Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The railroad comes to Wichita

The Wichita City Eagle, May 17, 1872

"It was a dark and stormy night."

This is the way writers often start a drama. And it would have made a good opening for the story of the arrival of the railroad in Wichita, Kansas. For it was on the dark and stormy night of May 16, 1872, that the Wichita & Southwestern Railroad first came to Wichita.

Wichita & Southwestern train arriving in Wichita from Newton 1872,
Photo from Wichita Public Library, online source WichitaPhotos.org

The local paper did not photograph the event, and a later photograph shows the Wichita & Southwestern (later acquired by the ATSF) arriving in Wichita from Newton. "All is joy," wrote Marshall Murdock, editor of The Wichita City Eagle, in Friday's edition.

 The brief editorial mention came on page two at the bottom.
The Cars at Wichita
This is a fact. Regular through trains reached our depot yesterday. The bosom of our valley "heaved and sot" with ecstatic emotion. All is joy, many too many are "too full for utterance." We are exhausted, bewildered and can say no more. That is enough.
Another brief article, also on page 2, titled, Correspondence of the Journal, Wichita, Kansas explains the event from the week prior.

"Twas the spring of 1871"

It was the spring of 1871, and the success of the city of Wichita was in doubt. James R. Mead colorfully relates this story in Hunting and Trading on the Great Plains 1859-1875.

In the spring of 1871, the rival Kansas Pacific Railroad built a line to Ellsworth, Kansas. Today Ellsworth is a city of not much more than 3,000. It started out as a boom town with the coming of the railroad, it had a population of over 2,000. Ellsworth's location to the west of Salina and Abilene gave it an advantage over Abilene, which began as the first cattle town in Kansas.

 Hoping to capture the Texas longhorns coming up the Chisholm Trail, the Kansas Pacific Railroad hired Maj. Henry Shanklin to mark out a new trail from the Ninnescah, where Clearwater is now located, bypassing Wichita.

Wichita was not incorporated as a city until 1870 and it had rival claims to the cattle coming up the Chisholm Trail.

Maj. Shanklin might have succeeded in his plans but for the grit and determination of the founders of the city of Wichita. On the arrival of the Texas herds at McLain's Ranch on the Ninnescah, friends rode to Wichita to inform the city of the dastardly plan of the Kansas Pacific to bypass Wichita for Ellsworth.

Wichita's Main Street 1870, Looking North from Douglas Avenue Wichita State University Libraries' Department of Special Collections, online source WichitaPhotos.org
 "It was evening and the sun had gone down behind the tall cottonwoods..."

In the spring of 1871, Wichita's survival as a city was in doubt. Other entrepreneurs had dreams too. There was El Dorado and Augusta to the east and north, Newton to the north, but especially worrisome was the rival plan to make Park City the golden city in the Arkansas Valley. Hurriedly, Wichita sheriff Mike Meagher, Nathaniel English, James M.. Steele, and James R. Mead saddled up and rode to the challenge. "It was evening," as Mead related, "The sun had gone done behind the tall cottonwoods which fringed the classic banks of the 'Nile of America,' the lengthened shadows extended over the luxuriant grass on Main Street and Douglas. No time was to be lost,..."

The party rode west across the sandy Arkansas River, across the green valley to Cowskin Creek, where Pawnee Prairie Park now sits, and 20 miles on to McLain's Ranch, near present day Clearwater. There they learned from friends at the ranch that Maj. Shanklin had guided four herds of Texas cattle north of the Ninnescah River only the afternoon before. Night was now descending and the clouds cloaked the landscape in darkness, so the group bedded down on the dirt floor of the ranch with a saddle for a pillow and a saddle blanket for cover. It was a fitful sleep, if any of them truly slept.

Before the sun rose the next day, the four horsemen were off, and within two hours, they came upon the lead herd, just as it was starting to move for the day. As the four horsemen rode up to the lead herd, they were greeted by Major Shanklin and the herd's owner. An intense conversation took place. Major Shanklin, on the one hand, argued that the old Chisholm Trail was closed, and that farmers would shoot at and stampede the cattle, that Chishom Creek could not be crossed because of spring floods, and that the fields west of Wichita were burned and the stubs would hurt the feet of the cattle.

The four horsemen of Wichita argued their case, but words alone did not win the day. Only when the leader of the cattle drive was taken aside was the deal sealed. This by the use of "handsome consideration". The cattlemen swung their herds around and headed for Wichita. They crossed the Chisholm Creek below the Hoover Bridge, near where Sedgwick County Zoo now sits, then along Douglas Avenue to the block where the Wichita Eagle now stands.

Just before the herds arrived in the city, Major Shanklin made one last futile effort to convince the drovers of the pleasures of his route, but by this time the Texas cattlemen and the four upright citizens of Wichita were fast friends, attesting to this fact by signing a document proclaiming Wichita as the shortest, best, safest, and most practical route for cattle.

Sedgwick County 1887

In 1871, Ellsworth got its share of cattle for it shipped 35,000 head of cattle back east to hungry easterners. Cattle shipments from Ellsworth reached their peak in 1873 when over 220,000 head of cattle were shipped out on Kansas Pacific cars. But, Wichita too was assured of its success.

Eventually, the railroads continued to lay tracks to the south and the cattle drovers did not need to make the long drive to Abilene, or Ellsworth, or Wichita. And the increasing political pressure of farmers and ranchers made Texas cattle less popular. In 1885, the Kansas State Legislature banned all Texas cattle from the entire state of Kansas.

"One can now take the cars at Wichita one morning and be in St. Louis the next morning and in Chicago the evening following. We are now within the bounds of civilization."

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