The Pittsburg police force dates to the times of settling disputes between neighbors such as cattle thief, defending the territory from outlaws, and denying vigilantes the right to string up the lawless at the nearest tall tree. All this would have taken place in a cabin of a Justice during the years of 1870, before the first prison and courthouse was built.
Long before the city of Pittsburg became official and dropped the H from its spelling of its name in 1894, “New Pittsburgh” was already developing into a thriving town looking to build a city prison to house those who had a few too many spirits, and didn’t feel the need to go home. Due to the consistent problems of liquor, an ordinance was provided for regulating licensing and sales of beverages.
Throughout the years, municipal buildings furnished with iron cells in the jail section will be built; one site being built in 1887 and located on the north side of 4th Street, just west of the alley between Broadway and Pine Streets. Later, in 1899, this building became the No. 1 Fire Station. In 1961, Loy & Sons will purchase the site for their CPA accounting firm on 108 West 4th Street.
The Police force had several problems to face during the early years of Pittsburg. The railroads were both a blessing and a curse to the prosperity of Pittsburg. Trains brought in not only the workers, but also brought in those whose many considered “undesirables.” The police force had many “undesirable” problems to face in a day. First, due to consistent problems of liquor, an ordinance will be provided for regulating licensing and sales of beverages. The fist fights over positions in line in front of the Opera House or depot or the many places in town where a cab driver (horse and buggy) was vying for business. The day the coal miners and smelter workers got paid was probably the biggest anticipated day for the policemen, as the two just seemed to clash and it happened like clockwork every month. Every payroll day, the city flocked around the workers as they bashed heads and blooded their knuckles until the police threw the offenders into the jail house until tempers cooled down.
With the mining camps came saloons, and soon the saloons moved into Pittsburg to stay. Twenty-five saloons were listed in the 1905 city directory. Even though prohibition would not happen until 1910, Kansas was a dry state, where a mass of church going crusaders fought to close the saloons. Every month, saloon owners simply paid their fines and went back to work. Another heated protest was against the “ladies of the night.” Prostitutes made a small fortune off miners and the growing population of Pittsburg. “Keep ‘em in jail!” became the rally cry from ladies’ church groups. Since there were no jail cells available for women in the late 1800s, even “women of their kind,” an area of lascivious houses on East 3rd Street became known as the Red Light District where it thrived for many years. This is probably due to the men of Pittsburg politely encouraging the “decent” women to stay away from the area.
The 20th century brought a new city hall constructed on the corner of 4th and Pine Street in 1901 that included city jail spaces designed for both men and women. Several notable police chiefs also stood out during the century. Chief Charles Ritter, 1912-1913, began to crush crime by enlarging the police force, fighting prostitution, and purchasing an automobile patrol wagon and lighting alley ways where most crime occurred. Chief Roll Rakestraw, 1913-1915, referred to as a part of the ‘fearless nine,’ served when fingerprinting began in 1915 and prints of crooks were kept on file to help match those found at crime scenes. A. Ross Armstrong was hired in 1915 as patrolmen, later Chief, and most fearless law officer this area had seen, serving the department above and beyond the call of duty until 1940. Chief Armstrong is the grandfather of Steve Ward, owner of Pittsburgs oldest continuously operated business, Brenner Mortuary.
Our current Police Department located at 201 North Pine Street is named after the following two police Chiefs, Beard and Shanks. Chief Ralph Beard began his career as a desk sergeant in 1942, quickly working his way up to chief in 1949. After serving 33 years on the force, Chief Beard retired in 1975. Chief Ralph Shanks began his career as an officer in 1964, chief in 1978with the honor of retiring as Chief in 1995. Chief Shanks tenure ushered in the new modern world of the computers, facsimiles, breath analyzers, DNA technology, plus more. The beloved Chief Shanks leadership brought Pittsburg Police Department to the fore front as the largest, most modern police department in Southeast Kansas. Both Chief Beard and Chief Shanks pictures are proudly displayed in the lobby of the station.
As Pittsburg progresses, Chief Mindy Hulvey, 2005-present, continues to see technology change as it plays a vital role in day to day operations. However, throughout the centuries, one piece of information will never change and always remain the same, as Chief Hulvey proudly states. The police force gets to go out and help people solve problems. As the Chief tells her young officers, you won’t remember the people you arrest, but you will remember those you helped.
Special thanks to Major Brent Narges for taking the time to set out the wonderful sources (esp. Evelyn M. Thomas’ historical documentation), pictures and the tour of the department.
Remember to thank an officer. Still to come, Our History. The legacy of John Chester.
— Amanda Minton is the director of the Crawford County Historical Museum, as well as a lecturer of history at Pittsburg State University.