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Home > Preserve & Improve > Trail's End Landmark > History of Pacific Railroad Through Missouri

History of Pacific Railroad Through Missouri

Most likely it was the discovery of gold in California in 1848 that really brought the urgent need for a more rapid and dependable means of transporting people and freight from one cost to the other to the attention of the American people. By 1849 the gold rush was on. But, the only way to get there was by clipper ship around the Horn of South America, or by crossing the isthmus of Panama and the re-boarding a clipper ship, or by wagon train across the great American desert (as the prairie was called in those days). Crossing the plains through Indian country and over the Rocky Mountains was a difficult challenge. All routes to California were slow and fraught with danger.

A number of forward-thinking entrepreneurs began to dream of a transcontinental railroad. In 1849 a Missouri charter for the Pacific Railroad was secured by a group of St. Louis investors. Lead by prominent business leaders like James H. Lucas, John O'Fallon, Daniel O. Page and others. This group wanted very much for a railroad to be constructed that would start from their city, St. Louis, and extend via Jefferson City to the western boundary of Missouri and thence to the Pacific Ocean.

Unfortunately 1849 was a difficult year for St. Louis. A huge fire destroyed twenty-three riverboats and the heart of the downtown business district and the outbreak of a major cholera epidemic took the lives of one in ten inhabitants of St. Louis. Those events delayed the railroad project until 1850, when in spite of these disasters, optimism prevailed. The temporary organization promoting the railroads was succeeded by a permanent one with Thomas Allen as president. The search for a chief engineer began. The group canvassed the country for the most competent engineer available and the choice fell on James P. Kirkwood. Mr. Kirkwood, a noted engineer of his day, had constructed some of the early Massachusetts railroads and had also been in charge of operations for the New York and Erie railroads. Keep in mind that in 1852 when one got very far beyond the banks of the Missouri River very little was known of the topography of central Missouri. So, Kirkwood's civil engineers surveyed five possible routes in order to ensure that the choice they made would be the best one. Meanwhile efforts were being made to secure formal aid for the project from Congress. Unfortunately Congress denied aid to the Pacific Railroad. Undaunted the Missouri group sought and obtained state aid and continued vigorously to sell stock to finance the purchase of land and to begin construction of needed tunnels, bridges, road beds and to lay track. The railroad's first locomotive, named the Pacific, made the five mile inauguration run on December 9, 1852 carrying a full load of St. Louis dignitaries to the end of the line in Cheltenham. That first five mile run took ten minutes as the train's speed averaged about 30 mph. Everyone was impressed and the first railroad west of the Mississippi river was in operation.

By July of 1853 the rails extended 38 miles further to reach Pacific, Missouri and eighteen months after that they reached Washington, Missouri. In the latter part of 1855 the Pacific railroad reached the Missouri state capital in Jefferson City, another 78 miles west of Washington. From there passengers and freight could be shipped west on paddle wheel steamboats plying the Missouri River.
By 1857, the rails reached Tipton, Missouri 29 miles west of Jefferson City, and 160 miles west of St. Louis. Tipton was the home base of the Butterfield Stage Company and the beginning of the Overland Mail Stage Route, where stagecoach passenger traffic going west connected to the railroad.

At the same time engineers were laying the tracks west from Tipton toward the western border of Missouri, tracks were also being laid east from the river towns of Independence, Westport and Kansas City toward Tipton. However, the border wars between Kansas Jayhawkers and Missouri Border Ruffians (sometimes called Bushwhackers) made the work of building the connecting railroad lines difficult.

In 1860 when the Civil War began in earnest with the succession of the Confederate States and the firing on Fort Sumter – construction of the Pacific railroad came to a stop in Sedalia. For three years, crews were kept busy repairing bridges and rails that were destroyed in the fighting.

In 1864 the Pacific Railroad tracks finally reached Warrensburg. At the same time track was laid eastward from Kansas City to Independence, Missouri. Once again, Confederate General Sterling Price's Raid ravaged the Pacific tracks from Pacific, Missouri, west to Sedalia and they also destroyed the line from Kansas City to Independence. Many bridges and all line of track had to be repaired or replaced. Its wasn't until 1865 that the line coming from Kansas City east was joined to the line coming west from Warrensburg. As the war came to a close continuous rail service was now available from Kansas City to St. Louis. The trip started at 3 a.m. in Kansas City and arrived at 5 p.m. in St. Louis, covering approximately 272 miles in about 14 hours.

The end of the War permitted commerce to flourish once again and there was a growing demand for beef back east. Prior to the War, pork was the dominant meat back east. But eastern tastes were changing, and the local supplies of beef had been depleted by the war. Meanwhile during the Civil War, untended herds of wild longhorns multiplied by the millions on the open range of Texas. A steer worth $2 a head in the glutted local Texas market would sell for as much as $50 a head in some eastern markets. Daring, enterprising men set out to provide eastern markets and their newfound taste for beef with a steady supply. These Texas cowboys drove their cattle along the old Shawnee trail to the railheads in Missouri and Kansas in spite of the quarantines on Texas cattle imposed by Missouri and Kansas legislatures, rivers that became raging torrents in the springtime, Indians who threatened the herds for trespassing on their land, outlaws and border guerillas who wanted to rustle the cattle, and stampedes caused by almost anything. Their goal was a railhead. Sedalia, which had been the end of the line at the start of the war, was a railroad town with stockyards and a flourishing red light district. Sedalia became one of the early cow towns. The branch off the old Shawnee Trail that led to Sedalia was known as the Sedalia Trail.

For a variety of reasons other towns quickly usurped Sedaliaís favored position as the railhead of choice. However, because Sedalia was a major crossroads along the tracks from Texas to St. Louis and live cattle needed to be watered, fed and rested on their way to the packing houses of Chicago and points east, Sedalia remained a major stopping point for them.

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