A Rich Railroading History
Downs, Kansas, was founded in 1879 when Major William F. Downs brought the Central Branch Union Pacific Railroad into the area. The Central Branch (as it was called and will be referred to in this article) laid out the town at the "Y" junction where the railroad tracks split, with one branch going southwest toward Osborne, where it followed the south fork of the Solomon River west, and the other northwest following the north fork of the Solomon.
Downs sprang up from the prairie almost overnight. In its boom, the railroad had eighteen trains running daily. With both passengers and freight, the trains were constantly on the move. Downs also had one of the largest roundhouses in the state with a capacity for ten locomotives and, with its well-balanced turntable, could turn the heaviest locomotive with ease. Several freight trains still run through Downs weekly, operated by the Kyle Railroad of Phillipsburg.
A detailed description of Downs' beginning is laid out below, copied from the Downs News & Times' Centennial Edition dated July 26, 1979. Of course, not all of the history could be presented here, but interesting tidbits should give you an overview of the town's history.
The Birth of Downs
Downs is a modern town in the midst of a fertile agricultural valley, catering to the needs of the surrounding agricultural area where fields of wheat, milo, sorghum, alfalfa and corn dominate the landscape. Little remains to remind newcomers that Downs was, for many years after its establishment by Major William F. Downs and his fellow railroad builders, a bustling rail center and division point. The roundhouse where the steam engines were serviced and repaired is gone and the steamers have whistled their last shrill blast, the water tower is gone from trackside, as are the sidings, the loading docks, the coal supply and other necessities of the division point west of Atchison. The daily crowds that debarked from the passenger trains have faded into memory and visitors arrive in Downs these days in sleek new automobiles, pickups, trucks, and occasionally on four-wheel-drive tractors. Few residents today remember much about the ever-changing face of main street.
The town's commerce began, of course, with a railroad store at the junction of the Central Branch rails as they were built westward from here up both forks of the Solomon River in 1879. The first private business on this site was the Pioneer Store established by N. M. Hardman, who first sold his goods from a tent and later constructed a wooden frame building. Forgotten in the course of events is J.B. Craney, the town's first mayor, who was credited in the first issue of The Downs Times (February 19, 1880) with being the first merchant to put in a heavy stock of general merchandise. On down through the years, many merchants' names became familiar to those who drove their wagons and buggies, their Maxwells and Model T's, and their ever more modern conveyances into this business center. Once well-known at their local establishments were the Washburns, the Skinners, the Johnsons, the Pheasants, the Carneys, the Meibergens, and a legion of other equally active and prosperous merchants.
The interplay of economic conditions such as the Populist revolt and the Dust Bowl days, along with personal trials and triumphs, contributed to the ebb and flow of individual enterprises -- and the same can be said for towns. Downs was a strong force in this area for many years because of the impetus provided by the railroad. In more recent years, a great deal of enterprise has been shown by the local residents as they kept their town healthy with new industry, new businesses and services, and a spirit which breathes new life into the town.
In the beginning, with small 160-acre homesteads as the enticement, the people literally flowed into this area from farther east. Until about 1870, this country had been occupied by the Indians ... except for an occasional hardy soul who was willing to risk his scalp -- as was the case with buffalo hunter Him Higgins, whose life was taken by Indians in a skirmish north of this site before the settlers arrived -- but at least his name has been perpetuated by those who are familiar with Higgins Bluff.
The year 1870, in this general area, saw the beginnings of the white man's influx. In the aftermath of the Civil War, most of our earliest settlers came from the Northern states, and there was a liberal sprinkling of immigrants from foreign countries -- the most notable being the settlement of Dutch who had their own little Rotterdam northeast of here until the settlement's name was changed to Dispatch. Some were adventurers who moved on West when the early boom subsided. Others gave up in the face of illness, drought and other privations, and they headed back East.
But many stuck it out, suffering through a life of dawn to dark work, meager food and clothing, and makeshift living quarters. The dugouts and sod houses eventually were replaced by wooden frame houses ... an early status symbol. They bought the latest in mowers, hay rakes, binders, and many even could afford a modern windmill -- so they no longer faced the back-breaking task of hand-pumping water for the livestock on the farm. Huge new barns were built, outbuildings were even more sumptuous than the early houses, and there was a rug on the living room floor and a piano in the parlor of many farm homes.
Despite the economic panics, the wars, the plagues of influenza, and the other hardships, the country became settled and prosperous. It filled up with people, and there were customers for the towns that had survived the early boom and bust. As the area passed into the Twentieth Century, the booming little city of Downs sometimes was the largest town in Osborne County, often being locked with Osborne in an annual battle to see who could come up with the most inhabitants. The countryside was dotted with homes, one on nearly every quarter section of land.
