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The Beginning of Railroads in the United States

About the time Kansas was becoming the highway for the Santa Fe trade, experiments were being made in England with a new invention, the steam locomotive. By 1825 a fair degree of success had been attained. During the next half dozen years experiments were carried on in the United States, and by 1831 several short railroad lines were in use. By 1850 one could travel by rail between the chief cities of the East and as far west as St. Louis, but a decade more passed before any railroads were built in Kansas.


Kansas Settlers Desire Railroads 

The agitation for railroads in this part of the country began even before the organization of the Kansas Territory. The settlers knew the difficulty of building up the State without the aid of the railway. They had crept across the prairies in their canvas-covered wagons, or had toiled up the shallow, sluggish waterways, and they foresaw that they would be unable to market their crops or their stock because of the lack of adequate means of transportation. Their great desire for railroads is made evident by the large number of railway charters granted to different companies by the Territorial Legislatures. On account of the immense cost of railroad construction, however, work was slow to begin.

Early Stage Lines 

While the West was waiting for its railroads a number of stage routes for carrying mail and passengers were established. The first one was over the Santa Fe Trail. Stages made the trip from Kansas City to Santa Fe in about fifteen days. For many years stage lines were operated between the different towns of the Territory. Later, lines were established to Denver, to Salt Lake, and even to San Francisco.

The Pony Express, 1859-'61 

The trip to San Francisco, a distance of about 2000 miles, occupied nearly a month, and

(Image: Stage Coach)

the people of California were very anxious that a quicker way of getting their mails be devised. To meet this demand the Pony Express was established in 1859. The line extended from St. Joseph to San Francisco, a long, lonely way across plains and deserts and over mountains, sometimes in a straight line but often winding through dark canons or along the edge of mountain precipices. The Pony Express required one hundred and ninety stations, nearly five hundred horses, and eighty riders. The stations averaged about ten miles apart. The horses were selected for their speed and endurance, and the distance from one station to another was covered in the shortest possible time. At each station a fresh horse was waiting, and the only delay was in changing the mail pouch from one horse to another. The pouch contained only letters, and they were written on the thinnest of paper to avoid surplus weight. Five dollars was charged for the carrying of each letter. The first trip was made in ten days, the shortest one in seven days and seventeen hours. Many stories of adventure are related of the two years in which the Pony Express was in operation. In 1861 a telegraph line was constructed across the continent, which made it possible to flash news from ocean to ocean in a few seconds, and the Pony Express went out of existence.

The First Railroad in Kansas, 1860 

By this time railroad building had begun in Kansas. The first road was laid in the spring of 1860, while Kansas was still a Territory, between Elwood, opposite St. Joseph, Missouri, and Marysville. When the first five miles of rail had been laid, a little old locomotive that had done service on many eastern roads was brought into the State and a celebration was held in honor of the first trip. Though the engine was old and drew only a few flat cars over the rough and crooked track, it was an important event, for it marked the beginning of railroad building in Kansas.

The Union Pacific Railroad, 1862-'69 

There had long been talk of a railroad to the Pacific coast, and in 1862, while the Civil War was still in progress. Congress granted a charter for such a line. This was the beginning of the Union Pacific Railroad. It was to be built as soon as possible by working from both ends. From the east the road was to pass through Nebraska and on toward Salt Lake, and from the west it was to be built from San Francisco eastward until the two lines met. This road did not pass through Kansas, but while it was being constructed a line that later became a part of the Union Pacific (1) system was built from Kansas City westward, along the Kansas River, through Manhattan, Junction City, and Salina, and on west through Denver to join the main line at Cheyenne.

(Image: The Indian, the Soldier, and the Builder)

During the seven years spent in building this railroad many difficulties were met and conquered. Most of the country along the line was without timber, fuel, or any of the necessary supplies. The materials for construction were brought up the Missouri River by steamboat to Kansas City. From this point they were hauled by train over the new railroad as far as it was completed. The Indians opposed the work because it meant the westward movement of civilization and the settling of their hunting grounds. They were a constant source of danger to the

(Image: Early Days on the Union Pacific)

whole frontier, but especially to the railroad builders. The men usually went to their work armed, and stacked their guns ready for instant use. Sometimes it was even necessary to guard the men with troops while they worked. History gives many accounts of Indian massacres committed along the line of the Union Pacific Railroad. The entire line was finished in 1869.

