Land, Railroad, and Politics


Newspaper advertisement lauding Kansas land

Boom and Bust in Kansas

Between the years 1880 and 1885, Kansas' population rose from 900,000 to 1,200,000, and property values more than doubled. Among the earlier years, much of Kansas had "land values running at five to ten dollars an acre for wild land and eight to ten dollars for improved" (Goff 18).

Sedgwick County, the home to young Charles Parham, had 1,095 residents in 1870, and 8,000+ in 1885. In 1878, Sedgwick County ranked second highest in wheat production in the country, and ranked near the top of corn, oats, and Irish potato production, with the highest prices since the beginning of the Civil War to the end of the century (Miller 470).

Due to this prosperity and increased migration, speculation as to the future of Kansas artificially inflated prices and created an excessive boom. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, people had to borrow money to buy land with inflated prices, making a market for malicious, or naive lenders who borrowed money from the East and traveled house to house offering loans.


A Kansas wheat harvest in 1900

Too Good to Be True

A board member of the Biennial Report said: " persuade millions of less fortunate strangers that the mere fact of coming hither with unalterable, ready-made views of Kansas people and Kansas Agriculture means a life of ease, perpetual June weather, and a steady diet of milk and honey (Miller 472)."

Anticipating a boom, the railroad was expanded to increase immigration and property value. The construction of the railroad exceeded its actual need, receiving $75,000,000 through bonds, grants, mortgages, and gifts from the nation, state, county, township, city, and individuals (Miller 471). For a town to grow or increase its property value, a railroad through town was crucial. Additional investments included streetcars, mining for coal and oil, mills, cheese factories, and meat packing plants.

After years of prosperous growth came years of decline. Drought, grasshoppers, and exposed artificial inflation brought a crash in 1887, turning what was an ideal land into broken dreams.


Map of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1891.

The Farmer Versus the Railroad: The Rise of Populism in Kansas

After low crop yield, railroad boards required railroad companies to furnish shipping to unprofitable customers, and the Farmer's Party and the People's Party started storing product, waiting for lower shipping costs. These issues caused a rift between the railroad companies and the Populist party, or the People's Party in the 1890s.

The populist movement complained that the rate fees were too high, and viewed the railroad as big business -- an establishment force persecuting the farmer and his family. On the other hand, the railroads claimed that the sparsely populated and arid Kansas landscape did not provide the level of business necessary to be profitable, or pay operation costs. Kansas farmers, in fact, were paying the highest per ton per mile rate fees for shipping, only behind the West Coast, Texas, and the Northern Rockies. Kansas railroads also received nearly half of the average freight as other railroads around the country during the same years. Both the railroad and the farmers were suffering financially. 

Goff, James R. Fields White Unto Harvest: Charles F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1988.

Miller, Raymond Curtis. “The Background of Populism in Kansas.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 11, no. 4 (1925): 469–89.

Kansas at the Turn of the Century
Land, Railroad, and Politics