Big Muddy Speakers Series (Kansas City)
Hosted by Healthy Rivers Partnership
Wednesday, November 13, 2013, 7 p.m.
Second floor of Johns Big Deck 928 Wyandotte St, Kansas City, Missouri
Tucked into the floodplain at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers is an area chock full of Kansas City history. The West Bottoms was the heartbeat of Kansas City expansion, being at times the center of river commerce, a railroad hub and the nexus of the Great Plains livestock industry. Today’s West Bottoms is an industrial center peppered with clubs, antique stores, art galleries and haunted houses, at times neglected and at other times full of promise.
H. Darby Trotter, PhD
Photo by Michael Morgan, Kansas City Digital Video
H. Darby Trotter, PhD., retired from his 30 year career as a psychologist in 1998 to begin new work in strategic planning and community development. As Vice President of Community Affairs at Faultless Starch/Bon Ami, he focused his energies on the redevelopment of the 6 industrial districts surrounding downtown Kansas City, including the West Bottoms area. He served as President and CEO of Kansas City River Trails and President of the Kansas City Industrial Council successfully raising funds for infrastructure improvement, environmental mitigation, blight removal, and economic development. A history buff, Darby has been involved in uncovering the often buried heritage of the City by building appropriate historic public art along the Riverfront Heritage Trail. For example, he has been responsible for the construction of art in pocket parks commemorating Inca styled Pyramids, Lewis & Clark Canoes, a memorial to the contributions of the railroad, and art devoted to Slaves risking everything during their exodus to the free state of Kansas. He is a leader in the revitalization of Kansas City's West Bottoms
Tonight, Dr. Trotter will share his knowledge of West Bottoms history with a peek into future development. As a booster for the Riverfront Heritage Trail, Darby is on the forefront of finding new ways to connect Kansas Citians with this historically rich area and the river that forms it.
The West Bottoms in the late 1800′s by H. Darby Trotter.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.
Recording by, Kansas City Digital Video
Darby Trotter: I was asked to talk about the West Bottoms and so you are going to probably learn more about me than the West Bottoms but I always have a way of looking at things and I like to look at things globally. I don’t like to look at things in the small parts. I like to see how all the small parts fit together. So tonight I don’t have a power point for you but I am going to call on your imagination, and I want you to put that into gear, and I want you to look at some things tonight perhaps in a way that you that you haven’t looked at it before. I was reminded of a joke of the fly that landed on the mirror and thought for a minute and said, well that’s one way to look at it. So today we are going to look at the West Bottoms perhaps differently in a technical way, it’s called globally.
I would like to tell you a little bit about myself, when I was a young man I had polio. During my rehabilitation years I had the opportunity to put together all of these advanced planes of the time. They were all balsam wood models if anyone is old enough to remember those. They were of all the modern war planes at the time, corsair, L-Cats, and B17s. Those were the vehicles of my era when I was a young man. My uncles, and father, and so forth were coming back from the Pacific and I am old enough to remember BJ Day and these kinds of things. So what I have experienced in my lifetime, is I have gone through the jet age, rocket age, and I have seen rocket engines being developed. I have seen astronauts go to the moon. I have seen the space shuttle evolve. I have seen the Space Station happen and be constructed over time. I have seen the exploration of Mars. So that’s a lot to experience. In medicine, I have seen even probably more dramatic cures. Now some people have come up to me and say, what’s polio? They don’t know what polio is. That’s the dramatic something. There’s a lot of things that have happened in computer science and each of us can look at certain areas of our lives and think that there’s a few things that we treasure that don’t change like beer and other things that do change and we’re glad that it does. What I am going to ask you to do is think about all of these wonderful things that have changed in my lifetime, and I'm in my 70s, so I'm thinking, well, did we go through another era like that, that even was more spectacular and more significant than this era that I just described to you. I'm going to argue that a period had a large effect on the West Bottoms beginning in 1880 and in about the same period of time an enormous number of things happened. So I am going to through that period of time and I'm going to talk to you a little bit about how the world evolved and what happened.
