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Railroads in Kansas

Railroad construction near Hays, 1867 The rapid growth of railroads after the Civil War was both a response to an existing need and an attempt to meet the challenge of future development. The frontier was pushing across the Kansas plains, "49ers" had begun the settlement of Colorado and other areas of the mountain West, and the Pacific Coast was already an important and growing market.

To link these widespread regions with one another and with Eastern markets, fast and reliable transportation was needed. The railroad was the ready and obvious answer. Kansas businessmen and political leaders, even before the Civil War, dreamed of rail systems that would connect their infant cities with every place of importance in the nation. However, they soon learned that private enterprise alone could not finance such costly undertakings. Particularly in those areas where settlement was sparse and investment capital was slow in yielding returns, it was found that governmental assistance was necessary. Support came in the form of land grants, and sometimes cash, from the federal and state governments, and from city, county, and township bond issues, which were exchanged for railroad stock and a promise that the company would build their way. Financial problems and physical hazards might easily have discouraged men of less determination.

The Union Pacific Railway Company, Eastern Division, was organized in 1863. Some construction work immediately began near Wyandotte. However, only after later generous grants from the U.S. government did the work of laying track get underway. The railroad began operation in 1866.    

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, originally organized in 1859, began laying track in 1868. By 1872 the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe track reached the western Kansas border. 

The Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad was incorporated in 1870, spurred by the promise of federal land grant money if it could be the first railroad to reach the Kansas border from the Neosho Valley in the south. The land grants were never realized, but the railroad continued to push southward connecting Kansas to the Gulf of Mexico. In the process it acquired numerous smaller rail lines in Missouri 

Great celebrations greeted railroad officials and construction crews as the tracks reached more and more distant towns. Often a town's survival depended on whether or not it was serviced by a railroad line.

Tracks required continual maintenance to remain safe. Section crews were responsible for the upkeep of six- to eight-mile stretches of track. These were the hardest railroad jobs and often only new immigrants were willing to take on the challenge.

Railroad yards ranged from tiny fueling stations to huge industrial complexes at major centers like Topeka. The railroads developed promotional campaigns to encourage settlement in Kansas. Their offers included free or reduced rate transportation to potential buyers. Many settlers on railroad land, especially those from overseas, could bring all of their household goods at the company's expense. 

Kansas Memory, the Historical Society's digital portal, contains more than 3,600 items from the railroad.  More than 2,500 of those items relate to the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. The following items are among the museum's railroads collections.

