Today’s Prairie Spirit Trail follows part of a former Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF, a.k.a., the Santa Fe) branch line between Ottawa and Iola, Kansas. The history of this route dates back to before the Civil War, although several years passed before trains actually began service. Its earliest predecessor holds the distinction as operating the first steam locomotive in the state, south of the Kaw River. This company ran into financial and managerial troubles and was eventually acquired by the Santa Fe during the late 19th century. Under AT&SF ownership, the entire route ran from its main line at Ottawa to Tulsa, Oklahoma, primarily serving agricultural interests but also hosting one notable passenger train. As traffic declined, the line saw decreasing use. It was sold and abandoned during the early 1990s, forming today’s trail.
Before it disappeared into the then-new Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway in 1996 (now known as the BNSF Railway), the Santa Fe was arguably the most famous railroad worldwide. The AT&SF traced its earliest roots back to the Atchison & Topeka Railroad, chartered in 1860 to connect Atchison and Topeka, Kansas, with Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1863, the A&T was renamed as the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe to better reflect its intensions. Construction did not begin until 1868 but had reached Albuquerque as well as Santa Fe by 1880. Interestingly, the latter town was ultimately served only by a branch running via Lamy and not situated on the AT&SF’s main line to California, first reached in 1883 at Needles. During the ensuing years, Santa Fe grew into a formidable system with a transcontinental route connecting Chicago with Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego in California.
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The railroad was also heavily entrenched throughout the Midwest and Gulf Coast, reaching Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, Galveston, Oklahoma City, and Denver, among other notable cities. It operated a plethora of secondary lines in this region either built new or acquired through subsidiaries. By 1950, the Santa Fe operated more than 13,000 miles of railroad. In the public perception, aided by a successful advertising campaign, the AT&SF became famous for its luxurious fleet of passenger trains, such as the “Super Chief,” “Chief,” “El Capitan,” “San Francisco Chief,” “Texas Chief,” and “Grand Canyon,” each adorned in the railroad’s fabled Warbonnet livery, a nod to the Native American cultures of the Southwest. The corridor that is now the Prairie Spirit Trail was one of the many branches Santa Fe added into its network during the late 19th century.
It began as the Leavenworth, Lawrence & Fort Gibson Railroad, chartered on February 12, 1858, to connect Lawrence with the Neosho River to the south. The line was never able to begin construction before its name was changed as the Leavenworth, Lawrence & Galveston Railroad (LL&G ) on February 24, 1866. By the end of 1867, the LL&G was able to complete its line between Lawrence and Ottawa, although regular service did not begin until early January 1868. Even then, the railroad struggled to find financial support and strong leadership. Under the direction of James Joy, the LL&G was finally able to finish its route to the Kansas state line at Coffeyville via Humboldt, a distance of 144 miles, on September 3, 1871. During March 1875, the railroad fell into receivership and emerged as the Lawrence & Galveston Railroad. More consolidations and mergers ensued in the succeeding years until the property came under the control of the Southern Kansas Railway after July 16, 1883, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Santa Fe.
Under AT&SF direction, the former LL&G route was part of its line to Tulsa, Oklahoma, later known as the Tulsa Subdivision, which split at Cherryvale. While this route primarily served agricultural interests and other general freight, it also hosted the “Tulsan,” a Santa Fe passenger train that operated between Kansas City and Tulsa via Ottawa and Iola; additionally, if one so desired, the railroad’s bevy of services provided through-connections to Chicago via the “Chicagoan” at Kansas City Union Station. Despite its regional nature, the Tulsan, inaugurated in 1939, provided a fine level of accommodations that included chair cars (coaches), a diner, and parlor-observation, powered by streamlined diesels. While the train lost many of these amenities with the decline of rail travel across the country, it survived until the start of Amtrak, making its final run on April 30, 1971.
A section of the original route between Lawrence and Baldwin City (known then as the Lawrence District) was abandoned during 1963. The remainder between Baldwin City and Tulsa survived under Santa Fe ownership until 1990 when the railroad elected to sell much of the corridor. Most of the route was preserved and purchased by various entities to maintain rail service and is still in operation today. This initially also included the section between Ottawa and Iola that forms the Prairie Spirit Trail, which was acquired by the Kansas City Terminal Railway (KCT) in May 1990. However, the KCT soon elected to abandon the line, which was approved by the Interstate Commerce Commission that November. A month later, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks filed a motion to rail bank the right-of-way, with a final agreement reached between the two parties in 1992, paving the way for today’s trail.
Railroad attractions include the Abilene & Smoke Valley Railroad in Abilene; Great Overland Station in Topeka; Great Plains Transportation Museum in Wichita; Heart of the Heartlands railroad museum in Scammo;, Liberal Rock Island Depot in Libera; Midland Railway in Baldwin City; and the Santa Fe Depot museum in Kingman.