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US (Kansas) US Travel

Timing is everything: Fort Scott National Historic Site

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The dark buildings straight down this path include retail shops, restaurants, and a senior services center. During the fort’s early years as a frontier outpost, the view down this path would have included only empty open prairie.

Photos and fun facts from Fort Scott National Historic Site

Over the Christmas holidays, my daughter and I visited my hometown, Fort Scott, Kansas (pop. 8,000) in the southeast corner of the state. While there, we decided to visit what locals call “the fort” —  Fort Scott National Historic Site.

During my growing up years, I toured the fort numerous times, and my daughter had taken the tour when she was little. Even so, we were both up for a refresher tour of the fort that, in 1853, was closed by the time it was truly needed about ten years later.

According to American Heritage, “…the fort was a very peaceful place in its first years, sending escorts on occasional excursions West and troops to the Mexican War but seeing no action whatever nearby. In 1853 so little was happening that the fort was abandoned, its buildings sold. More bad luck: This happened just in time for Bleeding Kansas, the civil war that preceded the Civil War, when a fort here was truly needed.”

Yes, timing is everything.

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The hospital building at right contains the visitors’ entrance and gift shop on the lower floor. The upper floor contains medical exhibits, including a sick ward, and a multi-media theater.

We visited the fort on Thursday, January 2, and it was obviously a slow day for tours. We arrived at the entrance at 1 p.m. Park Ranger Laura Abbott was gearing up to conduct a tour that would begin in about five minutes, so we decided to wait a few minutes and then take a tour that she told us would last about one hour.

Since no one else was waiting in the visitors’ center, we enjoyed a private tour with Abbott. It was nice to be able to take our time and experience a more personalized tour than we would have experienced in the busy season. Plus, I was able to ask lots of questions and re-learn lots of forgotten facts, such as…

  • Fort Scott was established in 1842 and was one of a line of nine forts from Minnesota to Louisiana that promised a “permanent Indian frontier.”
  • Fort Scott was named for U.S. Army Gen. Winfield Scott.
  • Infantry and dragoons from Fort Scott left the fort to fight in the Mexican-American War from 1846-48.
  • The fort was abandoned in 1853 as the idea of Manifest Destiny took hold, causing the promise of a “permanent Indian frontier” to die.
  • Fort Scott served as a major supply depot for the Union armies and a hospital 
  • Fort Scott also served as a refuge for people fleeing the war, such as displaced Indians, escaped slaves and white farmers.
  • Kansas entered the Union as a free state on Jan. 29, 1861.
  • The 1st Kansas Colored Infantry was sworn in at Fort Scott. “This was one of the first African American regiments to engage Confederates in combat,” according to the National Park Service’s Fort Scott brochure.
  • The fort became a national historic site in 1978 after decades of random use and misuse, and the kind of neglect that just happens with old, always-been-there structures. 

These photos follow the route we took through the seventeen-acre historic site. The last building we toured was the Western Hotel, located just north of the large, square hospital, contains new interactive displays with video interviews with historical characters. Scroll to the bottom of this post to see two of those videos.

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This gift shop and book store is located inside the Visitors Center, which is located on the first floor of the hospital building. The hospital is shown in the top photo. Free tours start here.
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When we began our tour, the skies were bright with clouds and sun. Officers’ Quarters No. 1 and No. 2 are shown in the distance. Dragoon Stables are on the left. The Gunpowder Magazine stands at center left.

 

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After its initial closure in 1853, the fort’s Infantry Barracks became the pro-slavery Western Hotel in 1855. The building in the distance on the right was the anti-slavery Fort Scott “Free State” Hotel. The fort would become caught up in the controversy over whether Kansas would become a free or slave state during the Bleeding Kansas years before the war. 

Let’s start the photo tour…

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The Guardhouse, located right next to the Visitor Entrance, was where soldiers were stationed to receive arriving visitors, who could even sleep overnight on wooden shelving. The stone house was also used to discipline criminals in cells such as this one. 
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Ranger Laura Abbott shows us the Dragoon Stables…

Did you know that the colors of horses were used to identify army regiments?

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…and the Dragoon Barracks’ mess hall…
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…with its kitchen…
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…and the sleeping dorms upstairs. Enlisted men slept in the bunks, while non-commissioned officers slept in the narrow gray cot along the wall near the fireplace.
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Four enlisted soldiers shared each bunk bed. Yes, two men slept on each mattress. The beds were labelled with their names, which I’ve circled on the photo above. 

