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Atchison, Kansas is on the west bank of the Missouri River in a vast amphitheater gouged out during the glacial epoch, is surrounded by low hills. This staid little industrial city is rich in historic interest and proud of the nationally famous personages who have claimed it as their birthplace or former home.


Atchison was laid out with strict attention to symmetry, its streets being straight and evenly platted. In the narrow valley of White Clay Creek, a tributary of the Missouri River, that forms a natural dividing line between the north and south residential districts, are the retail, industrial, and wholesale districts, and the railroad yards. The stream, where it runs through the city, is confined in a large storm sewer. Old elms and broad, well kept lawns add charm to the residential districts.

While the residential architecture of Atchison clings to the traditional styles of another era, public and commercial architecture follows contemporary trends. In downtown Atchison few of the historic buildings remain. With the exception of two five story buildings the Hotel Atchison and a modern office building the majority of business houses are modest two story structures, some with modern fronts. Some of the industrial plants and business establishments date back to the 1880's. A bank, organized in 1859 nas(sic) a slogan "Older than the State of Kansas," and the Blair Flour Mill was established in 1866.

Negro residents, who form nearly 10 per cent of the population, are not segregated, although there is a small district of modest frame dwellings on the edge of a bluff north and east of the business district that is inhabited almost exclusively by Negroes. A considerable number of the more prosperous live in comfortable modern homes scattered throughout the residential sections. Negroes are represented in most of the trades and professions.

From 1875 to 1938 a toll bridge spanning the Missouri River was the only connecting link with the Missouri side of the stream. It was replaced by a free bridge constructed as a PWA project and opened to traffic July 2, 1938.

Recorded history goes back to 1724, when the expedition of M. de Bourgmont, military commander of the French colony of Louisiana, crossed what is now Atchison County to establish friendly trade relations with the Indians of the Platte region. Francois Marie Perrin du Lac, another French explorer, passed through in 1802-1803 and his journal tells of finding stones that he carried away to be analyzed. Although he lost them, the stones are believed to have been iron ore.

Lewis and Clark while encamped on Independence Creek six miles north of Atchison, were the first to celebrate Independence Day on Kansas soil. On July 4, 1804 they fired a salute in observance of the occasion and issued an additional gill of whiskey to the men.

In the winter of 1818, a detachment of soldiers, members of the First Rifle Regiment of Maj. Stephen H. Long's Yellowstone expedition established the first military post in Kansas on a large island in the river six miles south of Atchison. French trappers had previously discovered this island and christened it Isle au Vache (Cow Island). When Major Long joined the detachment in July 1819, he brought the first river steamboats seen in this section. Many members of this expedition were prominent in the development of the West. Maj. John O' Fallen became one of the wealthiest and most influential leaders of St. Louis, Mo., and a private, Bennett Riley, became military Governor of California and was honored by having Fort Riley (see Tour 3) named for him.

A council was called for August 24, 1819 after the Indians fired on the soldiers encamped on Cow Island. At the last moment, several chiefs refused to attend because of their disagreement as to precedence in rank, but peace was declared, according to one account, rather "because of the gunfire, rocket and flare displays, and flag hoisting, than because of Major O'Fallon's eloquence."

By 1850 the California gold rush and the general western trek had brought settlers to this desirable river landing. Most of the homesteaders were anti-slavery but the Missouri settlers determined to use Atchison as a wedge in making Kansas a slave State. They filed claims there for the privilege of voting and kept the community in a constant state of unrest. They even named the city in honor of an ardent slavery advocate, David R. Atchison, United States Senator from Missouri, and, at one time, Acting Vice President of the United States. Although he was not a Kansan, Atchison attended the celebration for the opening of the town site, and in his speech, exhibited his broad tolerance by admitting that "some Northerners are fairly worthy men who wouldn't steal a nigger themselves."

The city was incorporated August 30, 1855, by a special act of the territorial legislature, and the toss of a coin decided the first mayor. At this time the Southerners raised $400 to start their newspaper, the Squatter Sovereign, a vehement champion of slavery, which fought so bitterly with the Free State paper that a duel between the two editors appeared inevitable. Indeed, the editor of the Sovereign issued a challenge, but his rival refused to accept it.

The drifting population of the 1850's and 1860's contributed to the lawlessness that characterized the ribald frontier days. The first minister to come to Atchison (1855) lost most of his audience to a chuck-a-luck game across the street. The Reverend Pardee Butler, a Free State minister, attempted to reform the city in the 1850's and, for his efforts, was rewarded with a lone and hazardous voyage on a raft down the "Big Muddy." Ignoring the threats of his attackers, he returned to Atchison a few months later, and narrowly escaped hanging. According to the minister's subsequent report of the proceedings, "after exposing me to every sort of indignity, they stripped me to the waist, covered my body with tar, and then for want of feathers, applied cotton wool. Then they sent me naked upon the prairies."

