Transportation in 1920s Kansas


During the 1920s, many Kansans were transitioning to new technology as it became available and affordable in their communities. People living in cities might have running water while their country counterparts might still use a well pump and outhouse. Farmers might read by lantern light while their cousins in town had gas or electric light.

Transportation was also in transition. The earliest Kansans reached the state by wagon or horseback; by the 1860s, most of the major eastern Kansas towns were accessible by train. For Coffey and Lyon counties, the railways–particularly the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Line (known as the Katy) and the Atchison-Topeka-Santa Fe (ATSF)–were a crucial and reliable means of traveling from town to town.

Katy Line Large

The Katy Line Map from 1877 shows the extensive network of Katy trains available to travelers in Kansas and beyond. (Rand McNally and Company.. Map of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway., Map, ca. 1877; digital images, (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth2440/ : accessed March 23, 2013), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries, Denton, Texas.)

In town and in the countryside, wagons and horses were still the dominant modes of transportation through the 1910s. As automobiles became more affordable and maintainable, they began to travel alongside the horses and oxen. In places like Coffey County, it wasn’t until the roads in town were paved–about 1920–when more and more people began to use cars as their preferred mode of transportation.

By 1925, covered wagons in town were a rare enough occurrence that when several were seen, it merited a mention in Burlington's paper. (Daily Republican, December 30, 1925)

By 1925, covered wagons in town were a rare enough occurrence that when several were seen, it merited a mention in Burlington’s paper. (Daily Republican, December 30, 1925)

As cars took over the roads, so did the problems associated with them. Burlington installed their first stop signs in 1925 and began arresting jaywalkers for endangering themselves and others. The newspapers were filled with stories of traffic accidents, including accidents involving fatalities.

After much frustration with drivers and jaywalkers alike, the city of Burlington installed two stop signs. (From the Daily Republican, July 7, 1925.)

After much frustration with drivers and jaywalkers alike, the city of Burlington installed two stop signs. (From the Daily Republican, July 7, 1925.)

C.J. Beatty was killed in an automobile accident. (From the Daily Republican, June 29, 1925.)

C.J. Beatty was killed in an automobile accident. (From the Daily Republican, June 29, 1925.)

Transportation in all its forms played an important role in the story of Florence Knoblock’s murder and in the trial that followed. Numerous witnesses testified to seeing John Knoblock and his four-year-old son, Roger, driving into town the morning of the murder. One witness, W. P. Phillips, was sure of the time he saw the Knoblocks because he was standing near the Mosher’s Regulator–the official clock that regulates the railroad times, and the clock to which many citizens set their own watches.

A Kansas driver changes a flat tire on his 1919 Model T Roadster.

A Kansas driver changes a flat tire on his 1919 Model T Roadster.

After discovering his wife’s body, John Knoblock and several others jump in their cars and travel to nearby towns to look for suspects. John Kellerman, a brother-in-law, borrows a neighbor’s car to drive to Hartford to break the bad news to one of Florence’s sisters after he discovers that John Knoblock’s car has a flat tire.

Because John Knoblock’s trials were held in district court, many of the court officers came in from other towns (the district court covered multiple counties). The judge and court staff members had the option to drive themselves or take the train. While the train was a reliable mode of transportation between Emporia and Burlington and Burlington and Ottawa, it did limit the options for when the court officers could arrive and leave.

Both forms of transportation would cause delays at various times. During the preliminary hearing, John Knoblock’s attorneys, W. C. Harris and Owen Samuel, who chose to drive from Emporia to Burlington, were impeded by muddy roads. Fred Harris, an Ottawa attorney assisting the prosecution, was delayed by the train schedule.

Trains and automobiles caused delays during John Knoblock's preliminary hearing. (Daily Republican, November 9, 1925.)

Trains and automobiles caused delays during John Knoblock’s preliminary hearing. (Daily Republican, November 9, 1925.)

During the hearing to determine if John Knoblock’s trial should be held outside of Coffey County, Judge I. T. Richardson is delayed when he catches a ride with his court reporter, A. H. Woodrow, who insisted on driving his new Ford slowly because he was still breaking it in.

The judge is delayed by his slow-driving court reporter. (Daily Republican, Decembet 22, 1925.)

The judge is delayed by his slow-driving court reporter. (Daily Republican, Decembet 22, 1925.)

As I wrote Shadow on the Hill: The  True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder, I found myself thinking about how cars, trains, horses, and people on foot all interacted and moved around each other on the roads. It must have been a tremendous burden to farmers in outlying areas to find their way into town to serve on juries, and there would have been tremendous expense–both to the courts and to the individuals–to transport dozens of witnesses from Coffey County to Lyon County for the sake of the trial.

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