the Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road; on the Smoky Hill River, Walnut Creek, Pawnee Fork, and Buckner Creek. At the Big Timbers crossing, the little town of Hampton was established in 1877. There, two separate stage companies were headquartered during brief periods of 1877 and 1878. However, by 1880 the ranches were abandoned, the bridges were in disrepair, and the Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Road was only a memory. [22]

     This memory hopefully will linger far into the future, thanks to the Wet/Dry Routes Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail which has placed thirty markers at different locations on the Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road of rivers. At twenty-seven of these sites, physical evidence remains in the form of ruts and cutdowns, some of profound proportions. [23]
Used With Permission of the Author:
David Clapsaddle




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