Osawatomie’s railroad history is a vital part of the town’s history and heritage.
Osawatomie’s railroad history began in 1856, when the first attempt to bring the railroad to Osawatomie began. The “History of Jackson County,” written in 1883, stated “July 26, 1856 at Osawatomie a company was formed to procure the construction of a road from Kansas City to Galveston, under a charter granted by the state of Kansas, February 1858. On the 9th of September, The Wyandotte and Osawatomie Railroad Company was organized.”
Osawatomie’s founders recognized the importance of the railroad to the town’s development and began efforts to bring the railroad to Osawatomie soon after the town’s birth. Though the Wyandotte and Osawatomie Railroad Company never grew to the proportions its founders wished, the effort to found it demonstrates the importance Osawatomie’s founders held for the railroad.
Osawatomie became a division point for the Missouri Pacific Railroad in 1879, and that spurred growth and development in the community. Procuring a railroad line was vital for a community during the 19th century, for the railroad was the main means of transportation for the public, and most goods were shipped via railroads.
Therefore, if a community didn’t have a rail line running through town, the community’s economy did not develop, and the town declined into a ghost town. Put in a modern sense, it was tantamount to having Highway 169 go by Osawatomie with no exits for Osawatomie. Osawatomie’s founders recognized the importance and worked to procure a railroad for Osawatomie.
Today, trucks have taken over much of the freight delivery to Osawatomie and the rest of the nation. In the 19th century however, the bulk of heavy freight was delivered by railroads. Roads between communities were unreliable and dangerous and were predominantly dirt roads that turned into quagmires of mud when it rained.
In addition, bridges were few and far between, and wagons had to cross rivers and creeks at fords that were impassable if the water level was too high in rivers and creeks. Drowning while crossing rivers and creeks was a leading cause of death in Kansas Territory.
Today’s highway engineers fill in depressions during highway construction to eliminate the inherent dangers that come with ascending and descending steep hills. However, in the 19th century, roads followed the contour of the land, and wagons had to ascend and descend hills, adding the danger of accidents to the shipment of goods and travel for Osawatomie’s early citizens.
Railroads offered safer and more efficient travel and shipping in the 19th century, and if a town were to grow and prosper, it was vital to have a railroad pass through their town. Osawatomie’s founders were aware of this reality and worked to build the Wyandotte and Osawatomie Railroad Company in 1856.
Though their plans never came to fruition, they succeeded in attracting the Missouri Pacific Railroad to Osawatomie in 1879, which helped to build the community that we enjoy today.
Grady Atwater is site administrator of the John Brown Museum and State Historic Site.