In a picturesque spot by the Missouri River, Atchison is a city that was long held as the gateway to the West.
Lewis and Clark passed through in the summer 1804, and from the end of the Civil War the city became a cradle of industry and entrepreneurship at the eastern terminus of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.
The sudden growth of that time is preserved in Atchison’s opulent late 19th-century residential architecture.
You can visit several of these stately Victorian mansions, which are now museums, one for Atchison’s most famous daughter, the aviator Amelia Earhart (1897-1937), who is also celebrated with an annual festival.
1. Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum
The house in which Amelia Earhart was born in 1891 has been turned into a museum by the Ninety-Nines. This is an international organization made up of female pilots of which Earhart was the first president.
The house, which belonged to her grandparents, with whom she spent much of her childhood, is in a Gothic Revival style and dates back to 1861.
The setting is nothing short of inspiring, high on the bluff looking east over the Missouri River. Using QR codes for audio information, the museum displays family heirlooms and photographs, as well as memorabilia from the 2009 biopic Amelia, starring Hilary Swank.
You can also view exhibits on other important women pilots, and there’s a gift shop with Earhart-themed souvenirs.
2. Atchison County Historical Society Museum
This top-notch local history museum has the perfect setting, in the historic Santa Fe Freight Depot from 1880. There’s no better place to relive the time when Atchison County was the gateway to the west.
The museum touches on Lewis and Clark and the county’s important railroad history, as well as famous figures like Amelia Earhart and Jesse Stone (1901-1999), the pioneering rhythm and blues musician.
Other highlights include the “smallest unofficial presidential library” for David Rice Atchison, and an exceptional collection of weapons dating from the Revolutionary War to World War II.
Just north of the city, the Atchison County Historical Society also looks after Independence Creek: Lewis & Clark Historic Site, where the expedition camped on July 4, 1804.
3. Riverfront and Independence Parks
One of many good things going for Atchison is the city’s access to the Missouri river bank where you can sit and watch one of the country’s great watercourses in action.
Linked by a continuous trail there’s a pair of adjacent parks, right on the water at the foot of the bluffs.
In the south is Riverfront Park, next to the downtown area and a marvelous location for the Amelia Earhart Festival and fireworks in July.
Just north is Independence Park, which has a few more amenities, such as exercise stations, boat ramps, restrooms, showers and picnic tables.
4. Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum
In 2016, the Atchison Amelia Earhart Foundation purchased Muriel, the last surviving 1935 Lockheed Electra 10-E in the world.
This is the same model from Earhart’s final flight, as she attempted to become the first woman to complete a circumnavigational flight of the globe.
This aircraft will be the star attraction at an interactive STEM-oriented aviation attraction at the Amelia Earhart Airport, west of Atchison.
At the time of writing, the museum was close to completion, but it was still possible to tour the hangar to see Muriel in all its glory.
5. Muchnic Art Gallery
This glorious three-story brick Queen Anne-style mansion on Fourth Street is among Athchison’s most beautiful Victorian residences. It was built in 1885 for lumber merchant George Howell, and has 14 rooms and a stately wraparound porch.
Howell had spent years collecting the walnut, oak and mahogany that went into his home. The house is owned by The Muchnic Foundation, established by the wealthy family that resided here between 1922 and 1968.
The foundation opened the house up to the public as exhibition space in 1970. You can call in for shows by local and regional artists, as well as a calendar of special events and workshops.
The house itself is part of the appeal, with exquisite original details like carved likenesses of the Howell family on the stairway, fireplace tiles, cast bronze elements on the doors, stained glass windows (particularly the solarium) and etched glass transoms over many interior doors.
6. Evah C. Cray Historical Home
The affluence of 19th-century Atchison comes to the fore at this theatrical Victorian mansion, constructed in 1882 for the banker W.W. Hetherington.
He was fascinated by Scottish castles, which explains the circular crenelated tower commanding the facade, complete with machicolations below the parapet.
Inside, the Evah C. Cray Historical Home is no less impressive, with historic period features like chandeliers and woodcarving, combined with authentic furnishings from the 1880s.
There’s a theater inside showing a short film about Atchison’s wealth of 19th-century residences.
7. International Forest of Friendship
Close to Warnock Lake in the southwest of Atchison is a fascinating arboretum and memorial forest, first planted in 1976. The International Forest of Friendship is a joint project between the City of Atchison and the Ninety-Nines: International Organization of Women Pilots.
You can follow a trail with granite plaques paying tribute to more 1,200 important figures from the aviation world, including Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, the Wright Brothers, astronaut Sally Ride and record-breaking pilot Jeana Yeager.
