Rivers, Roads, and Railways: Catalyst for Development

Sitting at the confluence of two rivers near the edge of the western frontier, the area we know today as Kansas City seemed destined to become a major transportation hub between the East and West.

In reality, it was a combination of enterprising financiers and aggressive politics—along with natural landscape—that put it on the national stage.

In the early 1860s, Kansas City was a small community with big aspirations. When the federal government approved the Pacific Railroad Acts promoting construction of a transcontinental railroad, a national boom in railroad lines followed. Kansas City boosters joined the craze, knowing that a solid transportation infrastructure and terminals for major railroad lines would be essential to city growth.

When St. Louis investors announced the organization of the Pacific Railroad line in 1849, the charter promised to connect St. Louis, through Kansas City, to the Pacific Ocean. Yet Kansas Citians put their celebrations on hold as the Civil War halted those plans. Not until 1865 did the Pacific Railroad lines finally reach Kansas City, completing an important East-West connection that changed the trajectory of development in the region.

As important as that connection was, Kansas City’s leaders knew more work needed to be done. Markets in Chicago had grown, and a route to the Northeast was crucial. A first step was maintaining the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad line from northern Missouri to Kansas City. Additionally, a bridge over the Missouri River was needed.

Hannibal Bridge opened for boat passage.

Although other area cities (St. Joseph, Missouri, and Leavenworth, Kansas) were also in the running, it was the relentless lobbying of Kansas City boosters that brought congressional approval for the first bridge to cross the Missouri River at Kansas City. According to Charles Glaab, this was “in Kansas City’s self-evaluation, the key to its success and a tribute to the bold resourcefulness of a small group of inspired city fathers.”

Indeed, the Hannibal Bridge was a key factor in Kansas City’s initial development. The bridging of the Missouri River enticed other railroads and businesses to the area, and the city became a stopping point on the cattle trail. Kansas City’s cattle yards began to grow into a thriving industry.

Joseph G. McCoy convinced drovers to send their cattle up from Texas to Abilene by way of the Chisholm Trail, where they would find the Kansas Pacific Railway waiting to ship them on to Eastern markets with a short stop for rest in Kansas City’s small feed yards. The Hannibal Bridge created a link between Kansas City and Chicago that inspired railroaders to consolidate their resources in Kansas City’s West Bottoms and finance a unified stockyard company. It provided a place for stock to rest and eat before finishing the journey to the Northeastern markets.

When Philip Armour arrived in 1870 with plans to expand his meat packing empire to Kansas City, it added another branch of the livestock industry. The meat packing industry thrived in KC, and a report by the U.S. Immigration Commission in 1910 noted that, “(i)n Kansas City, slaughtering and meat packing is not only the principal industry, but the only industry of importance.”

Union Depot, 1895

The first train station in Kansas City was the State Line Depot, built in 1864 by the Union Pacific Railroad Company at 11th Street and State Avenue in the West Bottoms. After the Hannibal Bridge was built, connecting seven railroads to Kansas City, rail traffic through the depot increased significantly. To accommodate this, the new Union Depot was built on Union Avenue between Bluff Street and Santa Fe in the West Bottoms to serve as the depot for Kansas City.

Union Depot, featuring an excessively ornate combination of architectural styles, served as the city’s main railroad station until it was replaced in 1914 by Union Station. When Union Depot was initially built, it was nicknamed the “Jackson County Insane Asylum” because people thought it was much larger than anything that would ever be needed in Kansas City. But by 1880, it had been expanded to double its original size.

Railroad Yards in West Bottoms

Railroad traffic in the West Bottoms became congested as the Kansas City Stockyards Company grew and meat packing plants multiplied. To ease the confusion and crowding, a small network of rail lines and cars was built throughout the stockyards area. According to a memorandum history of the Kansas City Connecting Railroad Company, “it was deemed advisable to separate the transportation or railroad terminal facilities of the stock yards from the general operating business of the yards, and for said purpose there was incorporated on or about the 7th day of May, 1913, the Kansas City Connecting Railway Company under the laws of the state of Kansas.” This railroad strengthened the infrastructure of the West Bottoms by easing the responsibility of freight and commercial rail lines and providing a separate transportation line for the stockyards daily operations.

Map of the United States showing Kansas City as a railroad center.

Historians often speculate that the area now occupied by the Kansas City metropolis was naturally inclined to grow into a large and important Midwestern city. While it is true that the city had some natural advantages as a location for early speculators, any of a number of nearby locations could have become the dominant metropolis. A key group of financial and political investors, as well as a few other especially enterprising men, set off a chain of events that lured attention and capital to Kansas City.

Developers at the time knew that bringing in railroads would be a catalyst for the city, and history seems to have proven them correct. As Glaab wrote, “it was the pattern of railroad connections that was ultimately responsible for the fact that Kansas City, a candidate favored by few observers, ultimately became the regional metropolis.” Wherever the rivers, roads, and railways led, fortune followed.

- Kara Evans, project archivist, Missouri Valley Special Collections


References:

Glaab, Charles N. Kansas City and the Railroads: Community Policy in the Growth of a Regional Metropolis. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1993.

“Memorandum History of the Kansas City Connecting Railroad Company and Proceedings Incident thereto.” Kansas City Stockyards Collection (SC167), Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.

Montgomery, Rick and Shirl Kasper. Kansas City An American Story, Edited by Monroe Dodd. Kansas City, Missouri: Kansas City Star Books, 1999.

Shortridge, James.Kansas City and How It Grew, 1822-2011. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2012.

U.S. Senate. 61st Congress, 2nd Session. Reports of the Immigration Commission Volume 13: Immigrants in Industries, Part II: Slaughtering and Meat Packing (1909-1910). Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911. Accessed March 3, 2015.

“K.B. Armour Is No More.” Kansas City Star, September 28, 1901.