A Brief History
If it seems like the Katy Trail State Park goes on and on, seemingly forever, you would not be far off in that assessment! The park is the largest unbroken rail trail corridor in the country, stretching nearly 240 miles across most of central Missouri. The history of the route can be traced back to the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad (a.k.a., the Katy, or the MKT), and the corridor was part of its main line to St. Louis. The Katy was once an important Midwestern system that not only operated in the Show Me State, but also reached Kansas City, connected much of Oklahoma, and reached deep into Texas to serve Dallas–Fort Worth, San Antonio, Waco, and Galveston. As the mega-merger movement took hold within the industry during the 1970s, and especially the following decade, the MKT found itself a small fish in a big pond. The company elected for inclusion into the growing Union Pacific system during the mid-1980s and soon after this agreement was reached. An act of Mother Nature severely damaged the line in several locations, and the company abandoned the route instead of funding the necessary repairs. Fortunately, this allowed for the conversion to a trail.
The earliest history of the Katy can be traced back to the Union Pacific Railway Company, Southern Branch (in no way related to today’s Union Pacific Railroad), chartered on September 25, 1865, by Colonel Robert Smith Stevens and Judge Levi Parsons of New York. Their aim was to build a route from Junction City, Kansas, through Emporia, and to Chetopa near the Oklahoma border. Further ambitions hoped to push the route to the port city of New Orleans and perhaps even to the Pacific Ocean; however, these grandiose plans never materialized. By 1870, most of the line was complete through Kansas, and that year, its founders changed the name to the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway to better reflect its intentions. Interestingly, the corridor that is now part of the Katy Trail State Park predated the MKT.
In 1860, the Tebo & Neosho Railroad was organized to build a line connecting Sedalia, Clinton, and Neosho in Missouri. Construction of this new route did not begin until 1867, and it would connect Sedalia, Clinton, and Nevada (a distance of 90 miles) before it was acquired by MKT on October 11, 1870. Only a few months later, on February 3, 1871, crews closed the gap between Parsons and Nevada by opening a 68.9-mile connecting line. For the next year, the company focused on expanding its property into Texas. By December 1872, the road had reached Denison and established a connection with the Houston & Texas Central Railway (H&TC). Through the H&TC, the two companies offered through-rail service between Kansas, central Missouri, and Oklahoma to Dallas and Austin. Still, the MKT had no lines of its own reaching into the Lone Star State beyond Denison. In 1880, the railroad came under the control of notorious rail baron Jay Gould, and through him and his Missouri Pacific system, the company made great strides into Texas.
Through outright new construction and purchasing smaller roads, such as the Dallas & Wichita Railway, Denison & Southeastern Railway, and Denison & Pacific Railway, the MKT reached major markets into Dallas–Fort Worth, Galveston, and San Antonio. Before this growth, however, the MKT had already pushed much farther eastward through Missouri. In 1873, it began building away from Sedalia, hoping to eventually reach Chicago; a year later it had reached New Franklin near the Missouri River. That year, the road opened a northeastern line from Sedalia to Moberly. By 1888, this extension had reached Hannibal along the banks of the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, however, it would make it no farther toward Chicago, and the line was relegated to a secondary status and later sold.
In 1888, Gould’s reign over the MKT was over, and the company focused on reaching St. Louis. On February 10, 1892, it created the Missouri, Kansas & Eastern Railway to build a line from the MKT’s eastern terminus of New Franklin (38 miles east of Sedalia) to Machens along the Mississippi River, and then into St. Louis. From the junction at Parsons, Kansas, the St. Louis main line was exactly 386.6 miles long, according to the railroad’s timetable. Today’s Katy Trail State Park is built over 239.7 miles of the line between Clinton and Machens. The town of Sedalia, which was situated at roughly the halfway point of the route, became a major terminal and shop complex on the Katy system.
After opening its St. Louis route, the MKT continued to expand through the early 20th century, reaching Kansas City, other cities in Texas, and opening small branch lines here and there. One notable addition was the opening of an inside gateway between Kansas City and St. Louis via Bryson, Missouri, and Paola, Kansas. In 1915, the company fell into bankruptcy and was reorganized on April 1, 1923, as the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. It survived the Great Depression and experienced a prodigious boost of traffic during World War II. However, the system often had more circuitous lines compared with nearby competitors, such as the Missouri Pacific, St. Louis-San Francisco Railway (Frisco), and Santa Fe. It would abandon its Kansas City–St. Louis inside gateway because of this in 1958). Following the war, the Katy struggled on and off but saw relatively prosperity in the 1970s and early 1980s with new president Reginald Whitman, who oversaw cost-cutting measures and new traffic development.
Finally, by the mid-1980s, Union Pacific had swallowed up most other Western roads in the region, aside from the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific. Katy’s management felt that merger was the only option and requested UP take over the system; the agreement was made in 1986 and became official in December 1989. In 1986, however, the St. Louis main line closed permanently when flooding damaged the right-of-way in several locations. The company decided to abandon the route instead of spending the millions needed to fund repairs. In 1988, the railroad donated most of the corridor to the state of Missouri, which converted the rail-banked property into the Katy Trail State Park.
Missouri’s scenic excursion trains include the Belton Grandview & Kansas City in Belton, the popular Branson Scenic Railway in Branson, and the St. Louis Iron Mountain & Southern in Jackson. Museums include the Chicago & Alton Railroad Depot in Independence, Railroad Historical Museum in Springfield, and the well-known Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, which houses a massive collection of historic railroad equipment and artifacts.Do you have Historical Photos of the Katy Trail State Park?
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