Previous Posts

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Paving the Way to South Kansas City

As Oliver Goldsmith wrote, “Life is a journey that must be traveled no matter how bad the roads and accommodations.” In the case of southern Jackson Co., the history of the roads and current infrastructure tells a unique story of the journey of many people before us.

When roads were slowly graded, oiled and then paved, they were laid out to as straight as possible. Yet careful road planning in the early ages of automobiles led to serious road advancements.

1877 map of Jackson County with a hand-drawn overlay
of the Santa Fe Trail routes.
Drawn in 1951 by Dean Earl Wood
In the beginning of the history of Jackson Co., the roads traveled were usually separated through section lines as to not “steal” rich lands from farmers. One section, in most cases, equals 640 acres.  These early boundaries were the very foundations of our current road system. Major roads in Jackson Co., such as Holmes Rd., State Line, 135th St., 103rd St., and Bannister Rd. all fall on section lines. If you look at a road map, you can see these old section lines. They appear as perfect squares and frame how our roads appear today.

The exception to these straight roads is the Santa Fe Trail, a commercial highway linking Missouri to Santa Fe in use from 1821 to 1880. Its existence preceded white settlement in Jackson Co. and wound through the countryside to utilize the most convenient route possible.

As settlement increased in the 1840s, the Santa Fe Trail was predominately used by local farmers as a link to Independence, Westport and New Santa Fe (a settlement at approximately 122nd and State Line). Later roads linked pop-up towns such as Hickman’s Mill.

John C. McCoy (1811-1889)
As I have spent years scouring over multiple maps and atlases, it became quite clear to me that roads, albeit not the most exciting topic in theory, are the heart of the development and infrastructure of early southern Jackson Co. 

The Santa Fe Trail, the first pathway of white settlers, was simply routed around the landscape. If there was a steep hill, they went around it- not over it. If there was a river crossing, the road naturally followed the easiest crossing. These early travelers didn’t care if the Santa Fe Trail went directly through future farms instead of around them. Thus, this road was never straight.

In fact, the road was diagonal running southwest from Independence. In the Old Santa Fe Trail from the Missouri River, published in 1951 by Dean Earl Wood, he explains, “Since the old Trail from Independence to New Santa Fe was a diagonal road, it interfered with farming and farm title descriptions.” So as farmers erected fences around their land, the road, once diagonal, was forced in zig-zags across the landscape.

The straighter route of the Santa Fe Trail, thanks to the creation of Westport Landing in future Kansas City, led from the Mighty Mo down south four miles to Westport. John C. McCoy’s vision of a town to outfit travelers and trade with Native Americans was well into fruition by the 1840s. As travelers set foot on land off flatboats and loaded up their wagons, they would stop in Westport to gather last-minute supplies.

Sketch by H.W. Waugh from 1857 showing the junction of the" new" Main St.
cut north to the levee and the old road of 1837-38 to the levee.
From the book the Old Santa Fe Trail From the Missouri River (1951)
An article published in the Kansas City Star in 1905 described the road from the levee to Westport. J.S. Chick, son of one of Kansas City founders William M. Chick, was able to witness the early beginnings of commerce in Jackson Co. His father bought John C. McCoy’s trading post in Westport when McCoy left to survey lands in Kansas Territory in 1843.

He wrote, “The road from Kansas City to Westport started at the foot of Main St., thence along the levy to Grand Ave., thence to 3rd St., thence southwesterly through the city hall square. . . Main St. south of Missouri Ave. was not practicable even for horseback travel.”

As the few photographs of early Kansas City show, the bluffs in the area of what is now downtown Kansas City made travel extremely difficult. Thus, just as the road from Independence to New Santa Fe had its disadvantages, such as crossing the Blue River, the road from Westport Landing to Westport had its challenges as well.

From Grand, the Trail curved toward Main St. and then Broadway. From Westport, the Santa Fe Trail heading south and was also known as “the road from Westport to New Santa Fe” It followed current-day Wornall Rd.

