The Kansas Heritage Server would like to thank Louis Reed for contributing this information.
Railroads came into Kansas at a time when the state was rapidly expanding, making land valuable, which without railroads would be practically worthless. Railroads have built cities, and have made some cities and have dwarfed others, killing many villages.
Railroads in Kansas had their beginning with the quest for a Transcontinental Route to connect the east with the west. The first railroad construction west of the Mississippi was begun in Saint Louis by the Pacific Railroad on July 4, 1851. Although begun at a later date the Hannibal and Saint Joseph, completed in 1859, was the first railroad to reach the border of Kansas Territory. During that year a junction was made between this line and the North Missouri Railroad at Macon, Missouri, providing through rail service from Saint Louis to Saint Joseph. Meanwhile south of the Missouri River, the Pacific had pushed construction to Jefferson City by 1855 and to Sedalia by January 1861. Among the several railroads incorporated in Kansas at that time was one, the Elwood and Marysville Railroad conceived as an extension of the fast building Hannibal and Saint Joseph. This little line ultimately had the distinction of becoming Kansas' first railroad. It was organized in January 1857 but had not laid a single length of rail by the time the Hannibal and Saint Joseph was celebrating its arrival at Saint Jo, Missouri, just across the river from Elwood on February 23, 1859. On March 30 the first rail was laid. By April 23rd they had five miles of rail wandering unsteadily down to Wathena.
The most significant result of the Pacific railroad agitation was its stimulation of local building. About fourty five railroad companies were chartered during the territorial period, many of them in hopes they would eventually become segments or branches of a transcontinental route. Others were of local nature and were designed to draw upon areas of potential production for the benefit of particular towns. A great number of these never built a mile of road due to several factors, the period of intense rivalry eliminating a number of them. The earliest requisite for the existence of a railroad company is a charter. The attitude of railroad charters held by the U.S. was to facilitate rather than to scrutinize making it easy to obtain a charter. It was based upon the principle that the more railroads there were the better. Usually no difficulties were put in the way and seldom were any questions asked. In Kansas in 1886 any person known or unknown could obtain a charter to build any amount of railroad, anywhere in the state, by asking for a charter and paying one dollar.
An early line, the Leavenworth, Pawnee and Western Railroad was chartered in 1855 and in May 1857 they began the grading of the line. On July 6th 1863 the name was changed to the Union Pacific Eastern Division and to the Kansas Pacific on May 31st 1868. This name change was typical of many railroad companies in early day Kansas. The first rail had been laid in Wyandotte (Kansas City) on April 14, 1864 and by the fall of 1865 the line had been completed through Lawrence and was fast approaching Topeka.
The meager railroad mileage of 1860 had been created only by intense effort, enthusiasm alone did not lay track, that required capitol. Since the agricultural west was notoriously lacking in present material wealth, cash had to be persuaded from its place of security in the East. Keen bankers were not overly compelled with the stability of transportation undertakings which were designed to permeate sparsely settled areas which depended on revenues from foreseen future growth. Additional incentives were needed. It was to the central government that the West first turned for aid. The idea was of recent origin. The movement to secure federal grants of land along the routes of proposed railroads was more direct and of greater importance than the earlier aid programs.
The apparently inexhaustible supply of public land appeared to be the best possible substitute for liquid capitol. Promoters of the policy could justify their stand on the grounds that the government could double the price of lands they kept near the railroads and suffer no financial loss. Also the railroads would increase the value of an area many fold by encouraging new settlement.
By 1860 Kansas had a population of over 100,000, most of whom were concentrated on the eastern side of the territory. Interest in railroad promotion had intensified. Edmond G. Ross, at the time a Topeka newspaper editor, suggested a convention to arouse even greater public enthusiasm and to discuss means of securing financial assistance. A convention was held October 17, 1860 at Topeka. The biggest disagreement was over the location of routes but they adopted a resolution overwhelmingly supporting a request to Congress to grant public lands to aid in the construction of railroads. All of their recommendations were eventually built except for one route that was recommended to be located from the western boundary of Missouri where the Osage valley and Southern Kansas Railroad terminates, westward via Emporia, Fremont and Council Grove to Fort Riley.
