Although Topeka means, "a good place to grow potatoes" in the Kansa tribe language, regional farmers now grow mostly wheat, corn, soybeans and alfalfa. Indeed, the popular image of Kansas is a state of seemingly endless, flat fields of wheat. Residents of Topeka quickly point out that their city sits on gently rolling hills and straddles the Kansas River. The city was little more than a ferry crossing on the Kansas River until 1850s, when it was chartered. By the next decade, the city was a hub for four major railroads. Today, with a population of 130,000, Topeka is the capital of Kansas.
No visit to Topeka would be complete without a stop at the ornate Kansas State Capitol, which took 37 years to build at a total cost of $3.2 million. Carvings, arches, wainscoting and floors display a dazzling variety of marbles from around the world, including blue Belgian marble and white Italian Carrara marble. Massive murals depict important developments in Kansas and U.S. history, including the arrival of Spaniards, Indian wars, battles over slavery and the Civil War. The rotunda beneath the structure’s massive copper dome displays statues of important people from Kansas, including Amelia Earhart and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
A few blocks south of the capitol, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site helps visitors understand the complex history behind the fight for desegregation. The U.S. Supreme Court actually consolidated five separate court cases relating to desegregating public schools in five different states. One of them involved a student enrolled at Monroe Elementary in Topeka. After a successful fight to block the sale of that building to private developers, the Brown Foundation transformed it into one of Topeka’s most important historic sites. The extensively renovated building now houses educational displays, multimedia exhibits and a book store.
About three miles north is the Great Overland Station, another of Topeka's top historic sites and most frequently visited attractions. The station offers a glimpse into an era when railroads were the lifeblood of the region. With high ceilings, towering windows, antique chandeliers and beautiful architectural details, the restored train station is a must-see. Kids love the model train, which chugs through a highly detailed miniature town. Outside the station, guests encounter antique rail cars and a restored depot. An adjoining Veterans' Memorial displays 50 state flags surrounding a soaring, flame-shaped sculpture that represents the flame of liberty.
The Kansas Museum of History on the west side of town rounds out a visit to Topeka. The museum is the final resting place for the Santa Fe Railroad's oldest surviving train, built in 1880. The main gallery explores the history of the region's native tribes, including the Osage, Pawnee and the Kansa. An 1868 stagecoach and Civil War battle flags are among the museum’s most interesting exhibits. Visitors can also learn about Topeka's role in the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses that helped slaves escape to the North before and during the Civil War.