The Dry Route of the Santa Fe Trail

     David Clapsaddle has been the leader in marking of the Fort HaysFort Dodge Trail and is presently overseeing the marking of the Dry Route. He leads tours on the Trail, sponsored by Great Bend Community Collage, and is a frequent living-history volunteer at Fort Larned National Historic Site. His article, "The Fort HaysFort Dodge Road" was published in the Summer 1991 Kansas History Magazine.

     "By the way, there is a road across the upland known as the 'Dry Road.' It is even shorter than the road down the river which has been called the 'Water Road,' but the 'Dry Road' is always avoided by the oxen caravans, and usually by the mule caravans, too, because of the lack of water."
H. B. Mollhausen, 1858

     Prior to reaching the 60 miles of waterless trek on the Cimarron Route between the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers (a stretch sometimes known as the Cimarron Desert and Jornada), Santa Fe Trail travelers going to New Mexico had the option of following another route similar in length and aridity. That Dry Route, so called for the lack of water along its course, ran between a point about a mile southwest of Ash Creek Crossing (west of Pawnee Rock and northeast of present Larned, KS) to a point just east of the site of Fort Dodge. The same two points were connected by the older Wet Route of the Trail which followed the Arkansas River to its south bend near present-day Ford, KS, before turning west to rejoin with the Dry Route near Fort Dodge. At a later date, an alternate road on the Wet Route was developed from present-day Dundee, KS, to the Pawnee Fork Crossing near present Larned.[1]

     The Wet Route was apparently used by early travelers and freighters, and the exact date for the opening of the Dry Route has not been found. The 1825 Sibley survey party recorded the Wet Route. References to the Dry Route appeared in the 1830s. Running approximately parallel to each other, the Dry and Wet routes were separated by a distance of up to ten miles. Because of the direct course taken by the Dry Route, it was several miles shorter than the Wet Route which followed more closely the course of the Arkansas River.

     The described difference in the lengths of these two routes varied from source to source. An unidentified officer (believed to have been 2nd Lt. William D. Whipple) who accompanied Bvt. Maj. Enoch Steen on his 1852 trip to New Mexico reported that the Dry Route saved about 10 or 11 miles. Capt. William J. Lyster, commanding officer at Fort Larned, reported that his 1877 odometer readings indicated the Wet Route to be 8.16 miles longer than the Dry Route. Robert Wright put the difference at 15 miles.[2] Such disparities may have resulted from differing points of origin. Captain Lyster, for example, measured the distances on both routes between Forts Larned and Dodge, which did not include the distances east of Larned. Steen's unidentified scribe calculated his measurement from the Dry Route crossing of Pawnee Fork.

     Used sparingly by the caravans because of the lack of water, the Dry Route was used more by the military and, later, by the mail contractors. In 1833 Capt. William Wickliffe's command escorted a caravan to the Arkansas River, then the northern boundary of Mexican Territory. After losing their way along the Dry Route, Wickliffe and the caravan finally arrived at the Lower Crossing of the Arkansas. From there the caravan, led by Charles Bent, continued on to Santa Fe, and Wickliffe's troopers returned to Fort Leavenworth. Ten years later Capt. Philip St. George Cooke was sent with 190 men to escort a caravan of American and Mexican wagons. On June 25,1843, the escort and caravan crossed Walnut Creek and continued past Pawnee Fork on the Dry Route. On June 29 they camped near the western terminus of the dry trail. The following day Captain Cooke's forces disarmed 107 Texans under the command of Jacob Snively who had entered United States territory to raid Mexican caravans.[3]

     In July 1846 the Magoffin trading party camped with Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny's Army of the West at Pawnee Fork. While the main body of soldiers and civilians took the Wet Route, the Magoffins, along with other civilians and 20 government wagons, were allowed to travel the Dry Route. In her July 11 diary entry Susan Magoffin wrote: "We are to go by ourselves across the prairie with little wood and perhaps no water, as is most generally the case at this point of the road.[4] In 1847 Solomon Houck's eastbound party met Lt. John Love's First Dragoons on the "bluff road," another name for the Dry Route. Such a designation is in keeping with Mollhausen's 1858 observation: "By the way, there is a road across the upland known as the 'Dry Road," Robert Wright stated, ''The dry route came across the divide from Fort Larned."[5]

     The Dry Route experienced a marked increase in traffic with the initiation of the mail service between Independence and Santa Fe in 1850 by Waldo, Hall & Company. Steen's unidentified diarist, describing the Dry Route in 1852, wrote: "The Santa Fe mail riders, it is understood, always take this dry route.[6]

