The Train Out of Westport: Part 2 – The Country Club Streetcar Line

(originally published 11/14/19)

Last week’s post covered the first of four pieces on the origins of today’s Trolley Track Trail. The growth in Kansas City’s late 19th century gave rise to a small railroad that connected Westport to Waldo and beyond, a line that would continue to be influential for more than a century. By the mid-1890s, the Westport and Waldo Railroad had made a significant impact on the developments south of Brush Creek even before it was connected to the city’s growing interurban rail system. This week takes us to the early 20thCentury, when J.C. Nichols was beginning the development of the Country Club District – a defining project in 20th century development – and the role that the little railroad played. This week’s entry is largely from The Brookside Story, augmented by select paragraphs from The Country Club District of Kansas City.

J.C. Nichols knew the “motorcar” was the vehicle taking America to the future. Building quality roads in the Country Club District was a priority. He was involved in the City Beautiful movement, and worked with famed planner and landscape architect George Kessler on both his own residential projects and larger civic endeavors. Brookside was designed to be auto-friendly. As early as 1920, Nichols published a map of the “Scenic Route Through the Country Club District,” with the suggestion, “Put this [map] in the pocket of your automobile for use the next time you are pleasure driving.”

(left) Nichols’ first development, Bismark Place, circa 1905, was serviced by this small set of shops at 51st and Oak. The rail just beyond the far side of the building. (right) In 1919 the new Brookside Building is under construction at 63rd & Brookside Blvd. The rail lines are seen in the foreground, crossing 63rd Street. (photos State Historical Society of Missouri-Kansas City)

But in 1905 when he started his first development, Bismark Place near 50th and Main, roads suitable for automobiles were still in the future. The development was just south of Brush Creek, where roads were rough with wagon ruts, and there was no bridge across the creek. Any trip to Westport – the nearest commercial area – required fording the creek in wagon or on foot. Neither was in keeping with the quality of neighborhoods to which Nichols aspired.

Evidence of the train’s route in Westport is visible today at the intersection of Mill Street and 42nd, where a tangle of steel rails makes for a bumpy drive. It follows the line of Mill Street southeast, behind the Embassy Suites hotel. From there, a bridge no longer there sliced diagonally across Broadway and then 43rd Street, then followed the eastern edge of Mill Creek Park. The line continued across Main Street at the south end of the commercial strip on the west side of Main Street, then across 47th Street through what is today the parking lot west of Winstead’s. From there, it crossed the creek and Volker Boulevard to where the Trolley Track Trail begins today at Volker Boulevard, and continues down the east side of Brookside Boulevard.

The Nichols Company’s use of the area’s rail system is an early example of how technology of the day played a role in the District’s development. In 1906 Nichols and other investors bought the Westport to Waldo railway, with a dual purpose in mind. By buying the line, they intended to eliminate the freight traffic nuisance and turn the line into a line that exclusively would serve passengers. Once acquired, the Nichols group then sold the line back to the Metropolitan Street Railway Company, which operated the city’s system with two requirements. The system must be electrified (as was the national trend), and they wanted freight service discontinued. They were successful in the first, and in fact, the line was electrified by 1907 at least as far as 75th Street and Wornall Road in Waldo.

The Nichols Company built a variety of detailed shelter houses at the streetcar stops inside the Country Club District. This one at 69th and Wornall Road was a flight of stairs above the road, and as such, the weather vane on top depicts a man, child and woman running up those stairs to catch the train. (Photo: State Historical Society of Missouri-Kansas City)

On the second requirement, they were not successful. It’s not apparent whether the Nichols consortium was aware of the fact that the line they purchased actually had two rights-of-way attached to it. It was one thing to own the rails on which the cars ran. The real value, however, was in the rights to use those rails. Because the rail had been used over the last 30 years by two different services, there were two rights-of-way attached to the rail – one for passenger service, and one for freight. The city did not want to lose the potential value of the freight easement, even though they would have to forfeit $50,000 for refusing to comply. So forfeit they did.

In so doing, the Met caused a legal split of the right-of-way which ran with the easement area of the tracks. One right-of-way went to the Met, and over the years to the various iterations of the franchise operators, culminating with the Kansas City Public Service Company that operated the system at the time the streetcars stopped. The other right-of-way went to the newly formed Kansas City Public Freight Company, a separate franchise that the city granted for freight service on the line. So a minimal freight presence remained on the line for decades, and it would be decades before the problem that would create had to be dealt with. For now, Nichols had his streetcar.

Final inspections before the Sunset Hill Line begins the first run of its brief life, serving the Ward Parkway area. The photo is dated 1925 – by 1930 the line was discontinued. (Photo: State Historical Society of Missouri-Kansas City)

The Country Club Line served the eastern side of the District, but Nichols thought there would be more demand. He pushed for, and successfully secured the Sunset Hill line. Nichols had developed the Sunset Hill neighborhood (near today’s Loose Park) under contract with the Ward family. Hugh Ward, a successful young lawyer and son of famed frontier trader Seth Ward, owned significant acreage just south of Brush Creek, including the Kansas City Country Club at the current site of Loose Park. As part of the development plan between the Ward family and the Nichols Company, the Ward estate paid the Metropolitan Street Railway Company (the same company that operated the Country Club line to the east) $60,000 in 1909 to extend another line out of Westport toward the southwest, connecting Ward Parkway to the system near Brush Creek. The Sunset Line ran down the south side of Ward Parkway’s median traveling first west and then along the east side of the median as it traveled up the hill south toward Sunset Hill and Mission Hills.

With the steep grade at the north end of Ward Parkway, the Sunset Hill Line would have been a more difficult project than most. But the Metro completed the project in 1910. By 1913, however, the Metro was already starting to reduce the Sunset Hill Line’s service. The Metro claimed there were too few patrons. In the wealthy neighborhoods along Ward Parkway, there was little need for public transportation. By this time, the age of the automobile had arrived, and the automobile was king the mode of choice for most of the Country Club District’s residents.

The streetcar line had served Nichols well in his first development, Bismark Place. He used it to extend the attractiveness of the Country Club District to 63rd Street and beyond, as well as along Ward Parkway for a time. As a part of the system, old names like the Dummy Line and the Westport and Waldo Railway were dropped in favor of the new official name, the Country Club Line, No. 56. In 1922, at one of the most prolific periods of development in the Country Club District and the city in general, the Metropolitan Street Railway Company reported what would be an all-time system-wide record of more than 135 million rider trips (paid fares) annually.

The decline in ridership was slow but steady from the late 20s through the years before World War II. Ridership picked up a bit during the war, when gas was rationed and cars were expensive to maintain. After the Pratt Whitney aircraft engine plant was built near 95th and Troost in 1942, traffic on the Country Club Line increased a bit, as the line was a direct link for the hundreds of Kansas Citians who worked at the plant. But the system would never see numbers like it had around 1920. It wouldn’t be until 1945 when ridership would near that level, but by that time, ridership included both streetcars and buses. Still, that year the Country Club Line had 43,000 riders.

The city began decommissioning some of its service lines in the late 1940s, along with virtually every other system in America. There was no stemming the trend toward the automobile over public transportation. Only five routes in the city were still operating in 1951. The 1951 flood took out the line between Kansas City, Kansas and Swope Park. Three other lines, include the Troost line which was perennially the most used line in the system, converted to buses in 1955. And on June 23, 1957, the Country Club line made its final run.

Next week: Replacing the Streetcar line…with a freeway?

(Featured Photo: The Country Club Street Car lines leaves the Waldo Station near 75th and Wornall Road, in 1930. Courtesy Wilborn Associates.)

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