Salina, Kansas

In the spring of 1857 Colonel William A. Phillips, who for some time previously, had been traveling through the settled portions of Kansas, conceived the idea of making a tour on foot through a portion of the unsettled territory with the objective of selecting a townsite. To accompany him on his tour he engaged the services of an Englishman named Smith. From the vicinity of Fort RileyKansas they started out on foot, following the Smoky Hill River as far as the Saline River, the course of which they followed for a short distance when they crossed to the Solomon River. With their supplies becoming low, they made their way to Manhattan, where they renewed their stock of provisions and started out again, following up the Blue River until they came to the forks. Following the west branch of the Blue River, they came to the Military Road, and turning into this, they followed it until they reached Marysville. From Marysville, they struck out for Richmond, a distance of 51 miles, which they accomplished in one day. Their journey extended over a period of two weeks and the average distance traveled each day was 40 miles. To this trip is to be attributed the first permanent settlement in Saline County, because after thoroughly examining the grounds over which he traveled for a townsite Colonel Phillips determined to locate on the banks of the Smoky Hill River.

William Addison Phillips

William Addison Phillips

In February 1858 Colonel Phillips in company with A. M. Campbell and James Muir, returned to the area and drove their stakes where they wished to locate a townsite, to which they gave the name of Salina. Beautifully located, the site was in the center of a rich and fertile valley, on the banks of the Smoky Hill River. It would be the first permanent settlement made in what would become Saline County. At that time, the region was officially an unorganized territory known as the Arapaho District. However, in February 1858, the Kansas Legislature passed a bill organizing and defining the boundary lines of five new counties west of the 6th principal meridian, among them Saline County.

The first stock of goods that was ever brought to Saline County was brought by George Pickard in 1858. The great floods that occurred in that year, washed away all the Government bridges on the Smoky Hill, Saline and Solomon Rivers. On reaching the Solomon, Mr. Pickard found the bridge gone, and in order to get his goods across the river he had to construct a raft of wood and buffalo robes, on which he succeeded in getting them over, but in a somewhat damaged condition. The washing out of the bridges necessitated the laying out of a road on the south side of the river from Salina to Kansas City, which was a very difficult and arduous task. Before starting for his stock of goods, which was not very large, Mr. Pickard had erected a small log house on the property that would later become the town of Salina. Here, he deposited his stock and opened up for business.

In the meantime, Colonel William A. Phillips, having organized a Town Company, of which he was president, began to survey and plat the town in March 1858, which continued at intervals, until March 1862, when it was finally completed. George Pickard had not been in the business but a few months when he sold out to Colonel W. A. Phillips, who increased the stock and established A. M. Campbell as salesman. Almost immediately quite a number of new settlers arrived, most of whom located in Salina or its immediate neighborhood.

On March 30, 1859, the town company was granted a charter by the Sixth Territorial Legislature of Kansas. That year saw a great stream of fortune seekers passing through Salina on their way to the newly discovered goldfields of Pike’s Peak in present-day Colorado. Salina, at that time, was the westernmost station on the Smoky Hill Trail to the Far West. They passed through with every conceivable idea of conveyance. Some went on foot, some on horses, some on mules, some on ponies, some with hand-carts, and some were furnished with good teams and outfits. It was in that year that W A. Phillips built the first hotel in Salina, at the corner of Santa Fe and Iron Avenues, he having hauled the pine lumber, doors, and windows from Kansas City. This building he afterward sold to H. L. Jones, who occupied it as a store and hotel, Mr. Jones attending to the store part of the business, while Mrs. Jones, highly qualified by education and training, attended to the hotel part. Also that year, a man named Israel Markley built two or three houses. And, W.A. Phillips remained busy when he erected a sawmill, which was kept active providing building materials. A county board of commissioners was soon created and met for the first time in April 1860.

When Kansas was admitted as a State into the Union, in January 1861, the population of Saline County, all told, was less than 150 people, with all located either in Salina or within a few miles of it. Just a few months later, the Civil War began and immigration to the county virtually stopped. Later that year, the first post office was established in November 1861, with A. M. Campbell as Postmaster.

