Begun as a site to ferry wagon trains across the Kansas River to destinations out west, Topeka, Kansas, has remained a transportation hub for the southwestern United States. Located about 60 miles west of Kansas City on Interstate 70, Topeka played a leading role in the “Bleeding Kansas” territory before its statehood. Today Topeka, whose name springs from the Indian word for “potatoes,” or “a good place to grow or find potatoes,” is an important shipping point for cattle and wheat, and a wholesaling, marketing, and processing center for farm products.
After working their ferry operations for several years, Joseph and Louis Papin decided to form a town in December 1854. Built as a crossroads for wagon trains heading to California along the Oregon Trail, many buildings were hastily built the following spring, and the first two-story masonry building, which later became the home for the free-state legislature, was erected. The Papin brothers operated their ferry until a bridge was constructed in 1857.
Also in 1854, while the pro-slavery forces were in power, the Lecompton Constitution was drafted, which did not allow slavery opponents to vote against its ratification. This action led to the often-violent in-state struggles between abolitionists and slavery-state forces. Considered to be a prelude to the Civil War, the term “Bleeding Kansas” was coined by New York Tribune writer Horace Greeley.
After a new anti-slavery constitution was drafted and approved by the electorate by a 2-to-1 margin in 1859, the matter was settled. Kansas entered the Union as a free state two years later, with Topeka as its capital.
Railroads make their mark
One of the largest railroads in the United States, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, was chartered by the state of Kansas in 1859, and organized in 1860. The brainchild of Topeka’s C.K. Holliday, construction of the railroad didn't actually begin until 1868, but soon Atchison became a hub, with eight railroad lines terminating in the city by 1872. Commonly known as “The Santa Fe,” the rail line was built from Topeka to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and then on to the Gulf of Mexico. The railroad brought to bear its great influence on the settlement of the southwestern United States.
From the 1880s through the 1950s, a number of events providing for the foundation of Topeka occurred.
During the 1880s, the population in Topeka tripled, owing to increased rail traffic. In early 1887, the Rock Island Rail Lines signed a contract with the Union Pacific and the Chicago, Kansas and Nebraska Railway Company for joint use of the U.P. tracks between Kansas City and North Topeka.
By 1891, the Rock Island Rail Lines, which got its start in La Salle, Illinois, back in 1845, stretched some 1,500 miles through Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado. Built as a replica of the one in Washington, D.C., construction of Topeka’s capitol building was completed in 1907, and in 1954, construction began on the $9 million State Office Building.
Brown vs. Board of Education
Also in 1954, Topeka was involved in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown vs. Board of Education, that reversed the “separate but equal” rule pertaining to segregated schools. In an attempt to gain equal educational opportunities for their children, black community leaders in Topeka took action against segregation in America's schools and won.
Aided by the local chapter of the NAACP, a group of 13 parents filed a class-action law suit against the Board of Education of Topeka Schools, that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The reversal of the “separate but equal” rule of the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that had been on the books since 1890, helped set the stage for the newest round of civil rights activism. The Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site was established in October 1992, at the now-famous Monroe Elementary School.
During the 20th century, Topeka stood as a worldwide leader in psychiatric research and care. From 1919 to 2003, the famous Menninger Clinic in Topeka treated patients with severe mental illness. Comprising the first group psychiatry practice, founders Drs. C.F., Karl, and Will Menninger believed mental illness could be treated, at a time when it was thought that custodial care or lifetime exile were the only courses of action. So successful were the Menninger’s methods, that therapists all over the world adopted and practiced their innovations and approaches.
Notable figures in Topeka history
Important and notable figures in history that have called Topeka their home include Colonel John Ritchie, Charles Curtis, and Alfred M. Landon.
Topeka’s oldest home was owned by abolitionist Colonel John Ritchie, who used it during the struggles to establish the free state of Kansas during the 1850s. Ritchie was instrumental in drafting an anti-slavery constitution that finally passed the electorate in 1859. Ritchie’s home served as a meeting place for that faction, a stop on the Underground Railroad, and a welcome place for such women’s suffragists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Serving as the 31st vice president of the United States, Charles Curtis was a Native American and the first person of non-European ancestry to reach one of the country’s two highest offices. Serving under President Herbert Hoover, Curtis also was the last individual with facial hair (a mustache) to hold one of those offices. His mother was a member of the Kaw (or Kanza) tribe, from which the name Kansas was derived. The Kaw are closely related to the Osage Nation.
Republican Alf Landon ran unsuccessfully against Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election. After losing the election, Landon returned to Topeka to build his own white house, where he lived out the remainder of his years. Known as a “practical progressive” within the Republican Party, Landon remained active in politics and, on his 100th birthday, was visited at his Topeka home by President Ronald Reagan.
Institutions of higher learning
Much has been documented about the history of higher learning institutions in Topeka. Among those institutions are a research arm of the University of Kansas, which was founded in Lawrence, in 1864; Washburn University; and the College of the Sisters of Bethany. Established by the Episcopal Church in 1860, the College of the Sisters of Bethany was billed as the “Wellesley of the West” for American women.
Originally called Lincoln College, Washburn University was founded in 1865 as a Congregational College. The college was renamed Washburn College in 1868, to recognize church deacon Ichabod Washburn for his $25,000 donation to the institution. The 160-acre site upon which the current campus is located was donated by Colonel John Ritchie in 1874. The university was rebuilt following Topeka’s devastating tornado of 1966.
Museums and other cultural points of interest
The museums of Topeka are rich in railroad history. Those institutions include the Center for Historical Research and the Kansas Museum of History, both operated by the Kansas State Historical Society.
The Kansas Museum of History contains an actual 1880 Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad locomotive and cars, along with a fully stocked, covered wagon ready for the Oregon Trail. The research center contains more than 50,000 feet of printed materials and Kansas government archives, along with 50,000 reels of microfilm and other research materials.
The city also is home to the Topeka Performing Arts Center and the oldest community dinner theater in the country, at the Topeka Civic Theatre. Founded in 1936, the Theatre moved to the renovated former Gage Elementary School, in 1999. Construction of the Topeka Performing Arts Center was begun with a $7 million grant provided by the Federal Public Works Agency (PWA) in the mid-1930s, and required three years to complete. The orchestra lift was one of only eight such lifts in the U.S. at the time.
Although no professional sports teams call Topeka home, college sports are popular, as well as community-based teams. Sporting events are held at Hummer Sports Park baseball field, Gage Park, and the Kansas Expocentre, a 7,500–seat auditorium that has a 22,400-square-foot facility for concerts, circuses, and hockey games played by the Central Hockey League’s Topeka Tarantulas. Owned by Shawnee County, the Kansas Expocentre also contains a facility called the R.R. Domer Livestock Area, where the yearly Kansas State High School Rodeo Championships are held.
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