Kansas Collection books

How We Got Here

The Early Railroads

steam locomotive pulling train forward

    By 1860, several railroads had pushed their rails as far west as the Missouri River.  Plans and finances were in place to extend the rails into the Kansas-Nebraska Territories.  However, the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 put a halt to all expansion.  Most of the plans for westward movement were soon revived in 1865, at the conclusion of the war.  New rail lines were formed, backed by money and ideas, to move the expanding freight and passenger service into the new lands that were now available for settlement. 

    By 1865, the Santa Fe Trail was doing a booming business in trade with the Southwestern territories.  A group of business men and financiers planned for a rail line called the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe.  It roughly paralleled the old overland trail that had been growing and expanding since the 1820's.

    Still another group, which had incorporated the Atchison, Pike's Peak Railroad in 1859, dusted off their plans and began to expand west from Atchison with the goal of a rail line to the gold fields in the Rocky Mountains.  They were anxious to shorten the well-established Oregon Trail from the Missouri River to the western territories.  By 1867, their tracks were approaching the settlement of Barrett's Mill, located at the Oregon Trail crossing of the Black Vermilion River.

    It was customary in those days of early rail building, for engineers and financiers to scout ahead of the actual rail construction and plan the route for the tracks.  It was also customary for these railroad dignitaries to approach established villages and settlements and negotiate land donations for a town site.  The amount of land offered for depots, stock yards and side tracks often determined where the rails were laid.

    The Atchison, Pike's Peak Railroad officials were aware that Barrett's Mill was a thriving community with a saw mill, grist mill, post office and commissary store.  A.G. Barrett, founder of the town, was approached by the railroad officials for enough land to bring the approaching rail line to his settlement.  After showing the railroad officials around his village, he invited them to partake of a noon meal.  It was customary for Mary Barrett, his wife, and their daughters, to serve meals for as many at ten to twelve mill hands at their table.  Barrett, a staunch abolitionist who supported freeing of all slaves, employed several Negro mill hands.  The railroad officials, all Southern aristocrats, were highly insulted to be seated at the same table with Negroes.  They left Barrett's Mill in a huff and moved up the road three miles to establish another town called Frankfort.  This town had been previously laid out, but no! ! t oc cupied.  Their story was that Barrett did not offer them enough land to satisfy their needs for a town site.

    Small towns and settlements that were on the railroad usually flourished and grew.  While the railroads breathed new life into the small communities, they spelled the end of the famous overland Oregon and Santa Fe Trails by siphoning off the freight and passenger traffic. 

    The railroads also revolutionized communications as they strung telegraph lines alongside their tracks.  This doomed the Pony Express and the overland stagecoach routes that carried mail and passengers.

    The mid-1880's was an exciting time along the Oregon Trail.  The transition from wagons to trains was a big step forward.  I was born and reared at Barrett's Mill and watched as the railroads were later replaced by automobiles and trucks.

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