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Topeka, capital of Kansas, seat of Shawnee County, and third city in population, is bisected by the Kansas, or Kaw River, as it is more familiarly known. On the north side of the stream the city extends across the fertile Kaw Valley to the slope of a low range of hills. On the south it spreads over a ridge that divides the watersheds of the Kaw River and Shunganunga Creek, extending across the creek bottoms, and up the gradual slope of another range of low glacial hills.

Kansas Avenue, the main street, extends from the northern to the southern limits of the city, lined for almost half its length with business houses. In the territory adjacent to the river, extending across a level expanse of bottom, is the principal industrial and wholesale district. Here are four meat-packing plants, wholesale houses, flour mills, and small factories. This section, the oldest part of the town, was laid out parallel to the river banks, northeast, southwest, while the streets of the newer addition follow the cardinal points of the compass.

South from Third Street to Fifth Street, Kansas Avenue ascends the slope of the divide, bordered by small shops, hotels, motion picture theatres, and second-hand stores. Concentrated between Fifth and Tenth Streets is the modern retail business and professional district. Quincy and Jackson Streets, flanking the Avenue on either side, show increasing business and commercial development. The Avenue's architecture varies from the ornate, heavy-corniced structures built in the 80's and 90's to the modern 14-story National Bank of Topeka Building. Construction is predominantly of brick. At Tenth Street the commercial aspect of Kansas Avenue begins to change. At Eleventh Street it enters a residential section built in the 1890's.

Topeka Boulevard, once Topeka's "Park Avenue," is lined with pretentious mansions built between 1880 and 1915, but the motor age has caused the exclusive residential district to move west until it is nearly three miles from the business section.

Most of the newer homes are built in the additions on the south and west. Many of the pretentious Victorian mansions are now comfortable rooming and boarding houses, within walking distance of the business district. Tall shade trees, forming cool green archways above Topeka's wide streets, give the city its chief claim to civic beauty. The town founders, finding that land was cheap and shade was scarce, platted the thoroughfares lavishly and lined them with elm, hackberry, walnut, and maple trees. Each succeeding generation of home-builders has carefully preserved this tradition.

Westboro, a restricted residential district in the southwest, is the only section of the city that does not follow the formal street plan having been laid out in lanes, courts, drives, and terraces. Its homes follow many styles of architecture, the Dutch and Georgian Colonial predominating.

Descendants of the "Exodusters" who came to Topeka in 1879-1880 now number approximately 8,000 (1938). The oldest and most compact Black community is "Tennessee Town" established by five hundred Exodusters in 1880. This district extends west from Buchanan Street to Washburn Avenue and south from Tenth to Huntoon Streets, and it is inhabited by more than two thousand Negroes. When "Tennessee Town" was settled it was west of the city limits but the town has grown around it until it is now almost in the center of Topeka's West Side. Today, its streets are paved and its homes are neat one-story frame structures. There are other Black residential districts in North Topeka and in areas along the railroad tracks. The city has three Negro elementary schools. 

Blacks are represented in most of the trades and professions.

While the white residents are largely of Anglo-Saxon stock, there are scattered groups of Russo-Germans, Swedes, and Mexicans. The Russo-Germans work in the Santa Fe shop, and live in a little settlement in North Topeka known as "Little Russia." Mexicans are concentrated near the railroad yards and are employed in the Santa Fe shops or as section laborers.

Topeka's excellent transportation facilities and its position in a prosperous agricultural area have made it an important distribution and trade center. Streets in the retail districts are thronged with shoppers from the surrounding countryside. Before the motor age, when farmers drove into town, they were provided with hitching posts along broad Kansas Avenue; and wagon and feed yards catered to their convenience. Today their automobiles, dusty and serviceable, and usually carrying produce, are parked alongside the shining city cars on "the Avenue" while their owners shop or transact business at the courthouse. Parking meters, insuring the motorist an hour's parking privilege for five cents, have replaced the old hitching posts and the feed yards have given way to modern "one stop" motor service stations.

In 1842, two French-Canadians, Joseph and Louis Pappan, the latter a progenitor of the late Charles Curtis, married Kaw Indian half-breeds and settled on Kaw lands in what is now Shawnee County. They established a ferry across the Kaw River at the site of Topeka which they operated until the stream was bridged in 1857. The Pappans were probably the first white settlers in the region.

Topeka, however, owes its existence to Col. Cyrus K. Holliday, a young Pennsylvanian who came to Kansas Territory in 1854 with $20,000 and an urge to build a railroad. He interested a group of former New England capitalists in his proposition, and accompanied by a few of the pioneers walked into Lawrence one day in 1854 to explain his plan to Dr. Charles Robinson, agent of the New England Emigrant Aid Company. The future rail magnates had made the 45 mile journey from Kansas City on foot.

Robinson was interested and, failing to convince his visitors that Lawrence was an ideal site for the railroad center, suggested that they take a trip up the Kaw to pick out a spot. Holliday agreed and the group set out. Twenty-one miles west along the river was the thriving village of Tecumseh, the initial stop. Tecumseh business men, however, appeared to have heard of Holliday's $20,000 and they asked an enormous price for the site. This display of avarice cost Tecumseh dearly. The frugal Yankees proceeded up the river five miles to the site of Topeka where they formed a town company, after closing a deal for a tract of land with Enoch Chase, a local land owner who had purchased large tracts from the Kaw Indians.

