The Early History of Atchison
by Frank W. Blackmar (1912)
Atchison was founded in 1854 and named in honor of Senator Atchison, who, when Kansas was opened for settlement, interested some of his friends in the scheme of forming a city in the new territory. However, it seems that all were not agreed upon the location he had selected, and on July 20, 1854, Dr. John H. Stringfellow, Ira Norris, Leonidas Oldham, James B. Martin and Neal Owens left Platte City, Missouri, to decide definitely upon a site. They crossed the Missouri River near Fort Leavenworth and continued to travel up stream along the western bank until they reached the place where Atchison now stands, where they found a site that was the natural outlet of a remarkably rich agricultural region just open to settlement. They also found that two men named George M. Million and Samuel Dickson had staked claims near the river. Million's claim lay south of what is now known as Atchison Street and consisted of a quarter section. Dickson had built a small cabin on his claim, and this cabin was the first structure erected on the site of the present city. Million had a ferry, on which he crossed to the Missouri side of the river to his home, but on the day the prospectors arrived he was on the Kansas side. From a map in his possession, the prospectors found that they were at the location decided upon before leaving Missouri.
As all the men in the party, except Dr. Stringfellow, had already taken claims in the valley of Walnut Creek, he was the only member of the party who could select a claim. He therefore took a tract north of Million's. The proposition of forming a town company for the future city was laid before the first settlers. Dickson was willing, but Million did not care to cut up his claim. He offered to sell his claim for $1,000—an exorbitant price for the land—but the men from Platte City had determined to found a city on that particular spot, and the purchase was made. A town company was formed and a week later a meeting was held under a tree on the bank of the river, about a half block south of where Atchison Street now runs. There were eighteen persons present when the town company was formally organized by electing Peter T. Abell, president; James Burns, treasurer; and Dr. Stringfellow, secretary.
The site was divided into 100 shares by the company, of which each member retained five shares, the remainder being reserved for common benefit of all. By September 20, 1854, Henry Kuhn had surveyed the 480 acres and made a plat, and the next day was fixed for the sale of lots, an event of great importance as it had become understood that Senator Atchison would make a speech upon the political question of the day, hence the sale would be of political as well as business significance. At his meeting on the 21st, two public institutions of vital interest to a new community were planned for—a hotel and a newspaper. Each share of stock in the town company was assessed $25, the proceeds to be used to build the National Hotel, which was completed in the spring of 1855 on the corner of Second and Atchison streets, and $400 was donated to Dr. Stringfellow and Robert S. Kelley to erect a printing office. The Squatter Sovereign, a paper with strong pro-slavery sentiments, was first issued on February 3, 1855. It had formerly been published at Liberty, Missouri, under the name of the Democratic Platform. In the spring of 1857 it was purchased by Samuel C. Pomeroy, Robert McBratney and F.G. Adams, who changed its policy and published it as a free-state paper until the fall of the same year, when Pomeroy became the sole owner.
The first post office in Atchison was established April 10, 1855, with Kelley as postmaster. It was opened in a small building in the block later occupied by the Otis house. In July 1883, the free-delivery system was inaugurated.
For years there had been considerable trade up and down the Missouri River, which had naturally centered at Leavenworth, but in June 1855, several overland freighters were induced to select Atchison as their outfitting point. The most important firms were Livingston, Kinkead & Co. and Hooper & Williams. The outfitting business done in Atchison was one of the greatest factors in establishing her commercial career. Some of the first merchants to open stores in the new town were George Challis, Burns Bros., Stephen Johnston and Samuel Dickson.
On August 30, 1855, Atchison was incorporated. The corporation was granted the privilege of holding land “not to exceed 640 acres” and the stock of the company was to be regarded as personal property. The town company had required every settler to build a house at least 6 feet square upon his lot, but when the survey was made it was discovered that some of these buildings were upon school lands. The title to the school lands remained in question for some time, but in 1857 all lands embraced within the corporate limits of the town were acquired by the town company from the general government, and in turn conveyed the lots to the individual purchasers, the titles being finally confirmed by the court.
Dr. Stringfellow had North Atchison surveyed and platted in the fall of 1857. This started a fever of additions. In February 1858, West Atchison was laid out by John Roberts, and in May Samuel Dickson had his property surveyed as South Atchison. Still another addition was made by John Challis.
On February 12, 1858, the legislature issued a charter to the city of Atchison, which was approved by the people on March 2 at a special election. The first city officers were elected at a second special election on March 13, 1858, and Samuel C. Pomeroy was elected mayor.
