To discuss Chanute’s earliest residents Tuesday evening, historian Jim Whaley went waaaaay back – to a 200 million year-old fern that grew 30 feet tall.
From the climate and geology that brought wildlife, buffalo and nomadic hunters to the area, Whaley took listeners at the Historical and Genealogy Center up to the boom economies of the early 20th century.
Whaley said he hadn’t realized until he started his research just how much material was available in the Chanute Historical Society’s collection about Chanute’s founding. He listed a variety of books, speech texts and other sources about how the city came to be here.
It started with a cluster of communities competing for the economic benefits of a railroad line.
“Each town site represents the belief of where the two railroads were going to cross,” Whaley said.
Where the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe and the Missouri, Kansas and Texas railroad tracks met would be the prime location for development.
“Town buildings was something of an art,” Whaley said, and entrepreneurs wanted to be in early. He said there are 17 different stories about where people believed that junction would be.
None of them match.
The competition was between the communities of New Chicago, Chicago Junction and Tioga, Whaley said. The town of Alliance was formed as a compromise, but Erie was also in the running and had as many votes as the four towns put together.
New Chicago was the largest of the four towns, both economically and in area. The town was a square mile, centered on Main and Central, and Whaley said in one month 75 houses were built there.
Tioga was laid out from Chestnut to a half-mile north and from Santa Fe to a mile west. Chicago Junction was platted from Beech north one mile to what is now Ash Grove Road, and a half-mile east of Santa Fe. Alliance was a half-mile west and a half-mile south of the intersection of Santa Fe and Chestnut.
Although the story is well-known that railroad design engineer Octave Chanute suggested the four towns unite and the resulting city was named for him, Whaley said there is another side.
Developers knew they needed money to construct Chanute, and those funds would come from Topeka. They wanted Octave Chanute to act on their behalf.
“He was well-known and he was a genius in his own right,” Whaley said. “It didn’t hurt to have Octave Chanute’s name on the paperwork.”
New Chicago was in the economic lead by Jan. 1, 1873, when officials met and signed paperwork to create Chanute. By July, the city government was operational.
Then the economic Panic of 1873 and a series of local fires brought a drop in population. Two years of grasshopper infestations devastated crops.
That didn’t deter people who settled in Chanute before it was Chanute.
“They were positive in thinking and positive in doing,” Whaley said.
“That got Chanute off to a great start.”
He listed several industries that opened in Chanute in the first decade of the 20th Century, including Ash Grove and Chanute Cement Co. in 1907, two refineries, a pottery and window glass company, and the division headquarters of the Santa Fe railroad.
Whaley said the greatest activity was when the city established an electrical utility at about the time air conditioning came about. That utility helped fund the establishment of a gas utility and allowed the city to run for several years without levying taxes.
“That was the turning point for Chanute,” Whaley said.