Old Wagon Wheel Ruts on the Oregon Trail
The Old Trails West
American history during the mid 1800's was really the history of westward migration. Some refer to it as Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States would occupy the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The fact is that there were many reasons for the emigrants to head west. The 1849 California Gold Rush was certainly one of them. As it so happened, the discovery of gold in California coincided with both the end of the Mexican-American War and California statehood in 1850. The U.S. had taken over the American southwest and the California region from Mexico as a result of winning the war. Another reason for the westward migration was the desire for a fresh start. Land in the far west was plentiful and for whatever reason it offered hope to families that may have had a difficult time in the east. Military forts kept being constructed along the line of furthest migration. The forts kept being built further west with each year. In a large way the forts were established to foster emigration. Their duty was not only to provide a degree of security for the pioneers but also to act as a resupply base along the trail. Two good examples of this is both Fort Kearney in Nebraska and Fort Laramie in Wyoming.
The Old West Trails Still Can Be Seen
It's amazing in a way that now in the 21st century the modern traveler to the American West can still observe many physical reminders of America's westward expansion that occurred more than 150 years ago. There are many areas of the west where wagon wheel ruts put there by pioneers on the Oregon Trail are not only visible but are in excellent shape. One good example of this is in the Guernsey Wyoming area. Guernsey Lake State Historic Site has an excellent area where the ruts from these 1800's covered wagons weighing about 2,500 pounds each can be viewed. Another good area is site of the old Rock Creek Station. This site located in Nebraska has an area of old wagon ruts that stretch about 1,600 feet. Rock Creek Station had many purposes. Built in 1857, it is located near the present day town of Endicott Nebraska and served as a camping area for settlers on the Oregon Trail as well as a stagecoach stop for the overland stage line and it also served as a Pony Express station. The area is now a 350 acre state historic park.
Another is Three Island Crossing State Park in Idaho. Oregon Trail pioneers were well acquainted with this Snake River crossing. It was one of the most famous river crossings on the historic trail until the year 1869. This is when Gus Glenn constructed a ferry about two miles upstream. The Glenns Ferry community puts on an annual event called "Three Island Days" which is a commemoration of the crossing and takes place the second Saturday of each August.The park is also home to the Oregon Trail History and Education Center. You can still see the wagon ruts where the pioneers crossed the Snake River so many years ago.The location is southeast of Mountain Home Idaho and just 4 miles off Interstate-84. It's a convenient site to visit while traveling through Idaho.
Within Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center’s over 800 acres you can still see pioneer wagon ruts. This is an area where wagons took the Fort Kearney cut-off from Nebraska City. Fort Kearney was a major supply base for overalnd travelers and many used the cut-off to stock up on supplies. Fort Kearney was perhaps the most important military installation during the earlier days of the Oregon Trail. The Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center is located in Denton Nebraska.
The Oregon Trail passed through Soda Springs Idaho, which was then known as the "Oasis of Soda Springs". The route which was established in 1842 lies between Fort Laramie Wyoming and Boise Idaho. The ruts are clearly visible on the left as you enter Oregon Trail Park in Soda Springs. On a sadder note, there is a grave marker visible of seven people killed by Indians as they stayed behind the main wagon party in search of lost livestock. The family slain included a mother, father and five children. This is of course another reminder of the extreme dangers taken on by pioneers traversing the Oregon Trail. The family was found by trappers passing by the next day.
Reminders of the Old Santa Fe Trail
For those who may be closer to the old Santa Fe Trail there are good pioneer wagon wheel sites in Kansas. The Santa Fe Trail closely follows State Highway 56 across the northern portion of Osage County Kansas. Several areas of the trail's ruts are visible near Overbrook. In Overbrook Kansas from U.S. Hwy 56 go south on Cedar St. and it will take you to the local cemetery. You'll see a faint rut when you enter the cemetery and then a marker with more ruts at the cemetery's rear. The nearby Osage State Fishing Lake is another location with marked pioneer wheel ruts.
The Santa Fe Trail also went directly through Burlingame Kansas. The Santa Fe Railroad intersected the Santa Fe Trail in 1869 in Burlingame. If you follow a boy scout trail west to Council Grove you will see several markers denoting pioneer wagon wheel ruts from the old Santa Fe Trail. You can also get to Council Grove by driving another 43 miles west on U.S. Hwy 56. The Kansas State Historical Society can provide you with maps for the hiking trails.
Below are links to interesting sites that feature remnants of the old trails and rock etchings by pioneers which are invaluable history artifacts. These sites could make a good addition to you western vacation trip planner.
Fort Kearney Nebraska
Fort Kearney, the key fort along the Oregon Trail.