School was taught to area students as early as 1862, from a small frame house on Iron Avenue. That same year, the people of the town were thrown into a state of great consternation by well-founded reports that hostile Indians were approaching from the west, massacring all the white people they found. Some were inclined to pooh-pooh the idea, but when the ranchmen came into the town after several of their number had been butchered, and confirmed the report, they discovered that it was a matter that required immediate action. The consternation became general, and a regular panic seized the community. Those who had settled east of Salina made for Junction City and Fort Riley, and those west and in the immediate neighborhood of Salina hastened to town. Seeing the danger that threatened them, and knowing the terrible results of an Indian massacre, which was likely to take place, they immediately set to work and built a stockade 50×150 feet, on the north side of what is now Iron Avenue. These preparations were made none too soon; for the Indians meeting with no opposition on their way, came on with a whoop; but seeing that the people of Salina were prepared to give them a warm reception, they gave the place a wide berth; and thus Salina escaped a massacre.

That very same year, the fledgling settlement met with another foe — Confederate guerillas. Early in the morning of September 17, 1862, while most of the townfolk were still in bed, they were awakened by a group of about 20 Confederate bushwhackers. So suddenly was the dash made into Salina, and so unexpectedly, that the people were altogether unprepared to meet it, and from the very moment the gang entered, the town was at its mercy. Meeting with no resistance, they attempted no personal injury, but houses were entered, stores ransacked, and wherever any powder, ammunition, arms, or tobacco were found, the marauders appropriated it. The firearms they could not carry off with them, they destroyed, as well as everything thought to be of service to the people in case of pursuit. On leaving they took with them 25 horses and six mules, most of which was the property of the Kansas Stage Company. After they had gone, it was discovered that they had overlooked one horse, and this was mounted by R. H. Bishop, who rode to Fort Riley, covering the distance of 50 miles in five hours. A party of soldiers was sent from the fort, but, of course, the bushwhackers had long gone. Though no one was hurt, it was a great loss in a frontier community to lose their means of protection and travel.

After the Civil War was over, Salina would get a boost when news that the Kansas Pacific Railroad would build its line through the town. With the coming of the railroad came a stream of immigration and Salina pushed rapidly ahead. Prior to the advent of the railroad there was neither a schoolhouse nor a church in the town, although there were several church organizations. Anticipating the railroad, which was then being pushed towards Salina as rapidly as possible, W. A. Phillips, in December 1866, surveyed and laid off lots in the new “Phillips’ Addition to Salina.”

Hotel and Depot, Salina 1867

Hotel and Depot, Salina 1867, photo by Alexander Gardner.

Joseph G. McCoy, the alert livestock dealer who made Abilene the “Queen of the Cowtowns”, visited Salina in 1867, proposing that it become the terminus of the cattle drives. However, the few residents that lived there at the time feared that the “Texers” and their droves of “mossy horns” would disorganize their community, so the citizens rejected his offer. McCoy thereupon departed in a pique to Abilene, a dreary cluster of huts which he subsequently transformed into one of the great western “cow towns.” In commenting on Salina, McCoy declared that it was “a very small dead place, consisting of about one dozen log huts, low small, rude affairs, four-fifths of which were covered with dirt for roofing. . . . The business of the burg was conducted in two small rooms, mere log huts.”

Joseph G. McCoy

Joseph G. McCoy

McCoy may have been correct at the time, but, Salina’s condition would change quickly. That same year, the town’s first newspaper, the Salina Herald, was established by J.F. Hanna. Several other new additions were also added to the city as well as a two-story frame schoolhouse on the corner of Santa Fe Avenue and Ash Street. Churches soon followed, with the Methodist Church being the first, which built a small frame building on Ash Street. That same year C.R. Underwood built a grist mill on the Smoky Hill River, which was operated by both steam and water power.

The development of Salina was thereafter greatly accelerated by the railroad. Josiah Copley, a correspondent for the Gazette of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, visited the settlement several months after Joseph G. McCoy and reported that the population had increased to almost 2,000 people. Large groups of settlers would soon begin to enter Saline County including a colony of 60 Swedes from Galesburg, Illinois who arrived in 1868; 200 homesteaders from Ohio came in 1869; and 75 ex-residents of Henry County, Illinois, arrived in 1870.

