Fort Leavenworth has been around long before there was a state of Kansas; in fact, it dates back to when Kansas Territory was still Indian Country. That was the original purpose of the fort, to protect the Indians from the white man, and the white man from the Indians. However, the very method of arriving at the Post was by no means easy.

Back in those days, steamboats were just beginning to get a good foothold on some of the nations rivers. All of the recruits who enlisted back east for service were first sent to Carlisle, Pa. Here they received recruit training. When they were ready to join their posts in the West, they were sent by railcar to Harrisburg, Pa., then by canal to a point well within the Allegheny Mountains, they had to disembark and proceed over the mountains on foot, then back onto another canal boat down to Pittsburgh, Pa. From there they jumped on a paddle wheeler down the Ohio and up the Mississippi to St. Louis.

But, the trip from St. Louis to Leavenworth was a different story; the recruits still had another 467 river miles to go. Sometimes, they were able to secure a raft, keelboat, or a canoe up to Fort Leavenworth, provided they were lucky enough to arrive at St. Louis when the river was not yet frozen over. If the new recruits were unlucky enough to arrive at St. Louis after “Ol’ Man Winter” had set in, they would have to march that distance over some pretty lousy roadways.

Today, the Missouri River has a navigation channel 9-feet deep and 300-feet wide, but before the Missouri River was dredged out, channeled, straightened, and levied in for navigational purposes, it was a much different creature than it is today. The Missouri used to spread out across the entire river valley floor, it wasn’t simply one big river like it is today; it had many different channels and lots of willow covered islands. However, that made it very shallow with swift currents and was prone to flooding at the drop of a hat.

The Missouri is the longest river in North America, longer even than the Mississippi. Today it is just more than 2,300 miles from its source down to St. Louis. Back in the early days of Fort Leavenworth, the U.S. Army topographical engineers measured the river at 2,824 miles in length, some 500 miles longer than it is today.

Steamboats were heavy and clumsy and the old rivermen believed that steamboats would never be practical on the Missouri because of the shallow channels and unpredictable sandbars. They actually had to build one designed especially for the Missouri. Instead of having one big paddlewheel on the rear like the Mississippi boats, they had a paddlewheel on both sides, so that if need be, they could simply crawl over the sandbars. The first steamboat to actually make it up the Missouri as far as Leavenworth was the Western Engineer in the summer of 1819.

This was 25 years before the steam whistle was invented, but the Western Engineer had its own way of announcing its presence. The escape pipe from the boilers projected over the bow and was in the shape of a huge serpent with black scales and a fiery red mouth and long tongue. When a band of Indians appeared on the river banks, the serpent moaned and groaned, spouted and hissed both fire and smoke. The ponies bolted and the Indians fled in absolute terror. They believed the white man had done captured the Indian’s “River God” and made him carry their boat up the river. However, there was not another steamboat after the Western Engineer until the Yellowstone made it up this far in 1832.

Reference: “The Missouri River” by Cecil R. Griffith.

Ted W. Stillwell is available to speak before any club, church, civic, senior, or school groups.

To reach Ted W. Stillwell, send an email to or call him at 816-252-9909.