The Railroads and the Homesteaders

After the Civil War, two notable events took place, changing the nature of Kansas forever:

  1. In 1870, the Union Pacific, Eastern Division, (also called the Kansas Pacific Railway), reached across the state from Kansas City to Denver.
  2. In 1872, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe crossed the western state line.

These were grueling projects, with workers racing to lay tracks and towns vying for places along the line. The costs were enormous, too. Those in charge of both lines looked to the federal government for assistance in funding the work. In both cases, the government responded with land grants.

Land Grants

Section 3 of the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act reads:

And be it further enacted, That there be, and is hereby, granted to the said company [the Union Pacific], for the purpose of aiding in the construction of said railroad and telegraph line, and to secure the safe and speedy transportation of the mails, troops, munitions of war, and public stores thereon, every alternate section of public land, designated by odd numbers, to the amount of five alternate sections per mile on each side of said railroad, on the line thereof, and within the limits of ten miles on each side of said road, not sold, reserved, or otherwise disposed of by the United States, and to which a preemption or homestead claim may not have attached, at the time the line of said road is definitely fixed….

In 1864 the grant was increased to ten alternate sections on each side of the railroad. This privilege was allowed to the Santa Fe Railroad, as well.

The Railroads and the Homesteaders
First page of the Homestead Act

Both companies sold their lands to help fund their enterprises, but at first few settlers were terribly interested. After all, the Homestead Act made land in Kansas easy to obtain. Homesteaders just had to live on their claims for five years to receive 160 acres—for free! In 1873, the Timber Culture Act was passed, which gave settlers an additional 160 acres simply for planting trees on 40 acres of the claim. Why pay the railroads four dollars per acre or more?

But necessity is the mother of invention.

The Panic of 1873

In 1873, financial panic hit hard. American banks had invested heavily in railroads all across the country. Unable to sell their bonds, they soon found themselves bankrupt. This began a chain reaction which spread throughout the whole economy and created a severe recession. Many of the railroad companies themselves went bankrupt, and the survivors realized that they were hanging by a thread.

Fortunately for the Kansas Pacific and the Santa Fe, the panic had spread to Europe. Many other countries had overextended themselves in various industries, only to watch their bubbles burst one after another. Quite a few foreigners (and even some Americans) were eager to get a fresh start in a new home.

Both railroads, but the Santa Fe in particular, began to energetically promote the farm country of Kansas. This strategy promised two major benefits:

  1. Land sales would greatly assist the struggling railroad companies in the short term.
  2. Future transportation of crops would ensure the growth of the railroads in the long term.

They’re Coming to America

Besides writing glowing reports of the incredibly rich farmlands available in Kansas, the railroad companies attracted settlers by taking great pains to make the move as easy as possible. This was particularly a boon to foreigners who were unfamiliar with the ins and outs of American law. Although foreigners could file for free land under the Homestead Act, provided that they announced their intention to become United States citizens, it was much easier to work with knowledgeable railroad agents.

These men and the companies behind them frequently offered a couple of valuable services:

  • Helping settlers locate the lands most suitable for them.
  • Transporting settlers and all of their belongings for free or for heavily reduced rates.
The Railroads and the Homesteaders

The railroads typically targeted farming cultures when making their sales pitches. (They needed the long-term financial security shipping crops would bring, remember?) This brought a number of European groups to Kansas:

  • Germans.
  • Russian-Germans.
  • Swedes.
  • Englishmen.

Some Americans also came to the railroad lands. Yankees came to invest in town lots. Pennsylvania Germans were actively pursued by railroad agents to pave the way for settlers from overseas. Most Americans, however, still preferred to take advantage of the free lands available under the Homestead Act.

Effects of Railroad Promotion

The new settlers not only added their own distinctive touch to their new homes, but they significantly influenced the state’s agriculture. For example, the Mennonites who arrived among the German and Russian groups introduced Turkey Red winter wheat, a crop that proved to be hardier than the corn that so many Kansans were trying to grow at the time. Also, the Englishmen brought cattle breeds such as the Angus and the Hereford, revolutionizing the American beef industry.

So while changing the nature of Kansas was not really the goal of the railroad companies, they succeeded nevertheless. What started as a strategy for survival still affects the way Kansans live today.

Helpful Resource

Peopling the Plains

Peopling the Plains
If you found this topic interesting, you may enjoy the more in-depth explanation given in this highly recommended book. Read our full review.

The Story of the First Trans-Continental Railroad
This free eBook offers more insight into the Pacific Railroad Act and the history of the Kansas Pacific Railroad.