Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fort Larned National Historic Site

The photo from the small town in Kansas reminded me of Fort Larned NHS, which is no doubt one of the less visited sites in the National Parks system. It's a few miles west of Larned, Kansas, which is on US-56 well south of I-70, so unless travelers feel a need to get to Dodge City they're not likely to go anywhere near FOLS. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent there as an NPS employee updating the List of Classified Structures, but in all honesty don't know if I would ever have bothered to seek it out if I hadn't been getting paid to go count the buildings* to make sure they hadn't managed to misplace any.

Fort Larned was established 150 years ago, in 1869, to protect freight traffic, wagon trains, and the mail service along the Santa Fe Trail. (One of the fort's features is a piece of land that still has original trail ruts visible.) Troops stationed at the fort included the 10th Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers. This year's 150th anniversary celebration will include a Buffalo Soldier Cavalry Drill on Labor Day weekend as well as Buffalo Soldier living history programs on October 10. After the fort was decommissioned in the 1880s the site was privately owned for many years. Fort Larned NHS was established by an act of Congress in the 1960s. The Park Service has restored many of the buildings, and has a really nice little museum on-site. In addition to the museum that's part of the Visitor Center, they've restored a number of the buildings, including outfitting the interiors to look like what they would have back in 1870 when the fort was fully manned. As the above photo shows, when you look into the barracks there's bedding on the bunks, uniforms hanging on hooks, and so on, right down to oil cloth on the tables. The blacksmith shop has an interpreter doing living history (i.e., actual blacksmithing), and the setting overall really conveys a sense of what the fort was like 140 years ago.

Of course, part of the integrity of the site lies in the fact it's far enough outside the town of Larned, Kansas, to be safe from development. The viewshed is empty enough to help a visitor forget which century it is. Overall, the Fort is a great example of just how good the National Park Service can be at preserving historic sites.

It's also an interesting contrast with a state-managed site, Fort Hays State Park located in (of course) Fort Hays, Kansas. Fort Hays (pictured below) has, if I recall correctly, two buildings left. The park sits on the edge of town, it's next to a busy street, a golf course abuts it, and in general there isn't a whole lot there anymore that's especially evocative of the nineteenth century. Exhibits are pretty minimal, although the interpretive signage is good, and the overall integrity of the site is rather dismal. It's almost as much of a disappointment to a knowledgeable visitor as the park's buffalo "herd," which when I last saw it consisted of three animals.

I don't mean to suggest that state parks are always less well-done than NPS sites; I've seen some great examples of state historic parks over the years. It's just that in this specific case the difference between the two sites is particularly striking.

[*Seriously. My job involved making sure that what was listed in a database inventory of historic structures matched up with what was on the ground at the parks.]


  1. Hum, I've been in Dodge City.

  2. I live in the east, but I'd really like to see Bent's Fort.

    If you get up to the Washington, DC area, not far from Mount Vernon (but on the other side of the river) is Fort Washington. This was one of the forts which the British sailed past, unscathed or challenged, to get to Washington and burn the town.
    I passed it a few years back and it seems to have been restored and is in some kind of use, but it Has A History.

    When I was a small boy an uncle came for a visit and we went to the place (it had been abandoned at the time) and showed my father and I through it. He had been there during the 1930s as a member of the CMTC, remembered it as having been full of snakes, and he found quite a few for us while we were there. One of the staff at Mount Vernon told me that the people on the site now reported much the same thing.

    When I was a small boy we were stationed at Ft. Myer, and my father used to go to the Soldiers Home to visit someone, and he would leave me with some of the residents while he was doing his visiting. These were horrible, awful, evil, WONDERFUL old men who had been soldiers in the 1880s, and they would tell me stories, teach me poems and songs...and admonish me to not repeat them around women, especially my mother.
    They said this with a certain smile...

    When I would come back, those still alive would ask if I had repeated what I'd heard from them, and they'd say, "Got yer jacket dusted, huh, kid...? Well, we TOLJA not to, didn't we...? Here's a story, kid..."

    Well, there weren't any recreational therapists back then, so they had their fun where they could...and some of the figures from their stories STILL crawl in bed with me, and I've got enough of my own.

    Places like that fort coupled with the stories would make quite an evening's entertainment.

  3. Sarge, I've been to Fort Washington (, although to be honest I spent most of my time there just sitting down near the river watching the boats and the fishermen and generally decompressing from several days of meetings in the DC area instead of appreciating the fort itself as much it as deserves. It's another one of those lesser known sites. Gets a ton of use by locals as a place to picnic or jog, but is probably effectively invisible to most tourists coming from outside the DC area.

    Never been to Bent's Old Fort. One of these days. . .


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