Kansas Railroad Timeline

Kansas Pacific Railrway Roundhouse

Kansas Pacific Railrway Roundhouse

1803 – The Louisiana Territory was purchased from France by the United States, which started a new era of settlement for the Kanza Indian tribe.

1825 – Treaties between the federal government and the Kanza and Osage tribes.

1830 – The South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company operated the first American-built train. This is the era of the transcontinental railroads in America. Over time railroads would be built westward.

1850 – President Millard Fillmore signed the first railroad land-grant act. From then on, railroad transportation has been the most important factor in developing the western part of the United States.

Kansas and Nebraska, 1856

Kansas and Nebraska, 1856

1854 – A purpose of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was to open the country to transcontinental railways to connect the east with the west. The pioneers questioned what Kansas offered: flat land, no trees, and snakes.

1859 – The Capitol of Kansas is Topeka, and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway was founded by Cryus K. Holliday. The state of Kansas was named after the Kanza Indian tribe.

The state’s first railroad was a five-mile line built from Elwood to Wathena. How did the people get from place to place over land? People came by wagon train; they walked, rode horses, or rode the stagecoach. This new era of the steam railway was the threshold of transportation and the greatest era of expansion for the pioneers.

1860 – The first locomotive run on the tracks laid on Kansas soil at Elwood. This locomotive and car were ferried up the Missouri River and placed on the track the new age had come to Kansas. This was the future for travel and tourists.

1861 – Kansas became a state in the mid-central part of the United States. Kansas is 411 miles from East to West and 208 miles from North to South, and Topeka is the Capitol. Kansas is a large amount of land with a small population. The geographical center of the 48 contiguous states is Smith County, Kansas.

An old homestead near Gem, Kansas.

An old homestead near Gem, Kansas.

1862 – The land for the Homestead Act came from the railroads. The railroads were granted enormous acreage of federal land plus significant land endowments from the state. The railroad also purchased huge acreage “for a song” from the Indians.

The first train track surveyed across Kansas from east to west was the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Construction began with the Ross and Steele firm from Canada in 1863. In 1864, the train was opened for travel from Kansas City to Lawrence.

1863 – The locomotive engineers formed the first brotherhood union because they could not get insurance. The railroaders were the true settlers of the West.

1864 – The unknown or unexpected battles of the prairies. This is the year that Native Americans begin attacks on the frontier settlers and the “iron horse.” This horse (train) takes in water but eats wood, they acknowledged. Only one set of railroad tracks was laid during this westward expansion.

Westward Expansion

Westward Expansion

1865 – It was established that the railroads needed to be guarded because of the U.S. mail and to save lives. The railroad building over the Kansas flat plains should have been steady work, but the workers had many hard times with nature, heat, being dry, wind-dust storms, floods, the cold, and snow.

Loading cattle in Abilene, Kansas.

Loading cattle in Abilene, Kansas.

1867 to 1872 – Over three million head of Texas longhorn cattle were driven to the Kansas Pacific Railroad for shipment at the center of Abilene. When the cowboys had their herds safely inside the loading corrals, they were ready to celebrate. The Wild West town of Abilene had saloons for gambling and drinking in dance halls.

1867 – Rifles were issued to the workers as part of the equipment to protect themselves against attacks and buffalo stampedes.

1869 – The first train tracks built across Kansas from north to south were the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. A rail from East to West was on the ground, linking ocean to ocean on May 10, 1869, at Promontory, Utah.

The problem of obtaining food for the laborers was solved by contracting hunters to keep a supply of fresh buffalo meat on hand.

Shooting Buffalo

Shooting Buffalo

The most prominent to perform this important service was William F. Cody; as a result of his work, he received the famous title of “Buffalo Bill.” The importance of the railroad being realized as the horde of land settlers went West.

1870 – The Kansas Pacific Railway reaches the Kansas-Colorado border with its tracks.

The Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway was the first railroad to build to the Kansas-Oklahoma

1872 – A branch of the Santa Fe Railroad arrived at Wichita, and the town “busted wide open.” A sign was erected at the outskirts of the town proclaiming: “Everything goes in Wichita.” Many parade celebrations with fireworks commenced when the railroad tracks reached a town. Every village was enthusiastic about the railroad because it would become a distributing center if a town got a railroad. The site for greatness was to obtain more than one railroad to radiate from the town.

Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in Barnard, Kansas.

Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in Barnard, Kansas.

When the Santa Fe Railroad was finished to the Colorado border, people started using the railroad to transport goods and materials from one settlement to another settlement location. The Santa Fe Trail was no longer the main transportation route.

