April 15, 2003
A few days ago, we had occasion to be in Atchison, Kansas, nestled in the northeast corner of the Sunflower State. The name of the town is very familiar to us, of course. For one thing, it was the railhead of the old Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Along with Frisco, the two lines came right through Perry in the early days when Our Town was being established. Passenger service continued here on the old AT & SF and Frisco lines until it was eliminated throughout Oklahoma. Today the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe railways send lots of freight trains through here on the old Santa Fe and Frisco lines, and the joy of riding in those clean railroad Pullman cars and having a tasty meal in the dining car is in danger of becoming merely an insolvable political issue, and our children are growing up unaware of what we once took for granted. But I don't want to get started on that.
The point I started to make was an observation of what has happened to the town of Atchison in the last few years of turbulence on America's railroads. During that time, most of the nation's passenger railroads became part of Amtrak and the colorful old rail line names slipped into the past. That might have dealt a fatal blow to Atchison, Kansas, but believe me, it is still very much alive because the folks who live there refused to roll over and play dead. The town's population is about twice the size of Perry's, but they could show us some things about survival and growth.
Atchison surveyed its assets and found several possibilities for attracting visitors. For one thing, the town was aging and showing signs of wear. The downtown area was not user-friendly, so civic leaders closed a large portion of that area, sealed it off to vehicular traffic and made it an attractive pedestrian mall. The old street was ripped up to be replaced by a well-designed walkway, using buff bricks and a darker contrasting style along with leafy planters and benches in strategic places. Building facades were renovated to harmonize with the brickwork while still retaining the original look. A few vacant buildings remain, but the mall is indeed a big attraction. Several tenants are antique dealers. Their wares fit in very well with the town's underlying theme.
Atchison also was the birthplace of Amelia Earhart, perhaps America's premier aviatrix and the first woman to make a solo flight across the Atlantic. The house where she was born is a tourist attraction and apparently it has been thoroughly renovated. Her life story is told through photographs, newspaper clippings and memorabilia in a downtown museum, and that building in itself is a piece of history. It was a railroad depot for the AT & SF line in the early years of the 20th century. That gives the town three major points to lure visitors — the birth-place of Amelia Earhart, the railroad passenger line and the downtown pedestrian mall. It appears to me that the town has succeeded in resuscitating its business community in a logical, practical way. What has happened there could well be emulated by many other small and mid-size towns.
Oh, by the way. Many of the old AT & SF tracks are on the south side of Atchison. Even though most of the rail traffic through there is freight, motor vehicles do not have long, tiresome waits to cross the tracks. Elevated streets make it possible for motor traffic to move smoothly in regular patterns. We need to learn how they managed to do that.