After the pioneers of Georgetown, the early seat of Pettis county, failed to see the benefits of attracting the Pacific Railroad to their town, General George R. Smith decided to act on his own. He laid out a town on land that he owned and filed the plat of a town he called Sedville on Nov. 30, 1857, hoping to lure the railroad there instead. General Smith and D. W. Bouldin filed a plat for a city renamed, Sedalia on Oct. 16, 1860. The new plat included the original 160 acres of Sedville, which had existed only on paper, and additional land south of the eventual site of the Pacific Railroad.
Sedalia, named after Smith’s daughter Sarah whose nickname was Sed, did not begin to prosper until January 1861. When the first passenger train of the Pacific Railroad arrived. From that moment, the destiny of the city rose and fell with the fortunes of the local railroads.
During this period, General Smith was also instrumental in the organization of another railroad, which would play an equally important role as that of the Pacific, in the shaping of Sedalia’s history. On March 20, 1860, with Smith’s help, the Missouri legislature granted a charter to the Tebo & Neosho Railroad Company, permitting the construction of a railroad between Neosho, Missouri and a point along the Pacific route in the vicinity of the plat that was to be Sedalia.
Unfortunately, before the Tebo & Neosho began operation, the Civil War began and the project was halted until the war ended. The war was both a misfortune and advantage to Sedalia. It delayed the building of the town for four years while the war continued, but it also held Sedalia as the terminus of the Pacific Railroad for nearly three years.
As the terminus, Sedalia prospered by the extensive development of the Southwest trade. This trade steadily increased throughout the war in spite of numerous Confederate raids on the wagons. At the close of the war, wagon trains came from south and southwest Missouri, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), southeast Kansas, Arkansas and Texas.
After the war, the Tebo & Neosho project was revived. In March 1866, the state legislature amended the original charter to permit construction of the railroad through the same section of the country, but with Fort Scott, Kansas rather than Neosho, Missouri as the terminus.
Fundraising efforts were successful from counties along the route in getting a large portion of the road work done, but the project had to be halted when funds could not be secured to purchase the iron and rolling stock for the railway. It was at this juncture that the MK&T entered into the history of Sedalia.
The corporators of what would become the MK&T Railroad Company filed a charter with the Kansas Secretary of State as the Union Pacific Railroad Company, Southern Branch on Sept, 25, 1865. The company was authorized to build a railroad from Fort Riley, Kansas to the intersection of the Neosho River along the border of Kansas and the Indian Territory. The federal government offered the exclusive right to build a railroad through the territory to the first railroad to reach the borderline. By June 1870, that railroad company had won this race and had changed its name to MK&T. At that point, the directors began to search for another railroad charter that would link the new railroad to the east.
MK&T officials then made the decision to investigate the Tebo & Neosho Railroad and an agreement was reached to build the linking railway. Within a few months work crews arrived in Sedalia and the general manager moved his headquarters here.
The work crews laid track at a high rate of speed. A few days after the rails reached Clinton, rail service to the town was instituted and the first excursion train of the MK&T left Sedalia on July 23, 1870. People cheered the train all along the 40 mile route and a large celebration was held to welcome the train and its passengers.
After additional money was raised in counties along the route, the MK&T decided to formally merge with the Tebo & Neosho. On October 19, 1870 the Tebo & Neosho ceased to exist and the MK&T was well on its way to completing its eastern extension.
In 1871 the two sections of the Katy were joined in Parsons, Kansas. As the railroad pushed farther south through Oklahoma, the company’s profits and traffic soared. At this point, competitors began to devise schemes to steal business from the MK&T, and after a rate war skirmish, the new railroad company decided to create a new route to St. Louis. After completing the southern extension to Denison, Texas in April of 1873, construction crews returned to Sedalia to begin track work on the northeast extension. By June, the Boonville-Moberly section, north of the Missouri River was finished.
After a short line between Moberly and Hannibal was purchased giving the MK&T direct access to Chicago as well as St. Louis, the first through trains ran from Sedalia to Hannibal and from Sedalia to Denison, Texas in November, 1873.
The Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad established their general offices in Sedalia in late 1873. From that time until the MK&T was purchased by Jay Gould in 1881, the offices remained in Sedalia and employed a large clerical force. The offices were eventually moved to Parsons due to a Kansas law requiring Kansas corporations to maintain general offices in that state.
In the years after the Civil War, Sedalia and Pettis county experienced the greatest percentage increase in population in their histories. Sedalia grew from an estimated 300 people in 1860-1861 to more than 4,500 in 1870 while the county’s population grew from 9,392 in 1860 to 18,706 in 1870. Accordingly, construction, business and trade dramatically increased Virtually all of these increases were due to the effects of the two railroads. In addition to the general headquarters of the MK&T, both railroads had located sizable shops here by 1873. By 1875, the MK&T employed over 375 men and the company owned property valued at $150,000.In that single year, more than 7,000,000 pounds of freight were received here and more than 25,000 tickets were sold to Katy passengers.
Sedalia already had its second passenger depot open by the time the MK&T opened the line south of Denison and north to Hannibal in 1873. At that time, a new larger building was erected two blocks south of a smaller structure which had been used by the railroad and which housed the telegraph office. Before the Katy’s newer two-story depot opened in May, 1896, the MK&T had been working out of the Union Depot on Main Street. The new depot was a notable addition to the city, for it served, according to the newspapers, as yet another example of the city’s importance and industrious nature.
The new depot demonstrated Sedalia’s importance to the MK&T. It was an impressive complement to the existing structures owned by the Katy. The MK&T shops, stockyards, round house and the hospital for employees working on the Sedalia Division were among the Katy’s properties in Sedalia. Except for the depot, all the Katy structures have been destroyed.
Eventually, Sedalia’s dependence upon one industry was to have a detrimental effect on the town which had originated, grown and prospered with the railroads. Railroad strikes in the 1920’s caused widespread unemployment in Sedalia and severely weakened the local economy. A strike that began in Sedalia January 19, 1922, eventually spread throughout the country.
Sedalia gradually recovered from strike effects by 1929, but it was even slower to recover from the Great Depression, when the local MK&T shops closed permanently. By 1940, 8,000 of Pettis County’s 33,000 residents were still on public relief. Three of Sedalia’s banks closed and three of its bankers killed themselves.The 1940’s and 1950’s were a period of gradual decrease in railroad business which was further evidence of the devastating effects of the depression on Sedalia. In addition, the use of automobiles cut into the passenger traffic on the Katy. In May of 1958, the last passenger train passed through Sedalia, 88 years after the first MK&T train went to Clinton.