Early European explorers included Coronado (1540), Major Long (1819), and Fremont (1842). The doomed Donnor Party traveled four miles north of town on the Oregon Trail on May 22, 1846, while Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband traveled the reverse on August 11, 1894 on their journey from the family home in Walnut Grove, Minn. to Southern Missouri.
Early settlers were known to use keelboats on the river prior to the Civil War. 34 steam ships plied the waters of the Kansas River between 1854-1866, although river navigation soon ceased when the state legislature declared the river non-navigable in favor of the railroad and bridge companies.
In the early 1860's the discovery of gold near Denver brought many through Wamego on the Smoky Hill Trail. In 1863 the Kansas Pacific Railroad began building the main line for passengers and freight bound westward across the plains. Seizing this opportunity, The Wamego Town Company founded and laid out a new town site - Wamego - along the proposed rail in 1866. Wamego was later incorporated in 1868.
The founders offered the railroad land and cash to locate the Kansas Pacific division headquarters in the town for a minimum of 20 years. A station, roundhouse, and shops evolved, which employed a considerable number of people. For a time, Wamego served as the rail yard for the larger town of Louisville four miles north, which was situated on the Oregon Trail. This situation soon changed, as did transportation techniques. By 1874 Wamego had 28 businesses as opposed to the 6 in Louisville. In 1890 the Kansas Pacific moved the division headquarters to Junction City.
Working in the rail yard machine shops was a man named Chrysler whose home was nearby. His son, Walter P. Chrysler, the founder of the Chrysler Corporation, was born in Wamego on April 2, 1875.
Numerous additions to the town were made early on. Several residential additions were added between 1870 and 1874. The first bridge across the Kansas River, replacing early ferry systems, was built in 1872. A seven span concrete bridge later replaced this bridge in 1928 (the current bridge was constructed in recent times). The first water system was installed in 1899, and electric lights in 1906. The city parklands were acquired in 1901.