December 5, 1854
On 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
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 1850's 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. The 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.