In 1880, there was a Frenchman called François Gesseau Chouteau (7 February 1797 – 18 April 1838) an American pioneer fur trader, businessman and community leader known as the "Founder" or "Father" of Kansas City, Missouri. A series of Frenchman, merchants out of St. Louis, had very active trading here with the American Indians. They farmed here in the West Bottoms and there were several large Indian encampments in the West Bottoms that traded actively with them. Steamboats were plying the Missouri River coming up and down it at that time bringing goods to these traders, taking pelts and beaver pelts and so forth back, so this was an active thing. You can imagine they were very much a part of a French enterprise. The French enterprise was to have another area of France in the middle of the United States to compete commercially with the United States. However, with the slave revolt in Haiti and with the onset of perhaps war with Britain, they decided that they perhaps were not so interested in this big enterprise. So when Thomas Jefferson went to buy New Orleans and a few parishes around it, they said, I’ve got a better deal for you. Why don’t you just buy all of this area in the Midwest, which became the Louisiana Purchase. Now you can’t turn on TV anymore and see where somebody isn’t talking about someone’s insurance being cancelled, well this is even worse than that. These Frenchmen’s country got cancelled. So their enterprise was suddenly just completely dissolved so you can imagine what happened to them. You need to understand this in the light of how undeveloped the United States was. If we wanted to build something like a transcontinental railroad, we had to go overseas and bring labor in. We usually had to also bring engineers in to show us how to do it, to build bridges, Frenchmen, and Germans, and so forth. So technology, we were very primitive as a country and when we wanted to take on a big thing we usually had to incorporate people to do that. With this purchase, the Louisiana Purchase, the whole Midwest suddenly became part of the United States. Now that went up to about Idaho and Montana, and then it stopped. That left the span on California. That left a corner which is the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho uncharted. Britain and Canada were interested in that area. Spain was interested in that area. So Jefferson said, we need to have a presence in that area to compete for that area. So he sent out a group of explorers, you all know who they are, they were called the Lewis and Clark Exploration. Well, it was not just an exploration, it was an effort to find the Pacific area and to put a fort down wherever they went to establish the territory of the United States. So they were actually there to compete for new land so that we could have a western port, because California was part of Spain. Spain was not very friendly towards the United States, so you can imagine when the Lewis and Clark came through this area, this was really not a frontier, was it? This was already an active trade route and they didn’t write much about the Frenchman that they saw here because that was an era that they were kind of wanting to deny but this was really the beginning of the frontier for that expedition. So I want you to think of it that way, as there were actually some communities here, and the community actually had a French name, it was called (8:10 ______), the village of the Kansa Indians. That is probably not the best French in the world that you’ve ever heard. We know a lot about the expedition that started in 1804-1806, so when they came through here this became really the jump off place for that expedition. In the early 1800s, the river was actually pretty busy with steamboats.
The next piece to fall into place was when Mexico won their independence from Spain in 1821 after a 10-year struggle. Spain, being unfriendly to the United States, didn’t want Mexico to trade with the United States. But the moment that Mexico won its independence it immediately said, we want to trade with you, and that opened a trade route, that was called the Santa Fe Trail. Those were the first people that were on that were traders not immigrants because that belonged to Mexico, but the trade routes began across Indian Territory. They would run into town trouble at times with Indians and so that became a problem which was solved by the military and I’ll talk to you about that in a minute. But right now another thing happened first, and that is that at about the same time this independence was established, the Mexican independence was established, the Missouri Compromise was completed [Platte Purchase land acquisition in 1836]. That was the deal made with the Federal government so that all of the Indians that lived in Missouri would move to Kansas. They had to leave Missouri. In doing so, they agreed to several things. They bought their land, they put them on a welfare kind of deal where they had annuities so they actually had cash when they got into Kansas. They had various areas that were laid out in Kansas so that the tribes wouldn’t fight with each other. So the tribes moved once again. These were what were called the Civilized Tribe because they had had about three or four generations now living with the Americans, the white men. Many of them were speaking English now to a certain degree and they were quite a bit different than the Plains Indians that hunted buffalo. These particular civilized Indians didn’t like the plains Indians. They thought them way too fierce, a little bit crazy. They were a little bit more sedate. They lived in houses for the most part. They were matriarchal in their orientation. They had a pretty neat society. They all were getting along pretty good and they had moved repeatedly. They were kind of used to that. A group of the Delaware’s came from Delaware. The Wyandotte’s came from around New York City. The Shawnee Indians came from Georgia. All of these had started way on the east coast and then gradually moved from there to a state, then to Ohio, then to Missouri, and now to Kansas, what they regarded as the Great Desert. At the same time of the war with independence was in Mexico achieved, the Indians were being moved into Kansas. Now one of the agreements that they did is that no white man could live in Kansas. They had two forts built, also several more in Oklahoma and one up north, the two in our area, Ft. Scott and Ft. Leavenworth, were built for this explicit purpose of keeping white men out of Indian territory and they would deliver medical goods, trade with Indians where necessary. They eventually had trouble when these wild Indians, the Cheyanne’s, out in the western part of Kansas started attacking the trade routes that these other Indians had approved, so Leavenworth troops started riding