1881-1890: Keeping up with Wichita

01/29/2011 12:00 AM

06/08/2011 11:08 AM

America was booming in the late 1880s. And almost no city could keep up with Wichita. In 1887, only New York and Kansas City, Mo., generated more real estate sales than Wichita.

Real estate offices operated 24 hours a day, as money poured in from investors in Boston, New York and San Francisco, and the city was on a glorious spending spree.

A city hall and courthouse were built. Bridges went up. Stone castles were built. Streets were paved; utilities installed.

People went to Kansas and Wichita, in large part, because of the efforts of Col. Marsh Murdock, the founding editor and publisher of The Wichita Eagle.

He referred to the growing city as:

"Peerless Princess of the Plains."

"The Magical Mascot of the Meridian."

The boom came during a period of national optimism. European crop failures boosted U.S. food exports, encouraging people to settle lands previously occupied by Indians.

From 1881 to 1897, 203,000 people settled in Kansas. By 1889, Wichita's population had grown to 48,000.

Six railroads linked the city to the rest of the nation. Six colleges and universities were built and two more proposed.

Plans for new businesses such as a watch factory, brick works, a vinegar factory and railroad car company were symbols of the promise of growing employment.

And then, the bottom fell out.

Horrific blizzards during the winter of 1886 paralyzed the prairie. Then, drought followed and crops failed.

At the height of the boom, Murdock, concerned about the city's wild and reckless spending, wrote an editorial, "Call A Halt."

Published on Feb. 24, 1887, the column said,"... wild speculation is not business nor conducive of a healthy growth or of permanency. When men abandon legitimate trade to embark in a craze of any character the end is not far off."

Some of the crash occurred in 1888, but the total impact wasn't felt in Kansas until 1889. That year, businesses and schools began to fall by the wayside. That year, the federal government opened nearly 7 million acres of Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) to settlers in the Cherokee Strip run. Other land runs soon followed.

By 1890, there were abandoned farms in western Kansas caused by drought, crop failure and low prices. Many of those farm families went to Wichita to use the city as a stopping point in returning to the East Coast or gathering resources before homesteading in the newly opened Indian lands.

In Wichita, city leaders contended with their own dwindling population, abandoned houses, empty industrial buildings, and the realization that the town's earliest leaders had either left the area because of the bust or were beginning to die off.

Wichita, the Hutchinson Daily News claimed, "had the big head" and finally had received its comeuppance.

Despair gave way to panic.

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