An Innovative History Trail

Stop 1: Atchison, KS

Happy Thursday! Since this is the first entry in this series I want to try to explain a bit about what I have planned in the days ahead. We will launch six “virtual tours” – perhaps someday they might even be actual tours of the United States. Each of these tours is going to follow a “trail.” Pre-Covid anyway, these had become all the rage in the world of tourism. There are Craft Brew Trails, Bourbon Trails, Fruit Trails, even Quilting Trails and, perhaps not surprisingly, I love the concept – find something you are passionate about, then travel around and experience lots of it…yes please, sign me up!

The six topics behind the trails represent things I am interested in, you might choose some different ones or an entirely different six so feel free to skip over trails that don’t interest you. If it seems interesting or valuable to you, I could even try to figure out if it is possible to subscribe to the different series separately. Drop me a line.

Why am I doing this? First and pretty simply, I think it will be fun…fun to research and fun to write. Why am I writing about it and sharing it with others? Well, beyond being fun I am hopeful that these stories will be reassuring to me and perhaps to you. If our view of the outside in our Covid-confined and confused world comes from the headlines in Google News or the nightly news broadcasts or worse, social media, the United States can feel like a pretty hopeless place. But for all its warts, which have been on full display for the last year, I believe it is still a pretty amazing country full of amazing people and places. Thus, the first order of business in each of these posts will be to share something that, I think anyway, is Worth Celebrating.

But I also want the posts to go a little beyond the Chamber of Commerce view of the world. Each of the stops on these trails are real places with cool stuff to be sure, but also real challenges that they often have in common with other communities across the country and around the world. So the second focus on each stop is entitled A Work in Progress. It will be made up of a few links that cover a particular challenge that the community is working on and various solutions that have been presented to it.

Also, a note about the stops on these trails and the order in which they are presented. This is not meant to be a ranking of the “Top 50 Fabulous Historic Sites to read about before you die.” I think the last thing this country needs is yet another reason to compete with itself. Instead, geography is driving what is included here. Four of the trails will begin in the four corners of the country and the other two, including today’s, will begin in the middle. My hope, if the project lasts long enough, is to include stops in all 50 states and multiple parts of each state but the stops will mainly be contiguous, meaning that, most of the time, the next stop on each trail will be in a neighboring state to the last one.

Finally, this wordy post notwithstanding, I am hoping that most of these posts can be read in five minutes but link to information you could spend a weekend on if you so choose. Without further ado…

Worth Celebrating

I expect that the members of my family knew what the focus of the first post was going to be as soon as they saw Atchison. My brothers and I grew up in a train-focused household. My dad worked for railroads, covered railroads in magazines and even wrote a book about railroads and, in his spare time, took, literally, thousands of pictures of trains. It is not an exaggeration, I don’t think, to say that for every baseball park picture and video I’ve taken, he took ten of trains. At some level he passed on that passion to each of his boys and I have crisscrossed the country by train several times over the years, most recently with my own son.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad no longer exists by that name, it merged with the Burlington Northern Railroad to become the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway at the end of 1996. But for more than a century the AT&SF was one of the most important railroads in the country and a primary driver in the country’s westward expansion. It was chartered in February of 1859 and although it progressed relatively quickly on the 55 miles between the first two cities in its charter, it was another 692 to the next one. The railroad originally bypassed Santa Fe, New Mexico and it’s mountainous terrain and had been connected all the way to the west coast for several years before its namesake terminus finally got train service via an 18-mile branch line from Lamy, NM. A bit of trivia, that short line railroad, more recently known as the Santa Fe Southern was reportedly recently purchased by a group that includes George R.R. Martin, the screenwriter of Game of Thrones.

There is a nice summary of the AT&SF history in that region on the New Mexico Museum of Art’s website and here is a longer but nicely complete Wikipedia entry on the railroad overall.

The AT&SF is the long checkered blue line that covers most of the bottom left of the map in the board game Rail Baron

Unlike some of its competitors, the Santa Fe made passenger travel a priority. It ran several famous passenger trains all the way from Chicago to the West Coast through the first half of the last century and before dining cars became commonly used on long distance trains, the Santa Fe partnered with the Fred Harvey Company to feed passengers at a growing network of diners and hotels known as Harvey Houses. They became so famous they were the subject of a movie musical starring Judy Garland; my brother Rory loves both trains and musicals so this video is for him.

Judy Garland becomes a “Harvey Girl”

Atchison, a city that today has just over 10,000 residents might seem a strange place to be the eastern terminus of one of the country’s most important railroads but the pictures below from a trip Alistair and I took in 2019 explain part of why it is was chosen. The city sits on the banks of the Missouri River and the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through on July 4, 1804. That’s the Lewis & Clark pavilion in the picture below along with, notably, a railroad bridge that connected Chicago to Los Angeles.

One final note on this city’s incredible history – Amelia Earhart was born in Atchison in 1897 and the city’s airport bears her name today.

If feeling inspired for more – both Amelia, a 2009 film starring Hilary Swank and The Harvey Girls are available for rental on Amazon Prime and a few other platforms.

A Work in Progress

Despite its very unusual history, Atchison has many of the same challenges as small cities across the country. This interesting infographic from the city’s website tells a tale many other communities could tell too – a gradual decline in population (the city had just over 12,000 residents in 1970 and just over 10,000 today, ) declining home values and fairly stagnant wages. To underscore this last point, the most recent median household income figure was $41,268 in 2017, an annual increase of $1,151 from seven years earlier. Written this way begs the that good or bad? But that increase works out to 2.8% – barely above the 2.1 percent inflation rate over the same period.

Not surprisingly then, wage growth was at the top of the list of “frequently cited concerns” in the city’s 2016-2030 strategic planning document and that is despite the fact that Atchison has a more diverse population of employers than many cities of its size. Local Benedictine College was the largest employer in the city at the time of this 2020 infographic and the city’s hospital was second, but third and fifth on the list are local manufacturers. Bradken, an Australian corporation is the current owner of a steel foundry right in the center of town that has been making rail and transit components since 1872 and MGP Ingredients, which makes a variety of distilled spirits and food ingredients is headquartered in Atchison and employs more than 200 people.

Why are wages growing so slowly? This article from the nearby Kansas City branch of the Federal Reserve Bank looks at that very question. More stories are here and here

There are no easy answers to this challenge but it is one I expect to see repeated in many other communities across the country.

Coming up Friday, we will start the wheels moving on the Food and Restaurant Trail in the town of Sanger, CA – right in the heart of California’s Central Valley.

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