(KC 1900 Series # 12)
At the time of the Convention Hall Fire, Kansas City was home to two extraordinary men who were in a position to be influential in the story of the Convention Hall fire and resurrection. One was at the start of a long and brilliant political career that would put him in the circles of the most influential men in both the national political arena, and the local criminal organizations. The other was already at the height of his career as an internationally recognized leader in the innovation of his profession. Both would have been in a position to emerge as one of the heroes of the Convention Hall fire story, but it was hubris for one and unforeseen forces for the other that kept them from that opportunity. So why include them? Because these two men are among the most fascinating and influential men in Kansas City’s history, yet among the least familiar. Because their lack of influence serves as a reminder that position and expertise shine when a project is on the rise, but it’s often luck, timing and grit, the purview of the less exhalted, that seize the day when the going gets rough.
James A. Reed
The day before the Convention Hall fire, April 3, 1900, Kansas City held its biennial council and mayoral election. The mayoral race went to James A. Reed. Reed was a prominent public figure by this time, but I had yet to come across Reed’s name in any of the documented discussions, public or private, that I had unearthed concerning the Convention Hall project. Reed was, as they say, conspicuous by his absence. But whatever his role in the resurrection of the Convention Hall, Reed’s is a story worth sharing, because it captures a genuine national-level politician’s long and eventful career at the moment it begins, at the rise of the Kansas City political machine’s influence and with a national political convention waiting in the wings.
James Alexander Reed was twenty six when he came to Kansas City in 1887 having learned the law in the apprentice’s way at a firm in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The move was precipitated by his recent marriage to a woman with whom he had had an affair, resulting in her divorce and her subsequent marriage to Reed. In Kansas City, Reed started his law practice almost simultaneously with his lifelong association with the Pendergasts. This was Reed’s entry into the political life of Kansas City, in particular, the Democratic life. For in those days, the Pendergast machine wasn’t the only one in town, or even the only Democratic faction. Reed was welcomed by the Pendergast men, but not as much by Shannon’s. But when it came to bipartisan elections, the two groups found a way to bond behind a single candidate. So in that way, Reed was both the darling and the black sheep of Kansas City’s Democratic “family.” 1897 saw the end of Reed’s private law practice when he was appointed city councilor, and in 1898 was elected Jackson County prosecutor, both positions courtesy of Pendergast support. And thanks, too, for the support that positioned him to fulfill his political ambitions, for in 1890 there would be a mayoral race that Reed had his eye on.
While no question Jim Pendergast’s support was instrumental in giving Reed his start, Reed was by all accounts a remarkable attorney. Over his long career, he prosecuted some of the most notable or notorious cases in local history. He was a remarkable orator – erudite, but plain spoken and direct. He was not known for his public persona, which ranged from taciturn to dour, but he evoked strong reactions in everyone he met. In 1910 Reed was elected to the US Senate, and served three terms. In 1919 he was the most vocal among the senators who voted against President Wilson’s League of Nations. For that, Wilson excoriated him publicly. When Wilson retired in 1929, he was lauded by the noted journalist, H.L. Menken, who wrote in “American Mercury,” the journal he co-founded,
“To be a fraud is safer and happier in Washington today, [for James A. Reed] …has hung up his sword and gone home to Missouri…The stature of such a man as Reed is not to be counted by his successes. The important thing is that he fights.”
But that was still ahead of James Reed early in 1900, as Kansas City was anticipating the imminent opening of the new convention hall. Reed was not-so-privately discussing the pros and cons of running for mayor with the political influentials in town. The election was little more than three months away. The Kansas City Star had written an article speculating on Reed’s candidacy, attributing his reticence to the pay disparity between the county prosecutor and the mayor – $1,600 per year.
When the Kansas City delegation made its pitch to the National Democratic Party in Chicago that February, the contest had come down to Kansas City and Milwaukee. Each city was allowed to present a case for its selection using no more than three designated speakers. Kansas City went first in the debate, and James A. Reed was its opening speaker. Kansas City won the vote, and more than a few reports indicated Reed’s powers of persuasion played no small part in the victory.
If there had been any doubt that James Reed would run for mayor, by the time the Democratic junket returned to Kansas City that doubt was erased. The pieces had all fallen in place. But even with all his talents, Reed was not a shoe-in, but what today would be cast as a “likeable candidate.” His personality deficits have already been noted. Worse, Reed was not a big promoter of the city – he had actively opposed the parks and boulevards plan and he had opposed the building of the convention hall, one of the issues that put Reed on the outs with William Rockhill Nelson and The Kansas City Star, an unfortunate dissonance for a politically ambitious lawyer like Reed.
But a convention, especially a Democratic one, was something else. The pitch session had already given Reed a chance to show the national party what he was made of. And no doubt the Pendergast imprimatur on Reed made for a fine introduction to the men to know in Chicago. Confident in his oratory and his rhetoric, Reed would likely have considered primarily one thing – a chance to be mayor in a city hosting a national convention of his own party would be the ideal setting for laying the groundwork for future political office.
In some ways, Reed won the primary, and then the general election, almost in spite of himself. Reed was the king of the county courthouse, but city hall was of only occasional interest, unless it had to do with legal work. Being, as he was, almost completely unfamiliar with the day-to-day tasks of running the city, and the issues of the day, and where the important players stood on the issues, he tended to lead with his personal opinions (not necessarily fully informed, nor aligned with his constituents) and then rely on his talent for rhetoric and oratory. Early in the race he arrived at a series of town-hall-like meetings so ill-prepared that he became the laughing stock of the week, and every one of Reed’s missteps made the pages of the Kansas City Star – Nelson made sure he had reporters at every meeting to catch Reed in a moment of embarrassment.
