Published: October 4, 2023
By: Adam Burns
During the height of railroad development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries names like Vanderbilt, Gould, Huntington, and Harriman dominated the industry.
Cyrus Kurtz Holliday did not command such power. However, he established what became one of the most successful railroads of all time, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway (Santa Fe).
Holliday was also one of the most influential people in the American West's development by establishing the town of Topeka and opening rail service across the state of Kansas.
By the mid-20th century, the Santa Fe was a 13,000-mile system that controlled the only transcontinental route from Chicago to southern California. It also served Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska (Superior), Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Today, the former AT&SF lines are operated by BNSF Railway, which remains one of the largest and most successful railroads in the nation.
In his book, "Santa Fe Railway," author Steve Glischinski notes Cyrus Holliday was born on April 3, 1826, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania the youngest of seven children.
As an ambitious young man, he ventured westwards to make his fortune, a journey that eventually led him to become a significant figure in the American railroad industry.
Holliday's father passed away in 1830 when he was still very young. The family then moved in with his sister located in Wooster, Ohio. The remainder of Holliday's childhood is not well documented until, as a young adult, he attended Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania in 1848.
David Holliday (father)
Mary Kennedy (mother)
He graduated in 1852 and was hired on by the George W. Howard Company, a local contracting business involved with railroad construction in the area. One particular venture was attempting to build a line from Meadville to the Ohio border. However, the project ran into financial issues and was aborted.
In "History Of The Atchison, Topeka And Santa Fe Railway," author Keith Bryant, Jr. notes that as a partner in the contracting firm, Holliday received the railroad's bonds for his work on the project. These bonds wound up being worth $20,000 and provided him with immediate capital.
In 1854, Holliday was married to Mary Dillon Jones (the daughter of a Meadville dairyman) and then sought financial aspirations to the west.
Later that year he joined a wave of settlers heading towards Kansas Territory. Recognizing the area’s potential and strategic importance, he was instrumental in the founding of Topeka.
By the fall of 1854 Holliday had arrived in Lawrence and later that Christmas described the region as follows: "The Creator might have made a better country than the Kansas; but so far as my knowledge extends, he certainly never did."
At a point along the Kaw (Kansas) River, where the California and Santa Fe Trails met, he helped establish the new town of Topeka through the Topeka Town Company and by utilizing a Wyandotte Indian land warrant.
He was elected the town's first mayor and had a significant influence on Kansas' political landscape. He was a Free Soiler and part of the antislavery movement. Holliday later served in multiple offices including working as an agent for the Kansas state, as a Kansas State Senator, and as a delegate at many conventions.
His influence wasn't limited to the political sphere; he also provided crucial service in the military. During the Civil War, he was a Brigadier General in the Kansas Militia, bravely leading his men and helping to safeguard the state.
Cyrus Holliday’s contribution to the development of Kansas wasn’t only political; it was also infrastructural. He recognized the huge potential of railroads for the development of the Wild West and devoted his energy and resources to this cause.
He sought the territory's inclusion into the Union (Kansas officially became the 34th state of the United States on January 29, 1861) while simultaneously promoting his railroad, the Atchison and Topeka Railroad (A&T)
Holliday's involvement with the A&T wasn't just as a founder, but as a dedicated promoter. As president of the company, he tirelessly worked to secure financial backing, navigate legal obstacles and supervise construction.
Long before it became an icon the Santa Fe was nothing more than a vision, a railroad Holliday believed would one day stretch from Kansas to the west coast and Gulf of Mexico.
He believed such a venture would yield strong profits thanks to plentiful trade found along the famous Santa Fe Trail and the Gulf's deepwater ports.
His railroad's origins began humbly in Lawrence, Kansas hotel room when he wrote up the charter for the Atchison & Topeka during January 30-31, 1859.
According to this document the system would connect its namesake towns and then head towards Santa Fe, New Mexico before continuing on to the west coast. In addition, he made provisions for a long branch to the Gulf.