Downs Drove the Rails Westward
The Herculean efforts of Major William F. Downs drove the rails of the Central Branch Railroad west from Waterville 160 miles into the newly-settled Solomon Valley area in the three years ending in 1879. Then, late in 1879, only a few months after our town of "Downs" was named for him, the Major suffered a slight stroke of paralysis, followed the next year by one of greater severity, and he was an invalid until he died at Santa Monica, CA, at 8:15 a.m. on March 16, 1883, only 46 years of age. He had gone to Europe, accompanied by his wife and daughter, and while there consulted with the best physicians, but found no relief. He then visited a number of the most noted health resorts in this country, and went to California a few months before his death in hopes of being benefited by the waters of Santa Monica. But it had been evident to friends for months that he was failing gradually and that the end could not long be postponed.
So the man who did most to build the Central Branch along the Solomon Valley died in what should have been the prime of his life. He was survived by a wife and four children. He had been born at Seneca Falls, NY, in 1837. At the age of 20, on September 25, 1857, he was married at Fremont, Ohio, to Louisa Kridler, and they moved to Wyandotte, KS, where he engaged in the tinware and stove trade. He was a citizen of Kansas from that time. Downs came to Kansas without means or friends, going to work as a tinsmith, and soon gained prominence. Early in 1861, as the Civil War was being fought, he was appointed to a clerkship in the Treasury Department at Washington, D.C. He soon was made a special agent for the department. When the Bureau of Internal Revenue was organized, Downs was made chief clerk and assisted in organizing its machinery and system of reports, collections and returns.
In 1865, the building of the Central Branch Railroad was commenced west from Atchison, and Downs, having been appointed land commissioner of the company, came west to Atchison to take charge of its government land grant. Prior to this, the land grant railroads had done little toward disposing of their lands, and not one of them had any well-defined system of land records. Downs perfected such a system, and did his work so well that his plans were adopted by all of the land-grant railroads in the West. The Central Branch completed its line to Waterville about 1868. About this time, Downs was appointed general superintendent, and held this post until his illness forced his resignation on January 1, 1880. For about the first 10 years of his tenure -- before the work of extending the railroad westward from Waterville was commenced -- Major Downs was practically the railroad's only official. He was general superintendent, land commissioner, and general freight and ticket agent. But when the great work of extending the railroad began (with hopes that it would cross the plains to Denver), Major Downs was in sole charge of construction, and it was during this time that his ability for organization and his relentless drive were shown to best advantage.
This area of Osborne, Mitchell and Smith counties had started to fill up with settlers in 1870-71, and by the time the Central Branch neared this country in early 1879 the settlers were awaiting it eagerly -- or some other railroad in its place. The settlers wanted easily accessible markets for the crops they were raising, for at that time they had to haul crops for many miles to shipping points.
Railroad Reaches "Downs"
As the Central Branch railroad built westward from Cawker City, there was confusion as to the name of the town that was expected to blossom at the point where the rails branched. On June 17, 1879, the Atchison Globe reported: "The Central Branch track layers expect to reach The Junction, 7 miles west of Cawker City, day after tomorrow ... Inasmuch as both forks are to be ornamented with tracks this season. The Junction is likely to become a very promising town."
And on June 19, 1879, the Ross Township columnist for the Osborne County Farmer wrote enthusiastically: "The site of the future great city in Ross Township is located 6 miles west and one half mile south of Cawker City, and is the center of a large and densely populated section of country with good but as yet unimproved waterpower within one mile of it ... But, oh, what will its name be?"
The town was actually named soon, when a party of about 30 Central Branch officials and their families made an expedition up the newly laid railroad. The Atchison Champion reported: "The party attended three directors meetings ... and last but not least named a new town. This happened at the junction 7 miles beyond Cawker City on the north and south branches of the Solomon Valley road. Here all got out of the cars, and President R.M. Pomeroy solemnly declared the name of the town to be 'Downs,' in honor of Major W.F. Downs. The prospects of the town of Downs are bright. The party highly enjoyed the trip, especially the night at Beloit."