When Reed awoke on the morning of April 4, he was looking at Kansas City with new eyes, no doubt, seeing a world in which he had a strong professional reputation, a network of well-positioned supporters, the majority position gained from the Democrat sweep of the election night, and more or less carte blanche to set the city’s agenda. But by 1:00 that afternoon, a lot of what Reed assumed he had was, quite literally, going up in smoke. And that, as we’ll see in an upcoming piece, Reed discarded whatever chance he had to provide help to the rebuilding efforts. And eventually, prove himself no friend of the subject of the following profile.
George C. Hale
Learning about George C. Hale, Kansas City’s world-famous fire chief, and writing a bit of his story for an earlier KCB post was one of the tales about the Convention Hall fire that made me interested in learning more. And I have learned more – enough, in fact, that the original piece, while largely on the mark, assumed some things that have proved to be more common belief than fact. At the same time, I came across information that wasn’t present in the original research pertaining to the Convention Hall story. So here, now, is the slightly updated story of George C. Hale.
Kansas City was lucky in so many small ways – the right people at the right time to make use of the opportunities presented. But of all the ones unearthed as a result of putting together the Convention Hall’s story, no example of providential opportunity should have been better than that of George Consider Hale, the premiere firefighter of his day, certain in this country, and quite possibly anywhere.
Locally, George Hale was praised as Chief of the city’s Fire Department, being in possession of all the most important attributes needed for the job. As proclaimed by his predecessor who endorsed him for the position of chief, Hale was “an active worker…always found in the thickest of the fight…a man without fear, always ready to command.” But George Hale’s legacy, the important attribute that kept him from being relegated to a footnote in history, had nothing to do with his talents as a leader of the city fire department. Indeed, Hale was unique among peers for this talent. He was an ingenious machinist and engineer – a sort of firefighting entrepreneur.
Not much is readily available on Hale’s personal life. He was born in 1849 or 1850, and came to Kansas City when he was about thirteen. It’s reasonable to assume he came here with family, but with or without a family, he apparently set out straight away on an apprenticeship as a mechanic. During that apprenticeship, he is credited with having built the first industrial steam engine in the city. That might seem far-fetched, but consider that just three years later, only about 20 years old, Hale was in charge of a major feature of building the first bridge to cross the Missouri River, the Hannibal Bridge (today’s Broadway Bridge). Hale was key to the bridge’s greatest innovation, the rotating bridge that turned ninety degrees to create clearance for the larger ships navigating the river. Hale worked directly under the supervision of the famous Octave Chanute, the world renowned engineer who designed the bridge and oversaw its construction.
Hale was said to have had a long-standing fascination with fire engines and the fire service. That may explain why just after the bridge was completed, when he was still only about twenty-one, he joined the fire department to work as the chief mechanic for the department’s first steam engine. A year later, the department completed the transfer from all volunteer to full-time staffing. Fire was an increasing problem in Kansas City – in every city, for that matter – where so many of the structures were wooden, yet fueled by wood burning stoves. With the full-time staff came an expansion in the number of fire houses, and the acquisition of more and better equipment. Lucky, then, was Kansas City to have George Hale in its ranks. In the years between his first hiring, through all his advancement in the department, George Hale turned his ideas into inventions, and with Hale as its leader, the Kansas City Fire Department became one of the most famous fire departments in the world.
Because Hale was a fireman, he understood at a very practical level what firefighters needed in terms of equipment. As an engineer, Hale understood the mechanical principles needed to make more modern and more specialized equipment. Over the years, he became the holder of some sixty U.S. Patents, most of which registered between 1878 and 1890. His inventions included a specialized rotary engine, a water tower that could be transported to the site of the fire. He also paid attention to the small improvements, like specialized cutters, alarm systems, and special fittings for the horses that pulled the fire engines.
Through the popularity of these inventions, Hale and, consequently, the Kansas City Fire Department became so well regarded that twice they were selected to represent the United States at the International Fire Congress, first in 1893 in London, and then again in Paris in 1900. At both competitions, Kansas City performed heads and shoulder above its European counterparts, and Chief Hale in particular was celebrated, including an audience with Queen Victoria. Stopping over in London on the return from the Paris showing, Chief Hale was offered $3,000 a week to exhibit his crews’ talents nightly at the London Hippodrome. Even though the trip had drained most of their travel funds, Hale declined, saying they had not traveled to make money, but only to promote Kansas City, Missouri and its fire department.
Hale and his award-winning team appeared at the Paris Congress in August of 1900. By that time, all of America and most of Europe had heard about the great fire that had consumed Kansas City’s brand new convention hall, and how the city had rallied to rebuild. Hale and his crew were already celebrated in Europe, so recognition of the role that the Fire Department must have played in this great catastrophe only enhanced that reputation. As bad as the fire was, outsiders could only assume that it would have been worse if not for Kansas City’s excellent fire department: How could it be otherwise?
How indeed? In next week’s post, we will experience the fire – as close to minute by minute as possible, from the perspective of a dozen or so first-hand accounts, that will reveal the true extent of the role of the fire department on that all important day.
(Banner Photo: (left) Kansas City City Hall, and (right) Fire Department Headquarters at the time of the fire in 1900.)