By David Markham
Recent developments including derailments and mergers have put railroads in the news lately, but trains have been making impacts on Johnson County for more than 150 years. The origins and continuing impacts of rail transformation in Johnson County are the topic of a new special exhibit at the Johnson County Museum beginning May 13, which is National Railroad Day.
In the works for about a year, the new interactive exhibit, “TRAINS: Transportation and the Transformation of Johnson County” examines how everything changed after the railroad came through Johnson County for the first time in 1867. The exhibit will be on display until Jan. 13. In addition, a new trolley playscape honoring the Strang Line commuter railroad has opened inside the museum’s popular KidScape area.
“In our signature exhibit, “Becoming Johnson County,” there is a small section that talks about how important the railroads were in developing the region’s economy,” said Curator of Interpretation Andrew R. Gustafson. “Visitors might remember the big steam locomotive on the bridge over their heads as they walk through. That bridge represents the Hannibal Bridge, the first permanent rail bridge across the Missouri River, and it was located at the foot of Broadway.”
The bridge and the trains it carried across the river sparked a new phase in the region’s development, and much of that history played out on the Johnson County landscape.
“Johnson County was heavily influenced by the introduction of the railroad,” Gustafson said. “Because of its proximity to Kansas City, there were more sets of tracks constructed across the county and more trains rolling through than your average Kansas county. The changes may not seem massive since we are not talking about feats of engineering, like big trestle bridges or tunnels. But the exhibit shows how business, agriculture, employment, residents, politics, and even where a town developed and if it survived were all directly impacted by the railroad.”
Helping to give visitors a deeper connection with the past is a goal for the temporary exhibit.
“We may not interact with trains on a daily basis anymore, but the railroad industry heavily influenced the county in which we live, work, play, and move around in today,” Gustafson explained. “Thinking about how and why our communities began, developed, and thrived might shed new light on our county."
Artifacts visitors will see in the exhibit include original tools used to build the railroad, uniforms worn by conductors, and fine China used by travelers. There is a video of track workers swinging their hammers to pound in railroad spikes. And perhaps most fun, there will be a running model train display in the exhibit. Hands-on components of the exhibit include a telegraph machine where visitors can try typing out and decoding a message on the telegraph. There is also an interactive opportunity to see how the big, connected wheels of steam locomotives worked.
Gustafson said the museum uses special exhibits to explore aspects of local history featured in the signature exhibit, “Becoming Johnson County.” There are four big themes in that gallery - Land/Land Use, Policy, Regionalism, and People.
“All four themes are really apparent in this special exhibit,” he said. “Historically speaking, it was the regionalism aspect – the county’s closeness to Kansas City – that made the railroad so important here.”
The Johnson County Museum will offer public programs designed to complement the exhibit throughout the year. The first program on May 18 called Kansas City and the Power of the Railroad will feature a speaker from Linda Hall Library exploring the power of the railroad in shaping the Kansas City metro area. For more information and to register, visit JCPRD.com/register. Future program topics include the Harvey House restaurant chain, Mexican railroad laborers called traqueros, the National Academy of Railway Sciences (NARS) at Johnson County Community College, and more.
The new trolley playscape in KidScape is based on the Strang Line commuter railroad that ran between Kansas City, Missouri, and Johnson County from 1906 until 1940. Museum Curator of Interpretation Leah Palmer noted the new trolley playscape at KidScape is the first major addition to KidScape since the museum opened at the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center in 2017.
“One of our goals for the KidScape environment is to help children and families connect with Johnson County history,” she explained. “Although our current environments, like the market, schoolhouse, and hospital, allow for children to play in the past and compare past and present, they do not represent a specific place or thing in history. For our first major update in KidScape, we wanted to visually represent something iconic from the past. As we continue to update this popular space, we will keep looking for new ways to connect to our past in a way that is engaging and most of all, fun!”
The historical Strang Line was named for William B. Strang, founder of Overland Park, who developed the trolley line. The Strang Line carried early Johnson County suburbanites into Kansas City on a route that paralleled the Santa Fe Trail. The new KidScape Trolley is modeled after the first car to run on the line, the Ogerita, named after Strang’s niece. The addition of the trolley playscape was funded by the Friends of the Johnson County Museum, which works with The Parks and Recreation Foundation of Johnson County to secure the resources to fund museum experiences.
Museum officials did not intentionally tie the special exhibit and trolley addition together, but because both are designed to connect people with the history of Johnson County and transportation is such a major part of that story, it’s not surprising these two projects coincided.
“KidScape is by far the most popular space in the museum,” Palmer noted. “We often have children bring their parents and siblings back after visiting on a field trip. Out-of-town guests are brought along by return visitors, and members return time after time to enjoy this truly charming space. Families come from all over the county, and beyond, to experience KidScape – and learn some history while they are here. KidScape is the perfect-sized environment for a family outing. The 3,500 square-foot space has only one entrance, meaning you won’t spend your entire visit chasing your children. Instead, you can sit down with your kids while they explore and engage in imaginative play that you both will enjoy!”
For more information about the special exhibit, visit the Johnson County Museum website at JCPRD.com/trains or call 913-826-2787.
Both the new exhibit and KidScape are located at the Johnson County Museum, which is inside the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center, 8788 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park. Exhibit and KidScape admission is included with regular museum admission rates of $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $4 for children ages one to 17, and free for children under one. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and is closed on Sundays and holidays.