Long before Kansas gained statehood, the city of Topeka was known as a transportation hub along the well-traveled Oregon Trail. During the 1840s, the French Canadian Pappan brothers started a ferrying service in the town to help wagon trails across the Kansas River. In addition, the new military base at Fort Riley brought new trade routes and helped to further grow Topeka’s population. In the pre-Civil War years, Topeka became famous for the often violent conflicts between proslavery groups and abolitionists living in the city. Despite the violent clashes, Topeka’s rich history of trade and transportation made it a natural choice for the capital when Kansas became a state in 1861. Cyrus K. Holliday, a founder of the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad, donated the land for the capitol in 1862. He would go on to become the city’s first mayor. The actual construction of the capital did not begin until 1866 and it was modeled after the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad was one of the largest railroads in the United States. Besides bringing commerce to the city, the railroad was responsible for much of the city’s development.
Topeka has also made a name for itself in modern times. It is perhaps best known as the location of the famous civil rights case Brown vs. Board in 1954 which helped to desegregate public schools. Monroe Elementary, featured in the lawsuit, has now become a historic site. Topeka also has many famous natives. One such resident, Charles Curtis, became the first Native American and person of color to serve as Vice President under Herbert Hoover from 1929-1933. Another notable resident, Colonel John Ritchie, who was an abolitionist and supporter of women’s suffrage, founded Washburn University (formerly Lincoln College) in 1865. His house, one of the oldest homes in Topeka, was a stop on the Underground Railroad and the site of many suffrage gatherings. In 1966, much of the city was damaged by a deadly F5 tornado. It was one of the costliest tornados in U.S. History. Many of Washburn University’s buildings were destroyed. However, they were eventually rebuilt along with the rest of the city. Topeka is also home to one of the oldest community dinner theaters, the Topeka Civic Theatre.