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Rails shift from Cow Creek to Ellsworth
Trails to Rails Part 3
up fort harker2
Photo by Jim Misunas Great Bend Tribune The Union Pacific Railway Company, Eastern Division Siding, Fort Harker, Kansas.

Editor’s Note: Local historian David Clapsaddle writes about aspects on the Santa Fe Trail. This series profiles how Santa Fe Trail freight, passengers and mail shifted from the overland trail to railways.


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.  
This diversion eliminated the next stop on the stage route, Cow Creek, located 12 miles southwest of Plum Creek, 10 miles northeast of Fort Zarah.
By the time of 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 28-by-50 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.  
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 13 other houses were under construction and that the population consisted of 40 men, four women, eight boys, seven girls, 14 horses, and about 29 and a half dogs.  
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.
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 1,000 to less than 50.
During that same period, the UP was constructed to Fort Harker. 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.
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.”
The best business houses that Geary noted were those associated with the two giant forwarding firms, C.H. Chick Company and Otero 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.
(To Be Continued)