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Past and Present

Past & Present: A State Divided


Historically, societies along the Great Plains have organized along watersheds that form backbones to the states that have developed. Nebraska, for example, is the state of the Platte River. Its main cities, from Omaha and Lincoln in the east to Scottsbluff in the west, follow the Platte in part because the Union Pacific’s main line also follows that river course.  

Kansas, by contrast, is a state divided. The Kansas/Kaw, Solomon, Smoky Hill, and Republican River watersheds gave rise to Kansas City, Olathe, Topeka, and Manhattan. This was the heartland of the Free State communities in the 1850s. Here, the Union Pacific brought German settlers into Post Rock Country.

On the other side of the Flint Hills lies the Arkansas, Verdigris, Neosho, and Walnut network of watersheds. Places like Wichita, Hutchinson, and Arkansas City were part of the same watershed that included Tulsa and Little Rock. This was the realm of the Santa Fe railroad that connected this part of Kansas to Oklahoma, Texas, and the Southwest, and fostered the German Mennonites with their winter wheat farming. Dodge City and Garden City oriented to the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, while the Little Ozarks developed a mining tradition tied to places like Joplin, Mo.

Although often thought of as a sea of grass, the Great Plains can also be seen as a place of rivers, revealing how and why certain parts of the state hold together and yet are also distinct from places just a few counties away.