     One of the most notable events along the Dry Route occurred in conjunction with a mail party conducted by Michael Smith in 1859. On September 24, Smith's party, escorted by Lt. Elmer Otis and thirty troopers, arrived at Pawnee Fork. After pasturing the mules, the mail party resumed travel, unescorted, on the Dry Route. A few miles out, 15 Kiowas rode out of a ravine and demanded sugar and crackers. Upon complying with the demands, Smith and this brother Lawrence were shot. A third mail company employee, William Cole. was wounded but escaped through tall grass. The next morning Cole made his way back to Pawnee Fork where he found Otis and his men still in camp.

     Returning to the scene of the attack with Cole, Otis and his men buried the Smith brothers and recovered the mail. James Brice later identified the location of the attack as Jones Point, 2.5 miles southeast of Fort Larned. At this site. Sawmill Creek still wanders across the prairie. Undoubtedly, this little stream was the ravine in which the Kiowas were hiding prior to the attack.[7]

     Much of the Dry Route can still be identified. From the location near Ash Creek where the Trail split, the Dry Route went southwest 3.5 miles to the site of the present Larned Cemetery, where a number of distinct ruts can be observed heading toward Pawnee Fork about one mile farther southwest. At Pawnee Fork, on the Larned State Hospital grounds, a DAR marker identifies a pronounced cutdown leading to the river channel. Prior to the establishment of Fort Larned, the Dry Route went directly to the southwest from this crossing.

     About one-fourth mile south of the crossing was Boyd's Ranche, originally established at the Pawnee Fork Crossing on the Wet Route in 1864 by Samuel Parker. In 1865 Parker abandoned that location and moved upstream to the crossing on the Dry Route where he built a second ranche. Parker later sold the ranche to partners Draight and Wagginer. Wagginer bought out Draight' s interest and continued to operate the little enterprise through 1867 when Indians raided the ranch, burning the buildings and driving off the livestock.[8]

     The following year, 1868, A. H. Boyd purchased the burned-out remains and built a complex of buildings, including a 20 x 40 foot sod house which served as store, saloon. and brothel. Boyd also constructed a toll bridge at the nearby crossing. The bridge was destroyed by flood waters in 1869, and the ranche continued in operation through 1872. With the coming of the railroad, the need for such establishments ceased, and the ranche was converted to a family farm.[9]

     No physical evidence of the ranche remains. The site, located on Larned State Hospital property, has been removed from cultivation by the Kansas State Historical Society for future excavation. Visitors to the area can readily identify the location by the weed growth in the staked off area in an otherwise cultivated field.

     Corresponding with the date of the Smith brothers' death was the establishment of a mail station on Pawnee Fork. On September 22, 1859, William Butze and a crew of men arrived to construct a station for Hall and Porter, successors to Waldo, Hall & Company. The location of the mail station, excavated by archaeologists in 1972, was approximately 2.75 miles west of the Dry Route crossing, on the south side of the river. In November 1859 a post office named Pawnee Fork was established at the mail station. Butze was appointed postmaster. The mail station site, identified by a simple marker, is included in a walking tour of Fort Larned National Historic Site.[10]

     Also in November of 1859, 75 troopers of Company K. 1st Cavalry, under the command of Capt. George H. Stewart and Lt. David Bell arrived to establish Camp on Pawnee Fork and protect the mail station. The name of the little post was changed to Camp Alert on February 1, 1860, and the following May it became Fort Larned. In June 1861 the post was relocated one-fourth mile to the southwest of its original site. Theodore Weichselbaum recalled Camp Alert as being "right across the timbered ravine, northeast of where they were building Fort Larned." Such a location would have been near the mail station. Just east of the mail station, a bridge was constructed across the Pawnee during the winter of 1859-60 by Butze and Captain Bell. The bridge, according to Robert Peck, was a private enterprise for which Butze and Bell were never paid. Lt. J. E. B. Stuart spoke of the bridge in his 1860 diary and described Camp Alert as being on the west bank above the bridge. His description confirms Weichselbaum's statement concerning the site of Camp Alert.[11]

     With the establishment of the mail station and post office, the Dry Route. which originally went southwest from the crossing three miles down river, changed course. A new road developed on the south side from the crossing of the river to the mail station. From this point the Dry Route continued southwest one-fourth mile to Fort Larned, skirted the southeast corner of the parade grounds, and proceeded to the southwest.[12]

