Presented for the Southwest/Texas Popular Culture American Culture Association: Kansas Region
Ghost of the Iron Horse:
The Decline of the Katy Railroad and the Loss of Community Identity
Presented By: Lindsay Ann
College of the Ozarks
Though to most Americans the word Katy has little or no meaning, to a handful of small towns scattered across southeast Kansas and the Midwest, this word is a reminder of history, heritage, and legacy. Weaving its way through the American south, for nearly 100 years the Katy railroad was a star of railroading. Although it was not particularly renowned for it’s size, the Katy was respected because of the care it took over its employees and the care with which they did their work, in return. When the Katy railroad moved its office to Texas in the late 1950’s, and then sold out to Union Pacific in the late 1980’s, a significant void was left in the communities that were formerly company towns. The identity void left by the Katy’s abrupt departure was not easily filled, but today, nearly twenty years after the final Katy engines were repainted in Union Pacific yellow, we can be assured that these communities will step boldly into the twenty first century with a strong sense of history and a bright vision for the future.
To appreciate the impact the Katy Railroad had on rural American, one first must gain a brief knowledge of the history of the railroad. The Katy began as the Union Pacific Railway Southern Branch in 1865. Federal land was given to the company in 1869 and construction (diagonally, northwest to southeast) from Junction City, Kansas to Chetopa, Kansas began soon after. (Chinn) At this time, the newly formed State of Kansas was in turmoil. Few of the settlers lived in communities and those who did not only faced the threat of a hostile natural environment, but they also struggled to protect themselves from raids by Indians and bandits. According to V.W. Masterson in his book The Katy Railroad and the Last Frontier, “Never was human life more precariously or more cheaply held than along this fatal frontier. Yet there were men in Kansas who, at this very moment, were envisioning a great frontier railroad”. (Masterson 5) As these men saw their dreams materialize into a successful railway, the young state matured as well. In 1870 the Union Pacific Southern Branch changed its name to the Missouri Kansas & Texas Railway. The acronym MK&T was quickly adopted, and before long, engineers and those affiliated with the railroad had dubbed it “The Katy.” The 1870’s was a decade of enormous growth for the Katy Railroad. A line to connect Kansas with Texas was in high demand but, according to Katy historian Jamie Willey, “the Cherokee nation would allow only one railroad to be built through its territory… this set off a battle between three competing railroads… the first to get to the border would have exclusive rights to build through Indian territory.”
(Harding-Willey 3) On June 6, 1870, the M. K. and T. Railway won the construction race to the border and earned the sole right to build south through the Indian lands to Texas. (Harding-Willey 39) “On December 25, 1872 the North and South were united all along the wild frontier when the Missouri Kansas and Texas Line linked with the Houston and Texas Central to give America a new route to the Gulf of Mexico.” (Chinn) Growth continued through the 1880’s as the Missouri Kansas & Texas acquired other railroad companies and extended their tracks across much of the American west.
In the early 1900’s the MK&T expanded to Shreveport, Louisiana; San Antonio, Texas; and Tulsa and Oklahoma City. By 1915 the Katy Railroad had developed a system of tracks spanning 3,865 miles throughout Kansas, Missouri, Texas, most of Oklahoma and parts of Louisiana.
Despite the company’s rapid growth, by 1919, the company was in crisis from having overbuilt tracks in Oklahoma. According to Stephen Chin of the Kansas State Historical Society, The first of many restructurings of the MK&T came in 1922-23. The railroad was reorganized as the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad and several parts of the railroad were sold. All told, the Katy sold 476 miles of tracks during this period. Despite company’s woes, the Katy was respected for having clean, impressive cars on their well-maintained tracks and the railroad had gained a reputation for integrity and quality.
In the 30’s and 40’s the MKT prospered once again and projected an image of a well-maintained railroad despite internal problems. As for all railroads, the beginning of World War II brought increased traffic for the Katy. The outdated locomotive fleet was unable to keep up with the demand for shipments and soon the tracks, as well as the locomotives were in need of serious repairs. The end of World War II left the Katy with deteriorated tracks and cars; the war traffic had worn out the road but had not provided enough profit for the needed repairs.
The downward trend in railroading continued in the 1950’s. While most Americans enjoyed economic stability and an era of comfort, officials of the Katy railroad struggled to find a way to salvage their company. Coupled with mechanical problems, the major drought in the Midwest at the time meant fewer agricultural shipments- something the Katy dearly depended on for revenue. The Katy railroad was able to recover by closing the offices in Parsons, Kansas, consolidating them with the Texas offices, discontinuing passenger service, and taking out numerous loans. By the end of the 1950s, the railroad was out of financial trouble and was once again a modern, efficient line.
