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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 Society's digital portal, contains more than 3,600 items from the railroad records describe below.  More than 2,500 of those items relate to the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe.

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: March 2014

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