Planning | Topeka's Historical BackgroundA History of Topeka
By Don Chubb
Local HistorianOn December 5, 1854, nine men made the wintry trek from the tent city of Lawrence to a small log cabin on the banks of the Kansas River. Huddled in the cold before a smoky fire, this group of men founded a town which was to play a major role in the "Bleeding Kansas" territory and later become the new state's capital.
The site was not an accidental one. The Pappan brothers had been operating a ferry there for several years, catering to the wagon trains heading westward to California. Topeka was becoming an early-day crossroads. It would eventually develop into a railroad and highway transportation center. One of the grandsons of these pioneer ferry operators, Charles Curtis, grew up to become vice-president of the United States, the only vice-president to be of Native American descent.
By the following spring, Topeka was on the move. The Farnsworth brothers built the first two-story masonry building. Before the walls were even plastered, it was home to the free-state legislature which met there to draft a constitution. The pro-slavery forces were then in control of the state and the Topeka assembly was dispersed by federal troops. Soon the building housed a grocery store, a printing office, law offices, and a meeting room where Topeka's first churches were organized. Constitution Hall still stands in the 400 block of South Kansas Avenue.
"Bleeding Kansas" in the 1850s has been called a prelude to the Civil War which would follow in the next decade. Topekans such as John Ritchie battled for the abolition of slavery as Kansas approached statehood. Ritchie's south Topeka home became a meeting place for the free-state faction and a station on the underground railroad. Ritchie's wife, Mary Jane, served as the leader of Kansas' early women's suffrage movement, hosting Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Ritchie's home, at 1116 South Madison, is noted as Topeka's oldest house.
Cyrus K. Holliday is widely regarded as the "father" of Topeka. He served in the state senate and reportedly was so bored by one long-winded debate that he began daydreaming about something he could do to benefit Topeka. He wrote out the charter for a railroad, introduced it that same day, and a decade later staged the groundbreaking of the Santa Fe Railroad. Topeka's central location was perfect for a railroad hub. Santa Fe has been one of Topeka's major industries for over a century.
Education has played an important role in Topeka from the beginning. The Episcopal Church established the College of the Sisters of Bethany in 1860. If it didn't become the "Wellsley of the West," as advertised, it at least provided an excellent education for young ladies when such opportunities were rare.
Washburn University, was originally started in 1865 as a Congregational College. Proprieties in those early days were strictly enforced. One story tells of the rule forbidding male and female students to walk together without a chaperone. The one exception was evening visits to the college library. Men were allowed to escort coeds home from the library for the "ladies' safety." Students soon remembered that there is no direction in a circle. So many couples walked in circles around the Washburn library that the circle was eventually made a paved sidewalk. On nice evenings dozens of students could be seen walking circles on their way home.
Washburn eventually became a municipal university. The physical plant was largely destroyed in Topeka's tornado in 1966 and has been rebuilt as a beautiful modern facility.
Businesses have come and gone in the past century and a half Topeka's automobile, the Great Smith, is found only in museums. The A.K. Longren Airplane Company has long ceased production. The packing plants which once dotted the river have moved on, and the cotton mill was perhaps an ill-conceived idea. However, Topeka has long since been a home for creators. Their successes are all around us.When Karl Menninger received his medical degree and came home to join his father, Dr. W. C. Menninger, he had a dream to pursue the fledgling area of mental health. In 1925, Karl joined his father and brother to purchase an old farmhouse west of town, and the Menninger Clinic was born. Today, Menninger is located on a beautiful campus on a hill west of the city. It is known as the world leader in mental health treatment and research.
Carrie Nation called Topeka home for a time. She supported herself from sales of her newspaper, "The Smashers Mail," which she printed in Topeka. Once, after leading a raid on a Topeka tavern during which her hatchet did considerable damage, Carrie was bailed out of jail by another newspaper owner, Nick Chiles. His "Plain Dealer" had at that time the largest circulation of any black-owned newspaper in America. It was only after thanking Chiles publicly that Carrie learned Chiles owned a bar that was one of Topeka's leading "joints."
Alf Landon, a former Kansas governor and the 1936 Republican presidential candidate, spent over half of his 100 years in Topeka. After losing his bid for the White House, Landon returned to Topeka to build his own white house. The elder statesman entertained every succeeding president through President Reagan on the portico of this beautiful home which is now a Topeka landmark at 521 Westchester Road.
From its beginning, Topeka has played a major role in government, transportation and health care. This strong tradition is still alive today. Topeka is a city with a colorful past which points to an even more exciting future.