The Topeka metropolitan area is rich in history and highly favored by nature. Founded in the middle of the nineteenth century, Topeka has weathered many storms, both man-made and natural. Geographic location has always worked to a decided advantage for the area. In fact, location is the key to Topeka’s future development.
Topeka lies on rich sandy loam river bottomland where Indians lived for many years using the excellent fords on the Kansas (Kaw) River. Among the first permanent settlers in this area were three French-Canadian (Pappan) brothers. They married three Kanza (Kansas) Indian sisters and established a ferry over the river in 1842.
A grandson from one of the marriages was Charles Curtis, the only Vice-President of the United States to be of Indian descent. (Charles Curtis served with President Herbert C. Hoover from 1929 to 1933.)
Because the Oregon Trail crossed the river at Topeka, several ferry boat services were established and prospered. In May, 1858, a privately built bridge was constructed across the Kansas River connecting Topeka with the community of Eugene, now known as North Topeka. A flood destroyed the bridge later that year, but Topeka’s location relative to westward traffic made the need for a new bridge obvious. Railroads have played a key role in the development of Topeka, including the St. Joseph and Topeka Railroad, the Kansas Central, the Union Pacific, Missouri Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe still has one of the largest railroad shops in the world in Topeka.
On December 5, 1854, nine men met on the banks of the Kansas River at what is now Kansas Avenue and Crane Street. The men drew up an agreement, which later became the basis for the Topeka Association, the organization mainly responsible for the establishment and early growth of Topeka. The nine men were Cyrus K. Holliday, F.W. Giles, Daniel H. Horne, George Davis, Enoch Chase, J.B. Chase, M.C. Dickey, Charles Robinson and L.G. Cleveland. The City of Topeka was incorporated February 14, 1857, with Cyrus K. Holliday as Mayor.
After a decade of abolitionist and pro-slavery conflict, the Kansas territory was admitted to the Union in 1861 as the 34th state. Topeka was finally chosen as the capital with Dr. Charles Robinson as the first Governor. Cyrus Holliday donated a tract of land to the state for the construction of a state capitol.
Various names for the capital city were discussed by the founding fathers including Webster, however, Topeka was decided upon.
Although the drought of 1860 and the ensuing period of the Civil War slowed the growth of Topeka and the State, Topeka kept pace with the phenomenal revival and period of growth that Kansas enjoyed from the close of the war in 1865 until 1870. Lincoln College, now Washburn University, was established in 1865 in Topeka by a charter issued by the State of Kansas and the General Association of Congregational Ministers and Churches of Kansas. In 1869, the railway started moving westward from Topeka. General offices and machine shops of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad system were established in Topeka in 1878.
During the late 1880’s, Topeka passed through a boom period that ended in disaster. There was vast speculation on town lots. The 1889 bubble burst and many investors were ruined. Topeka, however, doubled in population during the period and was able to weather the depressions of the 1890s.
In the spring of 1903, flooding on the Kansas River inundated North Topeka, which lies in the valley. Hundreds were marooned in their homes and 29 persons drowned. Property damage amounted to $4,288,000. North Topeka was an industrial section with a number of large flourmills and lumber yards. Recalling a great flood in 1844, natives had warned the early settlers not to build a city on the banks of the river. High water in 1908, 1923, and 1935 created uneasiness among residents of North Topeka, but the dikes constructed a few years after the 1903 flood prevented a repetition of the disaster.
Because of its general economic setting, regional growth in Topeka-Shawnee County kept pace with the rest of the nation until 1930. Topeka lies at the point where the cattle ranches of the southwest meet the Corn Belt, between the undeveloped mineral resources of the Mississippi Valley, south of the winter snow line, and with ample supplies of water, and plenty of room to develop. The depression years of the 1930s saw Topeka’s growth rate fall to its lowest point. The region’s economic structure appeared to have settled into the typical pattern of a medium-sized midwestern area dependent primarily on its agriculture base.
With the onset of World War II, the railroad, meat packing and agricultural base shifted to manufacturing and government/military services. These new patterns were more clearly defined and solidified during the post war years. Forbes Air Force Base was established during the war, and the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company opened a plant in 1944.
Again in 1951, the Kansas River overflowed, resulting in the permanent closing of the Morrell Meat Packing Plant and the elimination of over 1,000 jobs. The attraction of the Hallmark Card and Dupont plants and other manufacturing company extensions were important in keeping the economy diverse.
Having planned and built numerous upstream flood control dams to harness the damaging power of the Kansas River, nature again dealt a blow to Topeka in 1966. A tornado twisted its way through the city, leveling houses and businesses and narrowly missing the Capitol. But, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Topeka recovered and has sustained steady economic growth.
In 1974, Forbes Air Base closed and over 10,000 people left Topeka, impacting the city’s growth patterns for years to come.
In the 1980s, Topeka citizens voted to build a new airport and convention center and to change the form of city government. West Ridge Mall opened in 1988 and in 1989 Topeka became a motorsports mecca with the opening of Heartland Park Topeka. The Topeka Performing Arts Center opened in 1991. In the early 1990s the city experienced business growth with Reser’s Fine Foods locating in Topeka and expansions for Santa Fe and Hill’s Pet Nutrition.
During the 1990s voters approved bond issues for public school improvements including magnet schools, technology, air conditioning, classrooms and a sports complex. Voters also approved a quarter-cent sales tax for a new Law Enforcement Center, and then in 1996 approved an extension of the sales tax for the East Topeka Interchange connecting the Oakland Expressway, K-4, I-70 and the Kansas Turnpike. The project was completed in August 2001.
During the 1990s Shawnee Countians voted to extend tax support to the County for the expansion of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. The Kansas Legislature and Governor also approved legislation to replace the majority of the property tax supporting Washburn University with a countywide sales tax.
In 2000 the citizens again voted to extend the quarter-cent sales tax, this time for the economic development of Topeka and Shawnee County. In August, 2004, Shawnee County citizens voted to repeal the 2000 quarter-cent sales tax and replace it with a 12-year half-cent sales tax designated for economic development, roads and bridges.