Over 300 years ago, the area around 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 and celebrated the first Independence Day in the American West.
Fifty years after Lewis & Clark’s visit, the Kansas Territory was opened and Atchison became 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 nearer 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 as 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, Calif., 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 occured from 1870 to 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 cities in Kansas – Leavenworth and Topeka – were more important than Atchison as a manufacturer. John Seaton’s foundry, which moved to Atchison in 1872, occupied an entire block and was the largest west of St. Louis. By 1894, it employed 2,000 men.
Atchison’s influence in the state extended to politics. John J. Ingalls, an Atchison lawyer who became a U.S. Senator, was instrumental in framing the state constitution. Atchison provided Topeka with three governors – George W. Glick, John A. Martin and Willis J. Bailey. Three Atchison lawyers 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 its 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 brought notoriety to Atchison was world-famous aviatrix 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 over 20 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, Atchison reveals its glorious heyday through its impressive Victorian-era architecture and with five museums that showcase its diverse history, railroad heritage, Victorian past, art and Amelia Earhart legacy.