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Ozarks Life: Tale of Two Cities

Division Street was a boundary for two communities in the late 1800s.
Published: Apr. 8, 2022 at 9:47 AM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - “A Tale of Two Cities” is a Charles Dickens book about transformation.

Springfield has had its own transformation tale from two cities.

The city has some unique street names. Campbell Avenue for example is named after founder, John Polk Campbell. But to the north is Division. It’s a road that runs right in the middle of town.

“Division was because it was the dividing line,” History Museum on the Square Executive Director Emeritus John Sellars said. “It was the border between two communities.”

The railroad was the driving force of division back in the mid-1800s.

“When the railroad surveyors came through here in the 1850s,” Sellars said, “they determined that the most level trackage, the most level roadbed would be about a mile and a quarter north of the city. At that time (the city) was just around the public square.”

The city of Springfield and its square was being passed by like the small towns along Route 66 would see a century later. The railroad said, if Springfield would build a depot, it would lay an offshoot track south for the city. Springfield eventually declined the offer.

Meanwhile, a group of investors saw this as an opportunity to create something along the proposed railroad.

“(The investors) bought up all the land alongside this railroad right away,” Sellars said. “They approached the railroad and said, ‘why don’t you help us and we’ll build a community here to become your railroad town. And you won’t have to run an extra track or anything.’ And so the railroad thought that was a pretty good idea.”

The Atlantic-Pacific Railroad worked with the investors and this commercial district was built.

“It became North Springfield,” Sellars said. “So when the first train pulled in, April 1 of 1870, it pulled into the city of North Springfield.”

“And that’s why there was a Division Street. And that dividing line was a source of friction and a source of competition between these two communities.”

To the north of Division the railroad town.

To the south, the city with established businesses and industry.

A rivalry was born.

“If one of them got something,” Sellars said, “the other one had to have a bigger one or a better one or two of them or something.”

While the cities fought to be the best, the residents reaped the rewards. The infrastructure this rivalry created was unheard of for an area like ours.

‘We had phone service, we had a water company, we had sewer, and Power and Light,” Sellars said. “All the things that you can’t imagine of a city of our size, really getting and developing, just trying to one-up each other.”

That’s when another street was also born. Central. It had the courthouse, the high school, and the library then, and where we can still find those services today. Midway between the square to the south and the railroad to the north.

“All of them right there in that block on either side of Central Street so that neither side had an undue advantage,” Sellars said.

Seventeen years after the railroad came to North Springfield the two cities voted to unite as one. In April of 1887, it was Springfield, not North Springfield, that was left standing.

“They needed to combine their forces,” Sellars said, “and go on and grow from there. And that’s exactly what they did.”

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