Topeka 160: Five features that make Topeka what it is

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Washburn University was established as Lincoln College in 1865 on land donated by abolitionist John Ritchie.

It was renamed Washburn College after receiving a pledge of $25,000 in 1868 from Ichabod Washburn, a Massachusetts industrialist and abolitionist who died later that year. Washburn’s mascot, the Ichabod, honors Ichabod Washburn.

The Washburn School of Law was established in 1903. Its alumni include former Senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole.

Much of the Washburn campus was devastated by Topeka’s 1966 tornado but the university’s facilities were rebuilt under the leadership of President John Henderson.

Washburn’s current president, Jerry Farley, has held that position since 1997. Washburn’s enrollment was 6,636 for the fall semester in 2016.

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The Army in 1942 opened Topeka Army Air Field south of the city. The base was deactivated after World War II, then reopened in 1948 by the newly formed Air Force.

The base was renamed Forbes Air Force Base in 1949 in honor of Carbondale native Maj. Daniel Forbes Jr., who was killed in 1948 in a test piloting accident.

Topeka Capital-Journal archives show as many as 17,000 personnel were stationed at Forbes. Many chose to stay in Topeka after leaving the service.

Forbes closed in 1973. Topeka and Shawnee County officials assumed responsibility for running it and established the Metropolitan Topeka Airport Authority to manage the community’s two airports, with the other being Philip Billard Municipal Airport.

The MTAA in 2012 changed Forbes Field’s name to Topeka Regional Airport & Business Center. The airport still serves as home of the 190th Air Refueling Wing of the Kansas National Guard.

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Topekan Oliver Brown was the lead plaintiff and the Topeka Board of Education was lead defendant when the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 issued its landmark ruling banning racial segregation in schools in the case of Brown v. Board of Education.

The National Park Service maintains the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site at Topeka’s former Monroe School, which Brown’s daughter attended as he sought to enroll her in a school where attendance was closed to African-American children.

But Topeka’s role in race relations dates back to nearly a century before the Brown case.

After the Kansas Territory was established in 1854, Missourians came in great numbers in 1855 and elected a territorial Legislature that was pro-slavery. The federal government recognized that Legislature. Later in 1855, settlers gathered at Topeka’s Constitution Hall and drew up a constitution calling for Kansas to be a free state.

Federal troops armed with rifles, bayonets and a cannon came to Constitution Hall in 1856 and forced the free-state Legislature — after a confrontation — to disperse. Kansas subsequently went into the union as a free state, with Topeka as its capital. Efforts are underway to develop Constitution Hall as a tourist attraction.

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The Kansas River played a key role in the birth of the city of Topeka. This area tended to be an early stop for the estimated 300,000 people who between 1840 and 1869 used the 2,170-mile Oregon Trail to travel between Independence, Mo., and the Pacific Ocean.

Those using the trail generally crossed the Kansas River somewhere in the Topeka area. Revenue from the travelers helped support the Topeka economy in the early years after the city was founded in 1854 and chartered in 1857.

The Kansas River has since continued to play a role in the life of Topekans, providing a ready source of water while flooding and devastating parts of the city in 1903 and 1951.

Efforts are currently underway to develop the riverfront in the downtown Topeka area and create an Oregon Trail Riverfront Park.

The National Park Service last summer provided four of its employees for activities targeted at developing the proposed tourist attraction.

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The cornerstone was laid in 1866 for the Kansas Statehouse in downtown Topeka. The land on which it stands was donated through the efforts of Cyrus K. Holliday, a founder of both the city of Topeka and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway.

The Kansas Legislature began meeting in the Statehouse in 1870, after previously meeting in Topeka’s Constitution Hall.

Construction took 37 years, and was completed in 1903.

The Statehouse sustained damage to its dome in the 1966 Topeka tornado.

It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

“Ad Astra,” a statue of a Kaw warrior, was placed atop the building’s dome in 2002. The building stands 306 feet tall from the ground to the top of Ad Astra’s bow.


Topeka was involved with both an 1856 confrontation that threatened to start the Civil War and the 1954 Supreme Court decision that banned school segregation. 

The city’s free state roots and subsequent role in race relations are among five features that make Topeka what it is.


Read the full special section commemorating the 160th anniversary of Topeka becoming a city here.

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