There was some confusion, however, as to the town's exact name, as it was called "Downs," "Downsville," and "Downstown." But another trip by the top railroad officials to this point early in July 1879 ended the confusion. They were here to complete the consolidation of leased lines into a new corporation to be known as the Atchison, Colorado and Pacific Railroad -- actually a continuation of the Central Branch. The Atchison Champion reported: "Railroad business does not wait even for Fourth of July celebrations. Another meeting was held ... Roy and Charles Downs and James Canfield were left to assist at the Beloit festivities and the special went on to the new town of Downs, the last station on the extension. The name of this place excited considerable discussion, participated in by everybody except Major Downs himself. Downs City was pronounced too pretentious and Downsville too common and, besides, too long. A mental calculation was made of the amount of breath the brakesmen would save in 20 years by calling 'Downs' instead of 'Downsville' and this settled the question. Downs it is!"
The City of Downs is Born
A first-hand view of the new town of Downs was recalled a few months later in the Osborne County Farmer by an anonymous writer who had passed through here in July of 1879: "The writer, satchel on shoulder and railroad ties under foot, passed over the territory now embraced within the corporate limits of the city of Downs (in July 1879). The railroad had reached the then embryonic city and to a point a quarter of a mile beyond the junction. The only building that had been erected was a rude shed where cooling drinks, oranges and cheap candles were dispensed, and a small house was in course of construction which was to be used as a general supply store for the railroad men. About 30 canvas tents were scattered over the prairie, and a few worn-out, old-style passenger cars, in which the laborers were boarded, stood upon a temporary side track."
The new town was described in detail in the July 24, 1879, issue of the Osborne County Farmer: "A fortnight ago there was but a single building on the town site. We found about a dozen in course of erection, and sites for as many more in immediate contemplation had been purchased and, in many instances, material for construction was being got onto the ground. Dr. W.E. Taylor of Waukesha, Wis., has a two-story frame building 20x50 feet nearly completed, which he will occupy with a stock of drugs. The post office also will be kept in this building. W.W. Diamond is postmaster. Mr. John A. Beal, who is joint proprietor with the railroad company of the south half of the townsite, will have a commodious boarding house and hotel completed ... in a few days, and also has the frame up for a first-class livery stable 30x60. Upwards of 50 lots have already been sold, at prices ranging from $50 to $150 for the business lots, and $20 to $40 for residence lots. The northeastern quarter of the townsite embraces the farm of A.Z. Blunt, and from the way that gentleman is selling off lots his prospects of making a blunt fortune seem good. The railway company has erected a good depot, 22x60 feet, and on the 16th commenced receiving freight at the station from all territory lying west and contiguous to their line."
Downs Celebrated in 1885 ~ Downs Times, July 16, 1885
The people of Downs, Osborne County, have set aside the 27th day of July, as the annual holiday, that being the anniversary of the settlement of the town. This month Downs reaches the age of six years and in accordance with the established custom the 27th will be appropriately observed, and with even more than the usual enthusiasm. Gov. Martin, Senator Plumb, Senator Ingalls, Ex-Governor Glick, Hon. Lewis Hanback, Judge Borton, Judge C.A. Smith, Hon. L.L. Uhl, Hon. A. Saxey and other eminent speakers are expected to be present. The Osborne, Alton, Cawker City and Downs Cornet Bands and the Downs Martial Band will furnish the music for the occasion. The program of amusements is extensive and varied. The celebration will close with a grand display of fireworks in the evening by the Downs Flambeau Club.
Against Billiard Halls ~ Downs Times, April 22, 1886
The Women's Christian Temperance Union has been circulating petitions to the City Council, asking that body not to renew the licenses of the billiard halls now existing nor to grant licenses to any other billiard halls during the coming year. We are glad to see these petitions very numerously signed by our citizens. It is very evident that the majority of our people desire that Downs be without billiard halls, and we have no doubt that the city authorities will carry out their expressed will.
The roundhouse burns in February of 1906.
Rebuilding the Burned Roundhouse ~ Downs News, October 11, 1906
The long-talked-of roundhouse for Downs to replace the one burned on February 19th is now an assured fact and actual construction work began yesterday ... The building will be a ten stall frame structure costing in the neighborhood of $15,000. The contract has been let to E.A. Steininger Construction Co. of St. Louis, Mo. The contractors expect to give as much work as possible to local laborers, and those desiring work should make application to Mr. Myerhoff, who is supervising construction.
$5,000 Carnegie Library to be Built ~ Downs News, February 23, 1905
Downs is to have a public library and Andrew Carnegie is to donate $5,000 to build it. About three months ago Mayor Welty opened correspondence with the secretary of Mr. Carnegie asking that a library building be located at Downs ... on February 14 ... letter was received from Mr. Carnegie's cashier informing the Mayor that the money was ready and would be forwarded as needed. The real library work was begun in Downs several years ago by Mrs. Edward Allen when she organized the present Library Association.
