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Leonard T. Smith, whose scroll of life was rolled up a number of years ago, but the record of which remains in the grateful memory of many Kansas people, was one of the most forceful characters in the early history of Leavenworth and in a larger sense of Kansas as a whole. He was one of the men who had the iron of resolution in his soul and will, and he used his strength and self reliance in many ways for the good of an entire state.
His life record begins with his birth on December 2, 1827, at Bethany, in Genesee County, New York. His father, Thomas G. Smith, was descended from an old New England family. His mother, Anna Burroughs, was a daughter of Daniel Burroughs, who established the first woolen mills at Skaneateles, in New York, and was also a man of wide renown as a ritualistic Free Mason.
Beyond acquiring a practical education the early youth of Leonard T. Smith was passed uneventfully. In 1852, at the age of twenty-five, he went west to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and for five years was a landlord in that city.
To the present generation it is impossible to realize the significance of the name Kansas fifty or sixty years ago. It was an invitation to the homeless and oppressed, and also to those who had fighting blood in them and who were ruled with the desire to extend the boundaries of freedom and opportunity to the limits of the known world. Its thousands of broad acres were open to pre-emption and settlement and nowhere in the world was real vital history being made more rapidly than in “bleeding Kansas.” The great gateway to this territorial opportunity was Leavenworth on the Missouri River. It was then the foremost city of Kansas Territory, and had every promise of becoming the great western metropolis of the Missouri Valley.
One of the arrivals at old Leavenworth in 1857 was Leonard T. Smith. He was then thirty years of age. He had experience, some capital, was aggressive and stalwart looking and was soon established in the midst of the commercial life of old Leavenworth. For a short time he operated the famous old Planters Hotel of the city. He afterwards bought the property and continued as its owner and landlord for several years.
His was an alert mind. He could see business opportunities where the ordinary man would look in vain. With another noted character of Leavenworth, Alexander Caldwell, Mr. Smith took up Government contracting and freighting across the plains. That business flourished for a few years, but was only temporary until transportation would be taken over by railroad. From transporting goods by ox and mule teams it was only a step to railroad building. Mr. Smith assisted in constructing what is now the Missouri Pacific from Kansas City to Leavenworth, and then to Atchison. In a like manner he built the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe from Leavenworth to Holliday, and also from Leavenworth to Atchison. He built 167 miles of narrow gauge railroad from Leavenworth west to Miltonvale. This was first known as the Kansas Central Railroad, and after it was changed to a broad gauge road it was sold to the Union Pacific Railroad Company. Through his varied activities as a railroad builder, business man and investor he became wealthy. His activities were not prompted altogether by a desire for personal gains, but equally by the motive of public spirit and the ambition to do good for a community.
He became president of the original company that constructed the waterworks system of Leavenworth, and continued at the head of the company the rest of his life. Since his individual activities and concerns were largely of a public nature, it is not strange that he was unattracted by political honors. Without solicitation on his part he was elected a member of the first Legislature of Kansas as a state, and he went to the capital and offered his business judgment and experience and character in the work of the general assembly and was exceedingly serviceable in this formative period of legislation.
The side of his life and character upon which his friends most delight to dwell was that presented in his domestic circle. At his fireside and at his table he loved to mingle with his many friends. There he was seen at his best–the real Leonard T. Smith. His wife was Miss Helen L. Kendall, a daughter of Charles Kendall and a descendant of Peter Kendall, a soldier of the Revolutionary war. They were married November 3, 1853, at Bethany, New York. They were never blessed with children of their own, and poured all the wealth of parental affection upon an adopted daughter, Helen W., who is now the wife of William T. Hewitt, of Leavenworth.
While on a journey in the Republic of Mexico, accompanied by friends, Mr. Smith was stricken with heart failure and died in the City of Mexico, April 15, 1891. His death did not pass without appreciation by the people of Kansas. That appreciation was perhaps best summarized in an editorial found in the Kansas City Journal, from which the following sentences are quoted:
“Len Smith is dead. Nobody ever knew him as a ‘Colonel’ or an ‘Honorable’ or anything else than Len, and that fact tells the whole story. He was one of the most genial, congenial, companionable, frank, manly men we ever knew. He was an active man in all departments of life, but not offensively so in anything. He was often active in politics, but always for some friend, never for himself. He had a business faculty for large affairs, but in everything he undertook advantage to his locality and his neighbors went hand in hand with benefit to himself. He was open-hearted, open-handed, open-minded, one of the salt of the earth to one who knows what that sort of salt means. He died away from his home in a strange country while engaged in what was to him a second-nature pursuit, having others participate in enjoyments and pleasures with himself. He could not enjoy anything alone. He was successful in two things in this life, making himself comfortable in the enjoyment of the good things of living, and in making all who knew him his friends. After all, did not Len Smith live more wisely and to better purpose than if he had had ambitious, for with all his qualities of head and heart he would have succeeded in any pursuit of life he had chosen? With his life work behind him, he cannot but sleep well and wake to continue his genial work ‘over there.’ “