Kansas City Area’s Roads Point North, but not the Same North. KC Q Straightens it Out

Last modified: 
Friday, October 18, 2019
What's your KC Q?

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Kody Willnauer was looking at Google Maps one day and noticed that roads that run north and south on the Missouri side of the Kansas City area slant to the east. That’s not the case on the Kansas side, where the roads appear to run straight up and down the screen, the elementary school teacher and Tonganoxie resident observed. The roads on the Missouri side are not parallel with those on the Kansas side.

"Why does it look like Johnson County streets follow true north while the alignment of streets in Missouri follow magnetic north?" Willnauer asked "What’s Your KC Q?"

This question is a popular one. KCQ received several versions of it, including: "Stateline Road is not a true north/south street. Why is that?” from Mike Sanders and “If you look at a map of KCMO, you’ll notice the street grid south of the river is skewed about 5° to the northeast. What happened?" from James Appelbaum.

Some astute KCQ readers wanted to know why the north-south streets in Missouri seem to veer to the east while those in Kansas appear more straight. NEIL NAKAHODO THE KANSAS CITY STAR
Some astute KCQ readers wanted to know why the north-south streets in Missouri seem to veer to the east while those in Kansas appear more straight. NEIL NAKAHODO THE KANSAS CITY STAR

“What’s Your KCQ?” is an ongoing series in which The Star and the Kansas City Public Library partner to answer reader questions about our region — from the quirky to the historic. Many attempted answers to this question exist on the Internet.

There are several threads on Reddit, an online forum community, that take up the issue, including one titled "Why are KCMO streets not aligned perfectly North/South?," another that asks "Why are the roads between Kansas and Missouri weird?" and one that describes it as "It kind of looks like the Metro had a stroke and KCMO has gone limp."

That’s kind of comforting for Willnauer, who is glad he isn’t the only one who noticed.

"It’s nice to see that someone else looked at map and saw that and and started to think, 'Why,'" he said.

Flatland’s curiousKC initiative looked at the topic in a 2018 story called “Crooked Missouri,” but didn’t find a definitive answer. After talking to several experts, CuriousKC found that a combination of factors could be at play including which north — true or magnetic — was used, the gap in time between surveys for each state and possible human or technological errors.

Another factor might be the distance from the north-south survey line used for each state.

According to the Missouri Department of Agriculture, the state’s land surveys are based on the Fifth principal meridian, which was established in 1815 near St. Louis. According to the Kansas Society of Land Surveyors, Kansas’ land surveys are based on the Sixth principal meridian, which was established 1855 and is closer to Kansas City.

Land surveys are designed to be a rectangular grid, but the Earth is not flat. Meridians, therefore, are not really parallel. They converge at the North Pole.

That, and because of inaccuracies over long distances from the original survey line, can lead to lines that are not true north and south. Yet another fun quirk of living in this state-line city!

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