From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.



Old History Shows City as Civil War 'Boom Town,' Hit by a Slump

Harry Seckley

Leavenworth Times, Sunday Morning, January 8, 1950


Several histories of early or pioneer Leavenworth have been published since 1854, the year of its founding.

The major portions of these have been closely read by the writer to clean the "chaff from the wheat" to ascertain, if possible, what was the real cause for the new town suffering a relapse from which it has not, even to the present day, fully recovered.

So it was with a feeling of elation we received a history to scan which we felt would tell the truth, even though it hurt.

The book, to our standpoint of thinking, clears up many of these hitherto unsolved mysteries and early day misrepresentations.

The book in question was published in the printing plant of The Leavenworth times in 1880 and was compiled, edited and published by W. S. Burke and J. O. Rock, early day newspaper writers, under the supervision of the Leavenworth Board of Trade.

The writers went to extremes in delving into the past. by comparison of their statements with those published by others previously, one is convinced of the authenticity of their writings.

Fortunately for us Rudolph "Rudy" Przybylowicz found the book in the family library. It had been the property of his brother, Henry, deceased.

Michael Przybylowicz, the father, was one of the few pioneers who in 1852 visited the land upon which Leavenworth was built or laid out or two years before H. Miles Moore and party of Weston citizens came here to settle upon the Delaware Trust lands.

Mr. Przybylowicz, in 1868, built the Continental Hotel, then on the northwest corner of Fourth and Cherokee Streets. His junior partner was Ed Fritsche, Sr., who, up until that time had a restaurant on Seneca between Third and Fourth.

The editors refer to Leavenworth as the metropolis of Kansas and the chief commercial center west of the Missouri River.

The publication contains, in addition to much of the city's early history, writeups and illustrations of mercantile and manufacturing facilities as they existed in 1880, and answers the question of "why" Leavenworth suffered, at the conclusion of the Civil War, a slump which took from it the glitter that had been accorded it from its establishment as the largest settlement in Kansas.

Whatever happened to the pioneer town to knock it from its prosperity pedestal is often asked the writer by present day residents. The "why" of it all is answered by Messrs. Burke and Rock who pulled no punches nor barred no holds in telling the real truth.

The growth of the new town, they claimed, was marvelous. It sprang into being as if by magic and at once assumed a position of prominence and importance. It early became known as the most rapidly growing western town of its times, and then the Civil War, commenced--only a few years from the time its townsite was claimed and staked off--it was known as a thriving city.

Streets and sidewalks had been graded and leveled, it had fine, costly churches, fine school houses, handsome private residences, solid blocks of substantial business houses and a levee crowded with river steamers.

The Civil War, brought demoralization and hard times or absolute ruin to many of the "border" towns. Yet it had the opposite effect upon Leavenworth, even stimulating it to a new and wonderful growth.

The horrors of war drove people and businesses here from neighboring towns which were subjected to raids from roving bands of soldiers of both the Northern and the Southern armies. They were pillaged one day by Jayhawkers and sacked the next by Bushwhackers.

Leavenworth, being situated immediately adjoining the military reservation, offered a measure of safety and as a consequence thousands driven from their country homes came here to find shelter and to make their new homes.

Thousands of troops at the fort stimulated the retail trade to a wonderful extent and caused the establishment of many shops and retail places of all kinds usually supported by a city of twice the population Leavenworth had at that time.

The town grew rapidly, money was abundant, everybody was busy and everybody was prosperous.

"But," the historians wrote, "we have shown that much of this growth and prosperity was artificial. It had no solid foundation to rest upon, but sprang from the accidents of war and the misfortunes of our neighbors, and the causes of it disappeared with the coming of peace.

"When the war ended and peace was restored the number of troops at the fort dwindled, the population being reduced from thousands to hundreds, which immediately cut off nearly half the trade upon which the retail shops thrived because the soldiers were liberal customers.

The restoration of law and order gave security to neighboring towns which went to work to repair the ravages of war and to recover their lost businesses. Their trade which had been driven to Leavenworth commenced to return to those smaller towns and their citizens who sought refuge here began to return to their old homes.

"The fortunes of war," wrote the historians, "caused Leavenworth to flourish at the expense of her neighbors, and forced an artificial hothouse growth, far beyond the natural demands of the city and surrounding territory. When the causes which had led to that growth were removed this pioneer town began to have her first experiences with hard times.

She had hundreds of small shops more than the natural demand of the country hereabouts could support. Their keepers were forced to seek other means of livelihood and large numbers drifted elsewhere.

Leavenworth as a result entered upon a period of depression that extended over several years. It had grown far beyond the demands of the country and was then compelled to await for the country to grow up to it. Improvements stopped, business languished and soon the once fast growing, rushing city was referred to as "a dead town."

Up to the time the slump came Leavenworth seemed to take the attitude that the people outside just had to come here to buy, but the close of the war caused those buyers to return to their old markets.

The railroad systems of the west began to develop and country store merchants could order direct from the larger cities. Until then there had been no railroads reaching into Kansas from the East. All merchandise was brought by steamers up the Missouri river and the mammoth store houses that lined the river front wharf of Levee Street owned by Leavenworth wholesalers were depots for not only all of Kansas, but for Colorado and New Mexico as well.

But when the railroads came the steamboat's mission was accomplished and it was driven from the river by the steam trains. There was no longer a necessity for the great depots of supplies at the bank of the river because goods from St. Louis or Chicago, loaded into freight cars, could be carried to other Kansas towns as well as to Leavenworth.

"Then it was," the historians commented, "that the public's attention began to turn to manufactures. Our people began to realize the fact that while we had expended millions to build a great city, we had not expended a dollar in preparing a foundation for it to stand upon.

"We Had called together more than 20,000 persons; we had build them good homes to live in; fine churches to worship in; elegant school houses in which to educate their children; we had given them theaters and halls in which to seek amusement and instruction; fine streets lined with magnificent stores had provided for giving them everything but employment; we had given the most healthful and most attractive city in the west to live in, but we had given them nothing on earth to live on.

"We had provided everything but the one all-essential thing--employment. So when the trade which had been driven from other towns began to go back to them, and the railroads began to carry their freight to the interior of the State we had our eyes painfully opened to the unwelcome fact we had builded without a foundation; that we were a city without business, and a people without employment."

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