Pittsburg, Kansas Early History

updated April 5, 2008  
  Early History Articles


Pittsburg was platted on May 20, 1876, eight blocks long, eight blocks wide. Franklin Playter, a 24-year-old Canadian who formerly had been a farmer, teacher and lawyer, was now a Girard banker. Two mining entrepreneurs had approached him from Joplin, who wanted him to finance a railroad from their lead and zinc mines to the railroads of Kansas, preferably those in Cherokee. Since they owned most of that little town, they offered him half-interest in their holdings as an inducement. Playter, however, knew that what is now Pittsburg was in the center of a rich coalfield. He agreed to build a road, provided it went from Joplin to Girard. The resulting Joplin-Girard Railroad passed directly through the center of the Cherokee-Crawford Coal Field.

Since Playter envisioned an industrial city on this site, he decided to name the place Pittsburg after the industrial capital of Pennsylvania. The only trouble was that four years earlier, in 1872, W. A. Pitt had named his north central Kansas town after himself, Pittsburg. Located in Mitchell County, 21 miles southwest of Beloit, it had a population on 200. Although Playter offered him good money, Pitt hesitated in giving up his name to the town, so until negotiations were completed on June 1, 1881, Playter’s village was called New Pittsburg. Upon the purchase of the name in 1881, the former Pittsburg became Tipton and Playter’s town finally after five years became simply Pittsburg.

Playter, John B. Sargent, E. R. Moffett, and Col. E. H. Brown, the surveyor, each took a quarter section of Pittsburg, agreeing to erect a building at the intersection of what is now Fourth and Broadway. Since this was primarily a loading place, the agreement wasn’t taken seriously—except by Playter and Sargent. Playter erected a frame building at the southwest corner (now the site of the Mitchelson Law Firm), which his brother-in-law, W. G. Seabury, operated as a general store. Sargent put up a small frame building on the northwest corner of Fourth and Broadway for George F. Richey, who ran it as a drug store, where whiskey (one of the main medications of the time) could be bought. John R. Lindberg, a Swedish immigrant, who moved the frame building and built a substantial brick edifice, purchased the building and lot in 1877. The Lindberg Pharmacy occupied that corner until the mid 1980’s when the building was torn down.


When Pittsburg had been incorporated as a city of the third class in July 1880, it had a population of about 1,000. But in Playter’s mind, this was not to be a coal village, but a coal center. To dig the coal, laborers were needed. Sargeant came up with the idea of bringing Chinese coolies from California. A month later, his brother wrote from the West Coast that he was unable to convince the Chinese to come to Kansas, and thus began a concerted effort to bring coal miners from the coal-producing nations of Europe. Broadsides were strewn along the Mediterranean, promising prosperity in the coalfields of Southeast Kansas. Steamship companies, such as Nick Simion & Son's Steamship Ticket Office at 203 N. Broadway, sent agents throughout Europe to enlist workers, underwriting one-way passage; and from 1880 through 1916 huge waves of immigrants came to the coalfields of Southeast Kansas, making it their new home. As late as 1934 Margaret E. Haughawout of the English faculty of the Kansas State Teachers Normal College (now Pittsburg State University) recorded in her diary 34 languages being spoken on the streets of Pittsburg on a Saturday night. In all, over fifty nationalities came to mine coal and work the smelters.

Since coal weighed less than lead and zinc ore, Playter and his investors knew there could be a flourishing smelter industry in Pittsburg. Coal weighed from three to seven times more than the ores; thus up to this time all ores had been shipped to Wisconsin or Pennsylvania for smelting. Active recruitment of smelters from Wisconsin, notably the Lanyon family, who later were to invest in banking and real estate, led to the establishment of twelve smelters in the area—at a time when there were only twenty-five in the entire United States. By 1885, the Pittsburg area was second only to the nation of Belgium in production of lead and zinc spelter.

On the east of 2nd and Broadway were the Lanyon Zinc Works; on the west side of 11th and Broadway were the Granby Mining and Smelting Co. Zinc Works; on east 9th Street were the W. and J. Lanyon smelters, the Robert Lanyon Zinc Works, the S. H. Lanyon & Brother’s Zinc Works, and the Fred Massman Brick Yard. At 4th and Elm were roller mills, and to serve this commerce, from 2nd to 11th were the tracks of the Kansas City, Fort Scott, and Memphis Railroad, the Frisco, the Santa Fe, the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad, and the Missouri Pacific.

