When Topeka Transportation was chartered in the Kansas capital city in January, 1948, it was the 33rd carrier system to be organized in Topeka in the last 82 years. And it was the continuation of 67 years of street railway activity including horse cars, steam trains, electric cars, electric buses and, finally, the gasoline busses of today.
In all these 67 years of transportation activity on the streets of Topeka, the city has been the leader in improve-ments--in fact “first” in some of the types of public vehicles in the country.
Waves of residential develop-ments have followed the street railways systems in Topeka. At one time entire districts were built and brought high prices because of the proximity of transportation service. In later years, with the arrival of the automobiles, the city’s better homes were built as far as possible from the noise and traffic of street cars and buses. When gasoline was rationed during World War II values again leaped on property adjacent to bus lines. Today with larger and silent busses, with routes changed and shifted at the will of the city and the employment of domestic help depending, to some extent, on convenient transportation, real estate values rise and fall with the times rather than with bus routes.
Suburban transportation has ceased to be a factor in living conditions today but at one time vast projects were in progress in connection with planned steam and electric lines in Shawnee county near Topeka. Eastern capital flowed into Topeka for the purpose of improving suburban property and in most instances railway construction dove-tailed with these additions.
Today only Highland Park and possible sections of East and North Topeka have survived the dreams of the trans-portation pioneers--have built up to the city limits and either have been taken into the city proper or have grown because of extravagant and bloated development, rather than because of their own profitable patronage.
The year after the Civil War, March 9, 1866, the initial movement was undertaken to give Topeka a street railway. It was the first of many subsequent “Topeka Railway” companies and the charter gave it the name, “The Topeka Street Railway Company,” capitalized at $25,000 with 250 shares at $100 each. The Topekans who organized this father of all street trans-portation systems were: James M. Spencer, Jacob Smith, Orrin T. Welch, James Fletcher, and John W. Farnsworth.
Evidently the money was not raised and the charter lay dormant because six years later the Topeka Times, June 13, 1872, ran the following story:
“The street railway talk is growing more earnest every day and it is assuming proportions. Besides being wonderfully convenient it would pay a respectable per cent on the investment.”
Four months later, October 12, 1872, another “Topeka Street Railway Company” was organized, planning to operate a single or double track from the Union Pacific depot south to the fair grounds with several branches of 10 miles in length. It was chartered by Kansas City and Missouri capitalists, but all it seemed to accomplish was to arouse home town pride where upon to weeks later the “Street Railway of Topeka” was incorporated by: W.D. Terry, P.C. Lyman, Peter MacVicar, D.W. Stormont, F.W. Giles, Henry King, F.L. Crane, James Anderson and H. K. Rowley.
Again the bubble burst, however, and not a block of track was laid.
And so it went, as the accompanying chronology will show, until August 26, 1880, when another “Topeka Street Railway Company” was organized with two directors from Colorado, two from Topeka--L. S. Long and Tobias Billings. Evidently this company meant business because the following month the “City Railway Company” was organized with such widely known Topeka builders as: (Names of the incorporators of the City Railway appear elsewhere in this issue, in an article “The Horse Car Line--TOPEKA CITY RAILWAY.”--Ed.)
The battle was on. Real competition stirred the growing town. Topeka had a population of 16,000 and 20,000 was predicted by 1881. The city council promised a franchise to the company making the best offer. Each company approached the county commissioners for the use of the Kaw River bridge. It required two months for the city to agree on a transportation ordinance.
Finally the Colorado Topeka company withdrew its offer and the “City Railway Company” remained alone in the field.
In December the company contracted for broken stone for ballast and two days before Christmas 1880 stone was taken from the state house grounds and piled along the streets. Later the city granted permission to the company to use “iron cinders and slag” for ballast.
April 5, 1881 was the big day--construction work began on Topeka’s first street railway. By April 13 rails had been laid from the Santa Fe Depot to Kansas Avenue. A big stone stable was build on West Tenth near Jackson. (It burned October 21, 1881 and the company lost 25 horses, eight cars and all tools and equipment.)
In the spring of 1889 James Patten, father of the late Albert M. Patten, came to Topeka from Boston “to electrify the steam line and operate a complete electric railway, the first city railway of this type in the country.” (The second was built in Atlanta, Georgia.) Electrifi- cation was completed in 1889 and the newspapers stated that “Topeka has the longest electric railway in the world, 32 miles in length.”
(Recent research reveals Topeka’s first electric railway was neither first nor the longest in the nation. However, in 1890 it was among the nation’s five largest systems.--Ed.)
[Notes from JT Davis: The apparent confusion here lies in the fact that "In The Beginning" . . .there was the the "factory" in Richmond, Virginia where the electric technology was invented, tested and perfected for public use. This "factory" was the Union Passenger Railway Company (UPRC) headquarted in Richmond, Virgina. The UPRC officially operated the nations’s first successful electric trolley system in a test-market mode on Feb. 2, 1888. Apparently there was a test-market line in Boston as well. When the "product" was thoroughly tested and proven safe for the general public as a transportation system, then the UPRC endeavored to offer it to other investors in various cities as a transportation alternative far superior to the ones currently in use. Topeka was apparently the first in Midwesterm and Western America to establish this new electric technology to it's already established rail system. Topeka's complete electric rail system was established officially on March 28, 1889 in testing mode, April 2, 1889 for a V.I.P. excursion and demonstration and April 9, 1889 for general public transportation. Records indicate that Atlanta, Georgia followed us.
But why and how did Topeka become so quick in line to establish the electric streetcar technology "way out here?" Answer: The largest investors and CEOs in Topeka railway systems was of the Boston Syndicate who were also real estate developers as rail system developers. They established rail transportation in their newly developed suburbs under the great, and public promoted theme, of making Topeka the "Boston of the West." So Topeka had the perfect "edge" to establish electric streetcars before other cities west of the Richmond and Boston test market locations. So with that understanding, yes we were "first" west of the test market locatation--the east coast.]
In 1927 The Kansas Power and Light company purchased the street railway.
The rest of the story, of course, is known to all Topekans of today--the operation of the system by Albert M. Patten and Howard Patten and later by Deane E. Ackers--today’s president of The Kansas Power and Light company which serves hundreds of cities, towns and communities through most of Kansas.
No doubt another story will be written for the BULLETIN at a later date--a story of the various “Circle” railways that huffed and puffed to suburban tracts east and west of Topeka. These historical projects constitute a yarn in itself.
Dean E. Ackers, president of the Kansas power & Light Co., when the above article was written, died April 18, 1966.
Accompanying Mr. Carruth’s article was a list of thirty-three street transit companies which had been organized in Shawnee county. Recent research by Mrs. Lela Barnes, Topeka, and others, has added some twenty additional names to the roster of local transit companies. The reproduced list, to the right, is a revised, updated version:
Click on List to Enlarge
Because he was a long-time supporter of the Shawnee County Historical Society, a frequent and valued contributor to the BULLETIN, a trolley car buff of the first order, and a valued friend, this 1969 issue is dedicated to Arthur J. Carruth, Jr.
Ray C. Hilner
Although he has given generously of his time in advising the editors of the BULLETIN regarding technical aspects of street railway operations, Ray C. Hilner, with characteristic modesty, has declined the title due him--that of Technical Editor. Moreover, Mr. Hilner has invited the editors to help themselves to his extensive collection of street transportation photographs, pamphlets and clippings. This we have done, as is noted by the numerous credit lines, “Photo, Ray Hilner.”