The first city to be incorporated in the Territory of Kansas, Leavenworth is on the Missouri River not far northwest of Kansas City. The settlement was predated by Fort Leavenworth, founded a little way up the Missouri River in 1827.
Fort Leavenworth is the oldest active military installation west of the Mississippi, and is steeped in history.
It was where the first Buffalo Soldier regiment was formed in 1866, and the fort was instrumental in the westward expansion of the United States.
The frontier spirit is alive at Fort Leavenworth’s museum, while the city is a welcoming community with a bustling downtown that has almost 300 independent businesses.
1. Fort Leavenworth
Established in 1827, Fort Leavenworth is the oldest active military installation west of the Mississippi River, and the second-oldest active United States Army post west of Washington, D.C..
During the United States’ western expansion, Fort Leavenworth was an outpost for thousands of soldiers, settlers, surveyors, American Indians and preachers on their long journeys.
A place with this kind of historical importance demands closer inspection. There’s a museum, which we’ll come to later, but the fort welcomes tourists under normal circumstances.
After picking up a daily pass from the Visitor Control Center, you can embark on the absorbing Historical Wayside tour, made up of 22 Wayside Points of Interest around the base.
The sites are marked with limestone pedestals, with audio recordings that you can access on your phone.
2. Buffalo Soldier Memorial Park
Eventually becoming a byword for all the African-American regiments formed in 1866, the name “Buffalo Soldier” specifically comes from the 10th Cavalry Regiment, which was born here at Fort Leavenworth.
Active up to 1944, the Buffalo Soldiers served in the Indian Wars, War with Spain, Philippine Insurrections and WWII.
In the second half of the 19th century peacetime duties involved protecting settlers as they traveled west and helping to build the infrastructure needed for new settlements in the West to grow.
The striking Buffalo Soldier Memorial Park, next to the fort’s Merritt Lake, was dedicated by Colin Powell in 1992.
The centerpiece is a 13-foot bronze statue weighing 2,400 lb and depicting a cavalryman atop a waterfall, accompanied by a series of busts for significant figures, including Colin Powell, the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State.
3. C. W. Parker Carousel Museum
In 1898, Charles Wallace Parker (1864-1932) built the first Carry-Us-All amusement ride. This invention proved to be such a hit that he soon relocated his growing company from Abilene to Leavenworth.
Here Parker’s carousels evolved, with ever more ornate horses and a variety of other animals to ride. Up to 1955, the Parker brand was a giant of the amusement industry, surviving the Great Depression.
Today 16 of the company’s 1,000+ carousels are still in working order, which isn’t bad considering these rides only had a five-year lifespace.
Two Parker carousels can be found at the Carousel Museum in Leavenworth, and the star of the show is the 1913 Carry-Us-All, with 31 stunning, hand-carved wooden figures including four ponies, two bunnies, a sleigh ride and tea cup.
You can find out all about Charles Walker Parker, and check out more historic artifacts, including a much older Primitive Carouse, a Cylinder Piano from 1900 and the Liberty Carousel (1950s), by Parker’s son Paul.
4. Historic Downtown Leavenworth
For a town of just over 37,000, Leavenworth’s downtown has a real energy to it. This spark might come from the fort, constantly bringing new people from different backgrounds and parts of the country to the heart of the city.
Against a fine historical backdrop there are more than 275 businesses downtown, around a tenth of which are restaurants.
The district’s continued vitality has a lot to do with the Leavenworth Main Street Program, established in 1995 and reinforcing downtown as a place to shop, dine, be entertained and educated or just take a wander.
On that subject, the walk from Broadway to the river is a treat, and we’ll talk a little more about the riverfront below.
5. Frontier Army Museum
If you want to get to know the military exploration of the American west in the 19th century, there’s no better place to start than the Frontier Army Museum on Fort Leavenworth.
This story is told at the Beyond Lewis and Clark exhibit, endowed with equipment, uniforms and weapons from the fort’s early days, up to General John Pershing’s chase after Pancho Villa (1916).
The museum’s origins go back to an artifact collection that was begun in 1938 when the horse-drawn wagon shop closed.
This has now grown to more than 7,000 items, while those historic wagons are on display in the Vehicles Exhibit. One of many outstanding pieces is Abraham Lincoln’s carriage from 1859 when he visited Missouri and the Kansas Territory.
6. Richard Allen Cultural Center & Museum
This institution was established in 1992 to help preserve the rich heritage of African-Americans and celebrate their impact on American society and history.
The location is significant, at the former home of U.S. Army Captain William Bly, who was a Buffalo Soldier in WWI. Across the street meanwhile is the Bethel A.M.E. Church, part of the Underground Railroad in the mid-19th century.
The center and museum was expanded in 2002 and has an enlightening and at times sobering collection of artifacts.
These include personal items belonging to people who served at Fort Leavenworth, including Colin Powell, as well as photos of Leavenworth’s 19th-century African-American residents and bronze statues of Buffalo Soldiers.
Especially compelling are the details about the female Buffalo Soldier, Cathy Williams (1844-1893) who enlisted under a male pseudonym.
