Nestled in the rolling Flint Hills is Fort Riley, Kansas, now known as the "Home of America's Army". It is located along I-70 about 125
miles west of Kansas City between Junction City and Manhattan. Fort Riley has a daytime population of over 20,000 (including civilians) and over 13,000 soldiers and family members live on post. If you include retirees and family members Fort Riley is responsible for the presence of 40,000 people. The fort covers 100,656 acres, of which 70,926 acres are used for maneuver training. The economic impact on the surrounding area is estimated at almost $600,000,000.00 per year (most of this in payroll).
In 1852, this site at the junction of the Republican and Smoky Hill rivers was chosen by the lst U.S. Dragoons for its fort. The original name for the fort was Camp Center because it was thought that this site was very close to the center of the contiguous U.S. The early purpose for the fort was to protect the trade routes of the Sante Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail. It originally housed just three companies of the 6th Infantry Division.
In 1853, Camp Center was renamed Fort Riley, in honor of Maj. Gen. Bennett C. Riley, who had led the first military escort along the Santa Fe Trail in 1829. When the U.S. Civil War broke out in 1861 Fort Riley was used to house Confederate prisoners (Kansas was a "free" state"). Once the war ended, Fort Riley resumed its role of protecting trade routes, including providing protection to railroad lines being built across Kansas.
Until World War I, Fort Riley housed many various regiments of the infantry and cavalry, including the famed Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry.
The start of World War I changed Fort Riley forever. The facilities were greatly expanded and housing for up to 50,000 men became possible as Fort Riley becomes one of the few training stations for soldiers before they are sent overseas. At this time the 89th and 10th Divisions were stationed at Fort Riley.
In 1940, World War II was looming for the U.S. and Fort Riley was greatly expanded with the purchase of 32,000 acres of land. Fort Riley was used as a training ground for the 2nd Cavalary Division and 9th Armored Division (along with many other smaller regiments). In 1947, the last tactical horse unit in the country was inactivated. Until 1955, the fort was used primarily as a training ground for the infantry.
Arrival of The Big Red One:
In 1955, the 1st Infantry Division, affectionately known as The Big Red One was moved to Fort Riley, including two brigades, the Headquarters and Headquarters company. The 1st Infantry Division was shipped off to fight in the Vietnam War in 1965 and an additional 50,000 acres were purchased in 1966 to provide adequate training space for the war effort. Fort Riley maintained its status as the home base of The Big Red One until 1992. The surrounding communities of Junction City, KS, Ogden, KS, and Manhattan, KS all received tremendous benefits from having large numbers of troops settled in the area. Housing units, restaurants, and entertainment facilities thrived.
The Modern Era:
In 1992, Kansas received terrible news. The Headquarters of the 1st
Division was moved to Leighton Barracks in Wuerzburg, Germany. Six of the seven brigades were moved from Fort Riley along with most of the four separate battalions. Over 12,000 troops and their families were moved from the region. This loss of personel led to the complete collapse of the city of Ogden, which became an almost immediate ghost town. The surrounding communities all suffered immensely as apartments and homes were vacated, restaurants emptied, and other entertainment facilities were grasping to stay alive.
The fort now maintains just three brigade-sized elements. The "1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division", the "3rd Brigade, 1st Armor Division", and the "937th Engineer Group (Combat)". In 1999, Fort Riley again became an active Division Headquarters with the reactivation of the 24th Infantry Division which controls three brigades of National Guard troops. However, the three brigades of the 24th Division remain in the south-east U.S.
Assets now include: over 800 tracked vehicles (incl. tanks and Bradleys), over 3500 wheeled combat vehicles, 15 rotary wing airplanes, 21 firing ranges (artillery, hand grenade, machine gun, pistol, air gunnery, mines, etc...), and a rail head that allows over 400 rail cars of equipment to be loaded each day.
When living in Manhattan, KS from 1989-1996 I came in close contact with many of the soldiers and civilians stationed at Fort Riley. Late at night you could hear troops training with artillery and Apache helicopters. The windows would rattle, like a distant thunderstorm. Occasionally a really loud BOOM! would scare me from my sleep, even though the fort was miles away. We would often joke, "they got a little too close to town that time".