The site of Fort Riley, Kansas was chosen by surveyors in the fall of 1852 and was first called Camp Center, due to its proximity to the geographical center of the United States. The following spring, three companies of the 6th infantry began the construction of temporary quarters at the camp.
On June 27, 1853, the camp’s name was changed to Fort Riley in honor of Major General Bennett C. Riley, who had led the first military escort along the Santa Fe Trail and had died earlier in the month.
Many of the buildings at the fort were built with the native limestone of the area, several of which continue to stand today. By 1855, the post was well-established and as more and more people moved westward, additional quarters, stables and administrative buildings were authorized to be built. In July, 56 mule teams arrived at the fort, loaded with materials and soldiers to expand the fort.
However, just a few short weeks later, cholera broke out among the fort and though the epidemic lasted only a few days, it left in its wake some 75-125 people dead.
As tensions and bloodshed increased between the pro and anti-slavery settlers, resulting in what has become known as “Bleeding Kansas,” Fort Riley’s troops took on the additional task of “policing” the troubled territory while continuing to patrol the Santa Fe Trail as Indian attacks increased.
When the Civil War broke out, the vast majority of the troops stationed at Fort Riley were sent eastward. However, some soldiers were left to continue to guard those traveling west and the base was utilized as a prisoner of war camp for captured Confederates. After the Civil War, troops from Fort Riley were needed to protect workers constructing the Kansas Pacific Railroad from Indian attacks.
In 1866 and 1867 Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer was stationed at the fort. Wild Bill Hickok was a scout for Fort Riley starting in 1867. On January 1, 1893, Fort Riley became the site of the Cavalry and Light Artillery School, which continued until 1943, when the Cavalry was disbanded. Several times throughout the years, the famous 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments of all-black soldiers, referred to as Buffalo Soldiers, were stationed at the fort.
Through both world wars and up until today, the post has remained active. The military reservation now covers more than 100,000 acres and has a daytime population of nearly 25,000, which includes the 1st Infantry Division, nicknamed the Big Red One.
Fort Riley is located on the north bank of the Kansas River three miles north of Junction City.
Fort Riley Museum Division
Fort Riley Hauntings
Artillery Parade Field – It is said that a woman wrapped in chains has often been seen walking across the field on clear nights. Who this woman was and what she might have done wrong in order to wind up in chains has never been known.
Camp Funston – Camp Funston was the largest of 16 divisional cantonment (temporary or semi-permanent military quarters) training camps constructed during World War I. Designated to be located at Fort Riley due to its central location in the nation, construction began on July 1, 1917, and the camp was completed on December 1st of the same year. With a capacity of over 50,000, it drew trainees from all over the Great Plains states. However, not long after the camp was completed and filled with soldiers, the 1918 flu epidemic, called the “Influenza Pandemic of 1918” hit the camp. Worldwide, this fatal flu virus cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history killed more people than did World War I, an estimated 20 to 40 million people, including some 675,000 Americans. A global disaster, the flu took its toll on Camp Funston and Fort Riley, like it did the rest of the world.
When the war was over in 1918, the camp, as well as the Army shrunk and by 1922, Camp Funston officially ceased to exist. Today, its many buildings now serve as temporary housing.
Though those WWI soldiers-in-training are long gone; seemingly, at least one of them has chosen to stay. First reported in the late 1960s, a ghostly soldier in World War I uniform has been seen in the area, continuing his patrol. The tale alleges that a Public Works employee first spied the ghostly figure while repairing downed electrical lines. In the midst of a snowstorm, he noticed a soldier, in a heavy wool overcoat and rifle over his shoulder, pacing back and forth near the site of the old World War I era gymnasium. After repairing the lines, he decided to share his thermos of hot coffee with the young man; however, when he approached the area where he had spied him, the soldier was gone. More perplexing was the snow-covered ground showed no sign of footprints. Many believe that this long-forgotten soldier is one of those who died during the 1918 flu pandemic.
Cavalry Parade Field – Allegedly, a group of spectral riders are often seen and/or heard galloping across Cavalry Parade Field. According to the tales, numerous people have first felt a low vibration and heard the sounds of distant thunder before seeing a troop of soldiers galloping across the parade grounds. The riders then slow at the intersection of Sheridan and Forsyth Avenues, where, after one rider dismounts, the rest of the troop wheels around and rides away.
The intersection where the riders stop is where Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer once lived. Though the original home where Custer lived burned down long ago, the house was in the vicinity of this intersection. Some believe that the original dwelling stood where Quarters 21 is now located.
In any event, this group of spectral riders is believed to be an escort for Custer, and the dismounting soldier is thought to be the Lieutenant himself.
Way back in 1867 when Custer was stationed at the fort, but off a military campaign, he got the news that cholera had broken out at the fort where his beloved wife Libby was waiting for him.
Fearing for her safety, he selected an escort of his finest horsemen, turned over the 7th Cavalry to another officer, and the men rode back to the fort as fast as the could. Though he arrived to find Libby in good health, Custer was later court-martialed for deserting his unit and was relieved of command for one year. Perhaps this emotionally charged event has become a “place memory” haunting.
Interestingly, when these dark riders “appear” upon the parade grounds, different people sense them in different ways.
Some witnesses both see and hear the troops, but even more report that they can either see them or hear them, but not both. Those that hear them often hear various sounds, including the sound of thundering hoofs, as well as voices and the metallic jingle that accompanies horsemen.