A splendid dream was born on the twelfth of January 1884, a dream of grand hotels, of parks and boulevards, of zoological gardens and observatories, and of a hundred miles of urban and suburban railways linking Topeka, “Boston of the West,” with it’s teeming far-flung suburbs. On that day five Topekans filed a charter application for a railway to link Martin’s hill, overlooking the Kaw valley, with both the center and the southwest of Topeka.
Ten years later, on June 25, 1894, at the front door of the Shawnee county courthouse a sheriff’s sale crushed the few remaining flickers of the dream.
During the ten dream-years 50 street railway charters had been granted; plans of parks, hotels, and a great Methodist university had been completed; eight street railways had actually been built; and a couple of million dollars invested.
But so completely did the dream fade that today only an oneirologist, skilled in unraveling dreams, could recreate the grandeur that was to have been Martin’s Hill. And even the best on oneirologists might lose himself in an attempt to untangle the charters, plans, timetables, advertisements, glowing news stories, promises, forecasts, court reports and bankruptcies that live on only in historical libraries.
The present notes make no such attempt. They are limited to a single thread in the dream, the vision of January, 1884, with which it all began, and the little steam train that ran from Sixth and Franklin Streets to Martin’s Hill in sixteen minutes. Far from being a scholarly study, these few paragraphs are mere personal memories of one whose boyhood was illuminated by the pile of up-torn ties, rails and signals that lay ingloriously at the site on West Sixth where, in 1898, his new home was being built.
My parents (George H. Whitcomb, judge, district court, and Jessie Wright Wright Whitcomb, author of children’s stories) had bought, in 1897, the site of the former Topeka terminal of the Topeka Belt Railway at the top of a mild hill on West Sixth avenue, and touching on the city limits. Facing it, on the north side of the street, was the Fowler duck farm; Franklin street coming up from Auburndale bringing with it the horse car line; and on the east side of Franklin the two Ripley houses (Ambrose A Ripley and his son, John W. Ripley, Sr.).
The remains of the belt Railway, to my misguided mind, outranked even the building of a new house. My family were all railway fans; I myself had already been twice to Hyannisport, Boston and Vermont, once to Fulton, MO., and a number of times to Kansas City and to anonymous Kansas towns. I therefore spent as much time as I was allowed in rearranging the disused railway material and in following the grade through our tiny apple orchard, alleged to have been planted by Indians under the inspiration of missionaries, across our ten acres of cow pasture, over Rocky Run (Ward-Martin creek) by the still-standing wooden trestle, up the long slope through the cherry orchard of the nest farm, across McAfee’s and into the G. G. Gage farm. There I usually stopped, at least in summer, when any one who wished was allowed to swim in the pond from which ice was cut and stored in winter.
My other personal contact with the dream of 1884 came on summer evenings when our Rabbi, retired from racing because of a torn ligament and my sole qualification for becoming a lieutenant in Jamie Hughes’ Junior Cavalry, took us round and round the abandoned avenues laid out on Martin’s Hill, grown over with grass and waiting hopelessly for the botanical and zoological gardens and the observatory so confidently promised. Culverts had rotted away and one of us had to get out to lead Rabbi over the grass-grown gaps. There end my personal memories. The rest is from the documents collected by John Ripley.
“A narrow gauge railway,” according to the application for charter filed in Shawnee County on January 12th 1884, was to be built “to operate from a central point in Topeka westerly to Martin’s Hill, then southeasterly to a point near Washburn College, and on to a terminal in southwest Topeka.” The company would have powers“to lease and sell land, to construct parks and botanical gardens, to build a suitable auditorium for a convention center,” and to take other steps for the encouragement of traffic on the line. The title given to this first projected development was Topeka Circle Railroad Company; the five incorporators, all Topeka men, were Judge John Martin of the hill; Pastor J. B. McAfee who owned a large farm on the proposed ;railway route; James W. Harvey who reappears a few years later; Professor Hinry Worrall, the artist; and D. H. Forbes, the hardware merchant.
Cash is needed for even the best of dreams and the five incorporators appear not to have had enough even to begin, when a Boston and Lowell syndicate, credited with believing that Topeka was to be the “Boston of the West,” formed the Topeka land and Development Company at the end of 1886 and in the early months of 1887. The five original dreamers sold their charter for $20,000--one account says $100,000--and a new charter for the line to Martin’s Hill was applied for and obtained. This time the name was Topeka Belt Railway Company, under a new charter applied for on November 10, 1887. Of the applicants, ten were from the Boston syndicate itself; of the five Topekans two were officers of the Boston syndicate’s Topeka Land and Develop ment Company. The capital was $1,000,000 in hundred dollar shares; the line was to be standard gauge.
