Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Overland transportation was key to the origins and development of Topeka. When Kansas Territory opened for settlement in 1854, the banks of the Kansas River attracted permanent residents some sixty miles above its mouth. There a military road connecting Fort Leavenworth and the Santa Fe Trail crossed the Oregon Trail. But more than geography explained the city's development. The nine men who jointly founded Topeka on December 5, 1854, shared a desire to profit from town-lot speculation and a bias against slavery spreading to the Central Great Plains. As a result, Topeka came to represent the free-state side in the violence that made "Bleeding Kansas" the prologue to the Civil War.

After territorial fights over slavery were resolved in Topeka's favor, civic leaders made the city a political center, both as a county seat and the new capital, when Kansas gained statehood early in 1861. They also worked to make their frontier village a commercial center by tapping into the national expansion of railroads. The first Union Pacific train reached Topeka on New Year's Day, 1866. Subsequently, Cyrus K. Holliday, an original town founder, organized the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad in 1868 and began laying tracks to the southwest, ultimately extending the city's connections to the Pacific.

Jobs created by processing regional agricultural products such as meatpacking and flour milling as well as building and repairing rail rolling stock stimulated population growth. Two additional railroads, the Rock Island and the Missouri Pacific, arrived in the 1880s. With the influx of German immigrants from Russia and Freedmen fleeing worsening conditions in the South, Topeka became an economically dynamic and ethnically diverse city.

International recognition for the city came in 1897 when Charles M. Sheldon published In His Steps, an influential Christian social novel. In the early twentieth century, Samuel J. Crumbine pioneered public health reform. That tradition would be enriched when Dr. C. F. Menninger and his two sons opened the Menninger Clinic in 1920 and the Menninger Sanitarium in 1925 and made Topeka a worldfamous center for the study of psychiatry.

Natural disasters–floods in 1903 and 1951 and a tornado in 1966–rearranged land-use patterns, while mobilization for World War II brought new industries to the city's periphery. Postwar annexations and suburban housing developments pushed city limits outward. With the beginnings of the interstate highway system, I-70 cut a swath through the middle of Topeka in the 1960s, prompting urban renewal activities that displaced business from the downtown to the suburbs.

Local efforts to challenge racial segregation again brought national attention when in 1954 the case of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka initiated school integration throughout the nation. State government's expansion in the 1960s assured that Topeka's population would remain stable at about 120,000 for the balance of the century. By the century's end, the Kansas state capital had become a western edge city for the Kansas City bistate metropolitan area.

See also EDUCATION: Menninger, Karl / LAW: Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka . See RELIGION: Sheldon, Charles / TRANSPORTATION: Holliday, Cyrus K..

William O. Wagnon Jr.

Washburn University

Bird, Roy D. Topeka: An Illustrated History of the Kansas Capital. Topeka KS: Baranski Publishing Company, 1985.

Bird, Roy D., and Douglass W. Wallace. Witness of the Times: A History of Shawnee County. Topeka KS: H. M. Ives and Sons, 1976.

Giles, F. W. Thirty Years in Topeka, 1854– 1884: A Historical Sketch. Topeka KS: Geo. W. Crane and Company, 1886.

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