LIEUT. FITCH'S REPORT ON THE SMOKY HILL ROUTE.
FORT LEAVENWORTH, Sept. 25th, 1865.
Sir -- I have the honor to report that in compliance with Special Order No. 143, Hd. Qrs., Dept. of Missouri, dated Fort Leavenworth, June 9th, 1865, I left Fort Leavenworth on the 13th of June to accompany the Butterfield Surveying Expedition on the route to Denver City, via Smoky Hill River.
No assistance having been furnished me, and my instructions authorizing me to employ such as I might need, I employed Chas. H. Fitch as First assistant, and Daniel Clark as scout and Second assistant; and with my party fully equipped I took the old Fort Riley road, which I followed as far as Fort Riley.
At this point we were joined by Major Pritchard of the Second Colorado Cavalry, who was in command of the escort, which at this time consisted of two companies of the Third Wisconsin Cavalry, under Capt. Pond. From that point I proceeded on the Fort Larned road as far as Fort Ellsworth, on the Smoky Hill River, at which point I diverged from the old road and bore west up the river on the north side. Having been instructed to report all streams that should be bridged, and their depth and width, together with the estimated cost of such bridges, I commenced my observations on the old road, as I found that the only difficult part of the route, at a point fifty miles west of Fort Leavenworth, on the west side of Soldier River. The road enters upon the Pottawatomie Reserve, and through the entire reserve for a distance of thirty miles will be found innumerable small streams, most of which should be bridged. It being Indian land, private enterprise is not available, and the United States is now paying toll over no less than four bridges in a distance of thirty miles. All of these streams could be bridged for a sum not exceeding that now paid for toll in the course of a year. At present there is no bridge across Cross Creek, it having washed away while I was camped on its banks.
Between the Reserve and Fort Riley, a distance of thirty-five miles, the streams are good and need no bridges. Directly, at Riley, on its west side running through the Reserve and by its junction with the Smoky Hill forming the Kansas River, is the Republican, the largest tributary of the Kansas with the exception of the Smoky Hill. At the crossing of this river on the Military Reserve is a ferry belonging to private parties, and the Government is paying toll daily for crossing its own teams on its own reserve. This stream should be spanned by a good, substantial structure, though its cost will be considerable owing to the size and nature of the stream. I did not make an estimate of the cost of bridging, as I supposed it had already been done by engineers stationed at Fort Riley.
Leaving Fort Riley, on the Fort Larned road passing through Junction City, at a distance of thirty-five miles, we crossed the Solomon's Ford of the Smoky Hill at Whittly's Ferry. The Solomon is a fine rapid stream, with high banks, and has a water-course eighty feet in width; will require a span of two hundred feet, which can be put up there at a cost of $6,000. Should there be stone piers erected, it would cost considerable more, as the country is level and affords but little building-rock. The bridge could be built to advantage at this particular point, as there is a high island right in the middle of the stream that would afford a good foundation for a pier or bent to the bridge.
The country on this stream is the finest stretch of land in Kansas, having no bluffs, and a soil ranging from five to twenty feet in thickness, while all the streams in the neighborhood are very heavily timbered. The stream bears southeast into Smoky Hill, one mile below where we crossed it. After crossing we bear a little south of west, across a high level bottom between the Smoky Hill, the Solomon and the Saline, and at a distance of eight miles we cross the Saline at Woodward's Ferry; the upper ferry being impracticable on account of the road leading to it. The Saline is a fork of the Smoky Hill, similar to the Solomon, with the exception that the water is impregnated with salt, and it will require about the same bridge. Country is level and the timber fine. Two miles and a half west, we again touched the Smoky Hill, at Salina, the county seat of Dickson, on the eastern terminus of the great bend of the Smoky Hill, bearing south of west from Saline.
At a distance of thirty-two miles we reached Fort Ellsworth, on the western terminus of the great bend of Smoky Hill. Here we were joined by two companies of the Thirteenth Missouri Cavalry, under command of Capts. McMichael and Snell.
After resting a day and killing a few buffalo, which we now found in considerable numbers, and diverging from the old road, we bore a little north of west upon the north side of the Smoky Hill River, near our old trail of 1860, which had at this time become entirely obliterated. Our road from this point lay over a broad stretch of level bench-land, covered with a luxuriant growth of buffalo-grass, intersected every three or five miles with fine streams of water. Our party at this time consisted of Col. Eaton and his party of constructionists, twenty-six in number; eleven of our mule-wagons loaded with tools, reapers, and everything necessary for putting the road in fine condition; Major Pritchard; two hundred and fifty cavalry as escort, and the Engineer Corps. On the 14th day of July, with everything looking fair and all in good spirits, we started on our work. I was accompanied by my wife and Capt. West by his.
