An Overview of Kansas City’s Mass Transit System and the Historic Lines Associated with NextRail KC Proposed Alignments

Map of the Metropolitan Railway System in Kansas City, 1912. Source: Bion J. Amold, Report to Hon. William C. Hook, Circuit Judge, on the Value of the Properties of the Metropolitan Street Railway System of Kansas City, Missouri (Kansas City: n. p., 1912).

Map of the Metropolitan Railway System in Kansas City, 1912. Source: Bion J. Amold, Report to Hon. William C. Hook, Circuit Judge, on the Value of the Properties of the Metropolitan Street Railway System of Kansas City, Missouri (Kansas City: n. p., 1912).

Mass Transit Companies in Kansas City[1]

Spanning the years from 1869, when Nehemiah Holmes inaugurated the first railway line, to 1957 which marked the end of the streetcar era, Kansas City has employed every available form of mass transit including horse and mule-drawn cars, to cable lines, electric traction, and trackless trolleys. Over the years the physical development of the urban mass-transit system has been “perhaps more varied than is the case with transportation systems operating in other cities of size comparable with that of Kansas City, since it has experienced almost every vicissitude possible in the development of a traction company.”[2]

Throughout the eighty-eight year period, well over 100 separate franchises and grants for the operation of a variety of urban mass transit systems, including The Kansas City Railway Company, The Grand Avenue Railway Company, and The Corrigan Consolidated Street Railway Company (MSRy), had been awarded by the city. At the end of the 19th century, Kansas City “boasted of having the third largest cable system in the county.” It was reported that the Metropolitan Street Railway Company (incorporated on July 19, 1886), who monopolized the metropolitan area’s transit system, was worth $8.5 million at the time, with 128 miles of cable and electric track; 200 cars carried approximately 85,000 passengers daily.[3]

Despite the Metropolitan Street Railway Company’s ostensible power, they experienced several episodes of heated and bitter political controversy and public outcry over the extension of its franchises, the lack of response to the public’s needs, and failure to expand their service into an ever-sprawling city.[4] The Metropolitan Street Railway Company, who had taken control of all but a handful of the streetcar companies in Kansas City (fifteen companies had been absorbed in nineteen years), had “lapsed into a deplorable state both financially and physically.”[5]

At the turn of the 19th century, over the course of 10 years, the MSRy was making great strides as they were in the process of taking up horse, steam dummy and cable lines throughout the metropolitan area and converting them to electric lines. Some of the original private investors of the conglomerate included Charles Francis Adams, Jr., Nathaniel Thayer, Jr., Charles Merriam and Charles Fessenden Morse. These individuals had strong ties to railroads and the meatpacking industry; Adams was the great-grandson of U. S. President John Adams. The Kansas City Railway & Light Company was the holding company of record.[6]

Arguably, the most decisive years in the Metropolitan Railway’s history occurred in 1911-1914, when the company went into receivership and the court ordered an independent appraisal of the company’s property. The Kansas City Railway and Light Company, the Metropolitan’s holding company, who petitioned the receivership, prevented the complete disintegration of the entire system.[7] Mayor Jost’s draft of the new franchise “repealed the 300-400 previous franchises” and revoked the provisions of the groundbreaking Peace Agreement of 1903.[8] In 1916, the Metropolitan was reorganized and emerged as Kansas City Railways. The Kansas City Railways was succeeded by the Kansas City Public Service Company, in 1925 in a foreclosure sale.[9] KCPS was granted a new franchise with provisions for bus and streetcar operation. During the nascent period, much infrastructure was built, 46 miles of track was rebuilt and the fleet of 744 streetcars was modernized.[10] Unfortunately, ridership had peaked in 1922 and the years up through WWII saw a continuous decrease in patrons. Abandonment of lines began in 1917 and continued through the 1930s. And, of course, the stock market crash of 1929 had a damaging effect on streetcar systems as a whole.

