Another Kansas cowtown, Brookville got its start when the tracks of the Kansas Pacific Railroad reached the area in 1867. Located about 15 miles southwest of Salina, its first settler was a man named John Crittenden. The first buildings erected in the town were the roundhouse and shops of the Kansas Pacific Railroad.
That very first year, Brookville was attacked by Indians. Angered by the railroad pushing west into their hunting grounds, a large group of warriors converged upon the town. Taking refuge, the townsfolk escaped to the roundhouse where a barricade was hastily thrown up.
The Indians then surrounded the building, piled railroad ties against it, and tried to set the structure on fire. However, the quick thinking railroad crew jumped on a steam engine and ran it through the doors of the roundhouse, startling the Indians, who quickly fled. The railroad crew then headed for Salina for help. When they arrived, a dead Indian was found caught on a wheel of the train.
Two years later, the Kansas Pacific Railroad, intending on making the town a major shipping point, officially surveyed and laid out the townsite. The first house in town was built by M. P. Wyman, and the first store was established by a man named George Snyder. The settlement grew quickly and in June 1870, the limits were enlarged by adding a small addition, and in September, yet another larger addition was added. The town grew so rapidly that it was incorporated as a city of the third class, with William Brownhill as its first mayor. Numerous businesses sprang up including three hotels, one of which was the Brookville Hotel, whose restaurant, first called the Cowtown Café, would do business for more than a century in Brookville. A post office was also established in 1870.
For a time, Brookville was the last station west of Salina on the Kansas Pacific Railway, making it an important cattle shipping point as cattle were driven northward from Indian Territory and Texas along the Chisholm Trail to be loaded on freight cars headed east. Because the railroad had granted the right-of-way for the townsite, it tried to impose a law that prohibited liquor in the city limits. This, however, failed, as saloonkeepers violated the restriction in order to serve the thirsty cowboys.
In December 1874, a lawless event occurred that horrified the entire community. Two local brothers, by the names of William and Thomas Anderson, were in a saloon owned by a man named Barney Bohan. When an altercation took place between Bohan and the Anderson brothers, it ended with the Andersons dead on the floor. The citizens, excited over the double murders of the local boys, quickly began to make threats of lynching. Bohan was then quickly taken to Salina and placed in jail. There, too, citizens wanted to lynch the killer and converged on the jail with ropes. However, the sheriff had gotten word of the attempt and took the necessary steps to prevent the prisoner from being taken from the jail. Bohan was later tried for the murder of William Anderson and convicted, but an appeal was taken to the Supreme Court, where the case was reversed. He was next placed upon trial for the murder of Thomas Anderson, found guilty and convicted. He was sentenced to the Kansas State Penitentiary for life, but after being there about four years he went insane and was sent to the State Insane Asylum.
During the 1870s, Brookville peaked with a population of about 800 people. During this time, the town boasted four general merchandise stores, a furniture store, hardware store, jewelry store, a millinery, wagon shop, boot and shoe store, a drug store, a tobacco store, one elevator, a restaurant, a flour mill, two hotels, a livery stable, and two lumber yards.
The Brookville Transcript was first published in November 1879 by Albin & Tupper. The town also boasted a Methodist Church and a handsome two-story stone schoolhouse.
By the 1880’s; however, Brookville’s heydays were beginning to decline and when the railroad relocated its roundhouse to Junction City in 1889.
It nearly spelled a death knell for the city. By the turn of the century, Brookville was called home to only about 280 people, but still supported a bank, a newspaper, a post office, and a few businesses.
Over the next century, Brookville maintained its small-town lifestyle, with its population ebbing and flowing, sometimes nearly becoming a total ghost town. Despite its decline, one business continued to hang on – the Brookville Hotel restaurant. The hotel was purchased in 1894 by Gus and Mae Magnuson and gained a well-earned reputation for its great food. But it was Magnuson’s daughter, Helen Martin, who originated the famous family-style chicken dinners in 1915.
The hotel passed into her hands in 1933 and during World War II, it became even more famous as thousands of soldiers traveled from nearby Camp Phillips and the Smoky Hill Air Base. But when the war ended and Interstate Highways 70 and 135 were built near Salina, the town went into decline again. Still, the Brookville Hotel Restaurant hung on, well, at least until the year 2000. Though the old building still stands in Brookville, the restaurant itself was moved to Abilene, closer to I-70. Established in a building that looks like the original hotel, the Martin family continues to serve its famous family style chicken dinners. The “new” Brookfield Hotel is located at 105 E. Lafayette, one block north of I-70, in Abilene, Kansas.
Today, though Brookville continues to support a population of about 250 people, we could find no open businesses other than the post office when we were there in 2009. Today, it has become mostly a bedroom community to Salina commuters. This almost ghost town is well worth a visit to check out its unpaved and dusty streets and lined with sandstone buildings and wooden storefronts that look very much like they did over a century ago. Its beautiful two-story stone school, last used in 1996, continues to stand. Brookville is located about 15 miles southwest of Salina on Kansas Highway 140.