Five miles west of Fort Ellsworth we were fairly in the buffalo range; for miles in every direction as far as the eye could see, the hills were black with those shaggy monsters of the prairie, grazing quietly upon the finest pasture in the world. Should I estimate the number of buffalo to be seen at one view at a million, it would be thought an exaggeration, but better authority than myself has estimated them at millions, or as being greater in number than all the domestic cattle in America.
Truly it has been well said, that the Smoky Hill is the garden-spot and hunting-ground of America.
Following along on the high level bench before spoken of, erecting mounds at every station, our route lay through a fine, rich and fertile country bountifully supplied with wood, water and grass, everything necessary to make a good wagon-road or railroad, finding fine springs as we traveled along. At thirty-four miles west of Fort Ellsworth, we found a coal-bed on what we named as Coal Creek.
Parties that accompanied us on our expedition and who were capable of judging, pronounced it as being a fine vein, and capable of yielding in sufficient quantities to pay for working it.
Twelve miles farther west we came to Big Creek, a large stream having a fine valley and heavy timber. Here we made a good rock ford, erected a large mound and stake for a home and cattle station. We camped here over Sunday and Monday, to rest and hunt.
On the morning of the 18th we left camp, bearing little south of west over the same character of country, close to the Smoky Hill, which at this time, owing to the rains, would have floated a large steamboat. At a distance of twenty-eight miles we came to a large spring, one of the largest and finest in the west. Fifteen miles farther, we bore away from the river and kept on high level land about three miles north of the river, which at this point makes a southerly bend.
On the south of the river, opposite this point, we discovered high bluffs covered with cedar. Twelve and a half miles farther west, we camped at the head springs of a stream emptying south three miles in the Smoky Hill. The water and grass at this point are unusually fine; we called the place Downer Station. Nine miles west we came to a basin of springs covering an area of one mile square, one of the finest spots on the route. We called it Rushton. Nine and one-quarter miles farther west, we crossed Rock Castle Creek, and camped two days to rest. The scenery here is really grand; one mile south is a lofty Calcasieu limestone bluff having the appearance of an old English castle, with pillars, and castellated towers, in every direction. We named it Castle Rock.
Leaving Rock Castle Creek we once more bore a little south of west into the divide between the Smoky Hill and the creek; keeping along the bench of Smoky, crossing streams at convenient distances for stations.
At a distance of about fifty miles we found the largest spring on the route, situated on Ogallallah Creek, in a valley one-half mile south of Smoky Hill. Eight miles farther on, we crossed the north fork and kept up the south fork. The great difficulty on what was known as the old P.P. road lay in the fact that emigration kept up the north fork and then bore across a divide eighty-five miles without water to the Sandy, lengthening their route. We followed the south fork, finding wood, water and grass all the way. Twenty-eight miles from the forks we came to a bottom extending to within two and a half miles of Big Cottonwood Grove, covered with grass six feet high, and containing some splendid springs. This we called the Meadows, and left a reaper in the grass.
Two and a half miles west of the Meadows, we camped at Big Cottonwood Grove. This is a grove of large cottonwood trees, and used to be a celebrated camping-ground for Indians. Sixteen and a half miles west, we reached the Cheyenne Well, at the head of Smoky Hill. This well was built by our party in 1860, and is one of the finest of wells, yielding sufficient water to supply a heavy emigration. At this point we left the Smoky Hill, bearing south 57 degrees west, across the divide between Smoky Hill and the Sand branch of the Arkansas. At eleven miles erected a mound for a well to be dug, and at twenty-one miles came to Eureka Creek, at the junction with Sandy. Here we found a large living stream of water and good grass; we bore from this point north of west up the Sandy seventy miles, to its most northern bend, finding an abundance of water, grass, and some timber, though the latter is scarce. Fourteen miles east of this point we had our first view of the mountains, which we had been prevented from seeing on account of clouds. This morning the snow-capped mountains burst upon our view, looming far above the clouds. The long-expected view cheered our men and we pushed on with renewed vigor, now that our work seemed almost done and our goal appeared within our reach.
