Friday, September 25, 2015


Recently, Mom has been buying old-time postcards of Kansas City, mostly on eBay, because (1) she likes them, and (2) other people like them and will buy them in her antique booth.  Anyway, today I am going to show you a few of these postcards and tell you what I learned about them.

Mom did not have to buy this first one because she found it in her mom's stuff.  It shows a race track at Smithville, which is a small town north of Kansas City.  My grandma Helen (mom's mom) grew up on a farm near Smithville.  Mom herself was born in Smithville because that was the closest hospital to where her folks lived in the north part of Kansas City, but Mom did not grow up on a farm.

Anyway, it was news to us that there had ever been a race track in Smithville, but it turns out it was built in 1925 on the old fairgrounds.  Horse shows had been going on there since 1900, and one thing led to another until some men decided to build a track.  At first, the racing was mostly with harness horses because that was the most popular kind of racing in those days.  Betting was not legal, but you could do it by making a $2 donation.  During the racing season, there were races every day of the week except Monday.

In 1928, some new promoters took over the track, and they changed the races to be mostly running horses instead of harness horses.  But those promoters left town after running up a bunch of debts.  Some other people tried to save the track, but it was too far from Kansas City for people to come out there often, and the farm people preferred harness racing.  Later, motor car and motorcycle races were held on the track.  But finally, in the 1940s, the big grandstand was torn down, and that was the end of that.

This next postcard shows a road that was named for Kersey Coates, who was an early businessman and developer in Kansas City.  Mr. Coates was born in Pennsylvania in 1823.  He moved to Kansas City in 1854, a year after it was incorporated.  He bought land on the bluffs above the Missouri River and built a ritzy neighborhood called Quality Hill.

He also started building a hotel at 10th and Broadway, but then the Civil War came along.  Mr. Coates was an abolitionist and served in the militia.  He let the Union cavalry use his unfinished hotel to  stable their horses.  After the war, the stable became a big, fancy hotel.  Mr. Coates was also part of the parks commission.  In addition, he and some other businessmen convinced the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad to build the first bridge across the river at Kansas City instead of at Leavenworth.

Kersey Coates Drive ran along the face of a cliff, about halfway down.  It looked kind of scary to people who looked up at it when they arrived at the old Union Station in the West Bottoms.  Some towers and steps were built above the roadway, and you could go up them to a park at the top.  In this postcard, you can't see them, so either they hadn't been built yet or else they were farther down the road.  Now there is a freeway where Kersey Coates Drive used to be.

On the east side of town, there is a long north-south boulevard called The Paseo.  It was inspired by the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City.  The Kansas City Paseo is 19 miles long, running from Cliff Drive on the bluffs of the Missouri River in the north to 85th Street in the south.  In the middle of the Paseo, there is a wide parkway which was laid out in the early 1900s.  The parkway has fountains and sculptures and that kind of thing.

The Paseo was built through some slum areas, and the African-Americans living there had to move to other slums so that the boulevard could be built.  By the early 1920s, the northern end of the Paseo started getting a bad reputation because of prostitution, gambling, and drugs.  Nowadays, there are many parts of the boulevard with a lot of crime and blight.

The most interesting thing about this postcard, in my opinion, is the two men on the bench.  Well, the one on the right is just sitting there in a normal way, but what is the other guy doing?  Here are some possible theories:  (1) he is sleeping, or (2) he has a tummy ache, or (3) he is dead, or (4) he is looking for something he dropped.

This is Mom's favorite Kansas City postcard so far, because it shows steamboats at the landing on the river.  If you go down to the river at this spot now, you can still see part of the old landing.  Or if it isn't the original landing, it is still a very old one.  Of course, there are fences to keep you from going there, but Mom knows some people who feed a feral cat colony that lives under the landing.

But getting back to the steamboats, it turns out that they were still coming up the Missouri River as late as the first decade of the 20th Century.  This is about 20 years later than we had thought they were still operating.  Steamboats were not very safe to ride in because they were always sinking.  One reason they sank was they ran into rocks or snags that punched holes in their hulls.  Also their boilers sometimes exploded, which caused the boats to catch on fire and sink.  Between 1819 and 1910, about 700 paddle wheelers operated on the Missouri River.  Of those, 300 or so were wrecked.

If you want to see all the kinds of things a steamer carried up the river to forts and pioneer settlements, you should go to to the Arabia Steamboat Museum in the River Market area of Kansas City.  The Arabia was a boat that sank and that was later dug up in a cornfield.  It was in the cornfield because the channel of the river had changed.  There are lots of other steamboat wrecks that could be dug up, but it takes a lot of time and money to do it.  Personally, I'm not much of a digger, so I'm not going to even try it!

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