History of Riley County

History of Riley County

Compiled by the staff of the Riley County Historical Museum.

Founding of Riley County

Riley County's founding occurred during the exciting, volatile years shortly before the Civil War. The Indian lands of Kansas Territory were opened to legal settlement after 1854. Land hungry immigrants poured into the Territory, most motivated by a combination of reasons, ideological with the fight to make Kansas a free state, and financial with the prospect of fortune making in the new territory. The area now comprising Riley County was part of the Kansa Indian reservation, though by 1854 the Kansa Indians no longer lived in the Riley County area. Increased settlement and travel disrupted the lives of Indians living in today's Kansas and conflicts developed. The Federal Government decided a military fort was needed further west than Leavenworth to maintain order and guard the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. Thus Fort Riley was located at the junction of the Smoky Hill and Republican Rivers in 1853. Originally named Camp Center, the fort was renamed in June 1853 in honor of the recently deceased Major General Bennet C. Riley, former Commander of Ft. Leavenworth, Mexican War Veteran, and last territorial Governor of California.

Fort Riley Spawns Growth

Establishment of the fort encouraged settlement in the near vicinity. The town of Pawnee, intended to be the Kansas Territorial capital, sprang up in the fall of 1854 beside the new fort only to be declared illegally placed on reservation land and closed down in August 1855. The Kansas Territorial Legislature organized Riley County as one of the first thirty-six counties in the state March 8, 1855. Original boundaries were the Marshall county line to the north (thirty miles south of the Kansas/Nebraska border) and the Smoky Hill and Kansas Rivers to the south. The eastern boundary included what is today the western half of Pottawatomie county and the western boundary was eight miles short of today's western boundary line. However, the adjacent territory was attached for administrative purposes to Riley County. Thus the western boundary actually was to the crest of the Rocky Mountains until Davis (Geary) county was formed in 1857 and Clay county was formed in 1860. Riley County's boundaries have changed through the years. The eastern edge was moved to the Big Blue river in 1857 and when the government survey was complete the western edge moved to its present location eight miles west. In 1860 land between the Republican and Smoky Hill River was added to Davis (Geary) county and in 1861 a strip of land along the south side of the Kansas River was added to Riley County from Davis. In 1871 Zeandale Township was attached to Riley County from Wabaunsee county, but in 1873 the south six square miles were returned. In the last land swap, Davis county took Milford Township in exchange for Ashland Township in 1873. Fort Riley has also had two major enlargements of the 1854 reservation, which took Riley County land in 1942 and in 1965. The Tuttle Creek reservoir project (dedicated 1963) also reduced the size of the original county.

During the first few years of Riley County's existence, a number of towns developed. Juniata, or Dyer's Crossing, on the east side of the Blue River, north of present Manhattan, was the first. This settlement was at the crossing of the Fort Leavenworth to Fort Riley road. A number of other towns also quickly developed. Ogden received settlers from the defunct Pawnee and the first Riley County Commission moved from Pawnee to Ogden. In 1858, after a vote and a dispute, the county seat moved From Ogden to Manhattan. Ogden held the Federal land office 1857 - 1859, when it moved to Junction city. In 1870 Ogden became a second-class city.

The Ogden settlement contained pro-slavery sentiment, as did the original town of Randolph. Gardner Randolph came to Kansas from Tennessee to build a plantation home near the mouth of Fancy Creek. He organized a town company to help hold his property and founded Randolph in 1857. The town's name was changed to Waterville in 1859, but was renamed Randolph in 1876. Swedish settlement in northern Riley County helped establish business. The town thrived when the Manhattan and Blue Valley Railroad extended through the valley in 1886. An area called East Randolph sprang up around the new depot.

Ogden and Randolph excepted, all the other towns settled in Riley County during the territorial years had decided free state leanings, if they were not outright free state advocates. Ashland, originally in Davis (Geary) county was settled by the Cincinnati and Kansas Land Company in 1855. Ashland was the Davis county seat 1857 - 1860 and hoped to attract a railroad connection. Failing to do so, the town declined and was vacated in 1873, the year it became part of Riley County.

Founding of Manhattan

The Cincinnati and Kansas Land Company also played a part in the founding of Manhattan. This town developed through the efforts of four separate town-founding groups. In the fall of 1854 George Park founded the town of Poleska along the Kansas River; also in the fall of 1854 Samuel Dexter Houston and four others founded the town of Canton at the foot of Bluemont Hill. These two settlements were in place when Isaac Goodnow and the New England Emigrant Aid Colony settled at the confluence of the Blue and Kansas Rivers in the spring of 1855. By April, these three joined to form the town of Boston. In June 1855 the Cincinnati and Kansas Land Company steamboat Hartford became stuck near Boston. The Boston group asked the Ohio emigrants to join their effort and with certain concessions, including renaming the town Manhattan to please a financier, they stayed. Thus Manhattan was born and grew to become a third-class city in 1870, second-class city in 1880, and a first-class city in 1968.

Shortly after organizing the town, a college was founded and a charter obtained from the Territorial Legislature for the Bluemont Central College Association. This school opened in 1860 under the supervision of the Methodist Church. Efforts were made to have the school declared the State University. Failing that, and with the Morrill Act approved by Congress, the school became one of the first land grant colleges in the United States under the act in 1863 as Kansas State Agricultural College. Today the school is known as Kansas State University.