along with them, protecting the trade routes, and they had a paradoxical effect. What they did, is by making the trade route safe, what they said was to further later immigrants, as long as the Army is along we are safe on this trip. So they actually, instead of keeping the white people out, set the precedent for bringing the immigrants in. You know you don’t always know what the end result of what you’re doing is going to be. So about this time I'm getting to a very important time when we have war with Mexico. When that occurs, all of a sudden the Mexican American War occurs and all of the land in the southwest is succeeded to the United States. The areas of New Mexico, Texas, a good part of Texas anyway, California and all that all becomes part of the United States. Now can you see the picture starting to come together? All of this land is now open not just for trade but open for immigration. Now the trade routes of the California Trail, Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail are all open now but they are not only carrying minors and traders but they are now carrying immigrants, moving all the hyperactive people that couldn’t sit still, they were all moving to California; that explains California. With all this going on, the Kansas Nebraska Act was passed. You know what happened with the Kansas Nebraska Act, this was where the choice of the free state, whether or not the states could be slave states or free states. There were three elements of that law. One was that the right for the states to determine whether they are free or slave, and number two, it abandoned the prior Missouri Compromise which said that white people can come into Kansas, and number three, it had a slave element in it that said, there are no such thing as the free Negro, they are all slaves. They are all there for escape slaves, a bounty is on all of them, and they put stringent rules on anybody who would help them and then a round up occurred. Now up to that time, the town of Kansas which had started around 1850, they had a nice little Negro community here which was partially due to free Negros and free slaves or escape slaves, but without that law then everybody then decided they had to move to Kansas, the Free State. But that was pretty risky, there is some artwork that I put together down on Madison and 8th Street that is devoted to the risk that these people took to get to a free state. Many of them lost their lives doing so.
Now we are on 50 years and the whole country has been formed. A lot of it is now coming through this area. One of the great marvels of this time was the Transcontinental Railroad that went through Omaha and north, and through the middle of the country, and it was completed. It was probably the most significant technological marvel of its age, but it was in the wrong place. The reason it was where it went and it had to go through all the mountains and be exposed to bad weather and closed a lot of the year was because it was built by the Department of Defense. The Department of Defense guy was named, Jefferson Davis. He was afraid to do a southern route because he knew that people knew that he had southern sympathies so he did not suggest the obvious route, that is the southern route, which became the most used Transcontinental Railroad. So after the Civil War was done, the money was appropriated for the bridge, the first bridge over the Missouri, and that came through Kansas City. The railroad didn’t come to Kansas City because they were was something neat here in Kansas City, remember it was an Indian trading village. There is a picture of it in the pictures you ought to look at and I would not want to live here. It was a tough place to live. If they had crossed at St. Joseph or crossed at Leavenworth, guess what they would have had to do. They would have had to cross the Kansas River and the Missouri River. The Kansas River is very flood prone and you have these big, tall, wide bluffs. By crossing here, they can swing through this little corner, dodge the Kansas River, and then they’ve got the Plains wide open to them to the southwest. Well, it became a natural thing and what they did was, they built a train Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe literally built their tracks right on the Old Santa Fe Trail. They actually followed the trail. Now the goal was to connect Los Angeles and Chicago. So in order to get to Chicago, what they had to do was a straight line and they had the engineer that built this bridge, Octave Chanute built a series of bridges and he built those up to Chicago and within a few years all of a sudden we were transporting and they had connected Los Angeles and Chicago. When it reached Santa Fe guess what happened to the Overland Trails, they disappeared okay. With the Transcontinental Railroad up north, those took out the other transcontinental, the Oregon and California trails.
So here you got this new logistics deal coming, you’ve got now this new group of something, and guess what happened in the Civil War, seven million long horned cattle were stranded in Texas. Chicago wanted cattle. Now the problem with these cattle is that they had little ticks on them. These ticks caused Splenic Fever or Spanish Fever, and it would just annihilate domestic cattle. The Kansas legislature said, well you can’t bring any of these herds up. They quarantined them. You can only bring them up in the western part of the state, which was basically Indian territory. You can’t bring them up where all the farmers are. The other thing is barbed wire hadn’t been developed and these long horns could move 60 miles a day and then they had to graze. Well, if they happened to graze by your farm, you were SOL, you know, because your farm would be gone the next day. And if they were stuck in the winter, a whole town might be eaten up. I'm serious, these things were major concerns for people who were farmers at that time in this area and they were not particularly eager to have cattle and they didn’t want their domestic herds killed by this bug. Guess what happened, the trains came along. The train was a perfect solution. They established cattle towns in Dodge City, and Hayes, and Ellsworth out west. They would bring the trains out to them, turn them around, load them up and take them to Chicago, make sense. That all came right through Kansas City. Well, one of the times they figured out how to refrigerate cattle and guess what happened to the packing industry. That’s where this all started. All this stuff has this element of coming together in such a short, amazingly short period of time. By 1900, there was a million dollars of cattle a day sold in Kansas City. A million dollars a day. That much money. Hundreds of thousands of head of cattle were processed here a day. Here is what you’re looking at.
