Some 300 years ago, the area of present-day Atchison was home to the Kansa Indians. Their abandoned village was noted by Lewis & Clark when they explored the area on July 4, 1804.
Fifty years after Lewis & Clark’s visit, the Kansas Territory was opened and Atchison was one of its first settlements. On July 20, 1854, men from Platte City, Missouri, crossed the Missouri River and staked out a townsite they named for David Rice Atchison, a noted Missouri senator.
Atchison was incorporated as a town by the Territorial Legislature on Aug. 30, 1855 and incorporated as a city on Feb. 12, 1858.
Atchison soon became a leading commercial center. The city thrived because it had one of the best steamboat landings on the Missouri River, wagon roads to the west, and it was several miles closer to Denver than other river towns.
During the great Mormon immigration westward, city leaders were able to convince thousands of Mormons to cross the river and outfit at Atchison. These early connections established Atchison’s commercial roots and allowed it to grow when other river towns withered.
In early years, at least two steamboats and sometimes four or five, landed at the Atchison levee daily. A regular line of sidewheelers traveled between St. Louis and St. Joseph.
Atchison’s economic status continued to grow when the Overland Stage Line and Salt Lake City-based freighters made it their eastern terminus. The U.S. Post Office made Atchison the headquarters and starting point for mail to the West. The stage coach line from Atchison to Placerville, CA, was one of the longest and most important lines in the country.
When the boom days of overland trade faded in the 1860s, Atchison leaders set their sights on making the city a railroad hub. With $150,000 from Atchison investors as the financial basis, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad was founded in Atchison. After a delay caused by the Civil War, railroads continued to expand in Atchison. By 1872, when the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad arrived, eight different railroad lines terminated within Atchison and four connected on the Missouri side.
The boom years for Atchison occurred between 1870 and 1900, when major industries were established, large wholesale firms were developed and the commercial life of Atchison reached its peak. Atchison was one of the first banking centers in the state. Industries grew, along with the
railroads, dealing in grains and milling, lumber and manufacturing. During the 1870s, only two Kansas cities – Leavenworth and Topeka – were more important than Atchison in manufacturing. John Seaton’s foundry, which moved to Atchison in 1872, occupied an entire block and was the largest west of St. Louis. It employed 2,000 men in 1894.
Atchison’s influence in the state extended to politics. Atchisonian Samuel C. Pomeroy was one of the first two U. S. Senators from Kansas. John J. Ingalls, an Atchison lawyer, was instrumental in framing the state constitution and later became a U.S. Senator. Atchison provided three Kansas governors – George W. Glick, John A. Martin and Willis J. Bailey. Three Atchison lawyers have also served as Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court.
Near the beginning of the 20th century, the Topeka Mail & Breeze described Atchison as having more rich men and widows in proportion to its population than any other city in Kansas. These wealthy citizens built scores of grand mansions, many of which still stand today.
Atchison’s delay in building a bridge over the Missouri River precipitated a decline in prosperity. The failure to bridge the river until 1875 – ten years behind Kansas City and St. Joseph – dealt a severe blow from which it was unable to recover.
In the early 1900s, E.W. Howe, founder of the Atchison Daily Globe in 1877, gained national renown as an author and columnist and helped bring prominence to the city.
Another celebrity who has brought notoriety to Atchison is world-famous aviator Amelia Earhart, who was born in her grandparents’ home and lived there during her early childhood.
Among Atchison’s early settlers were Benedictines who established St. Benedict’s Abbey in 1858 and Mount St. Scholastica in 1863. The Benedictine Brothers and Sisters have played an integral role in the community’s cultural, religious and educational development for nearly 150 years. The buildings where they live, work and worship are prominent in the Atchison community.
Atchison became known as “the city that refused to die” after rebuilding from two flash floods that swept through the downtown in 1958. The devastation of the floods hastened the replacement of many of the oldest commercial buildings and led to the construction of the pedestrian mall that today is the heart of the downtown district.
With 26 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, Atchison reveals a glorious heyday through its impressive Victorian-era architecture. Five museums showcase its diverse history, railroad heritage, Victorian past, regional art and Amelia Earhart legacy.