The development of the Kansas Pacific (Union Pacific) railroad through Manhattan and Ogden in 1866 gave these towns the stimulus for growth. Later, in the 1880's, the county saw rapid railroad development, with most roads radiating from Manhattan. A number of Riley County towns were founded by or radically changed by this railroad development. The Kansas Central Railroad came into being as a narrow gauge in Leavenworth in 1871, reaching Riley County in 1881 at the town of Garrison Crossing. This town was founded as a railroad stop just across the Blue River from Garrison. The line continued west to Alembic, which was laid out in 1881 with hopes of attracting a depot. In order to help lure the railroad the town's name was changed to Leonard, then Leonardville, in honor of Leonard T. Smith, President of the Railroad Company. Leonardville became a town of third class in 1885. As the Kansas Central continued west it stopped at the town of Lasita, founded with railroad hopes and a general store in 1880 by Michael Senn. The Kansas Central became a standard gauge in 1890 and changed its name to the Leavenworth Kansas, and Western in 1897. It became part of the Union Pacific in 1908 and was abandoned in 1934.

Radiating south from Manhattan was the Manhattan, Alma and Burlingame Railroad, built in 1880 through Zeandale to Alma. The railroad abandoned this line in 1898.

The Blue Valley Railroad followed the Blue River north from Manhattan. Built to the Rocky Ford Dam in 1874, Michner Condray laid out the town of Stockdale in 1873 anticipating the trains. The line reached the town by 1881 and continued north to reach Randolph by 1885. Cleburne town builders also anticipated the railroad, founding it in 1886 and naming the town for John C. Cleburne, Superintendent of the line. The railroad continued along the Blue to about Blue Rapids. It was abandoned in 1958 with the Tuttle Creek project.

The last railroad built through Riley County was the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific, built in 1887. Just east of Manhattan, across the Kansas River, Fairmont Addition was located along the line to the west. Keats was founded in 1887, laid out by the railroad, named by a railroad official with whom the poet was a favorite. Keats was founded from the start of a town named Wildcat, begun in 1860. Riley too, was developed by the Rock Island from earlier town starts. The town of Union was established in 1870. Because there was another post office of that name, it was changed to Riley Center. This town prospered until the railroad reached Leonardville, when many Riley Center merchants moved, sometimes even moving their business buildings. When the Rock Island Railroad arrived they placed their depot in a new town of Riley adjacent to Riley Center. In 1895 Union, Riley Center, and Riley registered combined plats as Riley.

Bala city too was a combination of earlier towns. In 1870 a colony of Welsh settlers organized the town of Powys (two miles east of present Bala.) They were unable to locate sufficient water, so relocated two miles west, closer to a spring and laid out the town of Bala in 1871. The town thrived until the railroad through Leonardville caused a business decline, as it had in Riley Center. Another set back occurred in 1882 when a tornado almost destroyed the remaining town. In 1887 the Rock Island railroad laid their track one mile south and west of the village and the station was named Bala city. Most of the town of Bala moved to the new Bala city. The Bala city depot was discontinued during the depression and the hard surface county road by passed both Bala and Bala city. The Bala school closed in 1964 and the post office suspended delivery in 1966.

Other Riley County towns were located on trade routes. Bodaville (c. 1885) and May Day (1871) were communities founded around the establishment of a store. Winkler was established around a mill built in 1857 and later (c. 1871) a store. Schools and Churches also helped establish communities and neighborhoods such as Peach Grove, Swede Creek, Center Hill, Parallel, Tabor Valley, Deep Creek, Rose Hill, Alert, Grandview, and Mariadahl. At peak, around 1900, there were over eighty schools in Riley County.

Two resort communities also developed in the county. Blasing Springs (1882) provided mineral water for medicinal drinking and bathing. In 1887 the Blasing family built a three-story hotel for guests. The hotel was destroyed by a tornado in 1943. The second resort, Manhattan Beach, also called the Eureka Lake Resort, was built by C.P. Dewey in 1899 on an elbow lake of the Kansas River. The resort attracted guests from the east, especially Dewey's home of Chicago. The flood of 1903 destroyed the lake and resort was later sold. An Interurban Railroad connected Eureka Lake to Manhattan after its establishment in 1909 and the line was extended to Junction city in 1913. It was discontinued in the late 1920's.

Flooding in Riley County

The flood that destroyed the Eureka Lake in 1903 was one of many reoccurring floods in Riley County. Flooding was experienced in 1844, 1867, 1903, 1904, 1908, 1915, 1935, 1945, and 1951 among other times. The 1908 flood changed the course of the Blue and Kansas Rivers creating Hunter's Island south of town on the Kansas River and moving the Blue River east away from the edge of Manhattan. The 1951 Kansas River flood was one of the worst floods in United States history, to that time, in terms of property damage. It served as a major catalyst for the establishment of Tuttle Creek Reservoir. The idea of the reservoir was not new. First recommended in the 1930's, the project saw renewed interest after each flood. Originally authorized by Congress in 1938, work began in 1952 with an actual appropriation. Residents of the Blue Valley staged a massive resistance campaign against "Big Dam Foolishness" lasting many years. The major flood of 1951 helped defeat that campaign. Dedication of the dam was held in June 1963. Riley County towns of Stockdale, Cleburne, and Garrison Crossing were removed and Randolph was relocated by the project.