The 1970’s and 1980’s brought stability to the company, though not significant profit. The Katy offered itself for sale or merger in 1985. The Union Pacific Railroad, which has no relation to the railway that birthed the Katy, the Union Pacific Railway, made a bid and on May 13, 1988 the Interstate Commerce Commission approved the sale of the Missouri Kansas and Texas to the Union Pacific subsidiary Missouri Pacific. (Cruz)
The railroad’s domination over small towns is a story as old as railroading itself. Before the MK&T ever laid their first tracks in Kansas, members of the surrounding communities recognized the railroad officials’ power to make or break their towns. Perhaps what struck this in the citizens’ minds was an event that reportedly took place in 1870. According to Masterson, with the new MK&T line showing interest in buying land for tracks and plots in town for a depot, settlers in the communities of Oswego and Chetopa, Kansas knew there was money to be made. When railroad officials approached the communities and individuals about the sale of their land, the sellers demanded high prices. The Katy, still in its infancy, lacked funds to buy the land at inflated prices; but the officials of the railroad realized the important role the railroad would play in the development (or lack thereof) Albuquerque of this Kansas region and they used this knowledge to their advantage. Wise to the citizen’s plan, the officials let the communities hear that they were considering moving their railroad several miles outside the towns, to completely bypass them or place depots in smaller, nearby towns. If the railroad had moved their tracks and depots outside the planned course, the towns’ inhabitants would inevitably abandon the town as people moved towards the new center of business. The railroad officials left the region for the holidays and allowed the threat to settle on the minds of the community leaders. When the officials returned to southeast Kansas in the spring, the towns yielded to the power of the railroad and lowered the prices of their land.
Wile my research found conflicting reports, one reliable source, Daniel Fitzgerald’s Ghost Town of Kansas tells a story of a community that was not lucky enough to get a second chance. Ladore, Kansas made the fatal mistake that Chetopa and Oswego had narrowly avoided. Ladore had always maintained a positive relationship with the Katy Railroad and the railroad had incorporated the town in 1869. “Ladore became the location for men and supplies in the construction of the Katy. According to historical records, by the fall of 1870, more than 1,000 people were living in the city.” (Willey, Parsons, 39) “In 1872 the Katy announced a decision to make Ladore a junction on the main line and made plans to build shops there, but the residents of Ladore refused to sell their land at reasonable prices,” (Fitzgerald 130) forcing the railroad to end negotiations. The railroad officials then bought 2,500 acres of land about four miles south of Ladore and plotted out the city of Parsons. (Willey, Parsons, 39) Within two years of ending negotiations with the railroad, Ladore’s population had plummeted to zero (Fitzgerald 130) and most settlers had moved to the new community of Parsons. Many other settlements in the area were similarly torn down, loaded on wagons, and moved to the new town.” (Masterson 96)
This new town was the pride of the Katy railroad and a trophy of their success. Locating the intersection of the railroad branches in a rural location would work to the railroad’s advantage; as on March 8, 1871 (Masterson 94) the railroad was able to sell plots surrounding their depot at a huge profit, thereby creating their own city overnight. The new town was christened Parsons, after the president of the railroad and (Chinn) one high-ranking Katy official even went to extent of donating his own land for the first bank to be built upon and allowing Katy money to finance the building. (Masterson 96) Later that same year, in May, the first newspaper, the Parsons Sun began with the help of the Katy. According to Masterson in his book on the Katy, company records detailed that the town’s financial stimulus provided by the Katy railroad and its investors were purely for the purpose of glorifying the railroad (88). This instant growth did not come without a price to struggling settlements in the area. “All of the buildings from Dayton, a small town six miles south of parsons were moved to the new town. The residents of Jacksonville, a small town on the Neosho River, did the same thing and many buildings from the nearby town of Osage Mission were also moved.” (Willey, Parsons, 39) These examples clearly illustrate that at a time when the population of Kansas was booming and settlers coming west was at an all time high, the Katy Railroad had a huge influence over the survival of towns in Southeast Kansas.