7. Carroll Mansion
Founded in 1954, the Leavenworth Historical Society is based at an ornate 1880s Queen Anne-style mansion at 1128 Fifth Avenue.
This 16-room residence was expanded from an earlier and humbler four-room farmhouse dating back two decades before.
The interior is like a time warp to turn-of-the-century Leavenworth, with fixtures and furnishings painting a picture of affluent life in the town in that period. There’s marvelous workmanship throughout, from handcrafted woodwork to stained glass windows.
The museum also doubles as a research center for local history, and is the home of the Miss Everhard Glass Plate Negative Collection, composed of almost 30,000 glass plate negatives, revealing 100 years of Leavenworth history in portraits.
8. Leavenworth Landing Park
This linear park preserves a quarter-mile stretch of riverfront, with pleasing views over to the Missouri bank.
The park pays tribute to the transport links that helped Leavenworth rise to prominence in the 19th century, at the nexus point of riverboat routes, railroads, military roads and westward trails.
This is a perfect spot for eagle watching during the winter and in summer you can pause at a bench and take in the views. At the south end, the park connects with the Three-Mile Creek Walking Trail.
9. Performing Arts Center
A standout among the many fine buildings downtown is this sleek Art Deco venue, which opened as the Hollywood Theater in 1938.
On the National Register of Historic Places since 1990, the building was donated to the city in the 1970s and is now a versatile hub for performing arts.
Most important, this is the seat of the River City Community Players, a talented, non-profit theater group, producing a season of high-quality shows.
To name a few recent shows you’ve got Dial M For Murder, Mamma Mia, The Mouse Trap, Oklahoma and Monty Python’s Spamalot.
10. Leavenworth Farmers’ Market
There’s a permanent pavilion at Haymarket Square for Leavenworth’s treasured farmers’ market.
This twice-weekly event takes place on Saturday mornings, May through September, and Wednesday afternoons, May through October. The market is strictly producers only, and nothing for sale has traveled more than 50 miles.
In the summer there’s no better place to shop for fruits, vegetables, flowers, baked goods, jams, eggs, honey, cheeses, meats, prepared food, candles, spice blends, home decor and handmade soaps.
Check the facebook page for upcoming seasonal events and demonstrations.
11. Weston Bend State Park
Right across the river from the north end of Leavenworth is a state park, posted on the wooded river bluffs.
The views at Weston Bend State Park are breathtaking, and there’s a scenic trail right along the edge of the bluff taking you to an accessible overlook.
This panorama is lovely at any time of year, but takes on a certain magic when the leaves turn in fall.
There’s also a number of peaceful picnic sites, a campground with basic and electric sites, an open shelter for 50 people and a children’s playground in the day-use area.
12. USP Leavenworth
Heading along US 73 in the north of Leavenworth, you’d be forgiven for thinking this prison was a vast mansion or place of higher learning.
In fact, you’re looking at the largest maximum-security federal prison in the country from 1903 to 2005, after which it was downgraded to a medium-security prison.
Some of the more infamous inmates at USP Leavenworth have included George Kelly Barnes aka “Machine Gun Kelly”, Robert Stroud aka the “Birdman of Alcatraz” and Lucchese mafia boss, Anthony “Tony Ducks” Corallo.
Naturally, tours aren’t available, but the main block and driveway are a sight to behold from the roadside. You can also spot a herd of buffalo grazing on the prison grounds.
13. Riverfront Community Center
Something to admire by the Carousel Museum and Leavenworth Landing Park is a grand, Romanesque Revival 1888 Union Pacific Train Depot, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This monument was thoroughly restored in the 1980s and turned into the Riverfront Community Center, which was expanded a few years ago.
There’s a weight room, cardio room, gym, racquetball courts, an indoor track and pool, and multifunctional rooms that host fitness classes as well as all kinds of private functions.
14. Chapel of the Veterans
Worth seeking out on the grounds of the Eisenhower VA Medical Center (previously The Western Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers) in the southeast of Leavenworth is a beautiful Gothic Revival place of worship.
Unique for being able to hold Catholic and Protestant services, the Chapel of the Veterans was built in 1893 and listed as a National Historic Landmark.
This building has been picked by the Kansas Sampler Foundation as a finalist for the Eight Wonders of Kansas Architecture.
From the outside you can appreciate the gargoyles, the rustic limestone trim around the window and door openings, as well as the square and octagonal towers and the two-story windows on the east and west sides.
15. Leavenworth Veterans Day Parade
In a town with Leavenworth’s military history, Veterans Day (November 11) takes on special significance.
The parade, which has taken place since 1919, is the joint oldest in the nation, as well as the largest west of the Mississippi.
This is also the largest event on Leavenworth’s calendar, attracting close to 20,000 spectators, not just from Kansas, but across the region. Starting at 4th and Cherokee, the parade begins at 10:30am and has a 1.5-mile route through downtown Leavenworth.
This solemn ritual is followed by military displays, live music, a kids’ zone and a BBQ cook-off at 10th Avenue Park.