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The Railroads and Frontier Towns

The expansion of railroads through Kansas had a profound impact on the state's history. They provided a quicker and safer route to the west, and brought immigrants from the eastern United States and European countries. They also shipped farm products and meat to the East and created the great cattle markets and cow towns in Kansas. Among the railways built through Kansas were the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, Kansas Pacific Railroad, The Katy Railroad and the Rock Island Railroad

Although private companies built the railways, the U.S. government played a big role in their expansion. The railway companies were given large tracts of land by the government for right-of-ways through Kansas. The railroads were then able to increase their profits by selling portions of this land to settlers. Towns also contributed money and gifts to the railroads to entice them to build through their cities. Many people became resentful and suspicious of the power and influence the railroads had over development in Kansas.

Cattle were driven from Texas, where the railways had not yet expanded, to cities in Kansas with railway connections. Among these were Caldwell, Abilene, Ellsworth, Newton and Wichita. The cowboys who participated in these cattle drives brought money and a carefree view of life. The cow towns became notorious for their wild lifestyles. As these towns grew in size, the people living in them sought a more peaceful existence. The cattle drives were forced to move to smaller towns further west. Consequently, Dodge City became the largest cattle market in the world from 1875 to 1885, and is still a major cattle market today.

Reconstructed cowtown in Wichita

Many colorful characters, gunfighters and outlaws became famous during this era. They included William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Jesse and Frank James, and the Dalton family gang. Lawmen who also became well known during this time included James "Wild Bill" Hickok in Abilene, and Wyatt Earp, John "Doc" Holliday and Bat Masterson in Dodge City. 

In the early 1880's, concerns about disease in the Texas cattle caused many counties to pass laws prohibiting cattle from Texas being brought into Kansas. Eventually, farmers closed most of the open land with fences, and it became more difficult to drive herds of cattle through Kansas. Once the railroads reached Texas, the days of the long cattle drives and the Wild West came to an end.

Additional Resources

bulletLearn more about early Railroads in Kansas.
bulletRead about the Orphan Trains of Kansas that brought orphan children to Kansas.

Study Guide Questions

  1. Why was there such a rapid expansion of the railroads into Kansas during this era?
  2. Why did many people come to distrust the railroads?
  3. What was a major factor in the development of a number of cities in central and western Kansas during this period?
  4. Why did Dodge City become the leading cattle market in the country during this period?
  5. What caused the rapid rise and decline of cattle drives into Kansas from Texas?

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