This road was the oldest road in use in Jackson Co. this far south and is still in full use today.

The Red Bridge (built in 1932) replaced the two others before it and
was dedicated by Judge Harry S. Truman
Photo courtesy of
Early merchants in Westport would use newspaper publications to encourage Independence merchants to guide wagon trains to take the “Westport route” instead of the route further south. In one article published in the Westport newspaper Border Star in 1859, the writer begs for Independence merchants not to “misdirect them on their way, and try to send them over that obsolete, impassable and abandoned road via-New Santa Fe.”

The building of the original Red Bridge in summer 1859 over the Blue River made travel this direction more favorable and allowed local farmers to easily travel to Hickman’s Mill to the east, yet the wagon ruts from the trek up the hill in Minor Park can still be seen today.

The truth is- my beloved town of New Santa Fe was on the outs by the mid-1850s. Even the newly built Red Bridge couldn’t entice most travelers to take this route in lieu of Westport.
As oxen and wagons were replaced by coal-driven railroads, the old trails seized as the significant means of travel. The careful placement of railroads drove the creation of new towns in Jackson Co., including railroad town Martin City (first called Tilden) in 1887 and Grandview in 1889.

Santa Fe track east of Hutchison, Ks. being built in 1872
This post isn’t all about the Santa Fe Trail in Jackson Co.- I do plan on covering this soon enough! This is about how roads that we use today have a history much older than we may have originally thought.

Even at the turn of the century, travel by horse and wagon was commonplace. However, the creation of an affordable automobile called the Model T in 1908 changed everything. For $850, a person could purchase a Model T touring automobile, but by 1925, the advancement of the manufacturing line made this price drop to under $300.

In Kansas City, the Stafford Motor Car Company launched in 1909 and manufactured automobiles until 1915. Missouri-born future president Harry S. Truman’s first car, in fact, was a 1911 Stafford.

By the early 1920s, the Automobile Club of Kansas City would offer the city “scenic driving tours” and suggest routes for city folk to take in South Kansas City. Driving tours into southern Jackson Co. were a Sunday favorite when the weather was favorable.

As you drive down Holmes Rd. southbound just past 127th St., the road takes a significant curve to the west. Sheltered by towering trees and hidden homes, the winding two-lane road that bends to the angles of the Blue River toward Blue Ridge and the edge of Martin City was not always curved.  

The first road to be used as a thoroughfare in the area was Holmes Rd. By 1903, Holmes Rd. was the straightest shot from South Kansas City to downtown. Interestingly, in 1923, Holmes Rd. was still not paved all the way through the area; from the south, the road was paved northbound to 75th St. at which it turned into a dirt road. In the 1920s and 30s, Wornall Rd. was left simply as a graded, rock road.

Early road maps of Jackson Co. indicate that the condition of the road, whether macadam, graded, gravel or dirt, drove the decisions of automobile enthusiasts. Safety was a concern, as railroad tracks lacked the safety gates and alarms of today.

To arrive in Martin City via-Holmes Rd., three intersections of the Missouri Pacific Railroad had to be crossed. A fatal accident in August 1922 raised concerns about these three crossings in the road. Elmer D. Kipp, a well-known Kansas City real estate dealer, had traveled from his downtown offices to Martin City to purchase tomatoes and grapes. Mrs. Kipp had opted to stay home to shield herself from the sweltering heat.

As Mr. Kipp approached the second railroad crossing a mile south of Martin City, his automobile stalled on the tracks. Without modern alert systems in place, Mr. Kipp was struck by an oncoming train and killed instantly.

The Kansas City Star reported, “The crossing where the train hit Mr. Kipp’s motor car is extremely dangerous. A hill obscures the tracks on one side and a heavy clump of trees on the other.”

