My parental family lived in Southern Missouri during the latter half of the 19th Century. My maternal Croatian family arrived in the States shortly after 1900. Both families are attracted to Kansas City's economy and opportunities found in the West Bottoms.
Union Ave is gone, long gone to be precise, largely the result of “3” floods and time. I can’t walk through the Depot, business districts and neighborhoods my family knew. Using digital art recreating the visual experience of Union Avenue is possible. Those characteristic 19th Century brick buildings and steam driven locomotives weren’t always curious anachronisms, once they represented modern technology and industry that created the future. The original photograph was “fair” to “poor”, some of the image was missing altogether. It was necessary to reconstruct those portions with a reasonable facsimile. Colors are not historically correct, but are intended to create a pleasurable viewing experience. I discovered the men standing on the platform, next to a baggage cart, were actually standing next to art or illustration resting on the cart. After careful restoration, I was able to see a weak silhouette of a building ( presumably the Depot) ? ). The image may commemorate or document the various improvement projects, such as the 1880 expansion. The picture displaying now is intended solely for ambiance and is not the actual image.
The center front facing locomotive may be built by Baldwin Locomotive, Philadelphia, Pa., Locomotives built in 1872 ( 4-4-0 ) cost about $12,500 back in the day, adjusted value in 2019 is approximately $255,750. Based on $1.00 1872 adjusted to $20.46 2019. Many engines were converted from wood to coal burning around 1876. After 1900, the engines are converting to oil burning.
During 1867, Missouri - Pacific RR. and Kansas- Pacific RR., built a Depot and the State Line House hotel in the West Bottoms. Then in 1868, Octave Chanute designed and built a depot for the Kansas City and Cameron RR., a line linking the City via the Hannibal Bridge to the Hannibal and St. Joseph RR. Then in 1878, "8" cooperating RRs' replaced Chanute's depot with the Union Depot designed by Asa Beebe Cross, costing $410,028 approx. (1878 $). The cost and structural size was considered a as a "sprawling monstrosity" by it's critics. However, by 1880 increased service demands exceeded site resources requiring a major expansion upgrade for $224,083 approx. (1880 $). In 2 years $634,111 approx. (1880 $). Adjusted $15,821,84 (2019 ).
The horizon North by North East of the Depot is the West Bluffs. Following the Civil War, KC’s wealthy built Quality Hill overlooking the bottoms and Missouri River. But industrialization and population growth quickly followed completion of Hannibal Bridge 1869. This was the first of 17 bridges to cross the Missouri River / Kaw rivers. And the “Quality” soon left the Hill. By 1890, the mansions of Quality Hill had gradually converted into institutions and/or multifamily use. Large ugly advertising billboards dominated the upper bluffs. In the center of the West Bluffs, below Quality Hill and above the Railroad yard overlooking the Union Depot a slum had emerged. Predominately African-American, some sources cite this as the City’s first and oldest Black enclave. The neighborhood structures were characterized by improvised and salvaged materials described as "shanties". Also, the community hadn't properly terraced the slopes, or reinforced roads/path that accelerated erosion. From the Union Depot; railroad passengers and journalists described the Bluffs as a "blight" and that negatively reflected Kansas City and deterred future investors.
During 1892 the "City Beautification" axe falls on the Bluffs. Landscape Architect and Planner George Kessler presented plans to the City for restoring the West Bluffs that also included a park. The city used eminent domain as a means to acquire the property to develop an ecologically attractive alternative to it's present blight condition. However adequate compensation, or lack of any compensation, quickly brought claims of racial discrimination against Negros. The most cited argument against financially compensating the neighborhood was declaring the residents as "squatters". Legal challenges begin immediately in 1892 over claims and “fair” compensation. Then in 1896 presiding Judge Edward L. Scarritt, 16th Circuit Court ruled "for" compensating the Black community with other claimants, but prevented future claims being accepted going forward. Unfortunately the highly publicized condemnation didn't stop people settling onto the West Bluffs. Without legal recourse, those folk disregarding Judge Scarritt's orders were trespassing / classified as squatters. Payments to recognized claimants began in 1900. During August 1904, forced relocation cleared the Bluffs of "all" remaining residents and structures.
1900 and beyond:
On May 1st 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt arrives to a jubilant and prosperous Kansas City. The Panic of 1893 was behind the Country. Unemployment peaked in 1897 at 12.4% to around 7% in 1903. *unemployment estimates vary. Kansas City's prosperity represented Roosevelt's vision for "America". And emphasized the United States role in global commerce and politics. The "big stick" could be measured in miles of track and industrial growth. But, May 1903 ends badly for KC and the West Bottoms! April 1903 was particularly wet, and unprecedented rains continued through May. On Sunday, May 31st, 1903 the Missouri / Kaw Rivers flooded the West Bottoms. Water came over the floor of the Kansas City Union Depot at 11:30 a. m. The Police ordered mandatory evacuation at noon. By 9:00 p. m., same day, there was "6" feet of water inside the Depot / still rising. Traffic into and out of Kansas City Union Depot was suspended from May 31st to June 9th. The river crested Sunday evening at 35ft.
The stockyards suffered terribly with massive loss of livestock drowned. And the Rivers did what Social Reformers failed to accomplish in "2" decades, the flood temporarily shutdown Union Avenue's notorious vice and crime. No doubt the *Pendergast Brothers suffered serious financial losses. *The Pendergast political machine was associated with local saloons, gambling and prostitution. And on the West Bluff, the now condemned neighborhood watched it's Railroad nemesis submerged treading water.
*James Pendergast and his younger brothers Tom and Michael **Political bosses and their “machine organizations” operating in large American cities at the turn of the century favored a "quid pro quo" relationship with their constituents, a time and place when jobs and favors bought votes. Tom owned the American House / Hotel and Saloon; allegedly providing adult recreational hospitalities. He also acquired Pendergast's Place on St. Louis Ave. This saloon was called the " Climax" named for the race horse, that won Big Jim's bet, those winnings bought the saloon. As a saloon owner and politician in a working-class ward, James benefited financially from the vice industries (particularly gambling), and he used his political power to protect them. Also, the West Bottom's poor, immigrants and workers used saloons for socializing and banking (ie., cashing paychecks). Regardless of Union Avenue's "soiled dove" reputation, the street made money, and the wealthy richer. In 1906 the new site for Kansas City's Union Station was selected. Work continued on the West Bluffs renamed the West Terrace Parks, with strong controversy from the “Taxpayers’ League over spending money on a lavish gateway overlooking the doomed Union Avenue. Then June-August 1908, flooding swamped the West Bottoms.
From this point forward, the Union Depot and Union Avenue began a steady decline. Fearing another flood and the impending railroad relocation curtailed future capital improvements. Newspaper accounts described the Depot as dingy looking by Christmas 1909. Finally on October 31st, 1914 the last scheduled train departs the Union Depot. There is a Halloween party that evening. In the days following, the Depot is boarded shut and razed in early 1915. Only the Depot's "1878" corner stone remains on permanent exhibit at the Union Station today.. Present Union Avenue is largely open ground. Gone are the blocks of buildings, horses, wagons and trolleys; where 1000's of people worked and lived daily. The West Bluff is mostly a humble hill of natural vegetation. Both now cleverly conceal their pasts.