Fort Harker was a short-lived but relatively important outpost along the Smoky Hill Trail as well as the military road from Fort Riley to Fort Larned. Located in Ellsworth County, about a mile north of the Smoky Hill River, Fort Harker was an active military fort from November 17, 1866 to October 5, 1872.
The fort was named after General Charles Garrison Harker who was killed in the Civil War at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. It was built as a larger replacement for Fort Ellsworth which had been located about a mile southwest of Fort Harker.
Fort Harker served as an important outpost in the ongoing Indian Wars that took place throughout Kansas during this time period. During the early years the troops from Fort Harker provided escorts for more wagon trains in one year than troops stationed at any other frontier fort in the post-Civil War era. At its prime Fort Harker was home to 700 soldiers and 1400 civilian employees, the majority of which were teamsters.
In July 1867 the Union Pacific Eastern Division Railroad had reached Fort Harker with the tracks running through the fort and a depot being established just outside of the fort. After the arrival of the railroad the need for escort patrols shifted further west and Fort Harker’s role changed to that of a supply depot and troop staging site. At that time two large warehouses were built and the railroad became the primary resupply route for the fort, from which supplies would be carried by wagon train to points farther south and west. By 1867 the fort was home to a four-company garrison and had over 75 buildings including a hospital. In the summer of 1887 Fort Harker, Fort Hays and Fort Larned were home to nine companies of the 10th Cavalry which were comprised of black soldiers. Under the command of Colonel Benjamin Grierson these Buffalo Soldiers were tasked with the job of escorting stages and wagon trains on the Smoky Hill and Santa Fe Trails as well as protecting railroad construction crews. This was the beginning of over two decades of service by the 10th Cavalry providing support and protection for the westward expansion of the United States.
In 1868 General Sheridan moved his command from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Harker for the purpose of protecting settlers and conducting campaigns against the Native Americans. In 1869 Brevet Colonel Joseph Tilford with two troops of General Custer’s 7th Cavalry were stationed at Fort Harker before leaving on a campaign in February 1870. Then in May 1870 General Custer himself passed through Fort Harker with the rest of the 7th Cavalry on their way from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Hays and ultimately to their defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
A report published in 1870 indicates that the main buildings of Fort Harker were located near the center of the Military Reservation and were laid out around a parade ground that measured 252 yards long and 120 yards wide. At the west end of the parade ground there was two-story stone guard house that held six small cells on the second floor. This building still stands today and houses a museum. Behind the guardhouse there were four wood framed buildings that were used as stables for the cavalry. On the eastern side of the parade ground there were eleven buildings that were used as officer quarters. Three of those were built out of the same native red sandstone as the guard house. The largest of the three was the commanding officer’s home, which had eight rooms and a kitchen. That building is also still standing today and after many years of serving as a private residence it is now owned by the Ellsworth County Historical Society and can be toured as part of the Fort Harker Museum Tour. Two of the other Junior Officer’s quarters were made of the same red sandstone and are also still standing today. One is being used as a private residence and the other is restored and owned by the Ellsworth County Historical society and can be toured today. In 1870 there were four or five sets of enlisted men’s quarters which were wood framed buildings and each one would accommodate a single company of soldiers (about 100 to 250 men). There was a separate kitchen and mess hall for the enlisted men as well as a sink or privy behind each of the company quarters. These wood framed outhouses were about 13 feet by 8 feet and were built over 10 foot deep, wood lined pits. Another eight framed buildings were southwest of the guardhouse and used as workshops and then later used to house married soldiers and laundresses. Other buildings included three large storehouses, the post bakery and sutler’s store.
Another stone building was the post hospital which was also located on the east end of the parade ground. It had a two story administration building and two wings each of which had a capacity for twenty beds. The post cemetery was about ¼ mile southwest of the post and in 1870 had 183 graves most of which were cholera victims from the 1867 epidemic.
Most of the water to supply the fort came from two springs located about 300 yards west of the post along Spring Creek. However the hospital, and three officer’s quarters had their own well. One of the cisterns that held water for the Commanding Officer’s home still exists. In 1867 a large wood framed ice house was built near the springs and could store up to 400 tons of ice that were cut each winter from the Smoky Hill River.
The decline of Fort Harker began in 1871 as the area became more settled and there were less troubles with the Indian tribes in the area. With the expansion of railroads its importance in the distribution of supplies also diminished in March 1872 the majority of the 5th Infantry Division was relocated to Fort Union. Then in April 1872 the 5th Cavalry left Fort Harker leaving only a handful of soldiers who remained unit October 1872 when the military abandoned the fort.
Today the town of Kanopolis, Kansas occupies the site of Fort Harker. There are four of the original stone buildings still standing and being kept up. Three of the buildings are maintained by the Ellsworth County Historical Society. The old guardhouse is now a museum and the Officer’s Quarters and one Junior Officer’s Quarters are also restored and open as part of the museum tour. Another Junior Officers Quarters building is being used as a private residence.
Fort Harker is a worth stop that is located not far from Interstate 70. While in the area be sure to check out historic Ellsworth, Kansas, Kanopolis Lake and Faris Caves.
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