The railroads won't dodge the city's riverside birthplace.

Tied to the Tracks 

The railroads won't dodge the city's riverside birthplace.

In about 1850, the good people of the Town of Kansas, Missouri, began hitching up their britches and scampering up the Missouri River's south bluff to build a real city above the flood-prone village they had shoehorned into the narrow plain between the river and the ridge.

Eventually, as Kansas City grew south, its residents forgot about the Town of Kansas. The town's buildings fell in on themselves, leaving only foundations outlining the original streets: Main, Delaware and Walnut running north and south; Commercial and Front running east and west. Railroads laid tracks across the town site, and the Missouri River became inaccessible to the public as factories, warehouses and flood walls sequestered the waterway and the city's birthplace. Neglect left the riverbank livable only to hobos and rats.

Developer Mel Mallin is ready for all that to change. Government planners have envisioned walking and biking trails, wetlands, prairies and historic monuments that would reopen the Missouri River to visitors.

But upsetting the bucolic picture is the Kansas City Terminal Railway. The long-lived consortium of railroads that built Kansas City's Union Station nearly a century ago plans to add tracks along the riverfront, leaving the Town of Kansas site flanked by rails. So Mallin will see more trains crawl past the River Market lofts he has developed on the bluff above the town site, and visitors to the river will more likely hear diesel engines than heron calls.

"It's the golden rule. Them that have the gold makes the rule," Mallin says. In this case, though, he says the rule is, "Them that have the railroad make the rule. We're at their mercy."

The railway owns a 7-acre slice of scrub between the River Market and the water. Approached by the city thirteen years ago, the local rail company agreed to hand over the land, which holds the remains of the Town of Kansas. But the railroad reserved the right to run as many trains as it wants through the heart of the site on new tracks to be built on what was Commercial Street.

The tracks will be a significant barrier separating the River Market from the heart of the Town of Kansas. And because Union Pacific already has tracks just north of the town's remains, visitors would find themselves in a rail yard with trains passing on both the north and south sides.

City planner Lisa Briscoe says the rail line won't jeopardize the project. "What everybody needs to keep in mind is, yes it's unfortunate, but it's still very doable," Briscoe says. "The track becomes a design problem we will incorporate into our future design."

The new track is needed because storm water runoff often floods the UP's tracks at a low spot beneath the Broadway Bridge, says Bill Somervell, president of Kansas City Terminal Railway. But Somervell says the new tracks won't be used only during heavy rains.

Somervell makes no apologies. "This is a railroad," he says. "This is not Disneyland down there."

But City Hall, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Port Authority are planning to bring a little bit of Main Street U.S.A. and Tom Sawyer's Island to Kansas City's riverfront.

This summer, the Corps will begin demolishing an old parking lot just west of Richard L. Berkley Riverfront Park in a $4 million project to create a 3-acre wetland and 11 acres of native prairie.

Berkley Park and the wetland will become important pieces of the $22 million Riverfront Heritage Trail, which is being developed jointly by Kansas City, Missouri, Wyandotte County, the Port Authority and the Corps. The trail system will reach west to Huron Park in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, and south to Southwest Boulevard.

Nearing completion is a $4.1 million bridge and elevator that will take pedestrians and bicyclists over the Town of Kansas site, past the flood wall and down to the river. The Port Authority plans to build a restaurant, a boat dock, a road and a parking lot so the spot will be accessible to cars as well.

But with the town's remains, Kansas City has a chance to do something unique, says archeologist Mary Adair, who excavated a portion of the site ten years ago.

"It's rather rare you have multiple means of explaining the past," says Adair, the director of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Kansas.

Few cities have more than county courthouse records and old photos to recall their origins, Adair says. "Archeology adds a component you don't often have." Usually, cities build new structures on top of their original ruins, sealing them off from excavation. Kansas City simply left behind its original ruins.

Adair's excavation unearthed the remains of a dry goods store built in 1865.

She says there is no telling what a full excavation would turn up. If it were developed for research and public access, she says, the site would be a natural complement to the privately owned Steamboat Arabia Museum in the River Market, which displays the cargo of a frontier supply boat that sank north of Kansas City in 1856.

Yet modern-day cargo traveling on the Kansas City Terminal rail line may sink visitors' enjoyment of the waterfront.

The Kansas City Terminal Railway was established in 1908 to build and maintain Union Station and a rail loop around downtown. The loop's north segment travels along the river; the south goes through Union Station's yard.

Now, 250 to 350 trains pass through Kansas City each day, making it the second-busiest rail hub in the country after Chicago.

Nationally, rail traffic has reached record levels. More cargo moves on U.S. rails now than even during the previous boom years of the 1940s and 50s, according to a UP spokesman. Tracks once overgrown by weeds are being reactivated. "We're spending tremendous amounts of money in Kansas City to put capacity back," Somervell says.

That's why the railroads plan to build another east-west segment beside the Missouri River. Somervell says there is no alternative. The three east-west tracks running through Union Station are at capacity. To add a fourth track, the railroad would have to buy additional property and build new bridges.

Charting a new course for rail traffic around the city is too expensive to contemplate, Somervell says. Somervell calls trains "a part of Kansas City history" that would complement a historical site. In any event, he says, "You can't let history stop progress."

Mallin says he isn't trying to stop progress. He's excited about the pedestrian bridge, but he wants it to lead somewhere besides a railroad thoroughfare. "We hope there will be something to look at in the middle of it and at the end of it," he says.

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