The territory's legislative body introduced a bill on February 1st for the charter, signed into law by Governor Samuel Medary on February 11, 1859. With this document in hand, Holliday's dream was gaining significant traction.
During the late summer of 1860 Holliday, future Senator Edmund G. Ross, and two Topeka residents made their way to Atchison for the company's formal incorporation. Incredibly, the group was too poor to afford a ferry crossing of the Kansas River and elected to ford the watery before continuing on to Atchison.
The incorporation occurred at Luther Challis's law office between September 15th and 17th with Holliday elected president, Peter J. Abell secretary, and Milton C. Dickey treasurer.
There were also thirteen directors chosen and subscribed $4,000 in stock of the new railroad. However, only $400 was required to be paid up front. On November 23, 1863 the company's name was changed to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad.
In 1867 Holliday was successful in drumming up local support within the counties of Shawnee, Atchison, Osage, and Lyons when they voted to approve bonds of between $150,000 and $200,000.
While these monies and the 1863 act were both important, one less noteworthy event was the 1868 purchase of 338,766 acres from the Potawatomi Indian Reservation. Situated in northeastern Kansas, these lands proved vital in raising initial capital through land sales.
Construction contracts were let in 1867 and surveys began soon afterward. The task of building the railroad officially kicked off at a small ceremony in Topeka along Washington Street on October 30, 1868.
On March 30, 1869 the new A&T completed its bridge here across the Kansas River to establish a connection with the Kansas Pacific and opened service into Carbondale by July 1st that year.
Unfortunately, the railroad was out of cash and, in an effort to continue construction, Holliday lost control of the enterprise when the brokerage house Kidder, Peabody & Company of Boston was contracted to sell the company's securities.
As Holliday had hoped, work continued on the project. On May 13, 1872 the railroad's original charter was completed when it arrived in Atchison. As the Santa Fe marched across Kansas this business only grew in importance. By the end of the year gross earnings totaled $126,960 and rails were soon being laid eastward.
While the town of Atchison finally celebrated the AT&SF's arrival on May 13, 1872, crews had been working feverishly to reach Colorado since December of 1870. In 1877, William Barstow Strong was elected vice president and general manager.
It was under his direction that the Santa Fe expanded throughout the west and became far too powerful for any of the notable rail barons of the era to acquire control of the company.
The Santa Fe brought significant changes to Kansas and the American Midwest. It provided a much-needed transportation link for people and goods, bringing growth and prosperity to several areas.
Besides the Santa Fe, Holliday held interests in several other railway projects. These included the Memphis, El Paso, and Pacific Railroad; Kansas City, Fort Scott, and Gulf Railroad; and the Kansas Central Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Despite his busy career, Holliday was a dedicated husband and father as well. He married Mary Dillon in 1852, and they had six children together. His family was a source of great pride and joy for Holliday.
Cyrus Holliday's legacy is far-reaching, with his work laying a crucial foundation for the development of the United States' midwestern and western regions. His pioneering efforts in the railway industry profoundly shaped Kansas and had broad implications for national trade and integration.
Later in life, Holliday continued to remain active in both railroad affairs and public life. Even amidst business challenges and personal tragedies, his commitment to making a better world never wavered.
Holliday died on March 29, 1900, in Topeka, Kansas, leaving behind a monumental legacy. His death marked the end of an era, but his impact on American development still resonates today.
As an influential railroad magnate and public servant, Holliday accumulated significant wealth. Though accurate figures are hard to come by, his net worth was considerable, especially given the significant holdings he had in various railroads.
Holliday’s estate was managed with prudence and care, ensuring his family's financial security while also enabling the continuation of his work posthumously.
Today his legacy continues, with several institutions and locations bearing his name, a testament to his impactful life. Cyrus K. Holliday’s story is a remarkable one of vision, perseverance, and transformative impact, which continues to inspire and educate.