Holliday was elected president of the company and the Lawrence delegation took stock, as did Chase. The company met in a log cabin December 5, 1854, to complete organization. Holliday proposed to call the town Webster after Daniel Webster, but the others wanted to give it something with a local flavor. After much discussion the Reverend S. Y. Lum suggested Topeka, an Omaha Indian word meaning a good place to dig "potatoes" (the Indians designated all edible roots as potatoes).

The following year, due to the efforts of Dr. Robinson, a large contingent of New Englanders arrived and Topeka grew into a sizable settlement. Before another year passed Colonel Holliday and his associates had completed plans for the construction of the railroad that became the Santa Fe. Topeka thrived and became a rival of Tecumseh for the seat of Shawnee County. The rivalry was that of a Free State and a pro-slavery community, since Tecumseh was settled by Missouri slave owners.

The first Kansas constitution was framed by a convention of Free State men who met in Topeka in 1855. With only Free State men voting, the document was quickly approved, provisional officials and a legislature were chosen. Members of the legislature, however, were arrested by United States troops when they convened at Topeka, July 4, and the "Topeka Government" was speedily overthrown.

In 1857, the year the city was incorporated, the first bridge across the Kaw was completed. High water carried it away the following summer and Tecumseh residents chortled as the wreckage floated by on its way downstream. It was Topeka's turn to laugh a few months later when it won over Tecumseh in a county seat election, October 4, 1858.

Dr. Robinson returned to Lawrence after the details for the founding of Topeka had been completed. The Kansas Constitution, adopted at Wyandotte, under which the Territory was admitted to the Union, provided for an election to select the capital city. Topeka and Lawrence were aspirants, and Robinson, a candidate for Governor, was believed by the people of Lawrence to favor the selection of their town. Consequently, they supported the doctor. Robinson and Gen. Jim Lane, however, threw their influence behind the Topeka movement. The result was that Robinson was elected and Topeka chosen as the capital of the new State.

Meanwhile, Holliday unfolded his plan. He presented to the State a tract of the townsite to be used as a capital park. He promoted the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway which in 1869 started building westward from Topeka, and had the general offices and machine shops of that system established in Topeka in 1878. Holliday's name, appropriately, is preserved in Holliday Street on which stands the Santa Fe depot, and in the Cyrus K. Holliday Junior High School on Topeka's east side, which is attended by sons and daughters of Santa Fe shop employees.

Although the growth of Topeka and the State was retarded by the drought of 1860 and the ensuing period of the Civil War, Topeka kept pace with the phenomenal revival and period of growth that Kansas enjoyed from the close of the war in 1865 until 1870. A town of 700 inhabitants in 1862, it had grown to more than 5,000 in 1870.

In October 1864, Topekans erected a stockade of cottonwood logs for protection against Price's raid. The flimsy roofless structure was derisively called "Fort Folly" by citizens who pointed out that it would be scant protection against artillery. The Second Regiment of the Kansas State Militia, however, engaged in a bloody skirmish with Price's forces at the Big Blue River near Kansas City, Missouri. The regiment, composed of men from Topeka and Shawnee County under the command of Col. George Veale, met a vastly superior enemy force on October 22. Although forced to retreat, the regiment inflicted severe losses and helped to check Price's advance. The Topeka battery, attached to the regiment as Company K, took up a position in a lane near the crossing of the river where they repulsed two spirited cavalry charges but succumbed to a third. Eight men were killed, four wounded, and ten, including Captain Ross Burns, were taken prisoner. Burns stood by his piece until he was clubbed into insensibility and dragged from the field.

During the late 1880's Topeka passed through a boom period that ended in disaster. There was a vast speculation on town lots. One promoter advertised in foreign newspapers that his lots were 12 miles from the post office, but his description of Topeka was that of a city on the scale of Chicago. Subdivisions were platted at points several miles west of the present city limits. In 1889 the bubble burst and many investors were ruined. Topeka, however, doubled in population during the period and was able to weather the depressions of the 1890's.

In the spring of 1903 a flood of the Kaw River inundated North Topeka, which lies in the valley. Weeks of continuous rain throughout the watershed transformed the Kaw into an angry torrent five miles across.

Breaking through its low banks the Kaw cut a new channel through North Topeka and on the south side the water rose as far as Second Street. Hundreds were marooned in their homes and 29 persons were drowned. Property damage amounted to $2,288,000. North Topeka was an industrial section with a number of large flour mills and lumber yards. Indians had warned the early settlers not to build a city on the banks of the river, recalling a great flood of 1844.

High water in 1908, 1923, and 1935, created uneasiness among residents of North Topeka, but the dikes constructed a few years after the 1903 flood prevented a repetition of the disaster.

Having survived the depressions of the 1890's, and the flood period, Topeka welcomed with enthusiasm the new motor age. The Topeka State Journal on April 3, 1911, reported: "Work is progressing rapidly in tearing down the old Culp livery barn at 508 Quincy Street, preparatory to the erection of an undertaking establishment. Automobile license No. 627 was issued today." By 1920 the motor had replaced the horse in city transport and the city fire department was motorized. During the next 15 years motor buses gradually replaced the old trolley cars on Topeka's streets, two new hotels were opened, and the city definitely had entered the modern era.

Today, the city is an insurance center with home offices of seven life insurance companies, two fire insurance companies, and one crop insurance company. Also of importance in its economic background is the printing industry, with four large independent plants in addition to the one maintained by the State. Topeka's largest single industry, however, is the Santa Fe Railway, which maintains repair shops and general offices and furnishes employment to 5,000 Topekans.