Part 17: Bent's Old Fort National Historical Site


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The Trip

We had a few days to kill waiting for truck actions to be completed so we decided to explore the area around La Junta, CO.  La Junta sits on the banks of the Arkansas River which, in addition to providing irrigation water, was a well-traveled segment on the old Santa Fe Trail.  Bent's Old Fort (as opposed to the "New Fort" 40 miles downriver) was a trading outpost that was established in 1833 by the Bent brothers (William and Charles) and another prominent figure in Colorado history, Ceran St. Vrain.  The trading post operated from its inception in 1833 to 1849 providing a source of goods for travelers and trappers as well as a safe haven from potentially hostile Indians.

The Fort was excavated in the middle nineteen seventies and then restored in the nineties using the records of an Army officer that was stationed there during its operation as the basis for the reconstruction.  While reconstructed with modern materials, the restoration provided an authentic look-and-feel of the original structures.

Since we had a National Park Pass, entrance to the Fort was "free" so we grabbed the cameras and headed out.

The Photos

The photos below are what we saw.

At the entrance to the fort are some old wagons that were representative of the vehicles used during the Fort's active years 1833-1849.  This type of wagon was very similar to the Calistoga-style wagon used by the Fourty-Niners during the gold rush years.

This type of wagon was used for cargo hauling.

A replica of an old field artillery piece.  The barrel looked real and original, but the balance of the frame and carriage was rebulit. 

Bent's Old Fort was restored from ruins according to the log book notes of an officer that was stationed at the fort during it's operation, thus producing a faithful reproduction of the original structure.

Designed in the Spanish style, the fort had an inner courtyard with rooms around the perimeter.  Second story dwellings and store rooms doubled as look-out posts.  The photo above was a test photo taken with the HDR setting enabled on my Olympus EM-1 camera.  Taken during mid-day, the contrast ratio between bright sun and the shadows is larger than the dynamic range of the imaging chip can accurately capture.  HDR takes several photos of the same scene and digitally takes the best portions of each in an attempt to faithfully reproduce the image.  While the dynamic range did improve and the shadow areas are better rendered, the process seemed to add a slight grey cast to the image.

Timber construction was used throughout and when combined with adobe resulted in a durable structure.  But, adobe "melts" when exposed to rain over the years resulting in a finite life for the structure unless maintained.  Effectively abandoned in 1853, it melted away until restored in the middle 1990s.  This is a HDR photograph as well.  The device on the posts at the center-left of the photo above is a fur press used to compress sets of hides for transport.

Only portions of the fort had second story rooms.

This is a reconstruction of a "trading room" where goods exchanged hands.  Since this was one of the most remote outposts, it was likely that the fort had one of nearly everything available for a price.

Another view of the trading room.

I was surprised to discover that there was a band of peacocks living at the fort.  They were tolerant of the humans.

The blacksmith shop had a good selection of tools that were likely used at the fort including anvils, vices and a animal-hide bellows for the furnace.

The wood shop was similarly equipped with a broad set of tools from the period.

In addition to building furniture, the wood shop repaired wagon wheels which were vital to travel in the west.  On the bench, a replacement spoke is being fabricated.

I found this map quite interesting in that it was printed in 1846.  It listed the names of all the Indian tribes that occupied the various regions of the west.

The fur press is clearly visible in the photo above as is the entrance portal.

The cook's room had an extensive fireplace and dutch ovens that were covered in live juniper wood coals.

Outside of the cooks room were a set of "hornos" (adobe ovens) that were used for baking.

One of the trading rooms had a substantial collection of old flint-lock muskets and buffalo hides.

Given the remoteness of the outpost, learning that there was a billiards room was surprising.  But, the table was transported to the fort at great cost.  The game was used to entertain visitors during their long trip west.

The area to the east of the fort was lush and green.  The stands of Cottonwood trees were nourished by the groundwater from the nearby Arkansas River.

A portion of the river is visible in the photo above.  The clouds were building on the horizon and later in the day we would experience a brief thunderstorm.

The banks of the river were soft with gooey, clay-based mud.  We ventured no closer for fear of losing our shoes in the mud.  The river level was high due to spring melt-off in the headwaters area in the mountains to the west.

Bent's Old Fort is worth a visit if you are in the area.  It is sad that virtually none of the original structure remains, but the reproduction was faithful to the original dimensions.  I am guessing that the artifacts in the exhibits were imported from other locations rather than being found during the excavation of the site.

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