In 1868 mounted messengers came dashing into Salina with the alarming news’ that the Indians were up on the Republican River, perpetrating terrible deeds, outraging women, killing children, and murdering and scalping every white man they found. The people became greatly excited and telegraphed the facts to Governor Crawford at Topeka. The first train from Topeka west brought the Governor to Salina, where he instantly called for volunteers to go out to the scene of the troubles. A company of 60 men was quickly raised, and with the Governor in the lead, the men rode as far as Churchill, in the southwest corner of Ottawa County. Learning there that there were no Indians between the Saline and the Solomon Rivers, they rode as far as Minneapolis, and from there they pushed on to Delphos, on the northern boundary line of Ottawa County. At that point, they camped for the night, and a party of six was sent out to scout as far north as Lake Sibley, in Republic County. The next day the scouting party, although seeing no Indians, came upon several dead bodies near Asherville —some men, some women, and some children. The men had all been scalped, the women outraged, and the children fastened to the ground with arrows. The dead were buried, and, after performing this painful duty, the company returned to Salina, where it disbanded.

Salina, 1870

Salina, 1870

In 1870, the people having previously voted bonds to erect a courthouse, a very fine stone county building was erected on the square. By the next year, Salina was noted as being one of the most flourishing towns in the State and featured a number of new buildings in its business district. But, on Christmas Day, much of its downtown district would be destroyed by a fire that originated in a saloon on the west side of Santa Fe Avenue and spread rapidly from building to building. Though substantial losses were suffered by a number of businessmen, the buildings that were afterward erected were built of materials other than wood. The next year, the Salina Journal was established by W. H. Johnson and M. D. Sampson.

Despite the inhabitants’ previous rejection of the cattle trade, Salina became a minor center of that industry in 1872. The businessmen of the place had expended a good deal of money to secure the trade that would be derived from the town being made a trading point for cattle, but having secured it, the people soon discovered that it was not such a desirable thing to have after all. The trade in itself was good enough, and the business of the merchants in town was greatly increased, but the town became infested with such a crowd of disreputable characters, both male and female, that whatever advantage was gained in trade was more than counter-balanced by loss in morals. Though the people of Salina may have seen it that way, the rowdiness of Salina was mild compared to other Kansas cowtowns, as gun-play and carousing were sternly suppressed. In 1874 the cattle trade gravitated farther west and Salina’s citizens rejoiced that its “cowtown” era had ended. The resultant economic gap was more than filled by agriculture. Great crops of wheat began to pour into Salina during the 1870s. A $75,000 steam-powered flour mill was built at the town in 1878.

The year 1873 was one of rapid advancement, and many good residences were put up, but the chief improvement that year was the erection of a large brick schoolhouse. However, for residents of the area, as well as hundreds in western Kansas, 1874 would not be a good year. For many, who depended upon the prairie and the crops they had planted, it would be a devastating year. During the spring and early summer months, Kansas had experienced sufficient rains and the farmers eagerly looked forward to the harvest. But, during the heat of summer, a drought occurred and in late July, all of western Kansas was alarmed when, without warning, millions of grasshoppers, or Rocky Mountain locusts, descended on the Great Plains from North Dakota to Texas. Arriving in swarms so large they blocked out the sun and sounded like a rainstorm, they ate the crops right out of the ground as well as the wool from live sheep. After ravaging the fields and trees, the locusts then invaded buildings, clearing out barrels and cupboards, devouring anything not secured in wood or metal containers. They ate paper, tree bark, wooden tool handles, and even shredded curtains and clothing. The locusts were reported to have been several inches deep on the ground and at times, trains could not get traction because the insects made the rails too slippery. Unfortunately for many of the farmers of the Great Plains, this devastation would continue for the next two years.

More money was expended in improvements in 1875 than any year preceding it. If 1875 was a year of great improvement, it was also one of some disaster. In that year also another disastrous fire visited the town, by which a great deal of property was destroyed. Several buildings on the west side of Santa Fe avenue were wiped out as well as a large livery stable, in which 30 horses perished. This fire had the effect of awakening the City Council and businessmen to a sense of the constant danger they were exposed to by having wooden buildings in the business portion of the city. As a result, an ordinance was passed prescribing fire limits and forbidding the erection of any wooden buildings within those limits.

The city continued to grow with the grandest improvement made in 1877 — the erection of the Opera House, a magnificent three-story brick building on the southeast corner of Seventh Street and Iron Avenue. By the close of 1879, the business portion of the city was commencing to make a very fine appearance, with its numerous brick stores and large plate-glass windows, while at the same time, the resident portion, especially in the southern part of town, gave evidence of rapid improvement in a number of very fine residences. In 1882, the town was represented by two auction and commission houses, five dealers in agricultural implements, three in boots and shoes, two in books and stationery, four bakeries, three banks, one store, exclusively clothing, four drug stores, two furniture stores, seven general merchandise, ten groceries, six hotels, two the “Pacific” and “Metropolitan,” being superior and the others inferior, four hardware, three jewelry stores, and four restaurants. The manufactories of the place are represented by two large flouring mills and one smaller one, a bedspring and wire mattress manufactory, a carriage and wagon factory, a foundry and agricultural implement works, and two cigar factories. There were six grain elevators in town, three lumber yards, two marble works, five blacksmith shops, four livery stables, and two wagon shops. There are also ten churches, a courthouse, an opera-house, and two good school buildings. The press was represented by the Journal, Herald, and Independent. The population was estimated at 3,500.