The story of the birth of Parsons, Kansas retells the story of dozens of towns from Missouri to the Gulf that were birthed by the Missouri, Kansas, & Texas Railways. Entirely due to the influence of this railroad, the city of Parsons went from a population zero in 1870 to a population of 6,500 in 1882. (Cutler) Parsons was the shining symbol of the Katy’s success for many years, and the depot in Parsons ushered many famous passengers through the Midwest during its operation, including anti vice crusader Carry Nation in 1905 and William Howard Taft in 1917. (Dates 14) The city of Parsons, Kansas continued to be the headquarters for the Katy Railroad until 1957 when William N. Deramus became president. Deramus decided to move the administrative offices to Texas. According to a Parsons 1970s yearbook, “The [Parsons] accounting office was abolished Sunday, March 17, 1957 and records were loaded into a waiting car under cover of darkness.” (Crispino 80) According to one account, employees simply went home one weekend and came back to work on Monday to find a note on the door telling them the accounting department has been moved to Texas. (Willey, Repository, 28) One theory on why the offices were moved in this manor is that they moved their offices secretly to avoid an angry mob or being forcefully overcome by the citizens. Ultimately, the Katy railroad under the direction of Williams N. Deramus destroyed a relationship of 86 years. The Katy railroad had birthed the town of Parsons, and with the help of the railroad, the community had taken its first steps. When the railroad found itself crippled by strike, the citizens came to the rescue to get the trains running again. “The Katy was more than a job- for most [employees] it was a way of life that enveloped not only workers, but their families.” (Surridge 25) The Katy-Parsons relationship was a rich legacy and a bond between community and industry that few towns could boast.
According to newspaper reports, the city of Parsons, Kansas lost 1,000 railroad related jobs during the five years that Williams Deramus was president of the railroad. (Crispino 80) As one long time resident of the community put it, “Quiet and polite people were shocked into awareness that unlike the sun and moon, the Katy payroll would not be a permanent part of their world forever.” (Crispino 3) “In 1971 there were only 389 people in the city of parsons still working for the Katy railroad” (Crispino 80) Considering that the railroad had once employed over three-thousand in this small town (Cruz), the economy of the community was being obviously affected significantly. The railroad was slowly abandoning Parsons, and as other industries saw Parsons in left in limbo by the railroad, they hesitated to build in the struggling town. “Air, rail, and bus service skirted the once progressive city, adding to the deterrents that new industry found in Parsons.” (Crispino 3) When the Katy was finally bought out in 1988, hard times fell upon many of the small towns supported by the company. The merger created a huge, conglomerate company which quickly scaled down operations in smaller depots. According to Ron Baker, whose father was employed by the Katy at the time of the merger “it was a big deal because so many jobs were cut off. My dad was unemployed for a long time. We were lucky. My mother worked… so we weren’t bad off, but a lot of families were.” (Surridge 25) Today in the town of Parsons, Kansas there are only a handful of men who work on the railroad. (Richardson)
Many towns in Kansas were built around this easy to get, well paying source of employment. Though work on the Katy was hard, men built their lives, their families, and their community around the railroad because it was solid. The Katy paid well and most men earned enough to comfortably support their families and even allow for some luxuries. The Katy was always regarded as being family friendly, and in many cases even a part of the family. (Richardson) This financial and community security was a cornerstone to a very unique culture that emerged. Far separated from modern businesses, the Katy felt an obligation to care for the employees and their company’s towns. When men got off from work on the railroad there were Katy sponsored activities for them. Many summer nights were host to company baseball games played on their own professional field. The non-railroad businesses that flourished in these towns were the ones that took into consideration that for each of the thousands of Katy employees there was a family. Successful businesses grew up around these family’s needs and they were quick to capitalize on the Katy pride within the community. Many of these establishments linger today, not because they draw the business of the loyal Katy workers, but because the railroad name speaks of a comfort citizens still long for. Cafes, restaurants, and golf courses were all named after the Katy, even though they had no direct affiliation with the railroad. The remaining railroad veterans still gather for coffee early in the morning in the same diners, and when family members becomes ill they are taken to a hospital that still retains its Katy namesake. The cemeteries, the parks, the baseball teams, the downtown businesses- they all remain a part of the Katy Legacy. When the railroad was taken over, these independent establishments lingered. And while most of the citizens marched out of the towns following the railroad to new assignments or to find work in another career, there were men who sat in those cafes and watched them leave. These men knew that while the town would never be the same, the legacy should be preserved. These are the men who founded the historical societies. As early as the 1880’s there were railroad clubs and fraternities formed. Today these clubs and establishments have, disappeared; but new organizations have began to take their place. The Iron Horse Historical Society, formed on Oct 1, 1977 in Parsons, Kansas (Willey Repository 28) and the Katy Railroad Historical Society, also formed in Parsons, Kansas in the 1970s, are two organizations devoted to keeping the Katy legacy alive. In the words of one member of the Iron Horse Historical Society “a lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into trying to keep the Katy, it would be very sad if people forgot about that.” (Willey Repository 28) The men who worked on the Katy seem very devoted to passing that legacy on to their children, but it is not just former employees who are interested in preserving this legacy. Regional pride in heritage runs so deep that about 75% of members in the Katy Railroad Historical society never even worked for the railroad. (Willey Repository 28) The dreams of the Iron Horse Historical Society to build a place where people could come to remember or to see the Katy Railroad for the first time was realized in the construction of a museum to commemorate the Katy life and display Katy memorabilia. The museum, located in Parsons, Kansas, was built as a replica of what a small town Katy depot would look like in the 1940’s; and although the museum is located in a town where the Katy built their biggest depots, the mock station placed there, is familiar piece of Katy history.
