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KU geography professor examines history, future of 'Cities on the Plains'

LAWRENCE In a new book University of Kansas geographer professor James "Pete" Shortridge examines the rivalries of early settlements, the trade routes and industries that created cities across the plains and the quirks of fate or business acumen that encouraged some to flourish and some to wither.

His book, "Cities on the Plains: The Evolution of Urban Kansas," published by University Press of Kansas, looks at patterns of development for 118 cities that have had populations of 2,500 at one time in their histories. The population figure is a benchmark used by the U.S. Census that Shortridge adapted for his study of urban systems in Kansas.

"Remarkably few instances exist where once-thriving communities have fallen below the urban threshold population of 2,500," Shortridge writes. "The railroad towns of Belleville, Ellis and Horton have suffered such a fate as have Caney, Cherryvale, Humboldt and several other communities developed during the state's early industrial spree based on natural gas."

Shortridge predicts: "Cities positioned for the best growth in the future are those with a combination of higher education, health services and a good selection of retail stores."

Hays, with a university and health center dominant in 20 or more counties, exemplifies this combination. Colby, with an active community college, is a satellite city. While Emporia and Pittsburg are growing, their proximity to trade centers in Topeka, Wichita and Joplin is an obstacle Hayes does not face, Shortridge notes.

"Growing cities, like shrinking ones, are spread over nearly every section of the state and feature many different economies. Altogether they constitute an intriguing pattern, perhaps what one should expect in a world where the rules for survival are constantly being rewritten."

His book evolved from his earlier studies of Kansas, "Peopling the Plains: Who Settled Where in Frontier Kansas" and "The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture."

In his analysis of the business and transportation routes that served to seed cities across the plains, Shortridge's observations include:

-- Had [Leavenworth's early leaders] achieved their dream in the 1850s, before eastern interests were fully organized against them (as they nearly did), Kansas City would now be that city's suburb instead of the other way around.

--While railroad financiers promoted the development of cities in eastern Kansas, particularly those that could gain coveted rights of way into Indian Territory along the southern border, they viewed western Kansas more as an obstacle to be overcome than as an opportunity for profit in its own right. Railroad speculators were interested in routes to Colorado's gold mining towns.

"When all was said and done, Union Pacific people founded only four cities along the entire 300-mile stretch from Junction City to the Colorado state line: Bosland, Brookville, Ellis and Wallace. All other communities along the route, including Russell and Hays, were creations of either their colonists or other speculators, and many occurred several years after the tracks were in place."

-- A few cities' populations peaked almost overnight. Horton grew to 4,000 residents within months of its founding by Rock Island railroad in 1886 and was known as "The Magic City." Chetopa grew to 3,000 residents within one month of its 1870 founding by the Missouri Kansas Texas (MKT) railroad.

-- Chanute evolved from the rival twin towns New Chicago and Tioga. New Chicago obtained the MKT railroad, which had a north-south monopoly through Indian Territory, and Tioga the Leavenworth, Lawrence and Galveston (LLG) railroad. When the town companies merged, they named the new town for Octavius Chanute, the LLG construction engineer who had become company superintendent.

-- Baxter Springs, Chetopa and Coffeyville as well as Arkansas City, Caldwell, Kiowa, Englewood and Liberal were established by railroad promoters in hopes of creating trade centers along Kansas' southern border with Indian Territory where cities and railroads were restricted.

-- Kansans sometimes forget that Kansas City, Topeka and Wichita (once promoted as "Kansas City West") have always been the most important railroad centers in the state. As highways were constructed during the 1920s, they tended to follow the older railroad patterns.

--Larned was the smallest of four cities that were major contenders for the location of the western branch of the state mental hospital in 1911. Dodge City, Garden city and Great Bend competed too. Legislators reasoned that the smaller city would be more restful for mental patients and also that the city's economy needed a boost after the 1878 closing of the military fort.


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