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Fort Larned National Historic Site is administered by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. The Site, consisting of 403.19 acres Federally-owned, 269.2 acres privately owned scenic easements, and 46.0 acres state-owned land, is located about six miles west of the Pawnee County seat at Larned, Kansas. Closest major towns are Salina, 100 miles to the northeast; Hutchinson, 75 miles to the east; Wichita, just over 125 miles to the southeast; Hays, 60 miles to the north; and Dodge City, 60 miles to the southwest.

The Fort and its environs are astride the Pawnee River, nearly eight miles above its confluence with the Arkansas River, in the Arkansas River Lowlands of the Great Plains Physiographic Province. This area is primarily agricultural with minor light industry limited to the larger communities. The Site itself is accessible from U. S. Highway 156, a secondary feeder linking U. S. 56 at Larned and U. S. 50 at Garden City, Kansas, about 100 miles west of Larned. U. S. 183, a north-south secondary, crosses U. S. 156 about five miles west of the Fort.

Historic Appearance

The following was reported by the Post Surgeon in the 1860's:

"The fort is bounded on the northwest by the Creek (Pawnee River) and on the east by a dry shallow ravine (the dry oxbow), an old bed of the creek, which once supported a large growth of trees. To the south a flat prairie extends six miles to the Arkansas River, beyond which a low range of sand hills terminates the view. The soil of the prairie is a granitic sand intermixed with . . . animal and vegetable matter. The bed of the Arkansas River consists of sand and sometimes of rounded pebbles . . . . The bottom land of the Arkansas a few feet above the level of the water varies in width from half a mile to two miles and is covered with good grass from which hay is obtained for use of the post. Beyond this to the south the ground rises to a wilderness, sandhills, affording shelter to herds of bison in the winter and on the north with a desolate prairie whose principal growth is buffalo grass, the gourd, and various species of cactus. Occasionally a long swell in the ground terminates in an abrupt hill of sandstone."

The vista was much altered during the 19th century. Watercourses were bordered by scattered hardwoods and brush when the Army first occupied Fort Larned in 1860. During the Civil War, the large numbers of volunteer troops stationed at the post denuded the banks of the Pawnee and portions of those of the Arkansas. Although regrowth began in the later 1860's following the war, it was not until the 20th century that the heavy vegetative bordering was naturally replaced. During the 1870's the troops planted cottonwood, ash, elm, and boxelder trees around the parade ground and seeded bluegrass. However, these programs had few lasting results.

By the mid-1870's, the wildlife of the area had been affected as well. The buffalo and other ruminants had been virtually eliminated, and with them many of the predators and small wildlife. With the introduction of range cattle grazing in the 1880's, the area began to assume its modern, present appearance.

Present Appearance

During the 20th century, grazing began to give way before large-scale crop farming, fences were erected, and roads and manmade structures appeared on the scene. Today, the expansiveness of this part of Kansas remains, but the natural conditions have been greatly altered from the mixed grass prairie of the past to the intensive agricultural area of the present.

The Pawnee River, which flows through the National Historic Site, is too variable in volume to support extensive irrigation, so during the early 20th century a concrete dam was constructed below the present Site boundary and the riverbanks were diked. This impoundment backs water through the Site and for about six miles upstream. The river silted the impoundment rapidly, so that while the depth of the water is subject to the normal fluctuations caused by precipitation patterns and irrigation practices the stream bed and water surface have been raised 12 to 14 feet above that of the 1860's. The water right associated with the dam is still held by a private owner. As a part of this water right, the dry oxbow within the Historic Site is closed at either end by earth dams and has in the past been filled from the river by means of pumps (not filled 1975-1978). Accordingly, instead of the grassy and wooded depression that existed historically, the oxbow has been at times a swamp. Ditches and dikes still traverse the area.

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Last Updated: 14-Aug-2009