In 1903, the great flood, which effected the Missouri, Kansas, and lower Republican River Basins as far west as Ellsworth, Kansas damaged numerous river towns including Salina. Salina received the largest amount of rain for the month at 17.13 inches. By May 26th the water covered the north and west portions of the city, with rivers still rising.

Salina, Santa Fe Avenue 1910

Salina, Santa Fe Avenue 1910

By the early 20th century, Salina was one of the leading cities of Kansas, especially in manufacturing. By 1910, there were four railroad lines coming and going to and from the city — the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific, the Missouri Pacific, the Union Pacific, and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, making it a hub of transportation for central Kansas. Among the manufacturing establishments of that time were flour mills, machine shops, cigar factories, an alfalfa mill, a vitrified brick plant, planing mill, glove factory, foundry, sunbonnet factory, creamery, carriage and wagon works, body brace factory, oil refinery, agricultural implement works, cold storage plant, razor strop factory, and broom and mattress factories. The city also boasted two state and two national banks, six newspapers, a Carnegie library, and the opera house that could accommodate 3,000 people. The city also provided excellent grade and high schools as well as a hospital and training school for nurses, four colleges, the Salina Wesleyan, the Salina Wesleyan business college, Shelton’s School of Telegraphy, and the St. John’s Military school. Its population in 1910 was 9,688.

With the continued growth primarily through wholesale and milling industries, Salina became the third-largest producer in the state and sixth-largest in the nation. Salina’s population continued to grow through the decades and received another boost in 1943 when the U.S. Army established the Smoky Hill Army Airfield southwest of the city. The installation served as a base for strategic bomber units throughout World War II. When the war was over it was renamed Smoky Hill Air Force Base in 1948, but closed just a year later. The closure was evidently temporary, as it was reopened in 1951 as Schilling Air Force Base, as part of Strategic Air Command. The re-opening of the base triggered an economic boom in Salina, causing the city’s population to increase by 65% during the 1950s. However, in 1965, the Department of Defense closed the base permanently, but the city of Salina subsequently acquired it and converted it into Salina Municipal Airport and an industrial park. The closing of the base created about a 12% decrease in the city’s population but, over the years, the airport and industrial park was developed, attracting companies such as Beechcraft, and made manufacturing a primary driver of the local economy.

Old Saline County Courthouse

Old Saline County Courthouse

Located about 110 miles west of Topeka, Kansas, and situated just south if I-70, Salina continues to serve as a center for trade, transportation, and industry in north-central Kansas. Boasting a population of nearly 48,000 residents today, it is still home to several colleges.

Today, only a small percentage of the city’s existing historic buildings date from the 19th Century. However, the layout of the town, as originally designed, is still apparent today and all of the original townsite streets retain their original names. Instead, Salina’s historic appearance is a reflection of its early 20th Century prosperity.

A visit to the Smoky Hill Museum located at 211 W. Iron Avenue in Salina provides visitors with a wealth of area history. The Museum’s collection features over 27,000 artifacts from the 1800s to present day, including agriculture implements, clothing from many different historical periods, furnishings, and more. The archival collection houses paper-based or two-dimensional artifacts such as books, bibles, certificates, maps, and photographs. The museum is housed in an art deco structure that was built as a Federal Post Office in 1938. Admission is free. 785-309-5776

More Information:

City of Salina
300 W. Ash Street
Salina, KS 67401

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of Kansas, updated July 2020

Also See:

Kansas Towns and Cities

Kansas Counties

Kansas Cowtowns


Blackmar, Frank W.; Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Vol I; Standard Publishing Company, Chicago, IL 1912.

Cutler, William G; History of Kansas; A. T. Andreas, Chicago, IL, 1883.

Federal Writer’s Project; Kansas, A Guide to the Sunflower State; Viking Press, New York, 1939.

Salina Historic Preservation Plan



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.