Five Miles in Kansas:Railroads on the Great Plains

Who can resist the charm and romance of a steam engine rolling down the tracks, or even a diesel for that matter? However, the early years of railroad development across the continent and the plains in particular are anything but charming or romantic. Railroad history is filled with corruption, greed, labor exploitations, and danger. Yet the building of the transcontinental railroad was one of the greatest feats in our history and is the topic for this issue of Tales Out of School. In this issue we will look at why railroads were so important to the development of the Great Plains, the role of the Transcontinental Railroad, and the history of railroads in Kansas. Additionally, you will find thought provoking questions for your students, a list of resource websites, and books for young readers all on the topic of railroad development and travel.

The arrival of the Transcontinental Railroad forever changed the history of westward expansion. Prior to train travel, a person leaving the East Coast by stage coach could expect to be traveling approximately 6 months before arriving on the West Coast and that was if all went well. It usually did not. With the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the trip was shortened to just 7 days. Aside from making travel a simple convenience rather than a hardship, this new rail route, along with the many branch lines that sprang up, opened the way for exponential population growth and the cultivation of resources found in the Great Plains regions.

The bountiful crops of the Great Plains and the grass-fattened cattle could now find markets on the East and West coasts within days of harvest or sale. The many towns that sprang up along the railroad routes could compete with the larger cities for industrial development, commerce, and goods trade. With this economic boom, the plains states populations swelled. In Kansas, alone, between 1864 and 1883, towns along the rail routes grew from 5,000 inhabitants to over 140,000 and close to one million statewide. The railroads were eager to sell land along the routes to immigrants and settlers. The increase in population meant an increase in merchants and goods. Within 10 years of the completion of the Transcontinental Railway, the railroads were shipping in excess of $50 million dollars worth of goods yearly.

The first railroad in Kansas was the Elwood and Marysville line in 1859 with an eastern terminus on the Missouri river just across from St. Joseph. The Elwood and Marysville was comprised of a whopping five miles of track. Like most small branch line routes, this railroad was eventually absorbed into one of the larger operations in Kansas, in this case, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. By 1882, there were 3,718 miles of track within the Kansas borders and more than 45 individually chartered railroad companies, each hoping to become a major spur linked to the transcontinental lines. Rail transportation hit its peak in the early 20th century. Kansas has experienced a steady decrease in track mileage since the 1940s. Following WWII, President Eisenhower's efforts to create an interstate highway system and America's love affair with the automobile contributed to the steady decline of rail usage. Thanks to the conservancy efforts of organizations like Rails-to-Trails ( http://www.railtrails.org ) many of the original railroad grades not only still exist but can be enjoyed freely by the public...but that's another issue of Tales.

Resource Websites


PBS American Experience, the Transcontinental Railroad. This site includes a teacherÕs guide to activities relating railroads to economy, geography, history, and literature. Site features interactive maps, films, historic railroad photos, interviews, and lesson plans.


This link is part of the Kansas Heritage Group whose archives are devoted to digitally preserving KansasÕ past, giving future generations the opportunity to learn from family and local Kansas history online. The site documents many of the originally chartered railroad companies in Kansas.


This is the Kansas State Historical Society website documenting the history of transportation in Kansas. In addition to essay-style history, the site includes original documents, photographs, maps and letters related to railroading. Further, viewers can link to National Historic properties and find 30 rail-related sites in Kansas, most of which are historic depots.


Part of the Amon Cater Museum, this site offers a wealth of opportunities for social studies, history, art, and language arts teachers of all grade levels. A single view allows students to explore the themes of immigration, city planning and development, transportation, economics, two-point perspective, and civic prideÑto name only a few. The lesson plans included on this site provide cross-curricular activities.


This site is a clearing house for all things rail-related. Content includes lists of history sites, clubsand organizations, model railroad sites, videos, photographs, posters, and clip art.


This is the official site for the Central Pacific Railroad and contains much information on the history of the Transcontinental Railroad, including a photographic history museum.


This is the official site for the Union Pacific Railroad. Unlike many of the resource websites listed, this is an actual working railroad. In addition to an extensive list of history links, the site provides a modern-day look at the workings of a railroad. The site also includes historic railroad equipment, timetables, and historic documents such as job descriptions.

Books for Young Readers


by Bobbie D. Kalman

Publisher: Crabtree Publishing, March 1999

Ages: 8 Ð 10

ISBN: 0778701085

Annotation: Describes the development of the railroad in North America and its influence on the settling of the West during the nineteenth century.

Transcontinental Railroad: The Gateway to the West

by Edward J. Renehan

Publisher: Chelsea House Publishers, June 2007

Ages: 12 and up

ISBN: 0791093514

Annotation: Describes the unfolding of events after Congress passed the 1862 Pacific Railway Act.

Railroad Fever: Building the Transcontinental Railroad 1830-1870

by Monica Halpern

Publisher: National Geographic Society, July 2004

Ages: 12 and up

ISBN: 0792267672

Annotation: Railroad Fever is illustrated with period paintings, drawings, and photographs. Also included are a glossary and an index.

The John Bull: A British Locomotive Comes to America

by David Weitzman

Publisher: Farrar, Staus, Giroux, March 2004

Ages: 6 - 8

ISBN: 0374380376

Annotation: Describes how John Bull, a steam locomotive, was built in England, brought to the United States in 1831, assembled, put to work, and modified over time, leading the way for modern rail transportation.


by Robert Livesey, A.G. Smith (Illustrator)

Publisher: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, Limited, October 1997

Ages: 8 - 12

ISBN: 0195132289

Annotation: Readers can be introduced to a glossary of railway language and detailed descriptions of early trains, engines, and railways, be entertained by fascinating early railway anecdotes, and be challenged by a variety of puzzles and activities.

Riding the Rails in the USA: Trains in American Life

by Martin W. Sandler

Publisher: Oxford University Press, August 2003

Ages: Young Adult, Grades 5 - 8

ISBN: 0195132289

Annotation: Explores the impact of trains in the United States as they allowed settlers to move West in large numbers and get needed supplies, helped farmers move goods to market, and provided transportation for commuters.

Hear That Train Whistle Blow!: How the Railroad Changed the World

by Milton Meltzer

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers, October 2004

Ages: 10

ISBN: 0375815635

Annotation: Takes a look at the history of rail transportation, focusing on how it transformed societies from isolated communities that rarely communicated or traded into unified nations.

Bring It Home

Bring It Home will be a regular feature designed to provide thought-provoking questions for your students in order to bring the Tales subject matter closer to home. Questions could be starting points for research activities, invitations for guest speakers, or field trips, just to name a few.

1. If you live in an area with a railroad, when did it arrive? Where does it go and what is the primary cargo? Does the train stop in your town? How many trains pass by daily and how many stop? How many people are employed in your town with the railroad? What if the train no longer passed through your town?

2. If you live in an area without a railroad, has that always been the case? Was your town ever considered for a train? If you had a railway, when did it leave and why? How did that impact your town? Can you make a case for the return of the railroad or for a new branch line? What is the closest town with a railroad? How does that town compare to yours?

Did You Know?

Did you know that Kansas City was one of the

major contending cities for the eastern terminus

of the Transcontinental Railway? Because of its

central location and already existing branch lines

in Kansas and Missouri, Kansas City was one

of the prime locations for the Union Pacific's

eastern terminus. However, after visiting Kansas

City and Council Bluffs, Iowa, President Lincoln

recommended Council Bluffs because it was

further removed from the bloody conflicts of the

Civil War. Today, the world headquarters for the

Union Pacific are in Omaha, NE, just across

the river from Council Bluffs.