Kansas City History
Kansas City traces its beginnings to 1821, the year Missouri was admitted to the Union.
In that year a Frenchman from St. Louis, Francois Chouteau, came up the Missouri River and established a trading post on the waterway about three miles below the great bend in the river, now the Northeast Industrial District. After being flooded out in 1826, he rebuilt on higher ground at the foot of what is now Troost Avenue. Chouteau and several other French families who joined him constituted the first non-Indian settlement in Kansas City.
Another enterprising young man, John Calvin McCoy, likewise was interested in selling and trading, but he opened his store inland on the Santa Fe Trail, about four miles south of Chouteau’s trading post. McCoy filed a plat on his land in 1833 and because he considered it a portal to the West, named it Westport.
McCoy also found a rock ledge on the south shore of the Missouri River that formed a natural landing for river boats. Until that time, Independence, Mo., has been the best spot for transferring supplies from the river route to the land routes westward. The water route was faster and easier than shipping by land, and McCoy reasoned that if supplies could be floated to his landing — about 22 miles farther west than Independence — even the four-mile trip overland to Westport would cut the land haul by 18 miles.
The idea worked, and by 1845 Westport had replaced Independence as a source of supplies and point of departure for wagons headed west.
McCoy played another role in Kansas City history. His landing was on the Gabriel Prudhomme farm, which was put up for sale in 1838. McCoy and 13 other men formed the Town Company and bought the 271-acre tract for $4,220. The tract included property which later became Kansas City’s first downtown district.
Legend has it that the new owners held a meeting at which one of the subjects was a name for their new township. After rejecting such ideas as Port Fonda, Rabbitville and Possum Trot, they decided to name it the Town of Kansas, after the Kansa Indians who inhabited the area.
The town retained that name when it was incorporated and granted a charter by Jackson County June 1, 1850. (When it was incorporated by the state Feb. 22, 1853, it became the City of Kansas, and in 1889, it officially became known as Kansas City.)
In 1840, the Town of Kansas had 500 residents. In 1853, with an area of nearly a square mile and a population of 2,500 persons, the City of Kansas elected its first mayor, William S. Gregory. The first city council meeting was held April 25, 1853, in a building on the river between Walnut and Main streets. Council members received $2 for each meeting they attended.
The Civil War
The hottest issue of the day in the 1850s was the emotion-packed question of whether the new Kansas Territory should be admitted to the Union as a free state or a slave state. Jackson County residents were acutely affected, as most of them were pro-South and the town was a border point. Skirmishes between pro- and anti-slavery forces began along the Missouri-Kansas border six years before the Civil War.
Events in the City of Kansas area climaxed Aug. 14, 1863, when a building at 14th and Grand being used by the Union army as a temporary jail collapsed, killing some women who were related to William Quantrill’s pro-slavery raiders. Quantrill retaliated seven days later with his infamous attack on Lawrence, Kan., in which 150 persons were killed and Lawrence was virtually destroyed.
The City of Kansas area got a strong taste of the Civil War during the Battle of Westport Oct. 21-23, 1864, said to be the largest and most decisive Union-Confederate clash in Missouri. It was at Westport that the Union army routed the Confederates and broke their power as an army in this area.
The Influence of Railroads
After the war, Leavenworth, Kan., the City of Kansas and St. Joseph, Mo., were competitors for trade dominance in the area. The City of Kansas won the competition, thanks to passage of a bill in Congress providing for construction of the Hannibal Bridge across the Missouri River at Broadway Avenue.
Until the 1,371-foot span opened July 3, 1869, there were no bridges across the river for its entire length. The railroads ended at the unincorporated town of Harlem on the river’s north bank.
In 1917 the bridge was replaced by a new one a few feet west that had a double deck — one for trains and the other for motor vehicles. When the present Broadway Bridge opened Sept. 9, 1956, the Hannibal’s motor vehicle deck was closed and later removed. The rail deck is still used.
