TOPEKA (KSNT) – A downtown Topeka street construction project has uncovered a piece of Kansas history.
In September, crews working along Jackson Street came across buried railing from the Capital City’s long-retired streetcar system. Schuetz Construction foreman Scott Schuetz said workers found the rails as they replaced the existing street.
“There’s a set of trolley tracks we were told down Jackson Street that we dug across several times connecting the services to the buildings, and then there’s a set of tracks that we dug across in 10th Street as well as in Eighth Street.”
Katie Keckeisen is a local history librarian at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. Nearly 150 years ago, Keckeisen said downtown Topeka bustled with horse-drawn trolleys. But in 1889, the very first electric versions of those trolleys first appeared on Topeka streets.
“They called it the electric because the word ‘trolley’ wasn’t in the lexicon at the time, so they didn’t use the term trolley,” Keckeisen said. “They said it was an electric railway, and everyone rode electrics.”
At a time when streets were still lit by flickering gaslights, Keckeisen said Topekans were initially skeptical of the new technology. But that soon changed.
“People were a little apprehensive about all of this electricity just being out, and they were worried that, you know, the the trolleys would go so fast and not be able to be stopped in time, in case you know, somebody ran across the road, or whatever. But their fears were quickly allayed,” Keckeisen said.
At one point, Topeka boasted the longest electric street railway in the world with nine different lines and a total of 36 miles of track. Keckeisen said the transit system gave people living on the outskirts of town quick access to the growing downtown business district.
“The business at the capitol is becoming more of a thing. Downtown is really becoming this hub of activity. But you’ve got the suburbs starting to spread out,” Keckeisen said. “And so if you couldn’t walk, you needed a quick way to get down to do your business downtown where all the shops and all the government business was done.”
Today, much of the evidence of the old railway is gone. The trolleys eventually made way for motor vehicles as the automobile boom of the early 20th century took hold. However, Schuetz said even after this road project is complete, some pieces of that streetcar system will still remain.
“If we can get under them safely, then we leave them in place and they stay there,” Schuetz said.
“It’s really interesting to know that, like, there is literally history under our feet as we’re walking around,” Keckeisen said.