Monday, July 25

History Lesson: Town of Kansas

Town of Kansas
By David Hayden
The recent photos of the Town of Kansas Bridge was a great representation of a fun Kansas City landmark. More than a dramatic backdrop for pictures, it sits between two of the most important places in the history of Kansas City. Directly to the east and west of this bridge are the long forgotten sites where Kansas City's forefathers took risks to put the Town of Kansas on the map.

Most Kansas Citians know that Westport predates Kansas City. Some can even tell you that Daniel Morgan Boone (son of the famous pioneer Daniel Boone) set up shop in what is now Kelly's. To find the name of the man responsible for helping start Kansas City, you only need to look across the street. It was John McCoy who first realized that a small bluff, near what today would be First and Grand would make the ideal spot for unloading passengers and freight from steamboats. Previously, they were unloaded in Independence, which was a day’s travel from Westport. Recognizing the advantage of this location, a few industrious men incorporated the Town of Kansas as a city in 1853.

The years that followed were brutal for the entire area. The Jayhawkers and Quantrill’s Raiders were just two of several groups that sought to tear the town in two. In the first half of the 1860’s the population of the Town of Kansas dropped ten percent to barely 4,000 people. Even after the conflict, the town stood divided. Main Street was the de facto state line with Union loyalists living to the West and Southern sympathizers living to the East.

It was across these factions that three local men realized that the key to the success of the Town of Kansas was to bring in the railroads. Robert T. Van Horn was the editor of a local newspaper and known for his overly optimistic portrayals of Kansas City as a panacea. Kersey Coates came to Kansas City to purchase 100 acres of land for some wealthy investors back east. When the investors determined the land was not what they had been promised, they ordered Coates to sell it. He sold it to himself and started developing his Quality Hill neighborhood as well as a hotel at Tenth and Broadway and eventually an Opera House at Ninth and Broadway. These two men had entered the railroad business on paper prior to the civil war and began work on a railway from Cameron, MO to Kansas City.

It was no secret that whichever city landed the first bridge to cross the Missouri River would become a commercial epicenter. Prior to the Civil War, President Lincoln had determined it would be Omaha, but those plans were never approved by Congress. Leavenworth and St. Joseph both had nearly four times the population of Kansas City at the end of the war and were considered frontrunners. Kansas City knew in order to thrive, they would need to land the bridge. No one knew this better than Charles E. Kearney, a wealthy businessman with a large land holding on the southern banks of the river.

Image Source from here. To see a larger, more detailed view of the map,  click here.

Kearney made an incredibly risky move to help win support for the river crossing. He sold a portion of his land to James Joy of the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad Company. The sale was based upon the idea that by steering the bridge to Kansas City, Joy would become even wealthier. Joy saw the potential of access to the cattle in Texas and the Southwest without the need to cross both the Missouri and Kansas rivers. Kearney and Joy worked to convince the rest of the executives at the company while Van Horn’s paper wrote strong editorials to sway the residents of the fledgling town and those in Clay County to pass bond issues to help build the railway.

Leavenworth was fighting just as hard (although possibly less dirty) and had nearly gained the support of the railway. It was June of 1866, when Coates and two men sent by Kearney went to Boston to try to finish the deal. They sent word after their meeting with Van Horn (now the area’s representative in Congress) to write an amendment authorizing the bridge. When he did, Leavenworth was caught completely off guard. The amendment passed as a rider to a larger bill. With the backing of the railway, Congress, and local voters, the bridge construction began immediately.

On July 3, 1869, The Hannibal Bridge became the first bridge crossing the Missouri River. In the time between 1865 and 1870, the population of the Town of Kansas would grow 800% and nearly double the size of St. Joseph or Leavenworth. Kansas City would become the trade hub of the region. Remainders of these men are now part of Kansas City: Kersey Coates dream of affordable housing still exists on Quality Hill. Robert Van Horn’s mansion was torn down to build a high school that bears his name. Charles Kearney is still remembered in the town that bears his name.

When I walk out onto the Town of Kansas Bridge, I am reminded of the great pioneers who built this city. I look out to the east and see where a man named McCoy saw the opportunity for a city where others saw a bluff. How three men of different backgrounds looked across a river no one ever bridged and decided this was the place it could be done. I look below and see the remnants of the original Hannibal Bridge. I think about how a city divided by a river and by unparalleled political strife could come together for a common goal. This sort of thing could not happen just anywhere, but it can happen here in our city.
David Hayden is a writer, blogger and server at The Majestic Restaurant.
He was also featured on The Employee Lounge. You can read his post here.
Photos by Linh Trieu


Bob Ingle said...

Really informative article. FYI
McCoy's Public House sits on plot 1 of plat 1 of the region... it all originated around a great Brew Kitchen... appropriate.