Fort Larned/Fort Riley Road
Conflict and Commerce
Santa Fe Trail
"1860-1867"
"Page Two"

     Subsequently, a relative period of calm returned to the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road as the Kansas Stage Company reopened the abandoned stations and resumed a regular schedule. The single exception occurred in February 1865 when a soldier was killed by Indians during an attack on a woodcutting party near
Fort Zarah. [31]

     The following June the Butterfield Overland Despatch [BOD] initiated freight service from Atchison to Junction City and westward over the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road to Fort Ellsworth. West of the fort, the BOD pursued a course north of the Smoky Hill River 527 miles to Denver. Stage service was added in September with eight stations established in the seventy-nine mile stretch between Forts Riley and Ellsworth: Fort Riley, Junction City, Chapman's Creek, Abilene, Solomon River, Salina, Spring Creek, and Ellsworth. Repeated Indian attacks west of Fort Ellsworth forced the BOD out of business during its first year of operation. Sold to Ben Holladay in March 1866, the company was resold in October 1866 to Wells, Fargo. [32]

     In the meantime, the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division, reached Junction City in June 1866. At long last, the wish of the Junction City citizenry came to pass. The little town near Fort Riley became, at once, the railhead for the Union Pacific and the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail. Freight, passengers, and mail formerly dispatched from the Kansas City area down the Santa Fe Tail via Council Grove were thence shipped by rail to Junction City and transported by wagon and stage on the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road to the Santa Fe Trail juncture at Fort Zarah. Consequently, overland traffic on the Santa Fe Trail east of Fort Zarah came to a halt. [33]

     Corresponding to the arrival of the railroad at Junction City, the postal service contracted with Barlo, Sanderson and Company to deliver mail on a triweekly schedule from Junction City to Santa Fe. Replicating some of the stops operated by both the Kansas Stage Company and the BOD, Barlo, Sanderson established seven stations on the 120-mile stretch from Fort Riley to Fort Zarah: Chapman's Creek, Abilene, Salina, Pritchard's [Spring Creek], Fort Ellsworth, Well's Ranch at Plum Creek, and Fort Zarah. Later, the Cow Creek station originally operated by the Kansas Stage Company was reopened. [34]

     The new stage line experienced little difficulty with Indians thanks to the protection afforded by a company of the Thirty-seventh U.S. Infantry stationed at Fort Ellsworth under the command of Lt. Frank Baldwin. Baldwin assigned four or five men to each of the stations between the Smoky Hill and Walnut Creek. In addition, the sage coaches were provided escort with troopers either riding atop the stages or alongside in wagons. [35]

     Fort Ellsworth, renamed Fort Harker in November 1866, was moved about one mile to the northeast of its original location in January of 1867. Corresponding to the time of Fort Harker's relocation, the townsite of Ellsworth was ill advisedly established west of the Fort Ellsworth site on the flood plain of the Smoky Hill River. [36]

     In April 1867 Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock marched onto the Plains of Kansas with fourteen hundred troops: infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Accompanying the expedition was engineer Lt. M. R. Brown whose precise notes provide a wealth of detailed information with regard to the itinerary followed on the Fort/Riley/Fort Larned Road. Leaving Fort Riley, the expedition crossed Chapman's Creek thirteen miles west of the post. Proceeding thirteen miles west of the post. Proceeding thirteen miles further along the north bank of the Smoky Hill, the column croddes Mud Creek at Abilene. Brown noted that in the center of the little city was a town of prairie dogs. Beyond Abilene the expedition crossed the Solomon and Saline Forks on a portable pontoon bridge built on canvas boats by Brown's engineering squad. At the Solomon crossing, nine miles beyond Abilene, the expedition was joined by Henry M. Stanley, correspondent for several eastern publications. [37] Stanley's journalistic observations provide a human and often humorous perspective of the expedition, complementing the accurate, yet tedious, accounts compiled by Lieutenant Brown.

     Three miles beyond the Saline, the expedition camped at Salina described by Brown as a small town with muddy streets. Departing Salina the expedition crossed Dry Creek and proceeded on to Elm Creek where Ernest Hohneck's ranch was located. Impressed with the fare served up by Hohneck, correspondent Stanley was lavish in his praise:

     "We stopped at Hohneck's ranche, our quondam friend, for dinner, who had already prepared, in the delightful anticipation of our visit, an elegant and plentiful repast, consisting of bona fide buffalo, deer meat, smoked ham and quinces. We enjoyed it amazingly, and therefore suggest to the belated travelers that they always stop at Hohneck's ranche when they come this way. Hohneck proved himself a gentleman and a scholar, and it was with something akin to sadness that we departed from the adobe mansion that he had himself built on the wild waste of the desert." [38]

     Beyond Elm Creek the expedition pushed on to camp at Spring Creek, sixteen miles from Salina according to Brown's odometer reading. There the lieutenant noted the presence of the Barlow, Sanderson stage station commonly known as Pritchard's. The next stop, twelve miles beyond Pritchard's, was Clear Creek where Brown identified a "ranche on roadside." [39] This was the ranch originally established by the Farris brothers in 1860.

