The first European explorers reached the area in 1724 and visited the Kanza village along Independence Creek. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark visited what would become parts of Atchison County along the Missouri River during their famous 1804-06 Expedition. They entered the area on July 4, 1804, just to the south of Atchison County. They stopped at noon on that day near the foot of modern-day Commercial Street, where the men dined on native corn and established camp for the expedition’s first night. During that day, the group celebrated Independence Day for the first time in the new American West and named two creeks in honor of the event: The aforementioned Independence Creek, as well as July 4, 1804 Creek, is known today as White Clay Creek.
Incorporation & Early Growth
Atchison was incorporated by the territorial legislature in February 1858. Atchison quickly became a prominent steamboat stop and supply point for settlers heading West. In 1858 alone, 24 California-bound wagon trains consisting of 775 wagons began their journeys in Atchison. Firms based in the city prospered from the easy logistics of Atchison, loading wagons full of merchandise off riverboats and onto wagon trains heading to far-flung stores in towns as far west as San Francisco. Commercial Street was often inundated with oxen trains hauling all manner of goods and supplies out West. Atchison became a trade hub, an outfitter for the voyage to the American West, and a supply center for the many towns that would pop up in oasis after oasis on the trail that began at this bend in the Missouri River.
Transportation was central to the city’s early days. Riverboats docked one after another, delivering thousands of tons of supplies to outfit the over 250,000 settlers who made Atchison their first stop in the West. Wagon train outfitters set up shop in town and were soon followed by lumber mills, granaries, storehouses, blacksmiths, hotels, and tailors.
Regional Trade Hub
The growth of railroads transformed Atchison and shaped it into the form the city still holds today. As trains replaced stagecoaches and steamboats, several sets of track were laid through what is now downtown Atchison, bringing decades of industrial prosperity to the town and redefining Atchison as a railroad town.
The Mo-Kan Free Bridge, constructed over the Missouri River in 1938, ended the era of toll bridges in the region and further brought Atchison into the automobile age. Later renamed the Amelia Earhart Memorial Bridge, the bridge allowed Atchison to renew its role as a regional trade hub for surrounding communities and gave Atchison a rejuvenated role in transportation.
As Kansas City grew in size and stature, and as other cities farther west became more commercially independent, Atchison’s role as a provider of freight traffic decreased. The Interstate Highway System crossed the region in the late 1950s and bypassed Atchison by over 20 miles. In what was perhaps the final sign of changing times, the last westbound passenger train to begin in Atchison left the Union Depot in 1958.
In 1958, two large flash floods of White Clay Creek wreaked havoc on the community. The damage to downtown Atchison was massive, and the state and federal response to the crisis reshaped land use policies in unprecedented ways.
To rebuild downtown, and to renew local interest in the amenities of the central business district, the community sought federal assistance. This was granted in the form of new flood-control systems on the region’s waterways, as well as a substantial Urban Renewal grant to rebuild downtown in a more pedestrian- focused manner. Several blocks of Commercial Street were converted to a pedestrian mall, and the storefronts covered with a cement canopy to protect pedestrians from rain and snow.
The pedestrian mall quickly became an exemplar of Urban Renewal projects of that period, and it was a duplicate of malls in cities as far away as Miami, Florida, and Kalamazoo, Michigan. The town’s swift rebuilding of the downtown area arguably played a part in Atchison’s downtown surviving the trend of small towns’ mainstreet businesses relocating to shopping centers on the edge of the city.
The educational environment of Atchison turned a new leaf in 1971 when Mount St. Scholastica College (for female students) merged with St. Benedict’s College (for male students) to form the coeducational Benedictine College. The new College grew substantially in the following decades, with tremendous growth in enrollment in the first decade of the twenty-first century.