This illustration from circa 1890 show the Whitley Opera House that stood on the northeast corner of 6th Avenue and Merchant Street until it was destroyed in a fire in 1913.
82 | Emporia Living
iram C. Whitley was a true entrepreneur born in Camden, Maine, in 1834. After graduating from Western Reserve Seminary at the age of 16, he moved to Lawrence, Kansas, in 1857 to participate in the building of a new state. After only two years in the grocery business there, he moved on to Colorado. With the advent of the Civil War, he found himself in New Orleans working as a Secret Service agent for the Union. Following the war, he was employed by the Internal
to the Emporia Gazette’s obituary of Whitley of October 1919, this was “probably his most outstanding achievement … a task he carried out with marked ability.” But for Emporians, his greatest achievements centered around his energetic involvement in building our fair city. Why he chose to settle in Emporia after his secret service glory days is unknown. Perhaps he was seeking the peace and quiet of a new town far from the strife and rebellion of Washington, D.C., but by 1881, his was already a go-to name
Revenue Bureau investigating fraud cases in various parts of the country, including Kansas. He was even engaged in trying to secure information to be used for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. Finally, during President Grant’s administration, Whitley’s work was found so valuable by the President, that he appointed Whitley Chief of the Secret Service, and charged him with the responsibility of suppressing the Ku Klux Klan’s criminal activities in the South. According
in town. A hastily formed committee of Whitley and four others filed a charter and organized a company to build an opera house for Emporia. Rarely were operas performed in these theatres. Rather, traveling lectures, impersonators, hypnotists, masters of the black arts and psychic phenomenon, puppet shows, vocal and instrumental soloists, and local and traveling musical and theatrical groups were the main attractions in these opera houses. Built like most opera houses
across the Kansas, the Whitley housed business establishments on the ground floor while the opera house was located on the second floor. With Emporia’s prime location along both the Santa Fe and Katy railroad lines, the town was easily accessible to citizens of other towns wishing to spend the night and see the shows. According to the Emporia Daily Republican, “The elite of Burlington to the number of about fifty of her most intelligent men and best looking women came to Emporia on yesterday for the purpose of attending the splendid entertainment at the Whitley Opera House last evening. The central section of the parquette was reserved by Col. Whitley for their special accommodation.” (Feb. 2, 1882) Col. Whitley understood the importance of serving his clientele. Already he had established himself as an hotelier of note, having bought one of the prime hotels when he first arrived in town, the Coolidge House. He was responsible for building another hotel, remodeling two others and then donating $35,000 that made possible the construction of the Whitley Opera House. The Gazette claimed he had “the distinction of putting more bricks together than any man in Emporia.” The title Colonel was only an honorarium given most hotel men in the late 1880’s. His actual military title from the Civil War was Major; however, before the close of the war he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel but was never mustered in that rank. When all Whitley memorabilia was disbursed in 1964, the most elaborate gift to the museum was a citation of the Commander in Chief of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion engraved with the following citation: “Major Hiram Combs Whitley, commanding the Seventh United States Colored Troops, especially distinguished for maintaining the honor, integrity and supremacy of the government of the United States, is received as a Companion
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