(originally published 11/7/19)
Younger or newer Kansas Citians may only know it as the Trolley Track Trail. Long-time residents know it as the Country Club District street car line, south Kansas City’s connection to the early local rail system. And to those long gone, it was a reason to speculate on land, or build a business, or a home. For more than 150 years, this narrow strip of easement has played a part in the growth of every place between Westport south to Dodson at 85th & Prospect. In all these forms, the story of that rail has found a place in the books I’ve written about south Kansas City. So for the four weeks in November, I’m sharing some of that history that’s been included in those books, with a few edits for length and a bit of updating. This week’s entry is from The Waldo Story.
Kansas City’s existence was rooted in the network of wagon trails that had moved the nation westward, but the wagons did not secure its permanence. Steam locomotion would do that. The railroads would be Kansas City’s ticket to the future. Even before the Civil War, Kansas City’s most prominent and influential citizens were planning for the bigger role they wanted the city to play in the nation’s economy. The railroads had been stretching west for years. As early as the 1830s, political interests in Missouri were chartering railroads, albeit many that were never built.
Those that were built, however, were largely short line railroads that connected markets in larger towns with those of small and scattered nearby communities. The Tebo and Neosho once connected Neosho and Sedalia. The Joplin Rail Company connected that town to Girard, Kansas, 42 miles away. And, somewhere around 1865, a short freight line rail was built connecting Westport (still an independent town) and the area known as Dodson, near 75th and Prospect by way of just 8 miles of track.
Too many events conspired to keep progress from moving forward very rapidly—economic downturns and the Civil War among them. But as times improved and the vision of a rail system began to emerge, towns north of the Missouri river were well positioned to take advantage. Cities on the south side, including and especially Kansas City, faced one major obstacle. No railroad had yet bridged the Missouri River, nor seemed inclined to do so. It would be up to the vested interests in Kansas City to find a way to connect their city to a railroad. The way, they decided, was a bridge. Now all that was left was to convince a railroad that building a bridge would make money. It was a monumental task.
The competition was narrowed to Kansas City and Leavenworth, Kansas. After the war Leavenworth’s population was now nearly four times that of Kansas City, and Kansas City had earned a broad reputation as filthy, backward and still sympathetic to the South. It took a great deal of civic aggrandizement and the assistance of former newspaperman, mayor and now U.S. Congressman Robert Van Horn to pull it all off. But in the end, Kansas City won. The Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad would build a bridge across the Missouri River, leading straight south into the heart of downtown Kansas City. In 1870, the year after the bridge opened, Kansas City’s population jumped to an astounding thirty-two thousand. Development in the city exploded, but the result was chaos. Kansas City sprawled out, and as it did, it took the bedlam, the muck and the tribulations of a growing city with it. Adding to the chaos even as it became essential to the life of the city, independent urban lines sprang up around the area. Most ran east to west along the south bank of the Missouri, connecting Kansas City to Independence, and all the sprawling areas in between. But there was that cluster of growth south of Westport, already connected to a freight line.
Nehemiah Holmes came to Kansas City before the Civil War from New York where he had run as store. In Kansas City he found success working in insurance and finance. Nothing in his background suggested to anyone with capital or influence that Holmes knew anything about transportation. But he was smart and persuasive. Holmes saw in that route south out of Westport a new opportunity. Five months before the Hannibal Bridge was officially opened, Holmes incorporated the Kansas City and Westport Horse Rail Road Company, exclusively for the purpose of transportation people. Two years later, Holmes opened the route to operation, first working the Westport to downtown connection, then two years later extending service to the south.
Meanwhile, far to the south, the Missouri Pacific Railroad was completing its plan to reach western Missouri, and ultimately connect its line to the old freight line running north to Westport. The connection would be at Dodson and the connecting railroad was incorporated as the Kansas City and Westport Belt Railway Company. But over the years it would be known mostly as the Dodson “dummy” line. The term was a common one in places where steam locomotives used the same track as passenger service. “Dummy” referred to the practice of making the small steam engines look like anything but what they were, which was noisy and smelly, prone to frightening horses. “Dummy” line engines were muffled and dressed up to look more like streetcars than trains, hence the name “dummy.”
In the spring of 1894, the owners of the railroad, now called the Kansas City Electric Railway, changed the name to the Westport and Waldo Railroad. An 1894 article in the Westport Sentinel Examiner explained the change:
The old name did not locate the road. Kansas City is the best and most taken name on the American continent, and it should not be taken in vain and applied in such a way as to be misleading. Westport may not be quite as well known as Kansas City but when the home seeker reaches the latter place every good real estate agent will at once advise him to locate his wife and children in Westport, where there is an abundance of pure air and southern breezes.
Understandably, the Westport Sentinel Examiner was in the business of promoting Westport. But that didn’t matter to those at the other end of the line. It was the Westport and Waldo Railroad. Waldo was officially “on the map,” and had not one but two railroads. The freight line connected to the Missouri Pacific gave every farmer and craftsman in the area the option to ship goods to Westport, or anywhere else they could reach by rail. And Holmes’ old passenger line serviced the area’s passengers, taking them to any spot in the city the interurban lines reached.
More land speculation came to Waldo. Large parcels were split and acres purchased by those hoping to capitalize on the proximity to the rail. As Waldo approached the turn of the century, the folks who lived there were excited about their prospects. They were riding the rails into a horizon they could not yet clearly see, but that could only be better than the bloody border wars still fresh in their memories.
(Featured photo: Nehemiah Holmes’ original Kansas City and Westport Horse Railway car, the passenger service that would ultimately run from Westport south to Brookside, Waldo and Dodson, and take on the name “Westport & Waldo Railway.”