If I was giving a talk on logistics, you could have said this is a good talk on logistics because I’ve talked about steamboats, I’ve talked about how I guess walking is worse, not that good, but steamboats are better, and trains are much better than that, and that is all carried over into what we know now because we see the trains coming through the West Bottoms all the time now. That’s logistics. We could also talk about economic theory in terms of how various things have competed and how various monies are used to build certain things. Because all of this, cattle sold out east helped the railroad finance their further venture to California, so that fed their efforts to have a dynamic major Transcontinental Railroad. We could also talk about political expansion and talk about Spain, and England, and France, and the growing of the United States. All of that would apply to what I have said so far, and I can say that we did this all in a short period of time. And this was not like a few astronauts going to Mars or going to the moon. A whole country did this all together. This was not just a little movement but this was a sizable movement that means that within about 50 years, you are looking from over the bluff, you are looking at a community with teepees and log cabins and in 50 years you are seeing a town that has the first elevated railroad. That picture that was up there a little bit before, that was all built within that period of time. The Savoy was built in 1903. In 1903, they built more buildings in Kansas City than any other time in its history and that was all built during that one period of time. This was an elevated rail that went to Kansas City, Kansas. This was the Union Depot that was over here. This is Genesee, that’s the Stockyard Exchange. Notice the Stockyard Exchange isn’t there anymore. What happened is that in the 20s, Kansas decided to charge a dollar for every head of cattle weighed in the Stockyard Exchange building, so they moved it, they moved the building. They just took it down, moved it over to Genesee which is in Missouri. Taxation, economic theory, so think for a minute, and I want you to put your imagination, think for minute of what a person would see if you were just kind of periodically peering over the bluff over here at 4th and Beardsley. In a short period of time you would see Indian villages, French traders, American explorers, and an influx of Indians whose homes were from Georgia, Delaware, New York, and Maine. You would hear about new territories to the west and north. You would see smoke from the growing steamboat traffic from the river. Certainly you would see the growth of the warehouse and docks complex at Westport Landing. You might see the development of the Negro community near the west side of town. You would see the emergent of Overland Trade Routes, the change in the focus of Chouteau from trading with Indians to outfitting the Overland trails. You would learn about the Civil War or perhaps try to survive in it. You would see the emergent of the free state of Kansas. At night you would see night riders trying to catch slaves and then all that would end. Then a real cyclone would hit and it would be called the railroad and it brought in this new picture. I just went through 50 years. Cattle were coming our way and immigrants were going west, right from the West Bottoms. Suddenly the Overland Trails were a part of history. The West Bottoms now held a magnificent and rather wealthy city, so what a view you would have had from the bluff. What a view. In just a few years, many of the pieces of the most powerful nation on the face of the earth would have come together right front of you. In just a few years, certain events, the consequences we have yet to understand, came together. The West Bottoms was at the crossroads of much of this drama and probably played a role in some of it. Certainly it was effected by all of it. So within a period of time where you are starting with people who are trading for beaver pelts in 1800 to 1900 where they are making a million dollars a day on an average from this dynamic city. That’s a million dollars in those dollars, those times that would be 100 years.
