Railroad Heritage, Inc. (RHI) is a not-for-profit corporation whose mission is to preserve the rich railroad heritage and other significant history of Topeka and northeast Kansas. RHI successfully preserved and restored the 1927 Union Pacific Railroad Station in Topeka, creating the Great Overland Station Museum and Education Center where we present exhibits, displays, educational programming and activities that represent our history and heritage in a way that engages the interest of the general public.
The State of Kansas and the City of Topeka has much to be proud of – both in our rich heritage and in our current culture and quality of life. Kansas is the heart of this nation, where the spirit of the rugged pioneer and the daring entrepreneur endure. The vision of Railroad Heritage, Inc. (RHI) is to create a venue where Kansans and visitors immerse themselves in our heritage while savoring today’s quality of life - a venue full of adventure, fun and learning. Such a place is the Great Overland Station, a museum and public center which represent our history in exciting ways that bring the past to life. Together with a new riverfront park and adjacent Historic North Topeka, this area will become a destination for children and tourists, a focus for arts and entertainment and a community gathering place for all ages.
The history of this area has national significance which will resonate with people from across the nation. There are exciting and important stories to be told: the birth and growth of the Santa Fe Railway; the Union Pacific’s race to create the first transcontinental railroad; the role of railroads in developing and settling the American West; the social heritage of African-Americans, Hispanics and European immigrants who worked for the railroads and built our communities; the troop trains of World Wars I and II; memories of the “glory days of steam” and the elegance of the railroad depots. By interpreting these stories we will pass the experiences and memories from older to younger generations and study the values inherent in those experiences - leadership, perseverance, enterprise, vision, dedication, risk and dreams. The archives of the Santa Fe at the Kansas Museum of History, the Union Pacific archives in nearby Omaha, and the actual stories from hundreds of Topeka railroad workers provide a rich source of materials for exhibits and education.
The elegant former Union Pacific Station, designed by renowned architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood, provides a beautiful setting with its soaring ceilings and intricate ornamentation. Ever-changing exhibits are designed to bring stories to life with hands-on activities, docents and photographs. Outside, visitors will encounter train engines, wagon trains, trails and water features amid the stirring sight of the flags of the 50 states. Trains rumbling past link past to present and enhance the learning experience.
Complementing the station as another key component of the entire project is the development of the area surrounding the Station from Kansas Avenue to Topeka Boulevard and reaching south to the Kansas River. It is a site ripe for development, encompassing enough space to create a large community park and provide access to activities along the river. As with the Station, the site connects past to present with significant stories: Pappan’s Ferry, an important Oregon Trail crossing beginning in the 1840’s; the Kaw Indian habitation; the French influence; the early frontier town that Buffalo Bill and George Armstrong Custer frequented; the underground railroad; and the birthplace of Charles Curtis, 31st Vice-President of the United States and grandson of Louis Pappan and great-grandson of White Plume, the Kaw Indian chief.
The third key component of this project is the development of the arts and entertainment district along historic North Kansas Avenue, where unique storefronts from the 1800’s survive. As envisioned in the 1999 North Topeka Revitalization Plan (developed by the Topeka/Shawnee County Metropolitan Planning Department in cooperation with North Topeka on the Move Association “NOTOMA”), this district will have shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues. With restored storefronts, new streetscapes, new and/or rehabilitated housing, and the riverfront developed for community recreation, this area will be a focal point to revitalize the core of our city, attracting young people as well as tourists. Such major redevelopment will enhance economic development throughout the community and create new jobs. The Great Overland Station is seen as the catalyst and major anchor of historic North Topeka’s redevelopment.
Together, the major components of Great Overland Station, riverfront park and historic arts and entertainment district will preserve our heritage, bring our community together, educate children and visitors, create new jobs, and attract tourists to visit and spend time in Topeka. We see this historic area becoming a key link to other Kansas attractions, including historic sites such as the Kansas Museum of History, State Capitol, Ward-Meade Park, Monroe School and the proposed Ritchie House complex; transportation sites such as the Abilene Depot and excursion train, Atchison depot and museum, Santa Fe and Oregon Trail sites; educational and children’s museums such as the Kansas Cosmosphere, Wichita’s Discovery Place, Kansas City’s Science City, Hays’ Sternberg Museum; and sites celebrating the frontier such as Frontier Military Museum at Fort Leavenworth, Fort Riley Cavalry Museum and Dodge City’s Boot Hill. (This is a representative list - not exhaustive!) Excellent marketing of these attractions by local and state tourism agencies will increase eco-tourism exponentially over the next few years.
A Community Treasure
Above all, the Great Overland Station will itself be a tremendous asset to Topeka and the State of Kansas. This elegant building, its contents and the surrounding site will be a showcase for future generations and will help to transform our community into a magnet for visitors from across the state and nation who are looking for adventure. Located in the center of the country, in a capital city, with easy access off and on Interstate 70, this attraction should not be missed! The Great Overland Station bring our past to life, create a community gathering place, enhance economic development, encourage young people to stay in Topeka, stimulate the local economy, improve quality of life, put Kansas’ inexhaustible collection of treasures on display and promote a positive image of our community and state throughout the nation.