Fort Caspar

 Fort Caspar (reconstruction), Casper, Wyoming, July 11, 2010
Fort Caspar (reconstruction), Casper, Wyoming, July 11, 2010

During the summer of 1859, Louis Guinard, a French Canadian married to a Shoshoni woman, completed a toll bridge, 1000 feet long and 17 feet wide, over the North Platte River in the vicinity of modern day Casper, Wyoming.  Known both as Guinard’s Bridge and the Upper Platte Bridge, it was built where a ferry had had operated for several years for Mormon emigrants.  Another toll bridge, about five miles downstream, had been built by another French Canadian, John Baptiste Richard in 1852.  Known as “Renshaw’s Bridge” due to Richard’s pronunciation of his own last name in his thick French accent, it was sometimes referred to as Lower Platte Bridge after Guinard’s bridge was completed.

Guinard also built a trading post on the south side of the river, adjacent to the bridge.  The trading post also served as a stagecoach and Pony Express station as well as a telegraph office.

When the Civil War began, most army troops from the western army posts and forts were withdrawn. Along with the passage of trail emigrants, encroachment by miners, ranchers and others brought friction in the region with the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne tribes in the early to mid 1860s.  The Army sent a detachment of of troops in 1861 to guard the bridge and, in part, to protect the new telegraph line.  The next year, the Army purchased Guinard’s  station.  Now called Platte Bridge Station, the new army post was expanded and outfitted as a one-company military post.

Located near present day Casper, Wyoming, Platte Bridge Station guarded the  upper  crossing of the North Platte River.

Following the December 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, about 4000 Lakota, Southern Cheyenne, and Southern Arapaho, including about 1,000 warriors moved north from Colorado and Kansas to join northern relatives in the Powder River Country. The next spring, the Lakota and Cheyenne decided to attack along the North Platte River during the summer.  A primary target was to be the Platte Bridge Station.

Battle at Platte Bridge Station, July 1865 – painted in 1933 by William Henry Jackson
Battle at Platte Bridge Station, July 1865
Painted in 1933 by William Henry Jackson

On July 24, 1865, an Indian army camped a few miles from Platte Bridge Station. The next day, a group of ten warriors attempted to draw soldiers across the bridge and to the hills into an ambush.  The appearance of excited young warriors on the horizon frightened  soldiers back to the post, spoiling the ambush.

Before dawn on July 26, a detachment of 14 infantry, led by Captain Adam Leib,  and 6 cavalry troops, under Henry C. Bretney, arrived from Sweetwater Station on their way to Laramie for supplies and over-due payroll.  They found the station on 50% guard, molding lead bullets. Their arrival brought the stations complement to 120 soldiers.

Leib informed Major Martin Anderson, the station commander, that the detachment had passed a small train of 5 empty mule-drawn wagons returning from Sweetwater to Laramie.  The train was manned by 14 teamsters, escorted by 11 enlisted cavalry soldiers. While officers at the post discussed sending out a relief force to drive off the Indians, none was dispatched that day.

The next day, all the post officers declined to lead the relief force, some placing themselves on the sick list.  Second Lieutenant Caspar W. Collins, of the 11th Ohio Volunteer cavalry, en route back to his company farther west, had arrived at the station the day before.  Collins was ordered to lead the relief.

Battle of Platte Bridge (Wikipedia)

At dawn numerous Indians were observed by sentinels on the surrounding hills observing the station. At 7:00 a.m. a larger force forded the river east of the station and rode just out of rifle range, taunting the garrison. Collins and a small detachment of 25 men of the 11th Kansas crossed the Platte Bridge at a walk, then formed into a column of fours and rode west along the north bank at a trot to drive off any hostile Indians. Behind him, a 30-man contingent of the 3rd U.S.V.I. and its 11th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry escort crossed the bridge on foot as a support force for Collins, forming a skirmish line after they observed 400 Cheyenne emerge from the sand hills and arroyos between themselves and Collins.

The Indians had concealed large bands of warriors near the bridge and over the crest of the hills, possibly as many as a thousand Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho. Collins wheeled his detachment into two lines and charged the first group to emerge, only to find himself heavily outnumbered. He then ordered a retreat to the bridge by breaking through the Cheyenne to his rear. Simultaneously, yet another large force, this of Lakota, rushed the bridge from the south. The skirmish line at the bridge held the Lakota at bay with volley fire until 21 of the 26 troopers with Collins, all wounded to some extent, fought their way through. Five were killed, including Collins, who was wounded in the hip and shot in the forehead with an arrow while trying to aid a wounded soldier.

In addition to the losses at Platte Bridge, all 26 men of the supply train were killed.

Following the battle, additional troops were stationed at the Platte bridge post, which was renamed Fort Casper in Collin’s honor, though the name was misspelled. His given name was used as there was already a Fort Collins in Colorado, named after his father.

Construction of the Union Pacific to the south and removal of the telegraph line to the southern route diminished the importance of Fort Casper. It was abandoned in 1867, with some of its materials used in the construction of Fort Fetterman.

The fort was reconstructed in 1836 by local workers funded by the federal Work Projects Administration.  Built on the foundations of the original fort using sketches made by Lieutenant Collins in 1863, the reconstruction bears the proper spelling of Collins’ given name, Fort Caspar.

Fort Caspar is owned by the City of Casper, which also operates a museum at the site.

Fort Caspar’s reconstruction reflects the post’s appearance during the years 1863 – 1865, when it was called Platte Bridge Station.
Fort Caspar’s reconstruction reflects the post’s appearance during the
years 1863 – 1865, when it was called Platte Bridge Station.

history, museum, parks, photography, plains, Wyoming

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