It was at this point that the original dreamers cashed in. Some years later John MaAfee told A. A. Rodgers, afterwards a Shawnee county commissioner, that two of the greatest fools on earth in those ecstatic boom days had been the Boston Syndicate representative who offered him $1,000 an acre for his land, and he, John McAfee, who refused it. But the fact is, as records prove, that John McAfee did sell 194 acres of his land along the line to the syndicate for $51,367. John Martin received $35,000 for 240 acres, and D. H. Forbes $11,000 for 110 acres. G. G. Gage, who had not been an incorporator but whose farm was crossed by the line, sold 90 acres for $45,000. James Harvey failed to benefit as the new Belt Line changed the route so that it did not pass by his property. He refused to turn over the other right of way contracts to the Belt Line. When the Belt Line sued Harvey for $50,000 for failure to complete, he in turn sued for $34,000 damages resulting from the change of
line. The court refused to hear either suit.
The Topeka MAIL of May 6, 1887, claiming a population of 40,000 for Topeka, announced promises by col. J. H. Broadus of the Boston syndicate and George F. Parmelee of Topeka, president of the National Loan and Trust Company, that the half-million dollars in cash already paid for land would be followed by development expenditures of between two and three million dollars. The dream of 1884, they guaranteed--the boulevards, the observatory the zoological and botanical gardens and the great hotel would all become realities.
The Belt Line to Martin’s Hill was begun. On the day it was completed, May 1, 1888, the proud chiefs, George F. Parmelee of the Belt Line and F. R. Cordley of the Topeka Land and Development Company and the Boston syndicate, borrowed an engine and a car from the Topeka Rapid Transit Line and took their delighted friends all the way to Martin’s Hill, three and a half miles, in 16 minutes. (see map of Martins Hill.)
Three weeks later one of the Belt Line’s own engines was in service, a second was waiting at a Topeka railroad yard, and a third, for pulling excursion trains, was on order. The Pullman Company was already building 12 new open cars, each seating 90 persons, for the expected rush to bask in the glories of Martin’s Hill.
The first year of full operation was 1889 and there was at least one statement that profits were satisfactory. Yet they can not have been satisfactory enough to result in the promised glorification of Martin’s Hill. Eight other Topeka railway plans were in process of development--they are dealt with elsewhere in this issue--and the strain of their financing may have deprived the Belt Line.
Or perhaps the collapse of the land value bubble, in 1890, was already foreseen. Nevertheless the Belt Line continued. It’s trains were served by timetable connections by the City Railway’s West Sixth Street horse car line at Franklin avenue. Belt Line timetables published as late as the summer of 1892 indicate that on Sundays only, Belt trains operated on the defunct West Side Circle tracks, from Ninth and Kansas Avenue to Martin’s Hill via Munson Avenue and Wanamaker.
Thereafter, silence. One emotional attempt to restore at least a part of the dream was made on October 6, 1900 by a “Committee of Sixty.” Ploughshares had already buried the Belt Railway, but a train on the Rock Island’s main line along the Kaw carried free all who wished to go, from Kansas Avenue to the Hill. Picnic food and praise-worthy enthusiasm, supported by the great magnet or our Topeka youth, Marshall’s military band, strove valiantly to enlist the support of the estimated 10,000 visitors, at an upcoming bond election. The bank which had foreclosed the Martin’s Hill property offered to sell it for $6,000 to the city for a public park. The “Committee of Sixty” obtained a promise from the street railway officials, to furnish electric transit service if and when the bonds carried. Unfortunately, the bond issue was turned down by the voters.
There was no sequel. The five dreamers of 1884 could never have foreseen the hill of today--the Menninger West Campus, WIBW headquarters and the thousands of automobiles that replace the puffing little steam trains that made it from Franklin Avenue in sixteen minutes. Where now is the glory and the dream?
STEAM DUMMY ENGINE Click Photos to Enlarge
AN ODDITY--Facsimile of a ticket for free transportation on the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific, signed by the secretary-treasurer of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, Edward Wilder. The excursion which carried 10,000 to Martin’s hill, failed in it’s objective.
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The Rapid Transit is again carrying a lot of passengers to Quinton Heights. The Capitol Resort, raided and closed by the police and sheriff, is open again. Soft drinks only. (NORTH TOPEKA MAIL, July 13, 1888.)