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Railroad Industry in Kansas

Cyrus K. Holliday 1980s Steam Locomotive, Kansas Museum of History

Kansas' location at the middle of the nation made it the crossroads for commerce, travelers, and agriculture. The trails led to the state's leading role in the railroad industry, with the first section being the Union Pacific, Eastern Division, opening between Topeka and Leavenworth.

When built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1880, the Santa Fe No. 132 was one of the largest locomotives in the world. It was designed to haul heavy trains over Raton Pass in New Mexico, the highest point on the Santa Fe line. The locomotive now stands restored in the Kansas Museum of History.

Steam locomotives used great quantities of fuel and water so were forced to stop every few miles to be resupplied. The largest type of steam locomotive ever built in the Santa Fe shops was the mallet. Two smaller engines were joined to make this monster. Despite their huge size, the Santa Fe mallets never proved to be effective. As early as 1910 Santa Fe was experimenting with gasoline-powered streamlined motorcars on its line from Chanute to Pittsburg. The McKeen cars were reliable as branch-line equipment. By the 1930s most of the passenger traffic on the Santa Fe branch lines was being carried by "Doodlebugs," multi-purpose cars powered by self-generated electricity.

Early passenger coaches were beautifully finished in wood and brass. Comfort for the passenger increased as sleeper cars evolved to offer a good night's rest. Fred Harvey was an Englishman who gained fame for the lunchrooms, restaurants, and hotels that he established along the Santa Fe line. In 1876 he assumed the management of the lunchroom in the Topeka depot and so impressed officials of the Santa Fe Railway that they eventually contracted with him to operate all of their dining facilities. The Harvey Houses became well known for their good food and fast service, qualities often lacking in railroad eateries. By the late 19th century dining cars had become standard fixtures on first-class Santa Fe passenger trains. Fred Harvey continued to offer the same fine food and service that he had developed in his restaurants.

Nortonville depot

Freight hauling was one of the most important services of the railroads. Refrigerator cars, packed with ice, protected perishable cargo during a long journey.

Railroad yards ranged from tiny fueling stations to huge industrial complexes at major centers like Topeka. Nearly every type of locomotive used by the Santa Fe was built in the Topeka shops during the steam era. The great flood of 1903 left Santa Fe facilities along the Kansas River either washed out or buried under a layer of mud. The Santa Fe developed a distinctive style of depot, usually of frame construction with brackets supporting the eves. Depots were vital features of most rail yards. They served as communication centers, with their telegraph stations, and handled both passenger traffic and light freight.

Entry: Railroad Industry 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: June 2011

Date Modified: April 2013

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