The Train Out of Westport: Part 4 – The Trolley Track Trail

(originally published 11/28/19)

Over the past three weeks, we’ve traced the history of the rail lines metaphorically buried beneath the Trolley Track Trail, that pedestrian and biking trail that connects the Plaza area to points south along Brookside Boulevard. In this, the final post of the series, we pick up the story in the aftermath of the failed attempt to seize the right-of-way for construction of a midtown freeway. While the freeway was averted, it left the physical easement – the property – and the legal rights-of-way in a limbo state that will prove a challenge for the adjacent neighborhoods for several decades before a resolution is found. This week’s post is taken principally from The Waldo Story.

The legal wrangling over the proposed Country Club Freeway had brought an end to the unimaginable – the gutting of the core of the Nichols Company’s Country Club District neighborhoods and those just to the south through the Waldo area. But the questions over the fate of the streetcar right-of-way remained as open as the day the streetcar stopped. That uncertainty had worked in the favor of the businesses and neighborhoods adjacent to the streetcar line in that battle. The next time the issue would surface, that uncertainty would work against them.

The freight operation continued with limited service in the Waldo area into the 1950s. Courtesy Wilborn Associates)

With the closing of the streetcar system in 1957, the rights-of-way granted to operate any kind of service on that line effectively became worthless. Over the years, the original holder of that permission, the Metropolitan Street Railway Corporation had morphed several times over. When the streetcar system closed, the city took over the assets of the entity now called the Kansas City Public Service Company, even though those assets – a rail line and permissions for two rights-of-way for freight and passenger service – had no value to them. They would not be operating passenger service. The freight service, which the city had never operated and was now only sporadic, would only be viable as long as the rail line itself was serviced. With little financial incentive to do so, the city did not plan to maintain the rail. Yet in 1957, the freight company was bought and reformed as the Kansas City Public Service Freight Operation, under the ownership of James Ashley, Sr.

A current photo shows the first parking lot the Waldo businesses leased for parking. Though the rail is gone, the KCATA retains ownership. Courtesy Waldo Area Business Association

The city had other methods of gleaning value out of the Country Club Line easement. In the early 1960s, the Southwest Business Association (forerunner to today’s Waldo Area Business Association) began negotiations with the city to use the easement for parking. The one hundred foot width would be sufficient to either create new parking spaces or add to existing ones already adjacent to the line. The association’s lawyer was also a city councilman—Charles Shafer Jr., who had worked with the neighborhoods when as neighborhood intermediary during the Country Club Freeway controversy. With Shafer’s help, Waldo negotiated an agreement for use of the easement just south of 75th Street to convert into a parking lot. (Brookside would enter into a similar arrangement between the city and the businesses in the early 1980s.) The businesses understood additional parking was essential to Waldo’s future success, but everyone was mindful that this was a lease, and not a purchase of the property. There were no question but that the city could decide to reclaim the land for its own use. But what possible use could there be?

The illustration of the 1970 freeway plan proposed by the city retained the six-lanes, below grade character of the earlier plan, with the addition of mass transit down the freeway’s median. Courtesy The Waldo Area Business Association

The question was answered in 1970 when the city released a concept plan for another version of the earlier Country Club Freeway plan, though the only differences were that this time, the plan focused on the intersection of 75th and Wornall, and that this time the plan included a monorail-type transit system. But the rest was the same. The monorail ran between the same six lanes of sub-grade freeway that had cleared out dozens of blocks. Although a few commercial property owners saw a chance to cash in, there was never enough active support for the plan itself to be much of a threat. But it reopened the question of property rights. The City of Kansas City started its fight to reclaim all right-of-way, and the Kansas City Public Service Freight Operation fought to maintain its rights to the rails. Through a series of lawsuits and judgements, the business association’s lease for the easement was first with the freight operation in 1958, subsequently with the Area Transportation Authority (the new iteration of the Public Service Company) in 1974, then back to the freight operation in 1977.

Earlier, in the 1970s, an article in the community paper, The Squire, written by the beloved local broadcaster and author, Walt Bodine, declared Wornall Road south of 75th Street as arguably the ugliest street in America. Photos showed the disorderly pattern of uses and signs that defy every ordinance, but the most striking image was of dilapidated, weed-infested train tracks laid loosely on an unstable bed. Some stretches were favorite spots for illegal dumping. The shopping areas struggled to maintain the parking lots, despite the rents they paid to the ATA.

Meanwhile, the dispute that had begun in 1962 with the formation of the Kansas City Public Service Freight Operation didn’t resolve itself until the 1990s. The city had started out with a tentative agreement with the Ashley family for the rights for a mere $30,000 in 1965. By 1980, the Ashleys were rejecting an offer by the city of more than $4 million, made possible by a federal grant. With the rejection, the grant fell through. Just a year later, the matter seemed resolved when the Ashleys were awarded $2.5 million. For another ten years, the city then fought other lawsuits by property owners claiming individual damages. The last lawsuit was kicked out of the courts in 1994, and the ATA finally had clear claim to the right-of-way. By now, the interest in light rail was wavering, but by law the easement was required to serve some sort of transportation use.

In the 1990s, American cities’ in transit shifted toward bicycles and pedestrians. Kansas City started working on bike/walk plans in the 1980s, without success. But interest – and some funding – showed up in the early 1990s, and what became Kansas City’s first real plan, BikeKC, was released in 1994. The idea of converting the Country Club line easement from a rail line to a bike and pedestrian trail seemed perfectly timed. Improvements could be made, but the city would keep the right to use the easement as a streetcar line again, if need be.

Today, the Harry Wiggins Trolley Track Trail has converted an abandoned rail bed into a major community amenity that connects the neighborhoods just as the earlier streetcar line did. (Photos courtesy KCATA)

Working with the neighborhood and business groups along the route, the ATA developed a plan that was widely embraced. The rails were removed, then replaced in some places with asphalt, in others with crushed limestone. The walking and biking trail would connect everything between the Plaza and Dodson, just as the streetcars had once done. Upon dedication in 1996, the trail was named the Harry Wiggins Trolley Track Trail, in honor of the local state senator whose support had been instrumental in getting the project funded. Over the years, the Trolley Track Trail has served as neighborhood connector, community gathering point and the route of area charity races. While the KCATA owns and manages the property to this day, the city and adjacent businesses have also provided maintenance and improvements.

In 2014, the city created the 31-member Country Club Right-of-Way Neighborhood Committee to act in the interests of all those with a stake in the future of the easement. Members come from neighborhood associations, businesses, and city departments to discuss issues that relate to the Trolley Track Trail, including its maintenance as a trail. In 2016, Kansas City opened its first streetcar line through downtown. Since then, plans have been floated and defeated, but the conversation continues and the question remains. Will the Country Club Streetcar line return, and if it does, will the easement be its home?

(Featured Photo: The deteriorating conditions in Waldo were highlighted in the Squire magazine in the early 1970s, including this evidence of the abandoned streetcar rail, looking north between 75th and 77th streets.

(Special thanks to my friend, Eric Youngberg, who, as a retired planner is involved in more neighborhood and preservation projects than I can possibly list. In his capacity as a member of the Country Club Right-of-Way Neighborhood Committee, Eric caught me up on the work of the Committee and the status of the trail.)

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