The Pacific Railroad bill was enacted in July of 1862. The act provided that the Pacific Railroad should have two branches east of the one hundredth meridian of longitude west. One with its eastern terminal at some point on the Missouri River in Kansas. These branches were to converge and form one road on the one hundredth meridian, at a point between the southern margin of the valley of the Platte River in Nebraska Territory. The Leavenworth Pawnee and Western Railroad Company was authorized to build a road starting from the Missouri River at the mouth of the Kansas River on the south side thereof to connect with the Pacific Railroad of Missouri, to the aforesaid point on the one hundredth meridian. The line was to run through Fort Riley.
Section 13 of the act provided that the Hannibal and Saint Jo Railroad Company of Missouri could extend its road from Saint Jo via Atchison to connect with the road through Kansas.
The aid granted the roads in Kansas was in the form of land grants, amounting to 6400 acres per mile of railroad constructed. The aid granted the Hannibal and Saint Jo Railroad Company, for constructing its roads, however was limited to 100 miles of road. On the second of July 1864 Congress amended the act so as to have the L.P. & W. Railroad company build fro the north side of the Kansas River instead of the south side, and build the road via Lawrence and Topeka or on the bank of the Kansas river opposite said towns.
The Lincoln Administration ushered in the period of the most extravagant donation of the public lands, a phase of history which ended during Grants first term. To the prevailing method of giving tracts to the state for the benefit of railroad building within their borders, Congress added direct grants to the corporations. Kansas was the only southwestern state to participate in the war time distribution of lands. Having failed in the attempt to endow itself lavishly in the rejected Lecompton constitution. Kansas waited until 1863, when a measure purportedly written by Cyrus K. Holliday was enacted without debate. It provided for a grant to Kansas to aid in the construction of two railroads, one from Leavenworth to the Indian Territory line, the other from Atchison via Topeka to the western boundary of the state. The next year Kansas received lands to encourage the building of a railroad from Emporia to Fort Riley.
One of the most cherished of Kansas aspirations was a rail connection with the Gulf. Three corporations were organized for the purpose of building such a line. IN anticipation of the Indian treaties, proponents of three lines introduced bills in congress to secure right of ways through the Indian territory for their respective lines. The location of tribal land was such that it limited to one the number of railroads which could enter from Kansas. The first to reach the southern border of the state within the limits of the Neosho valley, would be entitled to the right of way and a conditional land grant. The Union Pacific Southern Branch, youngest contender for the Indian territory right of way was declared the winner. They were not actually the first to reach the Indian territory. The Missouri River Fort Scott and Gulf had reached the Indian territory line earlier but in order to build through the Cherokee Neutral lands they had been forced to reroute from these original route. The secretary of Interior had to inform them they did not qualify because their southern terminus was not in the Neosho valley.
The five year period ending in 1873 was one of feverish railroad building in the U.S. Roads to the Pacific, roads to the coasts, connecting lines, and lines into undeveloped areas were pushed ahead of settlement in the expectation that they would create their own traffic by inducing settlement. Kansas was a perfect example of the railroad mania which seized the country. Before the panic year two railroads reached its western boundary and three its southern boundary.
Cyrus K. Holliday's Atchison and Topeka Railroad company stirred slightly during the Civil War. The four years of inaction following the companies organization terminated in two events which changed the character of the road. Holliday convinced his associates that they should build west in the direction of Santa Fe, a change of plans indicated by the adoption of the corporate title Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe. At almost the same time Kansas granted the company three million acres of land if it would build a continuous line to the western border of the state within ten years (March 1st 1873).
On October 30, 1868 construction officially began at Topeka, heading up Shunganunga Creek almost due south. At Atchison there was some discontent. The town had originally been chosen for the start. Now the new line wasn't even headed that way. It was headed in the direction of Carbondale because coal deposits had been discovered near there; these would provide not only fuel for the new road, but some freight tonnage so Atchison would have to wait. On September 18th the line was opened down to Burlingame. The Santa Fe pushed steadily on through Emporia and in July 1871 reached Newton some 137 miles from Topeka. While the road paused momentarily at Newton the eastern end was extended to Atchison, being completed in late 1871.