This is what I find is fascinating about the West Bottoms. You can still find much of this history there. The fun is in finding it. Every building you enter tells you a different story and it’s always an intriguing one, at least the way I look at them. You can go in the building that you are inhabiting and find a locker that used to hold dead beef while they were experimenting on them, the lockers. You can find a location of a large Kansa Indian site. Ms. Watkins was talking to me one day about expanding her business, Watco, down at the base of Woodswether Bridge, and she said that they were getting ready to put in new foundations. The guy came in and he said, I can put in these new footings but I need to tell you that wherever I dig, I'm digging up Indian Relics, what should I do? Then she said, stop digging. This is the kind of lady she is. You can look closely and you can see the remnants of the support for the old elevated streetcar on 9th Street. You can look at the way the buildings are shaped and you can get a good idea of what the original railroad grid was in that area. You can find the remnants of the Union Depot. If you find yourself on a wide street, it was probably a street that was dedicated for railroads or it was devoted to livestock pens. Check out the intricate brick work on buildings, they don’t do that anymore. Drive by the Faultless Starch Building and tell them you would like to look around. If I'm around, I would be more than happy to show you what a temporary building looks like. Its 110 years old, young I guess I should say, but it was built right after the 1903 flood. Like many temporary buildings it is going to outlast all the permanent buildings that are around the area. In it, is the first word, I like to say it’s the first e-mail system, and it’s where the President’s office is and he has the big wood beam on it and all of these nails are nailed in it, and it’s where he put work orders, and needed to nail them up outside this door, and to me that’s kind of equivalent of an e-mail system. Remember if you stop by a train, this is Commerce passing you by. The river was a great way to move people and material but it didn’t always get you where you wanted to go. That was one of the disadvantages of it. The railroad was a huge and logical link because you could make it go where you wanted to make it and it serves us well even today. When you look around, don’t be surprised if you pick up something, you might be holding a very precious part of Kansas City and that’s what it call its heritage, share it. There’s lots of books and stuff of the area, read them. While you are studying the bricks and beams, don’t overlook our unusual diversity. Remember I said earlier that we were a primitive country and we had to bring in all of our technical people, all of our skilled labor. When we went to all the work on the railroads, who built the railroads. We didn’t have people in the United States who could build railroads so we imported a lot of Irish people and (30:02 _______) people who were servicemen who had been working in the east making sure that the railroads would go during the Civil War and we brought those people into this area. When the packing houses evolved, guess who we brought in, the Polish and the Croatian. You know, we brought all of these and the Italians. All of these people came in and they were all living together in the West Bottoms. You can see all the cathedrals and homes down there, well the flood took are of that. In 1903, the flood came and everybody’s feet got wet so they all went up and moved up to the top of the hill. Unfortunately, they all moved different places. The Italian people moved over here around the market area, the Irish people moved up by the Cathedral District, the Spanish Americans moved over in the west side, the Polish and the Croatians moved over by Strawberry Hill. They moved up on all the seven hills of Kansas City because they were drier. Unfortunately, also divided all this community and even today it takes a lot of maturity in our leaders to be able to pull these diverse groups that still remain kind of separated to pull them together into what we call a homogenous community.
When you think of the West Bottoms, I hope that you think that the area reflects a time and a place of our country where our country gradually moved together, all of its pieces came together, and it needs to be understood that way. There is no place in Kansas City that has this kind of special connection with the past, no place. That’s why people call it the historic West Bottoms and they do it with a great deal of reverence I might add because they understand its significance, DNA. It is really tied to the whole evolution of the country, of what we call America. It really was laid out during those few years in the West Bottoms. You can hear stories about it being rough and ready or you can hear stories about the houses of ill repute. You can go there now and see neat buildings, there are buildings that need work. There’s a lot of things that you can look at but remember, every time you look at one of those parts, you’re missing the picture. And that’s what I came to share with you tonight, was that after working on so many bridges and so many sewers and so many of this’ and so many of that’s, I finally decided that for me I needed to know what I was doing. I needed to know what the real meaning was of this venture that I was involved in. For me, it became to go back and to understand where I was, where I was living, and where that past was. Now do I know where it’s going to go? Absolutely, I have no idea. I have no idea except I can tell you that downtown is a seat with four legs and if all four of those legs are not in good shape then downtown collapses. The four legs are the Crossroad District, 8th Street and Vine, 12th Street and Vine, River Market, and the West Bottoms. Those areas have to be integrated and working together to set the stage for any downtown development. This is where you run into trouble when people start trying to say, well they start competing for a dollar. For example, we’re not putting any money downtown. Well, yeah you are. If you’re putting it into the River Market area, for me it is the same as putting it into West Bottoms. All of these have to be considered together. I have been on committees for every one of those areas. I have listened patiently and then impatiently and finally said, you’re forgetting something. You know, you are forgetting the whole community when you talk that way. So I am asking you tonight to remember the stories sometime and to think of that Frenchman that was abandoned in 1803 by his country and what he had to go through. You know, he was there with great enthusiasm and great vigor. He was there to establish a French community that was going to be a part of the French Enterprise and someone came by and sold his country. Well, we don’t want to take our country that way, so this is to me a patriotic thing. We never want to sell our country. We always want to make sure that we preserve our country.
All right, well thank you very much Darby.