James " Big Jim" Pendergast
This event spurred the Automobile Club of Kansas City to order 200 signs to put on roads in order to mark railroad crossings, sharp curves and treacherous hills. The first order of business was to place three signs at each of the crossings on Holmes Rd. The Automobile Club's president, Mr. Wooden, hoped "to guide every tourist in the city."

Years later, a solution to add a curve on Holmes Rd. eliminated two of the three railroad crossings, including the one that took the life of Mr. Kipp. Today, as you take the curve that swerves you left, you can still see how the road originally stayed straight. A gate and small pathway shows us how the road would have originally traveled.

Before State Line Rd. was a main avenue through South Kansas City, it was simply a road, unpaved in many sections, that abruptly ended at current-day 79th St. In 1923, the road was dirt to the town of Dallas at 103rd St. As the road continued on south of 103rd St., it was curiously paved with a macadam road that abruptly ended at current-day Minor Dr.

And in the early 1900s, State Line Rd. from Dallas south to Martin City was named James Pendergast Rd.

1922 road map shows the James Pendergast Road (State Line) and the paved roads throughout the southern area of
the county. Black lines indicate macadem, dotted are graded roads, and double lines indicate dirt roads. Courtesy
of Missouri Valley Special Collections
In fact, in 1902, Thomas J. Pendergast, future political “Boss Tom” owned an 80 acre tract of land where Hallbrook Farm is today. Was the road paved to benefit the Pendergast family? Quite possibly.

The McGee Farm's entrance off current-day Minor Dr. and
State Line 
had a paved road leading to it thanks to the help of "friends of the court."
Photo courtesy of the McGee descendants

 It’s no secret that the “Pendergast Machine” had much political control of the city, so the naming of this road should be no surprise.

 Ending the paved section of road at Minor Dr. was a very strange place for the improvements to end. But deep pockets and a bit of help from the political underworld had their hands in the cookie jar. In May 1922, the newspaper reported that two county judges voted to add this one mile of pavement so the James Pendergast Rd. was paved to the farm of Allen B.H. McGee, a “friend of the court.” It was shown to have cost $18,000. . . on paper.

Allen B.H. McGee farm’s entrance was at current-day Minor Dr. The farm encompassed almost all of Verona Hills subdivision and gave the McGee’s easy, paved access to their driveway.

1921-22 road map was a campaign technique
used by Harry S. Truman to seek election
Courtesy of the Kemper family
Judge Harry S. Truman was known to enjoy motor car outings and made improving roads part of his platform. In more ways than one, Truman delivered.

Even during the Great Depression, Truman continued to pioneer road construction in Jackson Co. as he held the position of Presiding Judge of Jackson County Court. In 1932, he personally oversaw the construction of a “new” Red Bridge that replaced the 1892 structure.

In that same year, one of the most picturesque paved roads in the county was the “newly concreted Blue River Rd.” From Swope Park down to the junction of Blue Ridge and Holmes Rd., Blue River Rd. was one of Truman’s favorite creations. In a 1932 article in the Kansas City Star, Judge Truman stated, “Let me recommend this road for a drive for those unacquainted with the scenic beauties of this county.” Truman often would take driving tours down Blue River Rd. and was excited to propose that the land around it be made into a park.

As Truman drove the road with the Kansas City Star reporter, he continued, "Here to the right is the winding, heavily wooded basin of the Blue River, and we have already planned to make a park of it all through the whole seven miles of its length."

1915 photograph of Truman in his Stafford automobile
taken at a picnic at the Little Blue River.
Photo courtesy of Harry S. Truman Library & Museum
Today, visitors on Blue River Rd. can ride their bikes on the Blue River Parkway and Minor Park Trail that winds throughout the parklands that Harry S. Truman envisioned.

As farmland was snatched up by developers such as J.C. Nichols, the more modern system of roads followed. The gravel and dirt roads of the past were replaced with concrete pathways leading to suburban settlement that encompasses much of the south Kansas City landscape. Today, we can still see pieces of the pioneer road system that made way the modern routes we travel every day.


No comments:

Post a Comment