     Six miles beyond Clear Creek the troops reached Fort Harker. There they went into camp on the north side of the Smoky Hill near the site of Abandoned Fort Ellsworth. [40] As the men rested on the following day, Stanley had the opportunity to visit Fort Harker in its earliest days of development. His description was far from flattering: "a single square surrounded by some wooden shanties…a great wart on the surface of the plain." [41]

     On the following day the troops proceeded down the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road to Oxhide Creek. This little stream, according to A. C. Spilman, "furnished timber and water and was the first camping-place out of Harker." [42] Crossing Oxhide Creek, Hancock's forces camped at Plum Creek, seventeen miles from Fort Harker. There Brown noted that the creek was dry in the summer but that water could be obtained from a spring at nearby Well's Ranch, a Barlow, Sanderson stage station. [43]

     The expedition departed the regular road at Plum Creek taking a west-southwestwardly direction so as to cross Cow Creek where there was an ample supply of wood. After camping at Cow Creek, the column turned south five miles to intercept the Santa Fe Road [Brown's designation for the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road] and continued on to Fort Zarah at Walnut Creek. [44] This diversion eliminated the next stop on the stage route, Cow Creek, located twelve miles southwest of Plum Creek, ten miles northeast of Fort Zarah.

     By the time Hancock's arrival, Fort Zarah had experienced substantial growth since its establishment in 1864. Troops, no longer housed in dugouts, were quartered in a sod barracks measuring twenty eight by fifty feet. The stone blockhouse, completed in 1865, never used as a defensive structure, was likewise used as quarters. Also added were a guardhouse and a sutler's store, both completed in 1865, and the Kiowa-Comanche Indian Agency operated by Jesse Leavenworth. [45] Nearby, Rath's trading ranch remained in operation as did the stage station on the south side of Walnut Creek.

     Beyond Fort Zarah the expedition continued on to visit Forts Larned, Dodge, and Hays before passing through Fort Harker on the return trip to Forts Riley and Leavenworth. At Fort Harker in May 1867, Stanley took note of nearby Ellsworth which boasted four completed houses, three of which were saloons. The other, a log shanty, served as a hotel. Stanley wryly observed that thirteen other houses were under construction and that the population consisted of forty men, four women, eight boys, seven girls, fourteen horses, and about twenty-nine and a half dogs. [46] The little town as Stanley knew it became history on June 8 when floodwaters of the Smoky Hill washed away half of the houses and the remaining buildings were left standing in four feet of water. However, within a matter of weeks, the town was reestablished on high ground a few miles west of its original site. [47]

     Subsequent to the flood, cholera of epidemic proportions struck the relocated city and nearby Fort Harker. At the height of the plague, the Eighteenth Kansas Infantry was mustered into service at the post on July 15, 1867. As the recruits began to fall, Maj. Horace Moore marched his troops from the post down the road to Fort Larned in an attempt to escape the scourge. Citizens of Ellsworth, devastated by the flood and terrified by the cholera, followed Moore's lead, fleeing the city in droves. The population of the city was rapidly depleted from one thousand to less than fifty. [48]

     During the same period, the Union Pacific Railway Eastern Division, was constructed to Fort Harker. [49] The little post replaced Junction City as the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail; and as such, became the chief supply base and distribution center for the shipment of military supplies to the Southwest. In addition, the construction of permanent buildings at the post continued at a rapid pace. Consequently, the population of the post mushroomed, swelled by the influx of civilian employees, teamsters, and mechanics. [50]

     Nearby Ellsworth experienced a similar boom taking on all the notoriety associated with end-of-the-tracks towns. Daniel Geary, who settled in Kansas City in 1856, described Ellsworth during the late 1860s: "The village, except for some of the best business houses, consisted of tents, and every other tent was a saloon, regardless of where the count began." [51]The best business houses that Geary noted were those associated with the two giant forwarding firms, C. H. Chick Company and Othero Sellars Company. Erecting huge warehouses, the firms served as wholesale outlets supplying Santa Fe traders, both Mexican and American. While Fort Harker remained the official railhead, the Barlow, Sanderson Company moved its headquarters to Ellsworth. To accommodate the ever increasing traffic, an auxiliary road was developed running south from Ellsworth a few miles to connect with the regular Fort Riley/Fort Larned route emanating from Fort Harker. [52]

     During 1866-1867 the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road remained free from Indian attack due in large part to the presence of the Thirty-seventh Infantry stationed at Fort Harker and the various stage stations between the Smoky Hill and Walnut Creek. However, with the transfer of Baldwin's company to Fort Wingate, New Mexico, on September 3, 1867, trouble returned to the road. [53] Later in the month, Cheyennes killed and scalped a man near Plum Creek before pressing on to Cow Creek. There, one of the Cheyennes fired his pistol through the picket wall of the station house killing one of the occupants. The approach of a southbound stage frightened the Indians away, saving the other stage company employees from sure death. [54]

     This incident, which signaled an end to Indian depredations on the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road, may well have predicted the end of the road itself. In the following month Union Pacific trains were running on a regular schedule to Hays City; and by November 1 stage service was initiated to Fort Dodge and beyond to Santa Fe over the newly established Fort Hays/Fort Dodge Road. Shortly thereafter, freight wagons began to travel the same seventy-five-mile route. [55] Thus, overland traffic on the Santa Fe Trail from Fort Dodge eastward came to a grinding halt. Today the stage stations at Well's Ranch, Cow Creek, and twelve other locations along the Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road are indistinguishable from the surrounding terrain. Even the military posts that stood sentinel over the road's 120-mile length have all but disappeared. At Fort Harker, only the guardhouse and three officers' quarters have survived to be incorporated within the city limits of present-day Kanopolis; and at Fort Zarah, two miles east of present-day Great Bend, no visible evidence of the post can be observed. By and large, The Fort Riley/Fort Larned Road remains unmarked except for a few faint ruts, slight tribute to the road that began service as a military route in 1860 and for seven short years, served as a significant segment of the Santa Fe Trail.
Used With Permission of the Author:
David Clapsaddle

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