Flint Hills Trail State Park

Kansas

At a Glance

Name: Flint Hills Trail State Park
Length: 117 Miles
Trail activities: Fishing, Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Dickinson, Franklin, Lyon, Miami, Morris, Osage
Surfaces: Ballast, Crushed Stone
State: Kansas

A Brief History

The Flint Hills Nature Trail is located on the former right-of-way of the Missouri Pacific in central Kansas. The MP, or “MoPac” as it was affectionately known, was a large Midwestern railroad that operated a formidable system from St. Louis and Omaha to Texas and Colorado. This particular route was once quite important within its network, linking Kansas City with Pueblo, Colorado, where a connection was established with the Denver & Rio Grande Western. The corridor also provided competition with the established Santa Fe, Burlington, and Union Pacific railroads, while the Rock Island arrived soon afterward. Needless to say, the region was rich with rail service, and these companies fiercely competed among one another for decades. The MoPac spent many years in financial difficulty, despite its size and scope. During the early 1980s, it was purchased by Union Pacific, which abandoned much of the old Pueblo main line a decade later.

The Missouri Pacific’s corporate history began as the Pacific Railroad, originally chartered in 1849. This company was projected to build west from St. Louis to a point on the Missouri River then known as Westport, a small landing that is now present-day Kansas City. During January 1850, it was formally organized. Ground was broken in July 1851. The Pacific Railroad was the first of its kind west of the Mississippi River, and the first to reach Kansas City. Officially, construction began in December 1852 but was stalled by numerous issues, including the Civil War. Thirteen years passed before it finally reached Kansas City in September 1865. During these early, turbulent years railroads often faltered or fell into receivership, a fate which befell the Pacific Railroad in 1868. Its assets were later purchased by investors, who organized the Missouri Pacific Railway on October 21, 1876. In 1879, the property was acquired by noted tycoon Jay Gould, who quickly spearheaded efforts to vastly expand his new acquisition.

It was under Gould’s direction that most of the Missouri Pacific was brought together. The same year Gould acquired the former Pacific Railroad property, he also gained control of the Texas & Pacific Railway. By the early 1880s, the T&P was quite large, providing him access to Sierra Blanca (near El Paso), Fort Worth, and Dallas, while also reaching into Louisiana at New Orleans via Shreveport. It also had rights—and intended—to open a transcontinental route to San Diego, but these hopes were never realized despite several attempts. Gould’s other notable acquisition was the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway in 1881, providing him access between St Louis and northeastern Texas. While he also worked closely with the International & Great Northern Railroad, which reached Laredo, Texas, at the Mexican border via Palestine and San Antonio, it was not formally acquired by the Missouri Pacific until June 1924. It was then known as the International-Great Northern Railroad following two bankruptcies.

In any event, the MoPac still did not have a direct western main line, and in an effort to provide competition with Union Pacific’s Kansas Pacific subsidiary between Kansas City and Denver, as well as the Santa Fe’s more southerly line connecting the same cities, Gould proposed to push his own rails between these two points. The stage was set for this move after the company first reached into Kansas at the small town of Ottawa via the Kansas City main line at Holden, Missouri, in 1880, according to A. Bower Sageser’s article “Building The Main Line Of The Missouri Pacific Through Kansas.” This section was constructed by a subsidiary known as the St. Louis, Kansas & Arizona Railway. The rest of MoPac’s main line to Pueblo, Colorado, was also built by a handful of wholly-owned subsidiaries. The section now comprising today’s Flint Hills Nature Trail between Ottawa and Herington was constructed by the Council Grove, Osage City & Ottawa Railway, formed in early 1886. Before the end of the year, the CGOC&O was completed and in operation, while work on the rest of the line to Pueblo was well under way.

By December 1887, the Missouri Pacific completed its link to Colorado, starting regular service in January 1888. Gould died on December 2, 1892, but by then, most of the Missouri Pacific outside of the I-GN was under common ownership. Unfortunately, the MP witnessed future financial struggles following its reorganizations in 1868 and 1876. Its most lengthy bankruptcy took place in 1933 and lasted until 1956. Despite its monetary issues, the system was a major Midwestern railroad, operating 9,700 miles by 1950. That mileage increased when it acquired the regional Chicago & Eastern Illinois in 1967, providing it direct access into Chicago via St. Louis.

The Pueblo line is noted as hosting one of the MoPac’s best remembered passenger trains: the luxurious “Colorado Eagle,” inaugurated in June 1942 between St. Louis and Denver in conjunction with the Denver & Rio Grande Western via Pueblo. It featured first-class Pullman service and accommodations such as the popular “Planetarium Domes,” a diner lounge, sleepers, a standard diner, and a grill/chair-coach, among other amenities. It held its own against the competition, such as Union Pacific’s “City of Denver,” Rock Island’s “Rocky Mountain Rocket,” and Burlington’s “Denver Zephyr.” While the Colorado Eagle witnessed reductions in service as ridership declined, including being cutback to Kansas City, it survived on the timetable until the start of Amtrak on May 1, 1971.

In 1982, Union Pacific purchased Missouri Pacific, which now had multiple main lines between Denver and Kansas City. The new owner elected to abandon much of the former MP line across Kansas during the mid-1990s, then known as the Hoisington Subdivision. The section now comprising today’s trail was abandoned in stages from Herington to Osawatomie between 1993 and 1995.

Railroad attractions in Kansas 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 Scammon; Liberal Rock Island Depot in Liberal; Midland Railway in Baldwin City; and the Santa Fe Depot Museum in Kingman.

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