The situation was critical. Less than two years remained to reach the western border of the state, 283 miles beyond Newton, in order to claim the land grant. Even so work did not commence again until May 1, 1872 which allowed exactly ten months for completion. The track layers reached Hutchinson June 24th and Great Bend in mid July and were pushed at an even greater speed as they crossed the uninhabited plains. On December 22nd they reached what they thought to be the state line. The men were tired, almost out of materials, and ready to go back home, until a government surveyor informed them they were four miles from the state line. They commenced working and reached the state line on December 28th. It was none too soon; the company had no remaining capitol, its huge land grant was practically valueless at the time. It handled very little revenue traffic west of Dodge City and the general business depression of 1873 dried up its sources of credit. The land grant amounted to about three million acres of land. The road got title to this in 1873. According to the original land grant the line was to receive every odd numbered section for ten miles on each side of its track, but in eastern Kansas which was pretty well settled, much of this land wasn't available. The law therefore gave the road what was called "in lieu" lands further west. Eventually this worked out to be half the land on a strip forty miles wide from Emporia nearly out to Kinsley and from this point, half of a twenty mile wide strip as far as the state line.
Thomas Peter, fearing a possible diversion of the cattle trade away from Newton, headed a group of Kansas promoters who incorporated under the name of Wichita and Southeastern Railroad Company. The maiden run on this important feeder which extended to Wichita, twenty seven miles to the south, took place on May 13, 1872. The Santa Fe immediately leased this road and in the course of time absorbed it.
The panic of 1873 was peculiarly a railroad phenomenon. The depression was worldwide in scope and there were many contributing causes, but contemporary critics held that irresponsible overbuilding of non productive railroads was a contributing factor. Some roads caught in the depression were forced to continue in spite of rigid economies. The Santa Fe was one of these. In March 1875 it resumed construction toward Pueblo, Colorado. At its east end the Santa Fe leased a line into Kansas City thus replacing Atchison as the principle eastern terminus. Towards the end of the depression the pressure of new settlement forced the Santa Fe to extend down the Walnut Valley from Florence to El Dorado, the first of the numerous feeders with which it protected its territory.
The federal land grant policy has often been analyzed as being good or bad. Assuming the possibility of reducing it to moral terms, the evaluation merely represents, as in all legislation, the weighing of merits and defects in the light of results. First the west got its railroads. The liberal donations undoubtedly furnished a type of aid which encouraged investment and sped the railroad network towards completion. This in turn led to the more rapid settlement of the west and an almost unbelievably rapid development of the resources of the plains. On the other hand the grants were frequently tainted with fraud and self interest, acting as a further drain on a standard of political morality which was already low. Little effort was made to safe guard the public interest and undoubtedly donations to railroads did not encourage an upsurge of speculation which led to the further depletion of the public domain. Fortunately the fears of those who prophesied vast unbroken land estates were never realized even though on occasion railroads did sell to land companies.
Except in the areas of carpet bag rule aid from the state level was not popular after the war. Once the southern states regained control of their governments they adopted constitutions prohibiting the use of state funds to encourage any corporate activities. Kansas alone managed to avoid this type of entanglement entirely. It was only in the late confederate states, however that the laws applied at the local level; cities counties and townships in Kansas could pledge their credit without restriction, while those of Missouri could do so only if two thirds of the qualified voters approved it at a bond election. As a matter of course towns furnished right of ways, and sites for depots. In 1876 Kansas limited local bond issues to those requested by 40% of the qualified voters and approved by a majority of the votes cast in the next general election.
Railroads hastened the occupation of the Trans Mississippi west. Running ahead of settlement, they drew after them hords of land hungry settlers who eagerly seized up land which previously had been valueless for lack of transportation facilities. The real importance of railroads being realized as they penetrated areas not blessed with navigable streams.
Kansas continued its rapid growth. By 1880 its population had swelled to almost one million. Settlement had advanced nearly across the state. The influx of settlers into the west was due in large part to a carefully organized campaign by the railroads and many cooperating agencies. The idea spread until immigration and colonization became an accepted part of railroad activity.
There was a considerable cost involved in the marketing of railroad lands. Surveying, appraising and mapping required a large initial outlay of cash. The lands then had to be put on the market and advertised extensively. Any plans to make large, quick profits from the sales were put aside as the companies realized that there most pressing need was sound, growing communities which would create revenue traffic.
Railroads embarked on one of the most comprehensive advertising campaigns the nation had ever known in educating the people about the plains. The Santa Fe did not exaggerate greatly when it pointed out to the Kansas legislature in 1881 that not withstanding that the word Kansas was in the minds of the inhabitants of all the eastern states synonymous with grasshoppers drouth and starvation, yet by the unaided efforts of these railroad corporations an agent has been placed in every town and village in the United States and every city in Europe to correct this impression and talk and plead for Kansas.