Did you know four men shared one bunk bed in the sleeping dorm?

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The laundresses worked and stayed in this room down from the mess hall. These quarters contained a bed on the opposite wall (not shown). 
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Park Ranger Laura Abbott leads the way to Officers Row.
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Inside the residence of Captain Thomas Sword, family and guests were entertained in these second floor rooms. The building contained three floors.
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The parlor at Captain Sword’s residence on Officers Row.
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On the third floor, the Sword’s clothing is laid out.
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The Sword Family enjoyed a large front porch view of the entire fort grounds.
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The Quartermaster’s Storehouse contains food and other basic supplies on three levels, including a totally dry stone basement.
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The Quartermaster Storehouse kept basic food supplies.
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The marks of a diligent craftsmen’s hewing marks still show themselves today in the storehouse.
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Audio narrations are available when you dial the number shown on cards at many points across the grounds. 
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Inside the Bake House, large ovens provided bread on a daily basis.

Did you know the army didn’t issue bread recipes until the late 1800s and that men were not allowed to eat fresh bread? Stale bread was thought to be better for digestion, according to a placard in the Bake House.

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Wooden spatulas needed to be long enough to extend through the entire ovens to pull out the bread.
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A tallgrass prairie trail shows what the area surrounding the fort would have looked like.
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Near the tallgrass prairie trail, you’ll see several tidy stone structures used to house carriages and other vehicles.

 

 

 

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Howitzer and artillery cannons stand quietly in the Post Headquarters.

Did you know that a howitzer was carried in three pieces by donkeys? It could be reassembled and fired within one minute, according to a placard inside the Post Headquarters.

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Artillery notes and inventories decorate the wall in the Post Headquarters.
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The backdoor and transom windows of the Post Headquarters make a nice picture, I think.
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The backside of Officers Row looks nearly identical to the front side.
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A perimeter walking trail borders the northern edge of the grounds. The banks of the Marmaton River are just a short distance further north of this trail. The river formed a protective boundary for the fort, eliminating the need for walls on Fort Scott, Abbott said.
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This structure is not identified on the park’s brochure and I didn’t ask the ranger, but if memory serves me right, it is a replica of the original well house.
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The ammunition magazine, a round brick building isolated in the middle of the fort, stored gunpowder. Notice the lightning rod (circled in red) placed precisely to keep lightning away from the explosives inside the structure…
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…like these.
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The upper floor of the hospital building, shown here, houses a sick ward and medical equipment and supplies. 

Did you know that many soldiers left the hospital in worse shape than when they entered, due to ignorance about sterilization?

According to a placard in the Fort Hospital, “In threading the needle for stitches, it was customary to point the silk by wetting it with saliva and rolling it between the fingers.”

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Abbott invited us to visit in early December to attend an annual candlelight Christmas tour of the fort.

Inside the Infantry Barracks, new displays and exhibits bring tourists back to the past when these areas composed Bleeding Kansas, a region torn between Union and Confederate causes and beliefs.

Interviews with a variety of area residents speak directly to you in these video displays inside the Infantry Barracks. Here are two previews of the video exhibits.

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New displays and interactive exhibits keep visitors involved and learning.
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Believe it or not, these bricks cause controversy in my hometown. Many people don’t like to drive on the rough, loud, and bumpy brick-paved streets.
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Fort Scott National Historic Sites owes its existence to Congressman Joe Skubitz, who served the local constituency from 1963-1969, and saw to it that this area be turned back into a historical tour destination.
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Park Ranger Laura Abbott wraps up our tour near the Bake House. Before moving to Fort Scott, she worked as a Park Ranger on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

 

Stop in at Fort Scott National Historic Site the next time you’re in southeast Kansas. Thousands of people cruise right by Fort Scott on U.S. Highway 69, which bypasses the town, as they make their way north to Kansas City (about an hour and a half away) or to points south. Plan out your itinerary to take a tour or just walk across the grounds; it would make a nice break on your journey. After all, timing is everything.


Thanks for reading! Touring the fort took about an hour and a half and was a great way to spend part of an afternoon. Also, it reminded me how fortunate Fort Scott, Kansas is to have this important historic site preserved and honored here. 

Don’t forget to tour the destinations near your home. Here’s a recent post about another local getaway.

 

By marilynyung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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