     In 1864 the bridge built by Butze and Bell was burned by the Kiowas. The crossing continued to be used in the absence of the bridge. Faint evidence of the crossing can be observed on the south bank of the Pawnee.[13]

     In 1866 the post office was moved from the mail station to Fort Larned. Needing a more direct route to the new post office, the stage company developed a road which ran from the eastern terminus of the Dry Route near Ash Creek to Pawnee Fork. Lt. M. R. Brown, engineer with the 1867 Hancock Expedition, designated this the Santa Fe Stage Route. Captain Lyster spoke of it as the Dry Route to Zarah. Following the north side of the river westward, the new trail branched southwest at the site of the Butze and Bell bridge to connect with the road on the south side of the Pawnee before continuing westward through the present roadside park at Fort Larned National Historic Site. Here a DAR marker accurately marks the route.[14]

     From this location the new road proceeded to the west side of the post where it crossed the Pawnee at the sutler's store which also served as the post office. The site of the sutler's store, appropriately marked like that of the mail station, is included in the walking tour of the Fort Larned National Historic Site. From the sutler's store the Dry Route went to the southwest.[15]

     The Dry Route should not be confused with the military road which left the Dry Route about one mile from the post and turned south to merge with the Wet Route at Coon Creek one mile southwest of present Garfield, KS. Capt. Lyster reported "it was customary for all ox trains going west from Fort Larned to take the wet trail via Coon Creek Crossing, except after unusually heavy rain, when water could be found in holes and ravines usually dry." Approximately 3.5 miles southwest of Fort Larned a series of pronounced ruts from the military road are being preserved by the National Park Service in a 44-acre tract untouched by cultivation. Six miles to the south, on the north bank of Coon Creek, are several cutdowns in line with those ruts. One-eighth mile south of Coon Creek four distinct ruts of the Wet Route continue as extensions of the cutdowns on the north bank.[16]

     The Dry Route continued southwest from Fort Larned. Approximately five miles from the post a single rut of this route remains, even though the area has been cultivated for many years. Four miles farther southwest. the Dry Route reached Rock Hollow. one of several stage stops. Undisturbed by cultivation, this site retains much of its historical integrity and two short lengths of ruts remain. The Dry Route crossed Big Coon Creek approximately 15 miles farther southwest. Trader Franz Huning reported that water could be found on rare occasions at Coon Creek. Capt. Lyster indicated that Big Coon Creek was the only source of water on the Dry Route except for some holes on Little Coon Creek some twenty miles away.[17]

     In November 1853 a mail party conducted by Francis Boothe met near disaster at the Big Coon Creek Crossing when runaway mules overturned a wagon in the creek bed spilling out four passengers, among whom was U. S. Attorney for Territory of New Mexico Wm. W. H. Davis. In 1863 M. Contrill Company added two stage stations between Forts Larned and Lyon. Constructed of adobe, measuring 40 x 80 feet, the stations boasted walls nine feet high and two feet thick. One of the stations was established at the site of old Fort Atkinson west of present Dodge City. Historian Morris Taylor opined the other was constructed at Big Coon Creek.[18] In September 1867 Indians raided the Coon Creek Station, driving off seven mules. Robert Wright reported that in 1868 a small fort was located at Big Coon Creek garrisoned by a sergeant and ten troopers. Wright described the fort as being constructed of sod with a heavy clay roof and port holes all around. By the time of Wright's report, the stage line was discontinued on the Dry Route. Perhaps the army occupied the station following its abandonment by the stage company. At the Coon Creek Crossing deep cutdowns are yet in evidence on both side of the stream. According to Jack Montgomery of Kinsley, Kansas, a DAR marker placed at this site was removed in the early 1950s. Montgomery also recalled his father speaking of some sod walls still standing about one-fourth mile southwest of the crossing as late as 1885.[19] Three miles southwest of the crossing U.S. Highway 50/56 presently crosses the Dry Route at the little railroad stop named Ardell. West of Ardell one-half mile there is a DAR marker. The marker originally set one-half mile to the east near the Ardell elevator.[20]

     Five miles farther southwest was Dinner Station, a stop that appears to have been used for a limited period. Cultivation has destroyed all evidence of the Trail in the area. Another five miles to the southwest a profusion of ruts run one-half mile across a pasture. Three miles from there, eight miles from Dinner Station, was another stop called Arroyo Blanco. This site, never cultivated, boasts two pronounced ruts. Only one mile farther the Dry Route can be identified by ruts on both sides of the road. Approximately two miles southwest a DAR monument marks the route just one mile from Little Coon Creek. At the crossing of this creek William Carr Lane, returning east in 1853 from a disappointing year as governor of the Territory of New Mexico, observed that the stream had been drained dry by immense herds of buffalo. This area has escaped the plow. A number of cutdowns remain on the south side of the creek. Physical evidence of the crossing on the north bank has eroded away.[21]