Several present day cities in eastern Kansas owe their beginnings to railroad builders of the seventies. Parsons, established by the Katy, Cherryvale, originated as the eastern terminus of the Southern Kansas Railroad. In western Kansas towns sprang up as the Santa Fe arrived or immediately before in anticipation of its coming. Florence marked the farthest point of earlier settlement. From there the tracks extended southwest to Newton, which after its youthful fling, settled down to become an important railroad center. The end of track moved on to Hutchinson then followed the bend of the Arkansas River leaving Nickerson, Sterling City, Great Bend, Larned, and Kinsley strung behind.
The 1880's were a period of rapid construction. The bulk of Kansas rail was laid then. The depression of 1893 terminated a period of railroad building in the same manner in which similar circumstances had halted construction twenty years before. This time it was not an interlude to be followed by larger and more ambitious undertakings, but one which stopped abruptly a development which otherwise would have tapered off simply because there were no other places to build. The nation as a whole had reached the saturation point. The twenty years between the two depressions was the most remarkable period of railroad expansion the world had ever known.
Every little Kansas village had its railroad enthusiasts; indeed it was an unusual Kansas town that fell outside that category. All the towns were of recent origin, none were large and few had locations which particularly fitted them for future greatness. Those which got railroads would become the distributing and trading centers for the region. If a town were to realize its dream of greatness it was not only necessary to get a railroad but to be the first to obtain one. The ultimate goal was not one but three, four, or five roads all radiating from the town.
While the enthusiasm for railroads was at its height, there was developing, among the agricultural sectors especially, a discontent toward the railway corporations and a demand for state control through price fixing, service requirements, and other forms of stringent regulation. The same demand for regulation was evident all over the nation but it was particularly strong in the agricultural states of the south and west. Although a few of the early railroad charters prescribed regulations regarding services and responsibilities it was not until the economic depression following the Civil War that a desire for rate legislation swept the country.
Kansas did not participate in the early wave of railroad regulation, except to enact in 1868 a rate limit law with limits considerably in excess of the rates actually charged by the railroads of the state. But agitation for control was clearly evident and with the return in the 1880's of widespread demands for regulations, Kansas was among the first to create regulatory commissions.
The railroad act of 1883 set up a regulatory commission. On matters of general public concern the board decisions were to be advisory on questions of compliance with charters and other laws, on questions of compliance with charters and other laws, on recomendations for the improvement of railroads and on general rate schedules. On certain other matters the board was a fact finding agency engaging in inspections and in analyzing reports required of railway companies in the state. The first period of railroad regulation drew to a close in the early years of the 1890's. The railroad act of 1883 remained in force until the end of the Populist supremacy but the last decade of the century was marked by frequent changes in the personnel of the board and by repeated political battles over the issues of railroad regulation.
In 1901 the Board of Railroad commissioners was revamped and endowed with powers even greater. In 1903 the legislature provided for the election of railroad commissioners. ON the whole the act of 1901 was like that of 1883 as amended prior to 1890. The provision for a three man board of railroad commissioners appointed by the executive council was reenacted and the scope of the boards jurisdiction remained the same. When the second board of Railroad Commissioners began operation a relatively large number of cases came before it, due to the fact that grievances had accumulated during the interval in which there had been no regulatory agency. Instead of showing an exceptional desire to protect the public interest the elected railroad commissioners tended to be less aggressive and less concerned about public relations in their activities than were the appointed members of previous and succeeding commission.
The present State Corporation Commission is a direct descendent , several times removed of the Board of Railroad Commissioners which functioned in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. The railroad act of 1883 represented the first attempt to provide a small degree of administrative supervision of railroad operation. The corporation of today deals with many and varied types of regulatory control.
As a closing though the overbuilding of railroad lines in Kansas has called for the abandonment of many lines in Kansas. There has been a decline in railroad track mileage since the early thirties. This has had an effect on industry in Kansas, causing a threat to survival of grain elevators, other agribusiness firms and industries which are located along light density rail lines and branch lines. Light density rail lines are lines which cannot support a gross weight of 273,000 lbs, or a loaded 100 ton hopper car. Railroad abandonment in Kansas has not been widespread; but many agriculturally oriented states have experienced extensive amounts of rail line abandonment and every state has experienced a reduction in rail service.
At the present at least every county in the state is served by at least one railroad, however many counties have only branch line in Kansas, this being 47.6% of the total miles of track.