Other remarkable details at the forest are a tree from Amelia Earhart’s family farm, a bicentennial American spruce, trees from George Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon and a sycamore grown from a seed that went to the moon with Apollo 14 and is now a memorial for astronauts.
8. St. Benedict’s Abbey Church
The Benedictine College, by the river on the north side of Atchison, has a history going back to 1857. You can visit the campus, which has a lot of pretty buildings, like the abbey, which was constructed for the college’s monks in 1928.
Possibly the finest building on the campus is the Abbey Church, completed in 1957 in a Modernist style. The architect, Barry Byrne (1883-1967) had spent the early part of his career working at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park studio, and was part of the Prairie School.
The church is the centerpiece of the campus and can be visited between services. Inside, be sure to see the stunning altar fresco, Trinity and Episodes of Benedictine Life, painted in 1959 by Jean Charlot (1898-1979).
9. Atchison Farmers’ Market
When we wrote this list, the ever-popular Atchison Farmers’ Market was coming up for a quarter century of summers.
Normally opening in mid-May, the market takes place on Saturday mornings and Wednesday afternoons through October.
Throughout the season the market should be your first stop for fresh produce, baked goods, freshly roasted coffee, jams, jellies, preserves, plants, unusual handicrafts and more besides.
There are also lots of accompanying events, from cooking demonstrations and kids’ activities to live music.
10. 1889 McInteer Villa
To a lot of people the 1889 McInteer Villa at 1301 Kansas Ave is a charming example of Queen Anne-style architecture that would make a dream home. But to others, this palatial house is a hotbed of paranormal activity.
The house was built for the Irish immigrant John McInteer, a wealthy entrepreneur in the harness and saddle trade.
The interior is presented as a typically ornate upmarket Victorian home and can be seen on self-guided tours or overnight stays.
Some of the claimed occurrences include the sound of footsteps along the second-floor hallway, door knobs turning independently, lights switching on and off and the unexplained scent of a woman’s perfume and cigarettes.
11. Atchison Rail Museum
After paying a visit to the Atchison County Historical Society Museum you can spend some time exploring the yards around the Santa Fe Depot.
Awaiting you here is an outdoor display of rolling stock, including a lineup of passenger cars, cabooses and a snow plow.
The star is a preserved Baldwin steam locomotive, of the kind that ran on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in the first half of the 20th century.
On weekend afternoons in summer, you can take a ride on the Atchison & Western Miniature Railroad, a 12” line operated by members of the Northeast Kansas Railroad.
12. Sallie House
Arguably more famous among ghosthunters than the McInteer Villa is the Sallie House at 508 N 2nd St. This property has featured on various TV shows like Sightings and the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures.
The house dates to the turn of the 20th century, and at that time was home to a physician who practiced downstairs.
According to legend, the house is haunted by the ghost of a six-year-old girl who died on the operating table during emergency surgery for appendicitis.
All kinds of strange activity has been reported here, normally against men, supposedly as retribution against the doctor. The house, preserved as a family home from the 90s, is available to anyone who wants to visit, day or night.
It’s worth remembering that the Sallie House is in a residential area, so be mindful of the neighbors.
13. Amelia Earhart Memorial Bridge
This striking, $59.4m tied arch bridge on the Missouri opened in 2012, replacing an older crossing from the 1930s.
Like its predecessor, the bridge is named for the great aviator and is around 2,500 feet long, bringing U.S. Route. 59 into Atchison from Buchanan County, MO. Riverside Park is just to the north, and it’s a good idea to stop by at night to see the bridge illuminated by programmable LEDs.
Usually these have a red, white and blue pattern across the arch, resembling the flag of the United States.
14. Amelia Earhart Festival
Every year, on the third weekend of July, Atchison’s favorite daughter is remembered with a big community festival. The Friday night is LakeFest at Warnock Lake, which we’ll cover below.
Then on Saturday there’s a small world of entertainment, culture, ceremonies and other activities downtown, including children’s shows, craft vendors, presentations by authors who have written about Earhart and an open day at the Santa Fe Depot and Rail Museum.
At a special luncheon a woman who is a trailblazer in her field, will be presented with the Pioneering Achievement Award.
Then in the evening the party continues on the Missouri riverfront, where you can catch live music, an aerobatics show and the magnificent Concert in the Sky fireworks show.
15. Warnock Lake
This lake near the International Forest of Friendship is owned by the city, and is a destination in summer for boating, swimming and fishing.
The water is fringed by an expanse of lush parkland, offering RV campsites, restrooms, three shelters, play equipment, a disc golf course and picnic tables.
During the Amelia Earhart Festival, Warnock Lake is also a scenic backdrop for LakeFest, a night of live entertainment on the Friday.
This event has been a platform for a number of up-and-coming artists down the years, including Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Darius Rucker and Rascal Flatts.