Ebnother Buys Drug Store ~ Downs News, August 10, 1905
J.J. Ebnother has purchased the Central Drug Store of Hannibal Craney, and will open up for business next Monday. The stock will be replenished with a nice line of toilet articles and other accessories usually found in a first class drug store.
Meibergen & Sons into New Building ~ Downs News, September 7, 1905
H. Meibergen & Sons, the clothiers, moved into their new building last Friday and are now comfortably located in one of the finest store rooms to be found anywhere in north central Kansas. The entire front is of glass, which not only gives them an elegant display window, but also furnishes abundant light to all parts of the room.
Business College Quits ~ Downs News, April 29, 1909
It is with a feeling of regret that we announce to our readers the decision of Prof. and Mrs. Chas. Berkman to close the Downs Business College at the close of the present term, May 14. The reasons for closing are two-fold. First, it has been thoroughly demonstrated that the town and country are not sufficiently developed in population to maintain a school of that character. Second, a new law was passed last winter which enables two high schools in each county to inaugurate the normal training department.
Downs Gets a White Way ~ Downs News, February 6, 1919
Downs is fast getting in the class of the live, up-to-date towns. We have as fine a sewer system as can be found in any town of this size, five blocks of our business streets are paved with brick, and now we are to have a splendid white way. The white way will extend five blocks, or the length of the paving, eight lamps to the block.
Roller Skating Rink to be Built ~ Downs News, November 25, 1909
J.F. Bergier is remodeling his building on the south side into a skating rink. The floor is being put in excellent shape and a gallery which will seat 250 people has been built. He has ordered one hundred pairs of Winslow steel roller skates, which are said to be the finest rink skates made.
Chamber of Commerce Organizes ~ Downs News, September 2, 1920
Thirty-four citizens met at the Woodman Hall Thursday night of last week, responding to the call of Chairman W.O. Selby, electing a board of directors and adopting constitution and by-laws for the new Chamber of Commerce. Those present were asked to sign the membership roll. Thirty-four of those present signed up, paying dues to January 1, 1921, amounting to $5. Twelve men were then placed in nomination to fill the seven places on the board of directors. Ballots were spread and the following declared elected: D.B. Harrison, C.L. Cushing, E.L. Getty, S.H. Domoney, M.W. Hardman, W.O. Selby, A.S. Hale and I.E. Petitt. Elected as president was E.L. Getty.
Downs Hospital Opened ~ Downs News, May 5, 1930
The Downs Hospital opened May 5th. People have been misinformed about this being an osteopathic hospital. It is a hospital admitting any doctor with a patient requiring hospital care. Our aim is to please the doctors, patients and public in general. Hospital rates can be obtained from the doctors or by calling the hospital.
National Bank Opens ~ Downs News, March 13, 1919
On next Friday evening the Union State Bank will close its doors to reopen Saturday as The Downs National Bank, with the following officers in charge: president, Al Dougherty; vice-presidents, Val Wright and H. Rody; cashier, C.L. Cushing; assistant cashier, Harold P. Smyth; and directors, Al Dougherty, Val Wright, H. Rody, C.L. Cushing, Jack Huiting, A.W. Hefley and Peter Junk.
New Swimming Pool ~ Downs News, June 4, 1925
Floyd Botsford informed us last Saturday that unless something unforeseen happens to delay the work, the big swimming pool will be ready for the public to take a plunge on the Fourth of July, if not sooner.
Memorial Hall to be Built ~ Downs News, August 11, 1921
Once more the good citizens of Downs have stepped forth and upheld our slogan, "Downs Duz It." They have gone forth and pledged themselves to build for the American Legion boys and the community at large, a handsome $30,000 Memorial Hall.
U.S. 24 Highway Will Open ~ Downs News, June 29, 1950
According to Lloyd Reese, superintendent of the Hanson Construction Company, and T.W. Hicks, assistant state division engineer, the 11-mile stretch of U.S. 24 highway beginning at the county line east of Downs to the intersection eight miles west, which has been under construction for about two years, will be thrown open to traffic some time this Thursday afternoon or evening.
Last Passenger Train Through Downs ~ Downs News, November 17, 1960
The passenger train left Downs Monday for the last time with only four passengers present. The train was to have been discontinued Saturday, and a number of persons rode the Saturday train to Downs and took pictures. But the trainmen were greeted by an order continuing the train for two more days and there was a general shaking of hands and a feeling of respite. Thus ended 80 years of railroading in a town that once had hopes of being the division point between Atchison and Denver. From now on the town will have tri-weekly freight trains.