Leaving the Sandy at the bend before mentioned, we bore northwest across the divide, crossing Beaver at nine miles, then the Bijou and Kroway, also other well-watered streams, and struck the old Taos road at Cherry Creek, nine miles from Denver. This we followed into Denver, where we were received with congratulations.
Our trip lasted after leaving the old road twenty-four days, six of which we rested. We lost but one mule, and one pony that died of colic.
The advantages of the Smoky Hill route over the Platte or the Arkansas must be apparent to anybody. In the first place, it is one hundred and sixteen miles shorter to Denver, making two hundred and thirty-two miles on the round trip, and emigration, like a ray of light, will not go around unless there are unsurmountable obstacles in the way. In this case the obstructions are altogether on the Platte and Arkansas. Aside from the difference in distance in favor of the new route, you will find no sand on the Smoky Hill route, whilst from Julesburg to Denver, a distance of two hundred miles, the emigrant or freighter has a dead pull of sand without a stick of timber or a drop of living water, save the Platte itself, which is from three to five miles from the road; and when it is taken into consideration that a loaded ox-train makes but from twelve to fourteen miles a day and never exceeds sixteen, it will not pay, and will double the distance to drive to the Platte, the only water in the country, for the purpose of camping; and all will admit that the Platte waters are so strongly impregnated with alkali as to render it dangerous to water stock from it. The carcasses now lining the road along the Platte bear evidence to its distinctive qualities, whilst on the new route not a particle of this bane can be found.
Another advantage of the new route is that on the Platte from the junction to Denver, a distance of eighty-five miles, hardly a spear of grass can be found to help hide the sandy, desert-like appearance of the route, whilst on the new route, an abundance of fine buffalo and grama grass can be found all the way. The near approach to the mountains does not seem to affect it, as all kinds of grass can be found from one end of the route to the other.
On the new route we saw no sign of Indians, or in fact any signs later than last fall. This can be accounted for from the fact that the Platte and Arkansas routes being so heavily garrisoned, Indians, with their natural shrewdness, will not wedge themselves into a strip of country entirely surrounded by Government troops.
In addition to the advantages above enumerated, the new route is located through its entire length along and directly parallel to the Central Pacific R.R., which is now running daily trains as far as Lawrence, forty miles west of the Missouri River, and I have been confidently informed that the cars will be as far as Topeka, the State capital, this fall, which will shorten a stage route over the new line sixty miles, making the distance to be traveled by coach but five hundred and twenty-four miles, or one hundred and seventy-six miles less than by the Platte and two hundred and seventy-six miles shorter than by the Arkansas, as it is seven hundred miles from Leavenworth City or Atchison to Denver by the Platte route and eight hundred by the Arkansas.
Further, should emigration ever increase to such an extent as to cause a scarcity of timber, nature has bountifully supplied the Smoky Hill with an abundance of bois devache, which is always cheerfully chosen by the tried emigration in preference to cutting timber for a fire.
Having been instructed to suggest places suitable for Military Posts on the route, I would state that I deem but two necessary at present, and position can be found for those, -- one at a point on Smoky Hill, seventy miles west of Fort Ellsworth, at the mouth of Turkey Creek, and one at the forks of Smoky Hill; at both of those places an abundance of water, wood and grass can be found convenient.
Having also been instructed to find an avenue through which the Santa Fé trade could be directed via the Smoky Hill, I desire to report that at a distance of three hundred and eighty-six miles west of Fort Leavenworth and one hundred and ninety miles west of Fort Ellsworth, a creek bearing northeast empties into Smoky Hill on the south side, which I deem available (from my own personal observation, and from information gained from the Indian tribes in that vicinity in 1860), by following it to its head and crossing the Big Sandy at a point northeast of Fort Lyon and intersecting the Arkansas road at Fort Lyon. Circumstances prevented me from fully testing this, though I think it could be done with advantage to the Government.
Accompanying this report, you will find a copy of my notes, and also a correct map, which I hope will show truly the relative positions of the two routes, as I have tried to describe them in this my report, fairly and impartially; and having first returned by coach over the Platte route, I think I am fully qualified to decide between the two.
I am, Sir,|
Your Obt. Servant,
(Signed) JULIAN R. FITCH,
Second Lt. Signal Corps.
To Major Geo. T. Robinson,