The railroads helped make possible one of Kansas City’s biggest early-day industries: cattle. From beginnings not long after the Civil War, the city became one of the world’s major cattle markets. The Kansas City stockyard was founded in 1870, and the Kansas City Livestock Exchange there, in its heyday early in the 20th century, was the largest building in the world devoted exclusively to livestock interests.
The 1880s brought other milestones. The city had grown to 60,000 residents. It had adopted a new city charter in 1889 establishing a city council of 14 at-large aldermen in an “upper house,” serving four-year terms, and 14 ward aldermen in a “lower house,” serving two-year terms.
And 1880 marked the arrival in Kansas City of William Rockhill Nelson, who bought the Kansas City Star newspaper and who later persuaded residents to build the city’s first convention hall at 12th and Wyandotte streets, opened to the public in February of 1899.
Unfortunately, the building stood only about a year. In the early morning of April 4, 1900, with a Democratic national convention slated to take place in it exactly three months later, the building was destroyed by fire. But even as the blaze crackled, people circulated through the crowd of bystanders soliciting donations for its reconstruction. A frenzied 90 days later, the round-the-clock construction task was done, and the convention nominated William Jennings Bryan in a gleaming new hall. It served unt il it was razed in 1937, two years after the present Municipal Auditorium was completed.
Civic spirit showed in other ways. Nelson’s editorials persuaded Col. Thomas H. Swope of the need for public parks, and Swope, while still living, donated his 1,344-acre farm to the city for that purpose. Swope Park, dedicated June 25, 1896, has since grown to 1,769 acres.
Nelson left his own legacy in the form of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art at 45th and Oak streets, opened Dec. 11, 1933, on the site of his former mansion. The east wing is dedicated to Mary Atkins, who had left her estate for an art museum before Nelson.
The Pendergast Era
Kansas City by the beginning of World War I had grown to 248,000 persons, no small part of which was due to an annexation approved by voters April 6, 1909, that more than doubled the size of the city — from 25.4 square miles to 59.7 square miles. By then, the city was well under the influence of a widely known family: the Pendergasts.
James Pendergast quietly entered the political scene in 1881 by opening a working man’s tavern and hotel, the Climax, in the West Bottoms. A large, friendly man, he attracted loyalty by such favors as cashing paychecks and occasionally giving a few dollars to someone in need. In 1887, he used his friendships to run for alderman. He won, and remained on the City Council for 18 years.
When Jim died in 1912, his brother Tom took up the reins of power. For the next 27 years, until he was indicted by a federal grand jury for income tax evasion and imprisoned, Boss Tom virtually ruled the city. Crime and vice of every sort became rampant. It was not until 1940, when L.P. Cookingham was hired by reform forces here and became the dean of the nation’s city managers, that a city charter approved by voters in 1925 accomplished its goal of a professionally run city government.
Out of the Pendergast era did come some good. Construction during the period included a new 29-story City Hall, the Jackson County Courthouse, Municipal Auditorium, the 700-acre Municipal Airport and hundreds of miles of paved streets.
A private construction project by the J.C. Nichols Co. also left its mark on Kansas City. Beginning in 1922, the Nichols firm built the nation’s first planned shopping center, Country Club Plaza. This Spanish-style district has a wealth of imported statuary and fountains and now covers 55 acres.
Annexation and Other Growth
Since World War II, Kansas City has grown and prospered in innumerable ways.
Annexations, mainly in the late 1950s and early 1960s, increased its area to more than 316 square miles, and its population has grown to 435,000. The city now included parts of four counties: Jackson, Clay, Platte and Cass.
Other significant developments in recent years have included completion of the 4,700-acre Kansas City International Airport and the world’s only matched set of football and baseball stadiums in 1972, Kemper Arena in 1974, and H. Roe Bartle Exposition Hall in 1976.
Kansas City also is known for its foreign trade zone, its underground storage industry and its automobile assembly plants. It is said to have more fountains than any city except Rome, and more boulevards than any city except Paris.
One foreign dignitary who visited Kansas City summed up the feeling of many: “It is a city in the right place at the right time.”
Historical photos courtesy of Special Collections, Kansas City, Mo., Public Library