The earliest pioneers left from Independence, MO, as we did, and followed the Kansas River valley to the Blue River, and then up to the Platte.
A few days out, the emigrants ran across Alcove Spring, located in northeastern Kansas. We found Alcove Springs the first day, tucked well off the main highway. Today it is still a nice, shady area with water flowing over the rocks -- "as cold and pure as if it had just been melted from ice," according to Edwin Bryant who was there in 1846 with the ill-fated Donner-Reed party. The water was high in the Blue River that year, which delayed their crossing, and was one of the reasons the Donner party fell behind schedule and got caught in the early winter snows of the Sierra Nevada.
At Alcove Springs there is a monument to Sarah Keyes, a member of the Donner party who expired from tuberculosis here in Kansas, long before the party was stranded in the Sierra Nevada. Originally there were 87 members of the Donner party. Only 48 survived to reach California, many of them that winter of 1847 resorting to cannibalism to avoid starvation. This monument reads: "God in his love and charity, has called in this beautiful valley, a pioneer mother."
But all that was far in the future for the Donner party for, as you can see, when you're in Alcove Springs, you still have a long way to go.
The Pony Express shared the trail with the emigrants for its short-lived life. For all of its lore and legend, the Pony Express ran only 18 months, from April 1860 to October 1861. We saw this statue in Marysville, KS, commemorating those trailblazers who carried messages between the Pacific and Atlantic in a then-record time of ten days. The Pony Express closed down in 1861 after the transcontinental telegraph was completed.
Next stop for us was Rock Creek Crossing, over the border in Nebraska, where we saw true ruts from the Oregon trail. It turns out that the small creeks were sometimes harder for the pioneers to cross than the major rivers, because the banks were too steep for the wagons. The emigrants either had to lower the wagons with ropes, or else cut away the banks to make a more gradual incline. Eventually, enterprising settlers built bridges over the creeks and charged a toll to cross. This bridge is not original, but the trail is -- although it's been worn down considerably more over the years.
We finally reached the Platte River, a waterway that the emigrants would follow all the way from Fort Kearney to Wyoming.
Fort Kearney also later served as a station for the Pony Express, and still later was there to protect workers building the Union Pacific railroad. But after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the Oregon Trail fell into disuse, and the fort was discontinued as a military outpost in 1871. There are no original buildings left at Fort Kearney, but a stockade and several buildings have been reconstructed.
And now we leave Fort Kearney, heading off along the Great Platte River Road toward Wyoming . . . .