The first schools in the town were private. One of the first was opened in 1857 by Lizzie Bay. The first school district was established in October 1858, and a month later the Atchison free high school was opened at the corner of Atchison and Commercial streets.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War there were three militia companies organized in Atchison, whose members enlisted in the Kansas regiments. They were known as Companies A, C and “At All Hazards”. Early in September 1861, a home guard was organized in the town to protect it in case of invasion from Missouri, and on the 15th of the month another company was raised, which was subsequently mustered into a state regiment. In 1863 the city of Atchison raised $4,000 to assist the soldiers from the county and after the Sack of Lawrence a like sum was subscribed to assist the stricken people of that city. Citizens of the town also joined the vigilance committees that so materially aided the civil authorities in suppressing raiding and the lawless bands of thieves that infested the border counties.
Soon after the war, when industrial life became normal, manufactories began to spring up in Atchison. Elevators and mills were erected in the late 1860s and early 1870s; a flax mill was built; the Atchison Foundry and Machine Works, one of the most important commercial enterprises, was started; also many wood working factories, and carriage and wagon works. The city gained a reputation for its fine flour mills, car-repair shops, foundries, wooden ware, and furniture factories.
Atchison was one of the first cities in Kansas to be connected by telegraph with the east. In 1859 the St. Louis & Missouri Valley Telegraph company extended its line from Leavenworth to Atchison. In 1911, the following railroads all ran into the city: Burlington & Missouri River; Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe; Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific; Hannibal & St. Joseph; Kansas City, St. Joseph & Council Bluffs; and the Missouri Pacific.
Atchison is located at 39°33'45N, 95°7'42W (39.562499, -95.128257). The city is situated along the western bank of the Missouri River which also marks the Kansas-Missouri state line. Located at the junction of U.S. Route 59 and U.S. Route 73, it is 21 miles southwest of St. Joseph, Missouri along US-59 and 25 miles northwest of Leavenworth, Kansas along US-73. The section of US-73 between Atchison and Leavenworth is part of the Glacial Hills Scenic Byway which follows K-7 northward from Atchison.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 18.7 km² (7.2 mi²), of which 17.7 km² (6.8 mi²) is land and 1.0 km² (0.4 mi²), or 5.27%, is water.
Over the course of a year, temperatures range from an average low of nearly 15°F in January to an average high of nearly 90°F in July. The maximum temperature reaches 90°F an average of 38 days per year and reaches 100°F an average of 3 days per year. The minimum temperature falls below the freezing point (32°F) an average of 106 days per year. Typically the first fall freeze occurs between the second week of October and the first week of November, and the last spring freeze occurs between the end of March and the third week of April.
The area receives nearly 38 inches of precipitation during an average year with the largest share being received in May, June, and July—with a combined 29 days of measurable precipitation. During a typical year the total amount of precipitation may be anywhere from 25 to 52 inches. There are on average 96 days of measurable precipitation per year. Winter snowfall averages almost 23 inches, but the median is less than 16 inches. Measurable snowfall occurs an average of 13 days per year with at least an inch of snow being received on eight of those days. Snow depth of at least an inch occurs an average of 27 days per year.
Atchison's population was estimated to be 10,169 in the year 2005, a decrease of 59, or -0.6%, over the previous five years.
As of the U.S. Census in 2000, there were 10,232 people, 3,863 households, and 2,437 families residing in the city. The population density was 578.4/km² (1,498.2/mi²). There were 4,220 housing units at an average density of 238.6/km² (617.9/mi²). The racial makeup of the city was 88.56% White, 7.80% Black or African American, 0.51% Native American, 0.41% Asian, 0.09% Pacific Islander, 0.65% from other races, and 1.99% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.58% of the population.
There were 3,863 households out of which 30.8% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 46.8% were married couples living together, 12.6% had a female householder with no husband present, and 36.9% were non-families. 32.0% of all households were made up of individuals and 14.7% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.39 and the average family size was 3.00.
In the city the population was spread out with 25.7% under the age of 18, 13.8% from 18 to 24, 23.5% from 25 to 44, 19.5% from 45 to 64, and 17.5% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 35 years. For every 100 females there were 88.0 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 83.3 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $31,109, and the median income for a family was $37,100. Males had a median income of $31,027 versus $20,262 for females. The per capita income for the city was $14,441. About 9.5% of families and 17.0% of the population were below the poverty line, including 17.4% of those under age 18 and 22.0% of those age 65 or over.
The Atchison Public Schools school district (USD 409), with three schools, serves more than 1,600 students.
Atchison Elementary School, grades K–5
Atchison Middle School, grades 6–8
Atchison High School, grades 9–12
The Bert Nash Intermediate School is a public school separate from the district which serves less than 100 students in grades 7–12.
Private schools in the city include:
Maur Hill Mount Academy
Colleges and universities
Residents of note
Governor John Alexander Martin
Wil Martin - EARSHOT vocalist