© 2024 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Past & Present: History's 'Missed Connections'

Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society

Recently, I was at the Kansas Historical Society looking through historic maps. One was from the Santa Fe Railroad from 1865. Back then, the company had just started the line to the south of Emporia and this map showed the proposed route. 

The plan was for it to head down to Chelsea, today the site of El Dorado Lake, through El Dorado, and then follow the Walnut River before arcing to the west, well south of what is now Arkansas City, in what was then Indian Territory, today’s Oklahoma. 

Since then, I’ve wondered what our part of the Great Plains would have been like had this been the route.  Maybe Chelsea would have developed into a larger community, the prosperous county seat that its founders had envisioned. 

The later Chisholm Trail would have met up with the railroad much farther south. The company town of Newton would have been erected in Oklahoma and not Kansas. Perhaps it, or Arkansas City, or another a community would have emerged as the main cattle center. Wichita would not have been a cattle town. After the Wichita people were relocated back to Indian Territory in 1867, the little collection of trading posts might have faded away or transitioned into a much more modest settlement, since local entrepreneurs might have seen better opportunities down in Indian Territory.

Obviously, none of that happened. Challenges with handling Osage lands in the late 1860s, along with considerations of grades and water availability, prompted the Santa Fe to arc its route west at Emporia. The rest, of course, is history. 

Jay M. Price is chair of the department of history at Wichita State University, where he also directs the public history program.