Distances on the Dry Route
Kansas Weekly Tribune
January 25, 1866
Junction City Union
August 4, 1866
Walnut Creek to Fort Zarah to
Fort Larned - 32 Fort Larned - 31
Rock Hollow - 9 Rock Hollow - 9
Big Coon Creek - 15 Big Coon Creek - 15
Dinner Station - 8 Aroyo Blanco - 16
Arroyo Blanco - 8 Little Coon Creek - 4
Liitle Coon Creek - 4 Fort Dodge - 11
Arkansas River - 10  
Adkin's Ranch {Fort Dodge} - 1  

     A DAR marker, 10.5 miles southwest of Little Coon Creek, identifies the location where the Dry Route merged with the Wet Route near the north bank of the Arkansas River. At the juncture of the two routes was a large campground. Approximately one-half mile to the west was Adkin's Ranche, a stage station established in 1863 and destroyed by Indians in 1864. In 1865 Fort Dodge was established near the site of the station.[22]

     In June 1866 the Union Pacific Railroad, Eastern Division (UPRR, ED), reached Junction City which, in turn, became the new railhead and the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail. On July 2, the Barlow Sanderson Company initiated mail service from Junction City along a new route through Fort Ellsworth south to Fort Zarah and on to Fort Larned before continuing on the Dry Route to Fort Dodge. This route eliminated stage service on the Santa Fe Trail at all points east of Fort Zarah. By July 1867 a new railhead on the UPRR,ED was established at Fort Harker, and stage runs continued three times per week to Fort Larned and beyond by way of the Dry Route. Such traffic was short-lived, however, and in October 1867 the UPRR,ED was in service to Hays City. Within the month mail and stage service was initiated to Fort Dodge on the newly developed Fort Hays-Fort Dodge Trail, and overland traffic on the Dry Route came to an abrupt halt.[23] It had been a significant part of the Trail network.

Measurements 1877
     The following letter was used as a source for this Dry Route article. It was thought the entire text would be of interest. It was written by the commanding officer of Fort Larned, Capt. William J. Lyster, to the Asst. Adjt. Gen. Dept. of the Missouri, May 28, 1877.

     In obedience to your endorsement dated Headquarters Dept of the Missouri, May 4, 1877, directing me to measure the "wet and dry" routes between this point and Ft Dodge, I have the honor to submit the following report. The almost constant rains prevented my beginning the measurement until the 21 inst. I enclose herewith a sketch of the country passed over. The directions were taken by compass, and where opportunity offered Icompared with the section corner stones placed by the government surveyor, and found that the course indicated in the sketch is nearly correct. There were two odometers used, and from some cause that I cannot discover one lost (by slipping of the wheel I presume) as by testing on a measured mile. I found that the other one measured correctly. There distances are therefore taken from that instrument as both trails are measured by the same instrument, and under nearly the same conditions of roads. I believe the distances in length of the two routes as given is nearly accurate. From Ft. Larned to Junction of Wet & Dry Routes near Ft. Dodge Ks. is Fifty & 97/100 miles, Dry Trails. From junction near Ft. Dodge to crossing of Coon Creek by the "wet route" Fifty and seven hundredths miles From crossing of Coon Creek to Ft. Larned, 9 6/100 miles. The wet route being 8 16/100 miles longer than the Dry.

     On the Dry route there are no indications that water could be obtained in the Dry Season except at Big Coon Creek, thirty three miles from Ft. Larned, and possibly in holes at Little Coon Creek, forty two miles and from all I can learn from old plainsmen (which agrees with the appearance of the trails) it was customary for all ox-trains going west from Ft. Larned to take the wet trail via Coon Creek Crossing, except after an unusually heavy rain, when water could be found in holes and ravines usually dry.

     The trails at their greatest divergence are 10 miles apart, There was a bridge over the Pawnee below Ft. Larned, for a few months in 1865. I cannot ascertain exactly how long it was used, but about 4 months. Major H. C. Haas, Mo. Vols. was in command of this post at that time, and Iam informed that he now resides in Leavenworth and might supply this information. The Ford three miles below the Fort appears to have been the best, and has the largest trail leading to it. The next in importance as indicated by the size of the trail crossing it, was one mile below, the Fort, on the Dry route to Zarah.
     I am very respectfully your obt. servant,
     William J. Lyster


  1. Military Campaign Map, State of Kansas, 1872, RG 77, National Archives; R. M. Wright, "Personal Reminiscences of Frontier Life in Southwest Kansas; Transactions of the Kansas Stare Historical Society, 7 (1901-1902) 49; and Hobart E. Stocking, The Road to Santa Fe (New York, 1971), 125.

