Ghost trains on the low plains: a Kansas railroad story

The first time I noticed it, I was curled up with a book on our old sofa in our new house. The lulling and soothing sound of a train in the distance had kept us company many, many nights during our years in Emporia.

My husband, Jim, noticed the sound, too.

Our little old house, built in 1925, is one of thousands of homes within a stone’s throw of the Santa Fe tracks in Kansas. But unlike Emporia, where the trains still rumble down the tracks, Ottawa’s trains were long gone.

“Ghost train,” I said.

Ottawa didn’t start out as a railroad town.

Franklin County — with Ottawa at its heart — grew around the various Native American settlements and a religious university.  In its earliest years, settlers passed through it along the Santa Fe Trail in the northern part of the county. The little town’s future was not secure until 1868, when the ambitious Leavenworth, Lawrence & Fort Gibson Railroad Company, whose plan it was to lay tracks from Lawrence, Kansas to the Gulf of Mexico, laid tracks to Ottawa.

LL&G Railroad roundhouse sign, on display at the Old Depot Museum in Ottawa, Kansas.

With the railroad came prosperity. This little flood-prone town on the Marais Des Cynges River suddenly had the resources to build a public school and buy a steam fire engine. The Ludington House hotel had rooms to rent and the Ottawa Mills & Elevator opened for business on Main Street. By 1872, the LL&G had built a roundhouse and car and machine shops, bringing hundreds of jobs to the little town, whose population had climbed to 6,250 — nearly half of its present-day population.

LL&G RR Car Works, Ottawa, Kansas.

But the LL&G was in financial peril, and in 1878, it was sold to a new group, who renamed it the Leavenworth, Lawrence & Galveston Railroad Company. Yet the push to interconnect Kansas towns did not lose momentum. Operations in Ottawa continued to grow as the LL&G became the Kansas City, Lawrence and Southern.

In 1880, the Santa Fe Railroad gained control of the KCL&S stock.

Ottawa became one of the hubs of Kansas.

A new depot, designed by the great Kansan architect George Washburn, was built in 1881 and remained in use until 1962. The Depot became the the heart of all of the comings and goings, welcome hellos and tearful goodbyes, of generations of Kansans.

I think about where my house is located,  within walking distance of the Depot, and wonder what it would be like to be able to walk down the street and purchase a train ticket to almost anywhere in North America during a period in time when most people where traveling by horse or wagon. Even today, with so many modes of travel at my disposal, I am limited by how far I can drive first. To catch a train, I must drive to Topeka or Kansas City; to catch a flight, I must first make my way to Kansas City or Wichita for a commercial airplane.

An example of a 1903 train schedule shows how easily Ottawans could move from city to city. On display at the Old Depot Museum in Ottawa, Kansas.

The last train rumbled past our little old house more than 30 years ago. For twenty years, the little towns were disconnected. Some old depots, like Ottawa’s were saved and repurposed into restaurants and museums. Other depots were not so fortunate.

Author Michael Perry once wrote, “Maybe that’s all you need to know about this town–the train doesn’t stop here anymore.” And many of those little towns, whose hotels and diners depended on railway traffic, shuttered their windows and locked their doors. The story of these little towns was approaching a sad ending as the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe (ATSF) Railroad sold the line to the Kansas City Terminal Railway Company, who promptly filed for abandonment.

Built in 1881, the former Santa Fe Depot in Ottawa, Kansas, now serves as the Old Depot Museum. This grand building was lucky enough to find new life as a museum and trail head for the Prairie Spirit Trail.

But it’s not the end of the line. Thanks to the vision of the  Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and countless volunteers,  the old rail lines that once carried passengers from town to town are being reconnected through a rail-trail park called the Prairie Spirit Trail. Ottawa, Princeton, Richmond, Garnett, Welda, Colony, Carlyle and Iola can all be reached by foot or bike. The rail line, the connection, the web that strings together communities, is growing stronger as other rail-trail parks repurpose old railroad lines across the state.

The Prairie Spirit Trail as it runs past the beautiful courthouse in Garnett. There’s something magical in knowing that I could follow this all the way home.

I peek through the blinds of our living room window as the sound of the ghost train dies down and the air grows unnaturally still, far more quiet than the air ever was in Emporia.

It is drizzling and dark, but the well-lit Prairie Spirit Trail is still in use. A bicyclist rides north; a man and his dog walk south.

When the next ghost train passes by, I settle in to the comforting sound.

The Prairie Spirit Trail in Ottawa, Kansas. If you listen closely, you can hear the echoes of ghost trains passing through on still nights.

Special thanks to the Old Depot Museum for their excellent displays and information on the history of the Santa Fe Depot.

12 thoughts on “Ghost trains on the low plains: a Kansas railroad story

  1. Tami

    I’m amazed that there is no train service in Ottawa.

    We are hoping to take Amtrak from Topeka to Albuquerque later this summer. I’ve never traveled by train. It has a certain “magic” about it. Thanks for the great story.

  2. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

    There is a movement to bring the passenger trains back to Kansas, which would be a huge boon for some of the smaller towns along the way. This link goes to the proposed routes:

    While my husband and I were living in Emporia, both of our mothers became terminally ill in Kansas City and we drove up there frequently. It was exhausting and time-consuming and expensive, and we wished we could have taken a train and had a friend pick us up instead of being on the road for four hours once or twice a week for months on end.

  3. Mr. V.

    Diana, thanks for visiting and following my blog. And, thanks for creating your blog and posting about Kansas. This was an enjoyable post to read, and adds yet another town to my list of places to visit on weekend jaunts around the state. Sounds to me like there’s some fascinating history in Ottawa to explore.

    Again, thanks, and I’ll be back to read more.

    1. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

      Mr. V., thank you! I’m really fascinated by the “microhistory” of Kansas – how a single person or building or town can shape history.

      Ottawa is very proud of its historic downtown; George P. Washburn was Ottawa’s very own architect and many of his buildings are still in use. I also recommend visiting Garnett, just twenty minutes south of Ottawa. They have a beautiful town square and a lovely Catholic church.

      1. Mr. V.

        I enjoy the history of Kansas as well, though I am a ‘newbie’ to the subject. I have been pleasantly surprised by the few trips I’ve made around the area thus far, and am looking forward to new ones. I’m planning on taking my son on several day/overnight trips, some of them along the various scenic byways. Next month, we’ll go to the Tallgrass Prairie preserve, the Flint Hills, and some of the towns in that area. Then we’re looking to do a two to three day excursion exploring the military history of Kansas.

        I’ll have to add Garnett to the list of towns to visit. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. Pingback: Sunday Snapshot: Into the Horizon | Diana Staresinic-Deane

  5. traditionshome

    Great story, I sometimes take old highway 50 from Emporia, north to Waverly and then to Ottawa; and from the two lane road though the woods I can see the old track bed and occasionally a bridge.


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