Following WWII, when Kansas Citians and the rest of the nation began their love affair with the automobile, the support of public transportation, again, declined. Patronage fell from 136 million in 1946, to 66 million in 1954, reflecting both a post-war auto and gasoline production boom and the “dispersed nature of the expanded Kansas City metropolitan area in the postwar period.”[11] In June 1957, five months after the Kansas City Public Service Company’s streetcar franchise had expired, the last car lines (Country Club-Dodson and Rockhill), and two trolley bus lines were converted to motorbus. Soon thereafter, the corporate name of the Kansas City Public Service Company was changed to Kansas City Transit, Inc. Patronage continued to dwindle and by January 1969, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) acquired the majority of Kansas City Transit’s assets.[12]

Historic Transit Line Associated with NextRailKC Proposed Alignments

Two of the earliest street transport systems in Kansas City were the Jackson County Horse Railroad Company, servicing the West Bottoms to State Line by 1869; and the Kansas City & Westport Horse Railroad Company with established routes throughout Kansas City reaching Linwood Boulevard by 1871. Most Kansas City horse car lines were narrow gauge, 3’ to 6’. Rails often consisted of iron straps nailed to wooden stringers set in unpaved streets. These horse lines operated for nearly two decades before cable lines eventually replaced them.

During the mid-1880s, cable lines began replacing the outdated horse lines. The Kansas City Cable Railway Company started laying track eastward on Independence Avenue to Woodland Avenue in 1886.[13] The Metropolitan Street Railway Company (MSRy) took on their most ambitious project, laying a double track from the West Bottoms to an inclined trestle along 12th Street from Hickory Street to the eastern city limits. This cable line began operating in April 1888. Additionally, MSRy’s service, eastward along 18th Street reached Cleveland Avenue (the eastern city limits) that same year. The MSRy’s Rosedale Line was an upgrade of Southwest Boulevard’s horse car route in 1888 with double tracking along the boulevard from 19th and Main to State Line. Of the lines in this study, the Southwest Boulevard route from 19th and Main, extending to Edith Avenue in Rosedale, Kansas, was the first to be electrified in late April 1896.

Serious work of converting the cable system to an electric streetcar began in 1899 with the Independence Avenue line when it was completed east to Hardesty by April 1904. The 12th Street line, traveling east, was converted and running by January 25, 1906. This route remained the busiest line in the city. However, the western leg of the 12th Street line did not operate until the new 12th Street Trafficway Viaduct was completed in 1915.

MSRy completed the conversion of 18th Street, east to Cleveland on October 30, 1900. Two years later, in January 1902, single-track car service along 31st Street, between Main and Indiana, went into operation. However, this line was replaced with double-track cars in 1911; and by 1917 the line was completed to Raytown Road (Hardesty).

In 1911, Metropolitan Street Railway Company decided to tackle the difficult grade on Main Street, between 24th and 27th streets, to extend and connect to the southbound lines. It was not until 1919, with the project completed, when streetcars could finally use the new Main Street route.

In 1920 Kansas City Railways recommended a plan that called to drastically eliminate movement through downtown intersections, reduce the amount of cars that were not functioning at or near capacity and reroute various lines. This plan was stated to save the city approximately $620,000 annually. Whether or not this plan was implemented in part or totally, ridership was at its historical peak in 1922 with 136,076,541 riders.  By 1927 the Kansas City Public Service Company’s new franchise did not provide for any additional lines in the city as the system was considered to be overbuilt.

