Early growth in McPherson, as in many cities and towns on the Kansas plains, was catalyzed by America’s railway system. McPherson City depended on rail companies, including the Union Pacific Railroad, not only for travel but to bring goods, communications and new residents into town.


Early growth in McPherson, as in many cities and towns on the Kansas plains, was catalyzed by America’s railway system. McPherson City depended on rail companies, including the Union Pacific Railroad, not only for travel but to bring goods, communications and new residents into town.
While that relationship is different today than in the past, Union Pacific remains a key partner for McPherson and continues to operate in the city to this day.
The ties between the UP and McPherson were celebrated earlier this month when Mayor Tom Brown formally recognized its historic partnership with the 150-year-old railroad during a city commission meeting.
Though McPherson itself did not even exist when the Union Pacific Railroad Company was incorporated in 1862, the city’s history with the UP is almost as old as the company itself.
McPherson County residents began clamoring for rail access even before McPherson was founded in May 1872, and citizens in and around Lindsborg mounted several failed petitions to enter into contract with various companies to lay track south from Salina.
It was not until July 1879, when the Kansas Pacific Railway Company completed its railroad from Salina to Lindsborg, a McPherson County community would become connected to America’s burgeoning rail network. That line, which would later be absorbed by the Union Pacific, was poised to be the first to bring rail travel and commerce to McPherson in its history.
Yet by the time the line was completed to its southern end, the city had already seen its first train. The Marion & McPherson railroad had been completed just months before to much celebration, bringing a train of 2,000 visitors from Marion in September and providing access to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad three months before the Kansas Pacific connected the city to the north.
While the Union Pacific may have been beat to McPherson, its effects on the community were no less significant. The Union Pacific, together with the AT & SF and later the Rock Island and Missouri Pacific railroads, helped McPherson’s industry expand and, in turn, its population grow. McPherson’s city pride in its railways is evident as far back as 1889, when its official letterhead was dominated by a map of four railroads meeting in the center of Kansas and a boast alongside describing the city as “the coming capital of Kansas and commercial metropolis of the state.”
McPherson, of course, fell short of this goal, although the convergence of rail traffic helped it remain attractive to industry. In 1961 the city advertised this fact, using a photograph of diesel locomotives from the four rail companies set side by side in official advertisements sent from the McPherson Chamber of Commerce to companies across the country. At that time, Union Pacific shipped between 500 and 600 rail cars through McPherson, with an average of 50 passing through each day.
As rail companies became increasingly consolidated in the 1980s and redundant railroads were abandoned, McPherson County’s first railroad also was set aside in favor of more streamlined routes. After being operated by Union Pacific for 115 years with interruption only for government use during World War I, the McPherson Branch north of the city was officially abandoned by the Union Pacific on July 23, 1995.
Today, the Union Pacific continues to operate on portions of the McPherson Branch, now only a spur. That line services industry in the northwest corner of town, as well as at the National Cooperative Refinery Association plant to the south. It connects to a main Union Pacific line that runs southwest from Topeka, through McPherson and the Oklahoma panhandle and into Texas. That line, part of what was once called the Cotton Belt, was purchased from the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Company in 1996.
As the rail industry has evolved, so too has its standing in McPherson. Yet while most residents no longer yearn for a railroad as their forebears may have, Union Pacific tracks remain an important piece of the local economy. 132 years after the company brought the first locomotive to McPherson County, the company continues to be a living element of the city’s infrastructure and connects the city’s industry to its people.