There were two crossings of the Pawnee Fork. One was on the south edge of the town of Larned, Kansas, and the other on the west edge on the Larned State Hospital grounds. The southern crossing is no longer visible, but the western or dry route crossing may still be seen and crossed by means of a small bridge. The dry route crossing was difficult at times, and a campsite developed for travelers to wait for ideal crossing conditions. A mail and stage station was located at this crossing in 1859, and this led to the establishment of Fort Larned.
At Larned, Kansas, U.S. Highway 56 spans the Pawnee River. Adjacent is the defunct trestle bridge of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. This is the location of the Pawnee Fork crossing, one of the most hazardous fords on the entire length of the Santa Fe Trail or the Santa Fe Road as it was known in the historic period. Railroad and highway construction have long since destroyed the historical integrity of the site, but its steep banks are yet reminiscent of the difficulties associated with the crossing.
The record is replete with references to the treacherous crossing of Pawnee Fork. Allow two such incidents to suffice. In his inaugural trip to Santa Fe in 1844, James Josiah Webb observed:
The second day after, we arrived at Pawnee Fork, and, as the crossing was very difficult, we concluded to turn out, repair the road, and prepare for crossing the next morning. The east bank must be from twenty to thirty feet above the water and very steep - so much so that we were compelled to lock both hind wheels, hitch a yoke of good wheelers to the hind axle, and all the men that can be used to advantage to assist in holding back and prevent the wagon from turning over. Even with all these precautions, accidents frequently happen, and the descent is so rapid the teams get doubled up and oxen run over."
"The next morning we began crossing; and when the wagons were about half across, one of Wethered's wagons turned over into the stream. The west bank was steep but not so high as the east one. Yet we had to double teams to get out and make a short and very difficult turn up the stream; so the wagon fell into deep water, and bottom up. All hands took to the water and in two or three hours succeeded in getting dry goods and wagon to camp on the opposite bank. The next two days were spent in opening the goods, and spreading them on the ground to dry, repacking, and loading up."
Two years later, members of the Mormon Battalion had a similar experience. Sergeant Daniel Tyler recorded;
"On the evening of the 9th we camped on a stream known as Pawnee Fork, the crossing of which was very difficult, and occupied some time. Each wagon had to be let down the bank with ropes, while on the opposite bank from twenty to thirty men with ropes aided the teams in pulling the wagons up. The water was muddy, very much like that of the Missouri River."
The difficulty occasioned by the Pawnees steep banks was further confounded by its rampaging flood of waters. Normally, the stream ran at a four foot depth; but during the flood season, its deep channel ran full to overflowing. Such was the case in 1844 when a Bent, St. Vrain caravan was detained for a full month waiting for the water to subside. Such also was the case in 1846 when the impatient Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny "caused trees to be felled across the deep, rapid current." Across these makeshift foot bridges, the Army of the west marched while the wagons were floated across the stream and animals were forced to swim.
The crossing was marked in 1991 with a bronze plaque mounted on a limestone post by the Wet/Dry Routes Chapter of the Santa Fe Trail. Nearby are two other Santa Fe Trail locations likewise marked: Sibley's Camp, the 1825 campgrounds of the Santa Fe Trail survey team and the site of Parker's Ranch established in 1865. Other Santa Fe Trail attractions within a ten mile radius of the crossing are; Sibley's Camp, 502 West Second, Larned, Kansas, Pawnee Rock, the Santa Fe Trail Center, and the Fort Larned National Historic Site.
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