Rock Island Railway

Depot Memories

Wabaunsee County, Kansas was late to get on the railroad bandwagon.  While the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railway (ATSF) made an offer to place a line through the county in the days following the end of the Civil War, the ever-frugal Wabaunsee County residents defeated the proposed railroad bonds soundly at the polls.  The ATSF then chose a southern route, leaving Wabaunsee County considerably disadvantaged as a county without a single foot of laid rail.

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An ATSF steam engine stops for water at the Santa Fe depot at Alma, Kansas.

Soon, the county residents realized that if the county were to grow and prosper, it must have a railroad.   They began to jump at any proposed rail line, and there were many such proposals in the days of railroad speculation in the 1870s and 1880s.

In 1872, Wabaunsee County’s first real chance for a railroad came with the formation of the Manhattan, Alma, & Burlingame Railway (MAB) in September of 1872.  Despite the creation of the corporation, the railroad did not immediately materialize.  While the railroad conducted a preliminary survey of the proposed route in the fall of 1872, plans to build the line were derailed with the economic recession of 1873, which was caused in part by excessive railroad speculation in America.

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This photo of the ATSF depot in Alma, Kansas was taken in the 1980s. Twenty years after this photo was taken, this depot was razed.

In June of 1879, representatives of the ATSF approached the board of directors of the MAB, expressing their interest in obtaining the MAB route, a 57-mile spur line connecting Burlingame, Kansas with ATSF’s main line in Manhattan, Kansas. The owners of the MAB Railway were so desperate to launch their railroad, they ceded ownership of the proposed railroad to the Santa Fe.  All of the former board of directors of the MAB resigned and were replaced with board members from the ATSF.

Within months of the proposal, hundreds of railroad men descended upon Wabaunsee County, constructing roadbeds, laying iron rails, and building depots across the county. On July 5, 1880, the first railroad in Wabaunsee County opened for business.

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This real photo postcard by Zercher Photo in Topeka provides a view of the original MAB/ATSF depot at Eskridge, Kansas, before the depot was extended in length by 15-feet.

Technically, the railway spanned three counties.  It began at the ATSF’s leased coal mines at Burlingame, Kansas, where its first station was located.  In Wabaunsee County, there were stations located at Harveyville, Eskridge, Halifax (Hessdale), Alma, Fairfield, Pavilion, and Wabaunsee.  The final two stations were located at Zeandale and Manhattan.

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This is the only known view of the ATSF depot at Halifax, Kansas, later known as Hessdale. This depot burned in the 1890s.

The fledging railroad had difficulty in showing a profit and the entire rail line north of Alma was closed in 1895, and the rails were removed for salvage.  While there were depots operating in Harveyville, Eskridge, Hessdale, and Alma until 1972, it is unknown if a formal depot ever existed at Fairfield or Pavilion.  Additionally, there was a small freight or box depot located between Harveyville and Eskridge at Bradford.  With the closing of the ATSF spur line at the end of 1972, the remaining depots were sold to private parties.  The Alma depot stood until 2003 when it was demolished, while the tiny Hessdale depot is still barely standing on the J. R. and Sandy Maike property, the last remaining ATSF depot in Wabaunsee County.  The Maike’s home at Hessdale is located on almost exactly the spot where the first Halifax depot stood before it was destroyed by fire.

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The ATSF depot and stockyards at Hessdale are seen in in this photo dated 1960.

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The final ATSF depot at Hessdale was moved a quarter of a mile east of its original location, to the J.R. and Sandy Maike property, making it the final ATSF depot still standing in Wabaunsee County.

