Fort Riley Its soldiers have guarded Americans as they settled the frontier, as they struggled toward statehood and as freedom was threatened on distant shores.
Over the years, Fort Riley has survived floods, tornadoes, fires, disease, war, peace and politics to endure as one of the nation's oldest strategic locations. Its 100,000 acres provide the Army with one of the best training grounds for soldiers, weapons and tactics, earning the post the distinction of "America's Warfighting Center."
Now, 150 years after its birth, Fort Riley remains part of the nation's defense and intertwined in the economic and social fabric of Kansas. But historians and past commanders warn that its future depends on not resting on its laurels.
"Fort Riley is a national treasure to the United States Army," declared retired Lt. Gen. Tom Rhame, commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley from 1989 to 1991. "It's a 100 percent usable post."
Fort's early years
Fort Riley's history and significance were dissected this month during a sesquicentennial symposium hosted by Kansas State's Institute for Military History and 20th Century Studies.
Kansas State University Jon Wefald said the post and the university -- the region's two largest employers -- share a relationship rooted in the territorial days when settlers and American Indians coexisted on the plains.
"Fort Riley has always been an integral part of north-central Kansas," Wefald said. "Indeed, there was a Fort Riley even before there was a Manhattan, a Junction City and most of the other surrounding towns and communities."
The post was founded in 1853 as Camp Center, because the Army believed the location was in the center of the United States. Later it was renamed Fort Riley after Maj. Gen. Bennett C. Riley, who led the first military escort along the Santa Fe Trail in 1829.
As the nation continued its westward expansion, Fort Riley became one of the few remaining outposts on the plains. The soldiers performed a constabulary mission, keeping the peace between whites and Indians and between pro-slavery forces and abolitionists in the pre-Civil War years known as "Bleeding Kansas."
Historians said the soldiers of Riley had the unenviable task of restraining the emotions that would fuel the Civil War. The duty was performed admirably, with combatants on either side of the issue complaining the federal troops were helping their opponents.
One soldier described duty in Kansas as "doing the difficult for the ungrateful."
Keeping the post successful
Among those stationed at Riley in those early days were future Confederate generals J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee.
Its future was solidified by efforts of local promoters and businessmen to connect the post with the Union Pacific Railroad by the fall of 1866. Kansans recognized that there was much to be gained from having a fort in one's back yard, a fact that remains true today. Fort Riley had a direct economic effect of $688 million in fiscal year 2002, with 10,000 soldiers, 12,000 family members, 19,000 retirees and 4,100 civilian employees.
From the beginning, historians said, the military realized the location, access to transportation and strong local support were key ingredients for a successful post. The military continues to invest in Fort Riley, with the completion in 1998 of upgrades to the railhead and improved training grounds and post housing.
"Not every installation enjoys the same support," Rhame said.
After the Civil War through 1946, Fort Riley was home to the cavalry and the likes of George Armstrong Custer and the Buffalo Soldiers. The post was used as one of the primary training grounds for soldiers, preparing 125,000 men for World War I.
The post was known for its amenities, such as arcades, theaters and shops, as well as world-class equestrian programs. The lifestyle made the post one of the most envied in the military, giving rise to the expression "Life of Riley."
Jeffery Clarke, chief historian for the U.S. Army Center of Military History, said the post's attributes likely would keep Fort Riley in the forefront of military plans for years to come.
"I think Riley has that," said Clarke, noting that the post is one of the military's 15 "power projection platforms", a post designed to train and mobilize soldiers for deployment globally.
Clarke said the transforming military places more emphasis on the ability of units to reach back to their home posts directly for support and soldiers. The post's ability to send equipment by rail and soldiers out of Forbes Field in Topeka or Marshall Field at Fort Riley enhances that reach, he said.
Such transformation has reduced the need in some planners' minds for basing units overseas and led to speculation that the headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division will return to Fort Riley, its home from 1955 to 1996.
Currently, 6,900 soldiers are deployed from Fort Riley, including the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, 1st Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division and the 937th Engineer Group. An additional 4,400 reserves have mobilized and deployed from the post.
Rhame, who led the 1st Division during Operation Desert Storm, said the post must be mindful of the future.
"What would you do if Forbes went away?" Rhame said.
Forbes was closed as an Air Force base in 1973, but remains home of the 190th Air Refueling Wing of the Kansas Air National Guard. Rhame said the runway will become obsolete over time without improvements. He suggests that local government officials pursue infrastructure improvements, such as expanding the capabilities of Manhattan Regional Airport.