German, French, Italian and Swedish churches clustered along Broadway, as well as the denominational churches we still have with us today. And for every church there was a bordello, pool hall, cigar store or bar. As Harold Bell Wright commented when he arrived in Pittsburg in 1898: “There were fourteen denominational churches and not a place except saloons, gambling houses, and houses of prostitution where a man might spend a leisure hour. Saloons in a prohibition Kansas city? Yes, twenty-three of them – not blind but wide open, with beer signs at the entrance, swinging doors, bar and everything. Beer wagons drove openly in the streets” (To My Sons, p.208)

Industrial speculators began investing heavily in the region’s mineral resources and in Pittsburg. One of the first projects of the Pittsburg Town Company was a water works—for what is a city without running water? A group of investors from Pennsylvania in 1885 built the water works, which was not sold to the city until 1911. Architects were hired from New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco to build multi-storied brick buildings suitable for a major city.

Arthur E. Stilwell of Kansas City not only agreed to detour his Kansas City, Fort Scott, and Memphis Railroad through Pittsburg, but also in 1889 financed one of the most modern hotels west of Chicago, which was named after him. It was in the Hotel Stilwell that Jay Gould and other well-known industrialists stayed when visiting their mining or rail interests in Southeast Kansas, as well as the luminaries of the stage who came to perform in the opera houses of the region. To build the hotel, the W. C. Green brick factory was established, and the clay proved to be so excellent that other manufactures came from Leavenworth and Cincinnati to establish brick works; the Dickey Clay Manufacturing Company, established in 1899, was one of those early day companies. Soon the area had iron foundries, lead and zinc sheet mills as well as soap and cosmetic firms, cigar factories, and a gold and silver smelter. Pittsburg had quickly become the industrial center of Southeast Kansas.

The National Bank of Pittsburg outgrew its frame building on the northeast corner of 4th and Broadway, but saw no reason for building more than a one-story brick structure on the site. Franklin Playter argued that an opera house was needed, which he would finance. Thus a three-story brick building with bank and offices on the first floor and an Opera House with a stage and seating on the upper floors was built and flourished. In 1931, the building underwent extensive remodeling into the building, which we know on that site today.

The most precious gem of Pittsburg architecture is no longer with us: the Chicago Dental Rooms, which stood on, the site occupied by Bank of America. Drs. Fred K. Ream and Harvey M. Grandal were fortunate in enlisting the genius of the New York jeweler, artist, and architect Louis Comfort Tiffany in designing a three-story miniature palace culminating in a spire of Tiffany tile. The year was 1903; Tiffany was in the area to help design the glasswork for the Brown Mansion in Coffeyville and a theatre in Columbus. The Brown mansion survives; the Columbus theatre was razed, but its ticket boot was salvaged and sold to the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center in Washington, D. C., where it is wheeled out on state occasions, deemed too precious to used every day; one of the ceilings of the Chicago Dental Rooms was salvaged by Mrs. Linda Rigler and installed in her husband’s office in the Hotel Stilwell, the only vestige surviving of Tiffany’s are in Pittsburg—except for a few vases and lamps in private homes, which are valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Diaries of early day Pittsburg reflect a jubilant city, whose stores on Saturday attracted thousands of visitors and customers from the surrounding villages and towns, who traveled on the electric railroad which coursed through the middle of Broadway and connected with branches that stretched from Independence, Kansas to Carthage, Missouri, from Fort Scott, Kansas to Miami in the Oklahoma Territory. Restaurants and coffee shops flourished, as well as bars and saloons. A second opera house was built and filled to capacity at each performance, soon to be joined by motion picture theatres. The Topeka Kansas Commercial News of September 1901 remarked: “Pittsburg, although it has only 15,000 residents, is remarkably well built up. It has that metropolitan air which rises to its highest perfection only in the West. That overwhelming commercial aspect which confronts one when approaching the business center of the city is greatly modified, however, when visiting the finest residence district—the “Lake Shore Drives” of Pittsburg… The little wooden shacks of the early day are fast disappearing. In their place are modern brick buildings with stone trimmings, and the town is becoming as proud as a peacock. Not every resident of Pittsburg is wealthy, excepting in one respect. Bubbling up in the soul of every one is a wealth of pride, which springs from the knowledge that he lives in a town which is full of spirit, a dependable town which harbors the ambition to outstrip any of its neighbors in the Great Southwest; a town whose schools, churches, clubs, social organization, opera houses, parks, etc., furnish all that goes to make life worth living. Linked with this pride in the heart of every citizen is the satisfactory knowledge that his brother across the way owns his home. If he doesn’t own it, he will some day, for he makes good wages in the factories or the mines and will soon be in a position where nobody can tell him and his little tot to move. The fraternal spirit reigns supreme; people care, and that is what makes Pittsburg such a satisfying place to live.”

Early History Items  

copyright 2008