1874 – Four railroads shipped over 122,900 head of Texas cattle in eight months to Kansas.

1878 – The first track abandonment was the Saint Joseph & Topeka Railway of 13.5 miles between Wathena and Doniphan.

1878 to 1879 – With the purchased land from the Kansas Pacific Railroad, several hundred River Brethren from Pennsylvania came to the cowtown of Abilene in Dickinson County. They brought carloads of household items, farming equipment, and more than half a million dollars in cash. At once, they began to organize homes and fields for farming on the plains. Everyone wanted to move West to a good country. An estimated 55,000 immigrants from England, Germany, Russia, and Sweden came to Kansas.

1880 – The Kansas Pacific consolidated with the Union Pacific Railroad. The steel highway was history now with the following words describing the railroad. “It was a hastily constructed highway which cost three times as much as it was worth and yet was worth many times more than three times as much as it cost.” The Kansas Pacific Railroad played a key role in the economy of Kansas and the United States.

1880s – The bulk of rail was laid, and the population of Kansas had increased to almost one million compared to the 100,000 twenty years before. Most of the people lived in the eastern side of the state. The movement of the settlers into the west was due to the expansion of the railroad. Locomotives were now being built in Atchison, Topeka, and other cities in Kansas.

Dodge City, Kansas in about 1875.

Dodge City, Kansas, in about 1875.

1881 – Many of the trail herds headed for Dodge City, a shipping point on the Santa Fe Railroad line.

1883 – The railroads adopted Standard railroad gauges.

The railroad act established a regulatory commission on general rate schedules.

Almost 500 carloads of coal are shipped each month out of Litchfield, just northeast of Pittsburg in Crawford County.

1885 – The last Texas cattle drive to Dodge City in Ford County.

1886 – A person could obtain a charter to build any railroad in any place by asking for a charter and paying one dollar. Over 40 railroad companies were chartered during the territorial period in hopes of becoming a branch of the transcontinental route in Kansas.

1887 – The first federal act is the Interstate Commerce Act to regulate passenger rates.

Railroad Construction Crew in Haskell County, Kansas by Francis M. Steele.

Railroad Construction Crew in Haskell County, Kansas by Francis M. Steele.

1900 – Over 70 Hispanics came to Kansas as laborers for various Railroad companies.

1911 – The heavy snow over the state tied up the Railroad transportation.

1914 – With Kansas City having 12 railroad lines entering into the city, they built one of the largest railroad stations in the country. The main building covered 15 acres. A system of tracks, built below the street level to Union Station, cost $50 million. Kansas City became a chief railroad junction for the Central Mid-states.

1917 – The State of Kansas had its most miles of track, totaling 9,367 miles, with 26 different railroads and in each county.

1926 – Congress passed the Railway Labor Act to help avoid major strikes that might endanger the economy or create a national emergency.

1930 – The last ethnic group of 19,402 Hispanics to enter Kansas as laborers for various Railroad companies.

Threshing wheat in Sherman County, Kansas.

Threshing wheat in Sherman County, Kansas.

1931 – Kansas has a record wheat crop of 240 million bushels, most of which were shipped out by rail.

1951 – The flood of 1951 stopped railroad transportation. Do they rebuild or not?

1961 – The world’s largest and longest wheat elevator is located at Hutchinson in Reno County at our nation’s primary hard wheat market. Kansas is known as the grain state, and we ship the majority of it out by rail.

1969 – Sixteen railroad lines operate over 8,000 miles of track in Kansas. Over a third of the track belongs to the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad.

1986 – Kansas produced 421,540,000 bushels of wheat, with the largest part of it being shipped out by rail.

1993 – Floods statewide and through many parts of the upper midwest during June and July damaged railroads and bridges.

1995 – Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway and the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway merged. Effective in 1997, it is now called BNSF.

1999 – Kansas railroads serve all but two counties with at least one railroad line in each county.

2000 – The merger between the railroads, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation, and Canadian National Railway Company will not occur this year.

In the past decade, many changes have occurred in railroading. Lines have been abandoned, corporate mergers and sales have taken place, and familiar railroad names have disappeared.

2001 – On June 29, the Class III Railroad company Central Kansas Railway was sold to the Kansas & Oklahoma Railroad. The K & O started operations of the railroad line at 12:01 A.M. on June 30.

Hutchinson, Kansas Large Grain Elevator

Hutchinson, Kansas Large Grain Elevator by Kathy Alexander.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of Kansas, updated February 2023. Source – Kansas Department of Transportation

Also See:

A Century of Railroad Building

Kansas Transporation History

Railroad Companies

Railroads of Kansas