The story of Kansas cannot be told without the railroad. The iron giants that pushed their way onto the prairie are as much a part of the landscape and development of this state as the vast open lands that drew immigrants here for new opportunities.

In Kansas, railroads were responsible for the end-of-the-line towns that became hubs of the great cattle drives in the 1860s, 70s and 80s. In towns like Abilene, Wichita and Dodge City, the cattle, driven up from Texas, could be loaded onto train cars for shipment to eastern markets. These cow-towns earned a rowdy reputation, as cowboys, tired from weeks on the trail, spent their hard earned cash in saloons and casinos. Legends born in those days gave new meaning to the “wild” spirit of the American West and bred characters like “Buffalo” Bill Cody - who first got his unforgettable nickname providing fresh meat for railway workers laying lines through western Kansas.

But Kansas wouldn’t stay wild forever, and railroads also played a key role in taming the frontier. The success of new rail lines depended on permanent settlers. Railroads became actively involved in recruiting people to come to Kansas, making every effort to dispel notions that the land was arid and full of grasshoppers. Railroads opened land offices around the world to sell their land grant holdings to potential settlers, sometimes applying the price of a ticket to the purchase.

Among the immigrants enticed to come with cheap land offered by the railroads were Volga-Germans, who brought with them the hard Turkey Red wheat which turned the state into the breadbasket of the world. Other immigrants include the lesser known history of the Orphan Trains, which brought abandoned children from New York to the west from the late 1800s to the 1930s. Thousands ended up in Kansas. The National Orphan Train museum and research center stands in Concordia as a tribute to the experience of these children.

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railway, conceived by Cyrus K. Holliday as a commerce route to replace the old Santa Fe Trail, was to become the state’s most famous railroad. The first tracks of this iconic line were laid south of Topeka. The railway stretched to the state’s western border and then on to Los Angeles and San Francisco. AT&SF, which was the second transcontinental railroad in the country, was important not only for commerce, but also for the leisure travel to the west that became a hallmark of the American experience. They also birthed the Harvey House restaurants, which grew to become the standard for travel food, revolutionizing the restaurant industry and forever changing how we think of food on the road. Though the original company is gone, merged in the 1990s into the BNSF Railway, today’s Amtrak travelers can still live part of the thrill of making the AT&SF journey across Kansas with a trip on the Southwest Chief line, which travels the old Santa Fe main route through the state.

 

Karen Ridder is a freelance writer living in Topeka. A former News Producer for KSNW-TV in Wichita, her work can also been seen in print publications including: Topeka Magazine, TK Magazine and the Topeka Capital-Journal. She has written for several national blogs and was recently recognized as one of the 2011 winners in the Annual Kansas Factual Story Contest. Karen has lived in Kansas for 15 years and married a native Wichitan. Together they are raising two little sunflower boys and a dog named George.