  2. Louise Barry, The Beginning of the West: Annals of the Kansas Gateway to the American West, 1540-1854 (Topeka, 1972), 1092; Capt. William J. Lyster, CO Fort Larned, to Asst. Adjt. Gen., Dept. of the Missouri, May 28, 1877, Fort Larned Letters Sent, National Archives Microfilm; and Wright, "Reminiscences; 4g. The complete text of Captain Lyster's letter appears in "Council Trove: Documents of this issue.

  3. Leo E. Oliva, Soldiers on the Santa Fe Trail (Norman, 1967), 36, 46.

  4. Stella M. Drumm, ed., Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin (Lincoln, 1962), 40-50.

  5. Barry, BeginnIng of the West, 700; H. B. MolIhausen, "Over the Santa Fe Trail Through Kansas in 1858; Kansas Historical Quarterly, 16 (Nov. 1948) 348; and Wright, "Reminiscences; 49.

  6. Barry, BeginnIng of the West, 949, 1092.

  7. Oliva, Soldiers, 117-118; Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West (Albuquerque, 1971), 62-63; and James Brice, Reminiscences of the Years Experienced on the Western Plains (Kansas City, MO, n.d.).

  8. Henry 800th, Centennial History of Pawnee County, 1876, manuscript.

  9. David K. Clapsaddle, A. H. Boyd, Entrepreneur of the Prairie (Larned, n.d.), 9-20.

  10. Leo E. Oliva, Fort Larned (Topeka, 1985), 7; and Robert W. Baughman, Kansas Post Cffices (Topeka, 1961), 99, 215.

  11. Oliva, Fort Larned, 7-8, 10-11; Theodore Weichselbaum, "Statement of Theodore Weichselbaum, of Ogden; Collections of the Kansas State HIstorical SocIety, 11 (1909-1910) 562; Brice, Reminiscences, 11; and W. Stitt Robinson, ed., "Kiowa and Comanche Campaign of 1860 as Recorded in the Personal Diary Of Lt. J. E. B. Stuart, Kansas Historical Quarterly, 23 (1957) 391.

  12. Map of Fort Larned and Area, 1864, RG 77, National Archives.

  13. Fort Larned, Medical History of Post, Vols. 164-167, Adjutant General's Office, RG 94, National Archives Microfilm; and Lyster to Asst. AdJt. Gen., Dept. of the MIssouri, May 28, 1877.

  14. Baughman, Kansas Post Cfflces, 46; Map of Fort Larned Area, Hancock Expedition Letters Received, Adjutant General's Office, Nallonal Archives MIcrofilm, Microcopy 619, roll 563; and Lyster to Asst. AdJt. Gen., Dept. of the Missouri, May 28, 1877.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Ibid.; MIlitary Campaign Map, State of Kansas, 1872; Santa Fe Trail Ruts, Fort Larned National Historic SIte (National Park Service, n.d.).

  17. Junction City Union, Aug. 4, 1866; Lyster to Asst. AdJt. Gen., Dept.of the Missouri, May 28, 1877; and Franz Huning, Trader on the Santa Fe Trail (Albuquerque, 1973), 78.

  18. Barry, Beginning of the West, 1187; and Taylor, First Mall West, 95.

  19. Ibid., 123; Robert M. Wright, Dodge City, The Cowboy Capital (Dodge City, n.d.), 108; and personal interview With Jack Montgomery, Kinsley, KS, June 24, 1990.

  20. Personal Interview WIth Rosetta Graff, Kinsley, KS, June 28, 1990.

  21. Junction Clcy Union, Aug. 4, 1866: and Barry, BeginnIng of the West, 1185.

  22. JunctIon City Union, Aug. 4, 1866; Lyster to Asst. Adjt. Gen., Dept. of the Missouri, May 28, 1877; Wright, "Reminisences, 49; Taylor, First Mall West, 107; and David K. Strate, Sentinel to the Cimarron (Dodge CIty, 1970), 12.

  23. Taylor, First Mail West, 115-116, 121, 123.
         Used With Permission of the Author
         David Clapsaddle

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