Over 300 years ago, the area around present-day Atchison was home to the Kansa Indians. Their abandoned village was noted by the Lewis & Clark Expedition 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; Atchison became one of its first settlements. On July 20, 1854, men from Platte City, Missouri crossed the Missouri River and staked out a town site they named for David Rice Atchison, a noted Missouri senator.
Among his achievements, Senator Atchison went on to serve as President of the United States for one day on March 4, 1849 when Zachary Taylor refused to take the Oath of Office on a Sunday. In honor of this quirky bit of history, present day Atchison is home to the World’s Smallest Presidential Library for “President Atchison” located in the historic Santa Fe Depot Museum.
Atchison was incorporated as a town by the Territorial Legislature on August 30, 1855, and incorporated as a city on February 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 persuade 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 “side-wheelers” 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.
Immortalized by the Oscar-winning song “On the Atchison, Topeka & the Santa Fe” in the 1945 film The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland, many classic films fans can still hum the catchy “Atchison” tune. Watch a clip here!
Atchison’s prosperity knew no bounds from 1870 to 1900, when major industries were established, large wholesale firms were developed and the commercial life of Atchison was at its most robust. 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, Atchison rivaled only Leavenworth and Topeka as the state’s most important manufacturing centers.
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 and established the state’s revered motto Ad Astra per Aspera, or “To the stars through adversity.”
Atchison provided Kansas 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. Recently, Atchisonian Bill Thornton served as state Secretary of Commerce under the Parkinson administration .
Among the community’s notables is E.W. Howe, founder of the Atchison Daily Globe in 1877 who gained national renown in the early 1900’s as an author and columnist and helped bring prominence to the city.
Musician Jesse Stone (nee Charles Calhoun) is also an Atchison native, born in 1901. A prolific songwriter and arranger, Stone may be best known for the rock ‘n’ roll hit “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” sung by Big Joe Turner. Music icons like Ray Charles and Ahmet Ertegun credit Stone as their mentor. His role in creating the classic rock’n’roll bass line earned him the mantle of “Architect of Rock’n’Roll.”
Another celebrity who brought notoriety to Atchison was world-famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart. A true American original, Amelia Earhart was born in her grandparents’ Atchison home in 1897 and lived there during her formative childhood years. What inspired Amelia to fly? Come see! Visitors can still tour the iconic home perched on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River and see the sweeping views that Amelia saw as a little girl.
Atchison was also endorsed by soon-to-be president Abraham Lincoln, who offered a friend this career advice: “If I went West, I think I would go to Kansas – to Leavenworth or Atchison. Both these are and will continue to be fine growing places.” Lincoln visited Kansas in December 1859, stopping and speaking in Atchison to try out his historic Cooper Union speech before unveiling it in front of national media several months later.
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 over 150 years. The buildings where they live, work and worship are still prominent cornerstones of the Atchison community today as Benedictine College, one of the top-ranked private Catholic universities in the country.
In 1958, Atchison’s resiliency earned the title “the city that refused to die” after rebuilding from not one but two flash floods that swept through the downtown that year. The devastation of the floods hastened the replacement of many of the oldest commercial buildings, leading to the construction of the walkable downtown that today is the heart of the city as well as construction of 25 watershed retention ponds that provide idyllic countryside scenery and handy fishing holes throughout the community in addition to enhanced flood control.
With over 20 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, Atchison translates its historical heritage into a modern day community and scenic get-away spot. Whether it’s for the day or for keeps, come experience Atchison’s impressive architecture, scenic streetscapes, quaint shopping and dining, community events, and museums that showcase its railroad heritage, Victorian past, regional art and diverse legacy.