Identity is formed by one’s sense of history and sense of purpose. In the years since the Katy railroad abandoned Parsons, Kansas, the town has struggled to find its identity in both of these areas. Although the town has established a new identity, the struggle for a solid sense of place in history remains difficult. Although the railroad veterans knew the important part Parsons played in the railroad industry, and thus the expansion of the American west, they lacked the ability to pass this legacy to new residents and the younger generations. In 2001, In an attempt to bring a sense of identity back to the culturally lost town of Parsons, the first annual Katy Days celebration was held. On Memorial Day weekend of 2001, a celebration was held in the downtown area. Although it was a lighthearted celebration in the style of a small town America block party, the communication of history was important and unavoidable. Interspersed with barbeque cook offs, regional music, chili feeds, and a petting zoo were seminars on Katy history, model railroad exhibits, a passenger train ride along the countryside, and a railroad story time for smaller children. Many citizens of the town who were too young to remember the Katy vividly were introduced to the railroad for the first time; veterans were reintroduced and for the first time publicly recognized. Citizens learned how important their role was in the development of the west, and were reminded how important the Katy was in the development of their community. The event was widely regarded as a success, but its success went far beyond chamber of commerce relations or local publicity work, for many citizens met their history for the first time.
Today, a road trip along the Katy line will escort the visitor through small towns that dot the American Midwest. In each town, they will find scattered remains of the heritage the community has managed to retain. So although the Katy might be an obscure railroad to some, to many within the Kansas region it was a force that determined their residence, their livelihood, their social life, and ultimately their identity. The way in which these towns responded to their identity being sold out is encouraging. For at a time when many would give up hope, these post railroad towns forged their identity in their rich history and hoped for a new chance. Communities such as Parsons will likely never again revel in glory such as the Katy gave, but the iron horse remains in these communities as a ghost, speaking of the past and endowing the community with a rich legacy.
Masterson, V. V. Katy Railroad and the Last Frontier. University of Missouri Press. 1978
Stephen Chinn. The Katy Railroad. Kansas State Historical Society. http://history.cc.ukans.edu/heritage/research/rr/katy.html(Na 1998)
Fitzgerald, Daniel. Ghost Towns of Kansas: A Travelers Guide. University Press of Kansas. Lawrence, KS 1988
Crispino, Tommie J. Ed. The Centennial Story of Parsons, Kansas. Interstate Book Manufacturers, Inc. 1971
Cruz, Chris. “Katy Questions to the KRHS.” Email to Author. 7 Jan. 2002.
Willey, Jamie. “Parsons History Tied to the Katy Railroad.” Katy Days: Celebrating Parsons’ Railroad Heritage. Parsons Sun. 29 May 2001. pp. 2, 3, 39.
Willey, Jamie. “A Repository for Katy Railroad History.” Katy Days: Celebrating Parsons’ Railroad Heritage. Parsons Sun. 29 May 2001. pp. 28, 29.
Unknown. “Dates from Katy History” Katy Days: Celebrating Parsons’ Railroad Heritage. Parsons Sun. 29 May 2001. pp1-39
Cutler, William G. “Labette County, Part IV.” History of the State of Kansas. Kansas Collection Books. 1883 A. T. Andreas, Chicago, IL. Retyped Carolyn Ward carrie/kancoll/books/cutler/labette/labette-co-p4.html#PARSONS>.
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