While the coming of the railroad was an economic boon, the spur line was short, and it served a very small portion of the county.  By the mid-1880s the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railway was constructing a rail line which would span Kansas along its route between Chicago and Los Angeles. This was the railroad that the citizens of Wabaunsee County had been seeking.  In 1887, the CRIP began laying rail across Wabaunsee County, and they also constructed six depots along the line, including those at Maple Hill, Paxico, McFarland, Alma, Volland, and Alta Vista.  The depots followed a cookie-cutter pattern of depots built by the CRIP.  The depot at Alta Vista, for example, was a two-story affair with living quarters on the second floor for the station agent. This depot was built with the identical plans for other two-story Rock Island depots which existed in Kansas and beyond.  The Alta Vista depot, for example, was identical in construction with the Rock Island depot at Bala, a tiny hamlet in Riley County, near Manhattan.

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Workers driving mule teams pulling slips level the road bed for the CRIP railroad line at Alta Vista in this view from 1887. Notice that the first depot at Alta Vista, seen at the far left, had been constructed before the rails had ever been laid. At the far right on the horizon, the Fairview Hotel is visible under construction.

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The first Rock Island depot in Alta Vista was constructed in 1887. Living quarters for the station agent was located on the second floor.

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This interior view of the Alta Vista Rock Island depot was taken in the telegraph office. Each depot contained a telegraph, providing critical communication for the scheduling of trains.

The Rock Island soon became the primary method of transportation of passengers and freight in Wabaunsee County.  Despite its success, the Rock Island struggled nationally, and was forced to declare bankruptcy multiple times.  By the 1980s the situation was critical for the Rock Island.  An attempt was made to engineer a merger with the Union Pacific, a move that regulators initially opposed.  By the time that approval was finally given, the Union Pacific had lost interest in the floundering Rock Island, realizing that the Rock’s assets could be purchased for pennies on the dollar, if the Union Pacific were to just wait until the Rock Island’s ultimate collapse.  When the CRIP entered bankruptcy for the final time, the Union Pacific purchased the Rock’s track and property, including the depots.  Virtually all of the depots were sold to private individuals, and the majority of those structures were demolished.

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The first Rock Island depot in Alma, Kansas, seen here, was constructed in 1887, and it burned to the ground at 2:10 am on August 31, 1900. Over 5,000 visitors came to Alma the day previous to attend the Modern Woodmen Log Rolling event, which was followed by a large fireworks display. Two hours after the festivities ended, the depot burned. The depot which replaced this one burned to the ground only five months later on February 1, 1901.

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This Rock Island depot at Alma, Kansas was constructed in 1901 after the previous CRIP depot burned in February of that year. This depot burned to the ground on December 29, 1917.

Surprisingly, three of the Rock Island depots in Wabaunsee County survived demolition during the transfer of property from the CRIP to the Union Pacific.  Insofar as passenger service had been discontinued at Volland in the 1940s, the depot in Volland was sold four decades before the Rock Island’s final bankruptcy, and it was moved to Council Grove where it was converted to a private residence.

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A railroad station agent waits on the platform with a mailbag as a CRIP train arrives at the Volland, Kansas depot, circa 1905.

The Paxico depot was sold to a private party, who moved the depot a quarter of a mile to the west, placing it on the south side of the tracks in a private campground, where it sits today.

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The CRIP depot at Paxico appeared busy in this view, circa 1920. Photo courtesy Marilyn Hund.

The third surviving depot was located in McFarland.  There had been a series of depots at McFarland, and for a time, the depot operated from the prestigious Modoc Hotel in McFarland. In 1954 a closed depot from Peck, Kansas was moved by rail to McFarland, and it was placed on the north side of the Modoc where it sat for thirty-five years. In 1990 the McFarland depot was sold to the City of McFarland for $1.00, and in September of that year, it was moved to the north edge of McFarland, at 518 Rock Island Avenue.  The depot was renovated and became the McFarland City Hall and Heritage Center, and the first City Council meeting was held at the former depot on February 11, 1999.

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The first depot at McFarland was constructed in 1887 when the CRIP established its yards in the newly created town.

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When this real photo postcard featuring the Modoc Hotel in McFarland, Kansas was taken in 1950, the hotel served as the town’s depot.

Displayed below are photos of all of the depots in Wabaunsee County history, and readers can view the photos in a gallery format or as a full-screen image by clicking on any image.

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