Independence Avenue was the first line to introduce the trolley bus, which was more economic to run that either the streetcar or bus. By 1948, “seven trolley bus lines had replaced existing streetcar lines,” and “in the early months of 1954, the first of these lines was replaced with motorbuses. All [streetcar] lines were gone by 1959.”[14]

The Dodson Line

Route 56, circa 1955

Route 56, circa 1955

Originally operated as a steam-powered, dummy freight line, the Dodson Line ran from on an eight mile track from 85th and Prospect Avenue to 40th and Summit streets.[15] The small-scale team railroad was called a dummy line because its engine was hidden behind the familiar siding of a horse car in order to prevent frightening horses that passed the line on its intercity route. This historic railway was the only facility for transferring freight cars to and from the Westport Industrial District. In 1907, the MSRy took over the dummy line and electrified it, maintaining and improving the freight terminals and incorporating the rail line with its passenger-carrying electric system. Passenger and freight cars used the same tracks of the 8-mile route, diverging at the edge of the terminal yards until the last of Kansas City street cars ran on June 23, 1957.

Mass Transportation and its Effect on the Growth of Kansas City

Historians and journalists who have written about the relationship of mass transportation to the growth and development of America’s cities offer varied opinions. For example, urban historian and architect Dolores Hayden in her book Building Suburbia concludes that the transition to the electric streetcar changed the aesthetics of the urban streetscape with its numerous poles, wires and related contraptions. This, in turn, forced many from the urban centers of America and created “streetcar suburb housing” in concentric rings around the city’s core.[16] Similarly, in Kansas City, historians Sherry Lamb Schirmer and Richard McKenzie point to mass transit development coupled with the real estate boom of the 1880s in generating an impulsive flight to the suburbs where builders constructed shoddy residences near or on streetcar lines, “to the south and more especially to the east.”[17]

Of a similar tone, yet with a somewhat positive spin, contemporary journals and periodicals claim that as the streetcar system kept spreading over a wide swath of the metropolitan area, people were more inclined to move ahead of the line, so to speak. Developers built subdivisions and individual homes on speculation and with close streetcar connections many were induced to find their way to the suburbs. As described in Manufacturer and Jobber:

Many a man has been able to purchase a home cheaply in a new portion of the city that was touched by the extension of a division where otherwise if he did not have the proper transportation facilities at his disposal he would still be paying rent and the real estate in that section would still be looked upon as only being available for farming purposes.[18]

What is known is that Kansas City, by 1940 (just 17 years before the demise of the streetcar) “occupied by far the greatest area of any urban center in America in its population classification.”[19] Kansas City Public Service Company, who owned the mass transit franchise, served a population of approximately ½ million people spread out over “an area of nearly 100 square miles.”[20] St. Louis, Cleveland and Boston, for example, with double the population, respectively, were all dispersed over similar sized land. For that reason alone, Kansas City operated “522 miles of track, trolley lines and motor bus routes, a total substantially equal to that in most cities possessing twice her population and, therefore, twice the potential number or patrons.” The large area served (including building outside the city limits), “with its low density of population may make for good living conditions, but it also presents difficult transportation conditions . . . long hauls and lowest revenue per mile of operation.”[21]

Mass transit ridership

[1] This historic context is, in part, based on the Section 106 Technical Report for the KC Downtown Streetcar Project, HPP 106 Project No. 213-JA-12, City of Kansas City, Missouri, August 2012. Much additional data has been added, while any discrepencies were corrected.

[2] Bion J. Amold, Report to Hon. William C. Hook, Circuit Judge, on the Value of the Properties of the Metropolitan Street Railway System of Kansas City, Missouri (Kansas City: n. p., 1912), 32. Bion Joseph Arnold (1861-1930), a pioneer in electrical engineering, was a consultant in various cities and among his outstanding accomplishments was the electrification of Grand Central Station.

[3] Edward A. Conrad, Kansas City Streetcars: From Hayburners to Streamliners (Blue Springs: Heartland Rails, 2011), 95-97.

[4] In the first of many fights for franchise expansions, The Kansas City Star championed the extension of the streetcar line. On one occasion, it was stated that, “the proper growth of a city depends more upon its street railway facilities than upon anything else in its municipal life.” (“Street Railway’s and the Growth of a City,” The Kansas City Star, 25 June 1909, 10.) However, historians point to developers and builders constructing cheap residences along streetcar lines to the south and more especially to the east. See Sherry Lamb Schirmer and Richard McKinzie, At the River’s Bend (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, Inc., 1982), 99.