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, Completed in 1872

In the meantime other lines had been chartered through Kansas, the principal one being the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. This railroad was begun at Topeka in 1868 and completed to the western boundary of the State in a little more than four years. The line between Topeka and Atchison was also completed within this period. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe has since been extended westward to the coast and eastward to Chicago, and many branches have been added. This railroad follows the

(Image The "Iron Trail" Across the Prairies)

general direction of the Santa Ve Trail across the eastern half of the State. Near Great Bend the track runs on the exact course of the old highway, and from this point on through the rest of the State they are never far apart and often coincide. When, in 1872, the "Santa Fe," as it is generally called, was completed through Kansas, the last caravan of wagons had wound its way over the old Trail. The trains of cars rushing over the new iron trail marked another advance in the westward march of civilization.

Railroad Companies Receive Land Grants 

The immense cost of railroad construction, the sparsely settled country, and the limited amount of traffic, made the early building of railroads a risky undertaking. But railroads were needed in order to unite the West to the East as well as for the development of the new country, and in order to encourage their building Congress adopted the policy of making liberal land grants to railroad companies. The Union Pacific through Kansas was given land amounting to a strip ten miles wide on each side of its line. Several other companies, including the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, received grants amounting to five miles on each side. This policy brought about the rapid building of railroads, but when the State became fairly well supplied the land grants were discontinued. Much of the land was later forfeited by the companies through failure to meet the conditions of their grants.

Railroad Companies Interested in Settlement 

When the early railroads were first built across Kansas there were but few people living in the western part of the State. Since population was necessary to the prosperity of the railroad companies, these companies gave much attention to the matter of increasing the settlements along their lines. They sent land agents throughout the United States and Europe, they invited people of prominence to join excursions through Kansas, and they filled the newspapers with descriptions of the great West. Kansas was widely and favorably advertised. Interest was everywhere aroused and many people were attracted to the State.

Mennonite Settlements 

The railroad companies succeeded in planting a number of colonies of foreigners on their lands. Among them were the settlements of Mennonites in Reno, Harvey, Marion, and McPherson counties. These people came from Russia for religious freedom. "They came simultaneously with the grasshoppers but outstayed them." The first party, in 1874, numbered 1900 people, and many more followed rapidly until there are now many thousands of these people in Kansas. They brought a considerable amount of money with them and were able to purchase their land. The Mennonites were farmers, a thrifty, industrious people who have contributed much toward making Kansas a great agricultural State.

Swedish Settlements 

Swedes had been coming to Kansas since Territorial days. In 1871 the Union Pacific sold a large tract of land in Saline County for a Swedish settlement. This settlement has increased and others have been formed until there are now many people of this nationality in Kansas. Lindsborg, almost entirely Swedish, is their religious and social center. It is noted for its school of music. Most of these people came in poverty, but they have converted the bare prairies into fine agricultural districts and have become prosperous citizens. They are an industrious, intelligent, progressive, and lawabiding people.

Other colonies have settled in various parts of the State; among these, German-Russians in Russell, Rush, and Ellis counties, Scotch in Republic County, English in Clay County, and Bohemians in Ellsworth County. There are, at present, people of many nationalities in Kansas.

Relation of Railroads to State's Industries 

Not only did the early building of railroads do much to bring about the rapid settlement of Kansas, but it hastened the development of practically all of the State's industries. For instance, the railroads have made it possible for the farmer to market his live stock and his crops. Out of these better market facilities have grown the great meat-packing centers and the flouring mills. On the other hand, the growth of settlements and industries has brought prosperity to the railroads and they have increased in wealth, equipment, and mileage. Thus the relation between the railroads and the State's progress is very close.

(Image A Modern Locomotive and One of 1880)

There are at present nearly 10,000 miles of railroad in Kansas, most of it belonging to the four great companies, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, the Missouri Pacific, the Union Pacific, and the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific.

Railroad Regulation 

There has been but Uttle railroad building in Kansas for a number of years for the State is now fairly well supplied. Almost every county now has one or more railroads. In the earlier years the important thing was to get the railroads. Having secured them, the matter of chief concern has been to regulate them. During the late '70's much dissatisfaction arose because railroad rates were high, and several attempts were made to place the matter of rate regulation under the control of the State. In 1883 a law was passed creating a Railroad Commission of three members. This Commission was given a great deal of power, especially in regard to revising and establishing rates, and in adjusting disputes between the railroads and their patrons. Within a few years, through the efforts of the Commission together with the increase in business resulting from a growing population, rates were reduced almost half. Since its work proved to be of great service to the people the Commission was continued. In 1911 the Railroad Commission became the Public Utilities Commission, which was given control over all such corporations as railroads, electric lines, and telegraph and telephone systems, in matters that are of interest only to this particular State. In matters that concern more than one state the Interstate Commerce Commission may act.

When the United States entered the World War it became evident that one of the big problems to be met was that of transportation, within our own country, of men and supplies. The solution decided upon was that of government control of the railroads, which was secured by placing a director-general in charge of all the railroads of the United States. It was provided that this control might be continued for a period of twenty-one months after the close of the war.

