Kansas Cowtowns

Junction City, Kansas

Junction City, Kansas

Junction City – Junction City, located on the Kansas Pacific Railroad line, was a secondary shipping point for the cattle trade. The city; however, got its start long before the cattle trade was booming in Kansas. The first settlers arrived in the area in 1854, soon forming a town called Pawnee on the military reservation of Fort Riley. The first  Kansas Territorial Capitol was built in Pawnee in 1855. However, that same year, Pawnee ceased to exist. Soon another settlement was built to the south of the fort, first called Manhattan, before changing to Millard, Humboldt, and finally Junction City in 1859.   In November 1866, the  Kansas Pacific Railroad extended its line to Junction City, opening the settlement for more people. In the late 1860’s Junction City was a secondary shipping point to the more popular cowtown of Abilene, some 20 miles away. Today, Junction City is home to almost 20,000 people. Nearby Fort Riley is still an active military post.

Newton. Kansas

Newton. Kansas

Newton – Before the railroad arrived in Newton, the area was only sparsely populated by a few homesteaders. However with the anticipation of the railroad’s arrival, a number of businesses were soon established and when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad arrived on July 17, 1871, Newton became the shipping point of the immense herds of Texas cattle which prior to this time had been driven to Abilene.

With the arrival of the large herds of cattle, also came cowboys, gamblers, “soiled doves,” and roughs of every variety. To accommodate these rowdy men and women, a portion of the fledgling city known as ” Park” developed which held no less than fifteen buildings devoted to “social amusement,” with such flamboyant names as the Do Drop In, the Side Track, and the Gold Room. In total, the town boasted 27 saloons and eight gambling halls. During these days, Newton was filled with tales rivaled only by Dodge City and was called the “wickedest city in the west.” This reputation came primarily from the August 1871 Gunfight at Hide Park, which ultimately resulted in eight men being killed before, during and after the event.

The cowboys reigned supreme in Newton from during the 1871 cattle season, during which time there were 12 documented killings, although, by some estimates, there may have been twice that many. However, by the next trail driving season, the railroad had been extended to Wichita and the City of Newton had passed an ordinance prohibiting the running at large animals in their city. The city continued to be a railroad town for more than a century, along with developing into an agricultural and industrial center. Today, it is home to about 17,000 people.

SalinaIn the spring of 1857 Colonel William A. Phillips, who for some time previously, had been traveling through the settled portions of Kansas, conceived the idea of making a tour on foot through a portion of the unsettled territory with the objective of selecting a townsite. Phillips, a journalist, and lawyer founded the city of Salina the next year. In 1859, the region saw a great stream of fortune seekers passing through Salina on their way to the newly discovered goldfields of Pike’s Peak in present-day Colorado. Salina, at that time, was the westernmost station on the Smoky Hill Trail to the Far West and established itself as a trading post for westbound immigrants and area American Indian tribes. In 1860 Saline County was created and Salina became the county seat.

The town’s growth was halted by the outbreak of the Civil War. However, when the war was over, Salina would get a boost when news that the Kansas Pacific Railroad would build its line through the town. With the coming of the railroad came a stream of immigration and Salina pushed rapidly ahead.  More …

Wichita, Kansas Main Street, 1875

Wichita, Kansas Main Street, 1875

Wichita – The site of Wichita was first settled in 1864 when J.R. Mead opened a trading post there. The next year, Jesse Chisholm pioneered the Chisholm Trail and trade quickly developed the area. In 1865, a townsite was platted and more people moved in.

A short-lived army post known as Camp Beecher was established nearby in 1868, but it was abandoned the next year. In 1872, the railroad arrived, and Wichita became the destination for Texas cattle being driven north along the Chisholm Trail for shipment by rail to eastern markets. The following year 66,000 head of cattle were shipped out of Wichita, twice as many as from Ellsworth. Serving as a cowtown primarily from 1872 through 1876, the city developed a rough part of town called the “Delano” district that became the hub of gambling and drinking activities in Wichita. Among its cast of characters was dance hall proprietor named “Rowdy Joe” Lowe who shot and killed his business rival, “Red Beard.” Working in Wichita for a time was none other than Wyatt Earp, from 1875 and 1876 before he moved on to Dodge City. In 1876, the cattle trade moved westward, making Dodge City the new Queen of the Cowtowns.

However, Wichita continued to prosper and today is the largest city in the State of Kansas and is known as the Air Capital of the World as it developed into a major aircraft manufacturing hub. Though the city has become a major metropolitan area, a glimpse of its earlier Old West heydays can still be seen at the Old Cowtown Museum, which depicts life in Wichita from 1865 to 1880. The museum provides 26 historic buildings and reproductions with period interiors, furnishings, machinery, and photographs plus live animals and Old West re-enactors.


©Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated December 2019.

Also See:

The Cattle Trails

Old West Lawmen at Legends' General Store

Old West Lawmen at Legends’ General Store

Cattle Trails of the Prairies

Cowboy Photo Gallery

Kansas Photo Galleries

Legends Of Kansas (our dedicated website to all things Kansas, because that’s where I grew up and where this website started)

Wild & Woolly Cowtowns


Awesome Stories
Blackmar, Frank W.; Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Vol I; Standard Publishing Company, Chicago, IL 1912.
Cutler, William G; History of Kansas; A. T. Andreas, Chicago, IL, 1883.
History on the Net
Old West Kansas
Plains Humanities

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