The Northerners, however, gained in power and by 1857 their arrogance led to violence. Some of them purchased the Sovereign and completely reversed its policies. Others began to pilfer from Missourians in the hills across the river.

John Brown, Free State protagonist, also figured in Atchison's history. Hearing that Brown was traveling nearby in 1857, a g rou p of Southern sympathizers went out to capture his party, but were captured instead. Brown ordered one of the prisoners to pray.

"I only know, 'Now I lay me . . .' " the man objected.

"Then say it!" Brown commanded, and the frightened prisoner knelt and recited the child's prayer.

Though they remained but two years, the Mormons, an independent group, established the first large settlement in 1855. Their farm, four miles west of the city on the south side of US 73, was enclosed by ditches, which have been obliterated by cultivation and erosion. This encircling moat was used to prevent cattle from straying.

Lincoln visited Atchison December 2, 1859, and addressed a group here, using the same speech with which he won the Presidency later at Cooper's Hall in New York City. The Atchison Champion, published by John A. Martin, did not report the visit because the editor, like most Kansas Republicans, was supporting Seward. Even the man who introduced him had to refer to his notes before naming a "Mr. A. Lincoln." But Lincoln won his audience, although it consisted mostly of hecklers and the curious. It was reported that he admonished his audience with these words: "You cannot secede from the Union! If you do, you will hang as surely as John Brown hanged today."

From Atchison in 1859 the first telegraph message from the West to the East was dispatched and in the same year the city achieved the distinction of being the first west of the Mississippi to have direct connection with St. Louis and the East. At the first city council meeting, it was decided to issue $100,000 in bonds to establish a railroad from St. Joseph, Mo., to Atchison, 15 miles west of any other railroad point. A charter was obtained from the Missouri legislature and in the winter of 1859-1860 the new line was completed and in operation.

With the advantage of a good steamboat landing and the best wagon road leading West, Atchison flourished from the first. Early day trail and river traffic was tremendous. The city directory of 1860 casually remarked that the entire trade carried on by private enterprise with Utah and the forts was from Atchison. In 1862 Ben Holladay bought the equipment of the bankrupt Russell, Waddell & Majors Freighting Company and moved its headquarters from Leavenworth to Atchison. At one time, following its organization in 1856, the company boasted 6,000 teamsters, 50,000 head of oxen, and more than 5,000 wagons. According to the estimate of the original company, they carried 21 million tons of freight through Atchison. Sometimes as many as 1,600 wagons stopped here in a single night. Butterfield's Overland Dispatch, established in Atchison in 1864, was one of the most important freighters, having 55 wagon masters, 1,500 drivers, 1,200 mules, and 9,600 head of oxen. Holladay acquired Butterfield's Dispatch in 1866.

Carrying the mails from Atchison for the West on the overland stages was a million dollar business. Mail coaches departing daily took 17 days to make the round trip from Atchison to Denver. Postage was $5 an ounce and the finest of tissue was fashionable as writing paper.

The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railway was another local enterprise. Ambitious to become the eastern terminus for a great south and west system, the municipality voted a bond issue of $500,000 as a basis for the venture, and in 1859 a company was incorporated by an act of the territorial legislature. Construction was delayed, however, and it was not until 1872 that the road to Topeka and Wichita opened, providing the first unit of a great railway system. Other roads were established and Atchison developed into an important railroad center.

In 1880 the city reached the peak of a steady growth in population and industry. It had three breweries, which were closed by State prohibition in 1 88 1, two flour mills, railroad shops, and packing houses. Since 1900, it has become important as a wholesale and jobbing center. The city ranks fourth in Kansas and tenth in the United States in the production of hard wheat flour, three mills having a combined capacity of 5,600 barrels a day. A foundry established in 1871 is now one of the largest concerns in the United States exclusively engaged in the manufacture of locomotive parts. Atchison's industrial output also includes overalls, leather goods, plumbing fixtures, and processed eggs and poultry. The newest industry, the result of several years of research and experimentation, is the manufacture of industrial alcohol for motor fuel.

The two spaces reserved for Kansas in Statuary Hall in the Capitol at Washington, D. C, are occupied by statues of Atchison men John J. Ingalls, author and United States Senator, and George Washington Click, a Kansas Governor and national leader in the Democratic party. Atchison was the birthplace of Amelia Earhart Putnam, the noted aviatrix; Maj. Gen. Harry A. Smith, a World War commander, who received several decorations for bravery, and later was commandant at Fort Leavenworth; and Mateel Howe Farnham, the novelist daughter of Ed Howe, who won a $10,000 prize offered by the Pictorial Review Magazine and Dodd, Mead & Company, publishers, with her book, Rebellion.