Interurban Lines 

Within recent years our means of transportation have been increased by the building of electric railway lines. They usually extend from one city to another, and are therefore called interurban lines. Most of those already built are in the southeastern part of the State. Plans were under way for a number of additional lines, but the coming of the War checked practically all of this work. The return of normal conditions will doubtless see a large increase in interurban mileage.

Road Improvement 

The building of railroads did not make wagon roads less important, but more so, for there must be plenty of good roads if the people are to make full use of the railroads. The development of roads in this State has been going forward since the earliest days. Time, money, and effort are required to build roads in a new country, and during the years that Kansas has been engaged in this great task many different plans have been tried out and many road laws have been passed from time to time, but it was not until after Congress passed an act providing federal aid in road making that a unified plan for the whole State became a fact. This act was passed in 1916, and Kansas accepted its provisions in 1917. Since that time remarkable progress has been made. A system of State highways forming a network over the entire State has been selected, thousands of miles of which are "federal-aid roads"; a complete system of connecting county roads has been designated; information has been compiled and distributed concerning the making of different kinds of roads, as earth, oiled earth, gravel, water-bound macadam, bituminous macadam, asphaltic concrete, concrete, and brick; bridge and culvert building have been standardized; and many miles of hard-surfaced roads have already been built or are in process of construction. Road building in Kansas is now progressing at a rate far beyond that of any time in the past.

Motor Truck Service 

Much of the attention now being given to road improvement has been brought about by the rapidly increasing use of the automobile. During the earlier years of the automobile it was used chiefly for the transportation of passengers, but the development of the motor truck is making it an important factor in freight transportation. Many lines of motor truck service already have been established in the State, but on account of the uncertain condition of most of the roads the service is necessarily irregular. With the building of hard-surfaced roads the motor truck will no doubt soon become a fully established part of our transportation system.


Railroad construction was begun in the United States about 1830. By 1850 railroads reached as far west as St. Louis. Many stage lines were established in early Kansas. The first railroad was built in Kansas in 1860; the line extended from Elwood to Marysville. The Union Pacific was built through Kansas between 1862 and 1869. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway was completed in 1872. In the meantime a number of other roads were built. The railroads received large grants of land, which they sold to settlers, thereby raising money and increasing business. They advertised Kansas widely. The people soon found it necessary to regulate the railroads, and created for this purpose the Railroad Commission, now the Public Utilities Commission. Besides the various railroad systems of the State, there are many interurban lines and a rapidly growing motor truck service. Great progress in road improvement is being made.


Arnold, Civics and Citizenship, pp. 97-108.

Maps and Folders, published by the railroad companies.

Blackmar, Kansas, vol. ll, pp. 533-548.

Elson, History of the United States, pp. 475, 618, 818.

Prentis, History of Kansas, pp. 168-170, 184-186, 191-194.

Historical Collections, vol. viii, p. 384; vol. xi, p. 529; vol. xil,

pp. 37, 47, 383; vol. ix, p. 467; vol. vi, p. 357.

Reports of Interstate Commerce Commission and Public Utilities


Andreas, History of Kansas, pp. 241-252.

Inman, The Old Santa Fe Trail.

Root and Connelley, The Overland Stage Route to California.

Spring, Kansas, pp. 306-313.


1. Give an account of the beginning of railway transportation in the United States. What were the conditions by 1850? 

2. What were the early methods of travel in Kansas? 

3. Why were the early settlers anxious for railroads? What did they do to secure railroads? 

4. Discuss the stage lines; the Pony Express. 

5. When and where was the first railroad built in Kansas? 

6. Tell something of the building of the main line of the Union Pacific. 

7. Give an account of the building of the Union Pacific through Kansas. What were some of the difficulties that had to be overcome? 

8. When was the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe built? Give its route. 

9. Name other railroads in Kansas. 

10. Why were land grants made to the railroad companies? How did the railroad companies use this land? 

11. Why did the railroad companies advertise Kansas? What was the effect on the State? 

12. Locate settlements of foreigners in Kansas. 

13. Show why there is a close relation between the people and the railroads. 

14. Why has regulation of the railroads been found necessary? How has it been accomplished? 

15. What is, approximately, the railroad mileage of the State? 

16. What lines of railroad in your community? 

17. Are there any interurban lines near you? Are any such lines being discussed? 

18. What motor truck service is being carried on in your community? 

19. Locate the state highways and the county roads of your county. 

20. Describe recent improvement of roads in your community. 


1. This line was at first called the Kansas Pacific.


Source: A History of Kansas / Anna E. Arnold. pp.174-186