[5] “Kansas City Railway Gains Pubic Favor,” Electric Railway Journal 68 (September 30, 1916), 667.

[6] Edward A. Conrad, Kansas City Streetcars: From Hayburners to Streamliners, 95-97, 177-180.

[7] A. Theodore Brown and Lyle W. Dorsett, KC: A History of Kansas City, Missouri (Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Publishing Company, 1978), 106. See also, Electric Railway Journal, September 30, 1916.

[8] Delos F. Wilcox, Municipal Franchises: A Description of the Terms and Conditions upon which Private Corporations enjoy Special Privileges in the Streets of American Cities (New York: The Engineering News Publishing Company, 1911), 310-323. The Peace Agreement was an ordinance between the city and the street railway companies. Generally speaking, the Peace Agreement mandated that the Metropolitan would upgrade and expand their lines, receive new franchises and an extension of existing franchises. The City, in return, would get a percentage of gross earnings. See also Conrad, Kansas City Streetcars, 105-106.

[9] Roy Ellis, A Civic History of Kansas City, Missouri (Springfield, Missouri: Columbia University, 1930), 101, 115; Terence W. Cassidy, “Kansas City,” Motor Coach Age, November-December, 1975, 5; Cydney E. Millstein, “Historic Mill Creek Viaduct, Kansas City, Missouri: Historical and Descriptive Data, Photographs and Plans,” May 22, 1996, 6.

[10] Edward A. Conrad, Kansas City Streetcars: From Hayburners to Streamliners, 213. Conrad points out that during this period of rebuilding, mushroom beds were removed from the upper portion of the 8th Street Tunnel.

[11] Millstein, “Historic Mill Creek Viaduct, Kansas City, Missouri,” 9.

[12] Ibid, 9.

[13] Robert Gillham (1854-1899), the pioneer of the cable line in Kansas City, Missouri, established The Kansas City Cable Railway Company, Kansas City’s first cable traction enterprise, in 1883. Gillham also engineered the 9th Street Incline and the 8th Street Tunnel.

[14] Conrad, 219.

[15] The Dodson Line has its roots in the Kansas City and Clinton Branch of the Tebo and Neosho Railroad Company (1870). It later took the title of the Kansas City, Memphis and Mobile Railroad Company and in 1880 it was sold to the Kansas City Southern Railway Company. The property was next acquired by the Kansas City and Southeastern Railways Company and then by the Kansas City and Westport Belt Railway Company incorporated on July 16, 1897. The Dodson line was operated by the KC&WBR, which leased cars and purchased power from the Metropolitan Street Railway Company from 1907. Under the terms of the franchise of July 7, 1914, the Kansas City & Westport Belt was merged with the Kansas City Railways Company; thus the Dodson line became the property of the KCR Company. See Report . . .On the Value of the . . . Metropolitan Street Railway System, 126-127; “The Dodson Line,” The Railwayan 6 (January 1923), 11; “Community Freight Service,” Electric Railway Journal 58 (1921), 242.

[16] Dolores Hayden. Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000. (New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, 2003), 75-76. Hayden reports that in Europe, owners of streetcar companies were “forbidden” to participate in land speculation, unlike America, where “land subdivision . . . was seen by businessmen as related to the electric trolley business, like ‘two pockets in the same man’s trousers.’ “ 93.

[17] Sherry Lamb Schirmer and Richard McKenzie. At the River’s Bend: An Illustrated History of Kansas City, Independence and Jackson County, 99.

[18] “Street Railway Facilities.” Manufacturer and Jobber (December 28, 1907), 731.

[19] “How Mass Transportation is Conducted in Greater Kansas City, the Heart of America.” Mass Transportation 36 (November 1940), 286.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.