Leavenworth – First City in Kansas

Though land was donated for a courthouse square and bonds were voted in to build one, it would be years before a courthouse would be built. Instead, the courts and county offices were located for many years in the City Hall, over the Market House, and in a building that was later occupied by the Fire Department.

The Planters Hotel was completed in December, 1856, stood at the corner of Main and Shawnee Streets

The Planters Hotel was completed in December, 1856, stood at the corner of Main and Shawnee Streets

By the Fall of 1857, the town had grown to some 5,000 people and would double over the next year. In July, 1858, the first school board of the city was organized, a house rented to use for the school and a teacher was hired. That same month, however, a blow was dealt to Leavenworth in the form of a disastrous fire. Starting in the theater on the corner of Third and Delaware Streets, it swept away a large part of the business district, and for a time it looked as though the whole city would be wiped out. However, due to the heroic efforts of the citizens and a lucky rainstorm, the fire was finally quelled, but, not before over $200,000 worth of property was destroyed.

The year 1858 also brought thousands of westward bound emigrants through the city when gold was discovered in Colorado. More importantly, the year also saw the arrival of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth to the city.

Before making their way to Leavenworth, the Sisters, who had lived in Nashville, Tennessee, found themselves burdened with a debt not of their making. After selling nearly everything they had to pay their creditors, they established a new base of operations in Leavenworth that would eventually grow into a hospital and a college that still exist today. Within a week of their arrival, they were teaching in a boys’ school. In November, they opened a day and boarding school for girls on the north side of Kickapoo Street. The next year, the girl’s school was moved to downtown Leavenworth and called St. Mary’s Institute. They also tended to the sick, going into homes and wagon trains and traveling to towns during epidemics. They educated black children who had fled to the free state of Kansas, took in orphans, visited prisoners and cared for the poor.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

In 1859 Leavenworth City received telegraph lines to communicate with the East, its streets were graded, sidewalks laid, and gas works constructed. That same year, on December 3, 1859, the day after Kansas abolitionist John Brown was hanged, Abraham Lincoln made a speech in Leavenworth. Speaking on the steps of the Planters Hotel, he urged voters not to use violence but, to use their vote at the ballot box to keep slavery from expanding into the territory. His speech is said to be similar to what is considered to be his first presidential campaign speech, delivered months later at Coopers Union in New York. From that day forward the Planters Hotel became a Leavenworth landmark and continued to serve the traveling public for decades. However, by the 1950’s, it was declared unsafe for occupancy and eventually torn down.

With the growth of the city it soon became a cross-roads point. There were two great military roads from Fort Leavenworth, one which joined the emigrant road at Whitfield City, and a second known as the Oregon and California Road. Roads were laid out to connect Leavenworth with towns up and down the Missouri River, and to Lawrence, Lecompton and Topeka; hack and mail lines were established, making weekly and tri-weekly trips to towns of importance in the territory; the telegraph line was extended from St. Louis, Missouri to Leavenworth in June, 1859, and the following spring the Pike’s Peak Express Line began running from Leavenworth to Salt Lake, Utah. The first railroad to come near Leavenworth was the Atchison & St. Joseph, which was completed to Weston, Missouri in 1861, where it made connection with river transportation to Leavenworth. Two years later Leavenworth became a terminus of the Kansas Pacific Railroad, connecting with the main line at Lawrence. Over the years, numerous other railroads would pass through the city, including the Union Pacific; Missouri Pacific; Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe; Chicago & Rock Island; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; Leavenworth, Kansas & Western, and the Kansas City-Leavenworth electric line which connected the two cities.

In May, 1860, it was first proposed that the county establish a poor-house and before long a 200 acre poor-farm was established about four miles southwest of the city. It also included a pest-house and averaged about 30 occupants.

In 1861, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized by Reverend John Turner. The first meetings were held in an old basement room and a small building was soon erected. The church was actively involved in the Underground Railroad. Though a permanent church building wasn’t constructed until 1865, it continues to stand in Leavenworth as a reminder of its service as an Underground Railroad station. The current church is located at 411 Kiowa Street.

By the time the Civil War erupted, pro-slavery sentiments had become a thing of the past and as the largest town in the State, it raised more troops and furnished a longer array of prominent leaders than any other city in the region. Its proximity to also caused many Unionists of Missouri and other exposed localities to flee to Leavenworth for safety. Many of these men enlisted in the ranks of the Union army and helped to swell Leavenworth’s enrollment of Union soldiers.

The first Leavenworth company regularly mustered into the United States service was the Steuben Guards on May 27, 1861. Comprised entirely of German men, they joined the Union as Company I of the First Kansas Infantry and participated in the Battles of Wilson’s Creek, Tuscumbia, Tallahatchie, Bayou Macon, Lake Providence, and others. Other Leavenworth military organizations also joined including the Kickapoo Guards, Captain Black’s Guards, the Lyon Guards, the Fourth Ward Guards, the Third Ward Guards, Leavenworth Mercantile Guards, and others.

Some of the Leavenworth men who made names for themselves as Union leaders included Powell Clayton, who became a brevetted Brigadier-General in August, 1864, and later became a U.S. Senator for Arkansas; Daniel McCook, who was first commissioned as Captain of the Shield Guards, was later appointed Brigadier-General by the President of the United States, and was killed during the Civil War; Thomas Moonlight, who joined as a Captain of the Leavenworth Light Battery, became a brevetted Brigadier-General in February, 1865, and after the war, served as the Adjutant-General of the State of Kansas; John A. Halderman, who served as Governor Andrew Reeder’s private secretary, during his short term as the first territorial governor of Kansas, became a Major-General during the war, and later served two terms as the Mayor of Leavenworth, a regent of the State University, a member of both Houses, and Consul to Siam (later Thailand.) These are but a few of the many men from Leavenworth that bravely served in the Civil War.

Unlike many cities during the Civil War, Leavenworth didn’t suffer, in fact, she prospered with the constant activity at the military reservation. By the end of the war the city’s population had increased to about 20,000 people.

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