Railroad coupling tool Railroad coupling tool Kansas Pacific Railroad cigar box
Railroad coupling tool, 1917.22 Railroad coupling tool, 1917.22 Kansas Pacific Railroad cigar box, 1957.259
Kansas Pacific Railroad cigar box Railroad pincher tool Railroad calculating instrument, barrel on wooden base
Kansas Pacific Railroad cigar box, 1957.259 Railroad pincher tool, 1958.77.9 Railroad calculating instrument, barrel on wooden base, 1965.21
Railroad YMCA Hoisington plate Rock Island Railroad jug Santa Fe Railway menu
Railroad YMCA, Hoisington plate, 1965.58.7 Rock Island Railroad jug, 1968.109.1 Santa Fe Railway menu, 1969.173.8.25
Santa Fe Railway menu Railroad menu with flying train Railroad creamer
Santa Fe Railway menu, 1969.173.8.25 1969 centennial menu, 1971.53.4 Railroad creamer, 1971.53.18.1
Railroad sugar container Railroad candlestick Railroad menu holder
Railroad sugar container, 1971.53.18.2 Railroad candlestick, 1971.53.18.6 Railroad menu holder, 1971.53.18.8
Railroad sugar container Union Pacific blue ashtray Railroad salt shaker
Railroad sugar container, 1971.53.18.10 Union Pacific blue ashtray, 1971.53.19 Railroad salt shaker, 1971.53.25.1
Harvey House coffeepot Railroad lantern Railroad hammer
Harvey House coffeepot, 1973.72 Railroad lantern, 1973.81.212 Railroad hammer, 1973.81.953
Railroad spike Railroad tablespoon Railroad teaspoon
Railroad spike, 1973.81.1023 Railroad tablespoon, 1976.40.3 Railroad teaspoon, 1976.40.4
Railroad iced tea spoon Fred Harvey black raspberry preserves Fred Harvey seasoning salt
Railroad iced tea spoon, 1976.40.5 Fred Harvey black raspberry preserves, 1976.40.7 Fred Harvey seasoning salt, 1976.40.8
Railroad gold pocket watch Railroad sledge hammer 1914-1915 railroad tickets, entertainment course
Railroad gold pocket watch, 1978.78 Railroad sledge hammer, 1978.135.13 1914-1915 railroad tickets, entertainment course, 1979.125.10
Santa Fe blotter Railroad demi cup Railroad demi cup
Santa Fe blotter, 1981.298.285 Railroad demi cup, 1981.298.308 Railroad demi cup, 1981.298.308
Railroad pin Railroad conductor badge Railroad agent badge
Railroad pin, 1981.298.355 Railroad conductor badge, 1981.298.384 Railroad agent badge, 1981.298.388
Railroad brakeman badge Railroad baggage and mail helper badge Railroad baggage and mail helper badge
Railroad brakeman badge, 1981.298.392 Railroad baggage and mail helper badge, 1981.298.394 Railroad baggageman badge, 1981.298.395
Railroad porter badge Railroad brochure 1934 Railroad booklet
Railroad porter badge, 1981.298.397 Railroad brochure, 1981.298.1271 1934 Railroad booklet, 1981.298.1272
1955 Railroad booklet Railroad wooden bar Railroad brochure
1955 Railroad booklet, 1981.298.1273 Railroad wooden bar, 1981.298.1416 Railroad brochure, 1981.298.1497
Railroad brochure Railroad brochure Railroad brochure
Railroad brochure, 1981.298.1497 Railroad brochure, 1981.298.1498 Railroad brochure, 1981.298.1498
Railroad link Railroad oil can Metal model train
Railroad link, 1981.298.2267 Railroad oil can, 1981.298.2389 Metal model train, 1981.298.3402
Railroad tong Railroad stamp Railroad stamp
Railroad tong, 1981.298.3422 Railroad stamp, 1981.298.3466 Railroad stamp, 1981.298.3466
Railroad stamp Railroad stamp Railroad stamp
Railroad stamp, 1981.298.3467 Railroad stamp, 1981.298.3467 Railroad stamp, 1981.298.3469
Railroad stamp Railroad meal tickets on El Capitan Railroad brochure
Railroad stamp, 1981.298.3469 Railroad meal tickets on El Capitan, 1981.298.3739 Railroad brochure, 1981.298.3759
Railroad brochure Railroad padlock and key Railroad bucket with lid
Railroad brochure, 1981.298.3759 Railroad padlock and key, 1981.299.396 Railroad bucket with lid, 1983.2353.60
Railroad pry bar Railroad oil can Railroad conductor hat
Railroad pry bar, 1983.2353.61 Railroad oil can, 1983.2353.86 Railroad conductor hat, 1984.65.13
Railroad matchbook Railroad giant wrench Railroad large metal trunk
Railroad matchbook, 1986.157.1 Railroad giant wrench, 1987.53 Railroad large metal trunk, 1987.140
Railroad large metal trunk Railroad lunchroom sign Railroad hammer
Railroad large metal trunk, 1987.140 Railroad lunchroom sign, 1987.178.59 Railroad hammer, 1987.178.90
Railroad wrench Railroad pounding tool Railroad conductor jacket
Railroad wrench, 1987.178.131 Railroad pounding tool, 1987.178.134 Railroad conductor jacket, 1988.70.1
Railroad silver lantern Railroad shovel Railroad shovel
Railroad silver lantern, 1988.95 Railroad shovel, 1988.131.1 Railroad pick, 1988.131.2
1902 railroad pass 1902 railroad pass Railroad pass
1902 railroad pass, 1988.173.3 1902 railroad pass, 1988.173.3 Railroad pass, 1988.173.5
Railroad pass Railroad wrench with wooden handle Railroad oyster fork
Railroad pass, 1988.173.5 Railroad wrench with wooden handle, 1988.184.1 Railroad oyster fork, 2007.7.36
Railroad fork Railroad soup spoon Railroad knife
Railroad fork, 2007.7.37 Railroad soup spoon, 2007.7.40 Railroad knife, 2007.7.43
Railroad gold charger Railroad ceramic plate  
Railroad gold charger, 2007.7.44 Railroad ceramic plate, 2007.7.45  

Entry: Railroads in Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: January 2010

Date Modified: February 2016

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.