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Kansas Interurban and Streetcar History

Published: June 6, 2023

By: Adam Burns

The state of Kansas contained a relatively surprising number of interurban systems.  Depending on how one views the interurban/streetcar breakdown, in terms of differentiating the two, Kansas contained around 400 miles of interurbans at its peak according to Dr. George Hilton and John Due's book, "The Electrified Interurban Railways In America."

Most were situated around the Kansas City area, which contained most of the state's trackage.  However, there were other small systems scattered around the state.  In particular was the Oklahoma/Missouri/Kansas border which contained four notable systems; the Union Traction Company, Northeast Oklahoma Railroad, Joplin & Pittsburg Railway, and Southwest Missouri Electric Railway.

9317528651893526369268927.jpgSeen here is a postcard of Missouri & Kansas Interurban Railway car #118 in Olathe, Kansas, likely taken in early 1940 before serviced ended on July 24th that year.

Kansas City, Kaw Valley & Western Railway

The Kansas City, Kaw Valley & Western Railway was intended to connect Kansas City to Topeka but it only ever reached as far as Lawrence, which was opened in 1915 (its original main line between Kansas City and Bonner Springs opened a year earlier).

The KCKV&W ended passenger operations in 1935 after its 1929 bankruptcy. Interestingly, freight operations on the railroad prospered for many years until 1963 using classic Baldwin-Westinghouse electric motors.

Union Traction Company of Kansas

The Union Traction Company of Kansas was created in 1904 by the state initially linking Coffeyville, Independence and Cherryvale.

At the peak of operations the system was 88 miles in length and connected a number of additional towns in southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma. It remained in operation until 1947 at which time rail services were replaced by buses.

Hutchinson & Northern Railway

The Hutchinson & Northern Railway began operations in the early 20th century and was never really a true interurban railroad but did operate classic General Electric freight motors.

The H&N was built to serve a salt mine near Wichita in Hutchinson and continues to operate a five-mile railroad still moving the same commodity. It ended electric operation in 1970 but today still operates two EMD SW900 switchers.

Iola Electric Railroad

The Iola Electric Railroad began operations in 1901 and connected Iola, Gas and La Harpe on a 10 1/2-mile system. It was never a very profitable railroad and discontinued services in March of 1919.

Kansas City, Leavenworth & Western Railway

The Kansas City, Leavenworth & Western Railway was a 26-mile system connecting Wolcott, Kansas City, Lansing and Leavenworth.

It began operations in 1900 as the Kansas City-Leavenworth Railway but was sold in 1905 and renamed the Kansas City Western Railway.

It gained its final name as the KCL&W in 1920 when it entered receivership, although for several years prior to that time it was a rather profitable enterprise for only hauling passengers.

Interestingly it was shutdown in 1938 when the building of a dam and resulting track relocation proved to be too expensive for the railroad to carry out.

Missouri & Kansas Interurban Railway

The Missouri & Kansas Interurban Railway operated between 1907 (then known as the Missouri & Kansas Railroad) and 1940 serving Kansas City and Olathe, Kansas, a distance of 20 miles.  The line was owned by W.B. Strang and electrified in 1909.  

Like most systems it ran into financial troubles in the 1920s and was reorganized in 1929.  Service lasted surprisingly longer than most others, with operations finally ending on July 24, 1940.

Topeka Railway Company

The Topeka Railway Company was a local interurban railroad serving its namesake city. It employed all Birney-built streetcars and lasted until July of 1937 when services were discontinued.

St. Joseph & Savannah Electric Railway

The StJ&S began operations in 1911, operating an 11-mile system serving its namesake towns. It was owned by the St. Joseph Railway Light Head & Power Company. Service remained until the late 1930s when it was finally abandoned.

Joplin & Pittsburg Railway

The J&P began operations in 1907 and resulted from a merger between the Pittsburg Street Railway and Joplin & Pittsburg Street Railway.

By around 1910 it had reached (aside from its namesake cities) Weir City, Scammon, Columbus, Cherokee, Mulberry, Croweburg, West Mineral, Dunkirk, Ringo, and Girard. By that point it had also acquired the smaller Girard Coal Belt Electric Railway in 1909.

At its peak the system stretched 82 miles and interchanged with the Southwest Missouri Electric and Northeast Oklahoma Railroad. By the early 1930s it had abandoned all passenger service but freight operations remained until 1951.

Northeast Oklahoma Railroad

This interurban, which began operations in 1908 as the Kansas & Missouri Inter-Urban Railway was situated more in the southern Kansas than Oklahoma.

By 1922 it was continuing to build new lines and reached Miami, Commerce and Picher, Oklahoma (where it interchanged with the Southwest Missouri) as well as Columbus, Kansas and an interchange with the J&P.

In 1930 it also purchased former J&P lines north to Cherokee and in 1939 took over a Southwest Missouri branch to Baxter Springs, Oklahoma. In 1940 all passenger services were discontinued.

However, it had built up enough freight service that it remained in operation as a shortline until 1967 when it was purchased by the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway (Frisco).

Manhattan City & Interurban Railway

The MC&I was a merger between two systems that came to form a main line serving Manhattan and Junction City. The operation was created in 1914 through the merger of the two systems, covering 16 miles. Service was abandoned by 1926.

Arkansas Valley Interurban Railway

The Arkansas Valley Interurban Railway was an interurban which connected Wichita, Newton and Hutchinson operating roughly a 60-mile railroad (its main line served Wichita and Newton while it had branches serving Hutchinson and Bethel College).

The Great Depression hit the line hard and it was sold in 1939 and its name changed to the Arkansas Valley Railway. By 1940 passenger services were nearing discontinuance and in the summer of 1942 the track and other capital of the line was sold for the war effort.

Winfield Street Railroad

The Winfield Street Railroad served its namesake town operating in the downtown area. It began operations in the early 1900s and lasted until the 1930s when it was discontinued.

Kansas City, Clay County & St. Joseph Railway

The Kansas City, Clay County & St. Joseph Railway operated a 79-mile railroad connecting Kansas City and St. Joseph which opened in 1913.

Its main line serving its namesake city was a 51-mile segment while it also operated a 28-mile branch to Excelsior Springs. It lasted until early March of 1933 when services were suspended.

Kansas City, Lawrence, & Topeka Railway

The Kansas City, Lawrence, & Topeka Railway was created in 1909 through the merger of the Kansas City & Olathe Railway and Kansas City & Topeka Railway.

The new KCL&T was intended to connect Kansas City, Lawrence and Topeka but only was able to complete an 11-mile railroad serving Kansas City and Zarah. It was never a very profitable operation and called it quits in 1927.

Southwest Missouri Electric Railway

The Southwest Missouri Electric Railway was one of the state's first began operations in 1890 (as a mule powered operation, it upgraded to electric in 1903) and would eventually radiate out of Joplin connecting the small towns of Cartersville, Carthage, Galena, Webb City, Baxter Springs and and Picher.

Along with passenger services the railroad also carried some freight traffic. It remained in operation until 1940 when services were discontinued.