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Recalling Kansas City’s Gilded Age HBO Series Calls Out KC

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Above image credit: This antique postcard depicted the Hannibal Bridge in Kansas City, dedicated during celebrations in July, 1869. The bridge heralded the Gilded Age in Kansas City. (Courtesy | Missouri Valley Room, Kansas City Public Library)
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16 minute read

The two heavyweights met in the Kansas City stockyards and the bout barely went one round.

The 1898 brawl between James M. Jones, Republican – then mayor of Kansas City – and James A. Reed, Democrat – future mayor and U.S. senator – concerned in part the operation of the local transit system.

The Kansas City Star, in Jones’ corner, ruled the fight a knockout, adding that “Reed fell like a log and lay in the gutter unconscious.”

Other judges submitted different scorecards.

James A. Reed.
James A. Reed. (Courtesy | Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri)

“Most people seemed to think the fight was a draw,” said Bill Worley, longtime Kansas City historian. 

At minimum the fight represented an especially vivid episode during Kansas City’s Gilded Age.

For the last several weeks any Kansas City area resident watching “The Gilded Age,” an HBO episodic period drama set in 1882 New York City, has witnessed bare-knuckle confrontations among railroad moguls, angling to corner transportation markets on the East Coast and points west. 

They’ve also watched the industrialists’ wives as they’ve maneuvered for position in the arena in which they then were allowed – New York’s high society, and the parlors and ballrooms that represented its prize rings.

Here and there, meanwhile, have been the occasional off-hand references to wilderness outposts such as Missouri and Kansas. Those may prompt some to wonder just how much of the New York City society pursuits between 1870 and 1900 – the years normally associated with the Gilded Age – may resemble those seen in Kansas City during those same years.

Short answer: what a quaint notion.

Much is made in the HBO production of the “New Money,” represented by the fictional Russell family and their garish new mansion just off Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The Russells interact awkwardly with another fictional family, the van Rhijns, representing “Old Money” and settled in a not-quite-so-spectacular brownstone across East 61st Street.

“There was very little ‘Old Money’ in Kansas City,” said Bill Worley, a retired professor of history at the Metropolitan Community College – Blue River.

“The reality was that – for building railroads and factories – there just wasn’t enough capital in Kansas City. That had to come from someplace else.”

Then again, the HBO drama is driven by railroads. In one episode George Russell is seen fretting about the expansion of the Missouri Pacific – the later name of the first railroad that reached Kansas City in 1865.

The railroads made Kansas City a viable stop along the Missouri River, not only because its central location rendered it a portal to the American West but also because of the success of local boosters who long have been credited with convincing Congress to authorize the construction of the Hannibal Bridge across the river at Kansas City.

That span, completed in 1869, gave Kansas City merchants a rail connection to markets in Chicago and points east.

But just how crucial was Kansas City’s location – and how much its local champions could claim credit for the bridge – may be exaggerated, Worley said.

“Kansas City, to a significant degree, is the beneficiary of Bostonian investment,” Worley said.

In addition to this East Coast capital, a lot of British money came to Kansas City by way of Jarvis & Conklin, a local investment firm, Worley added.

“Jarvis & Conklin channeled English and East Coast money into the purchase of land that became the Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham areas of east Kansas City and Kansas City, North,” Worley said.

These districts grew into robust Kansas City industrial districts from the 1880s through the 1960s, he added.

Postcard of the Kansas City Convention Hall and the Armour Packing Company.
Postcard of the Kansas City Convention Hall and the Armour Packing Company. (Mrs. Sam Ray Postcard Collection | Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri)

Then there’s the ruthless way in which George’s wife Bertha finances charitable causes as a way to advance her own agenda. 

It’s hard to know if such extreme social climbing was going on in Kansas City, said Kay Barnes, the former mayor of Kansas City who has researched and written about Kansas City’s women’s organizations of the later 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Unless there is some recorded history of personal relationships, it is hard to know for sure,” Barnes said.

What can be documented, Barnes said, was an initial caution as to just what work the women considered appropriate for them to do.

“In the 1880s and 1890s, with some exceptions, there was an emphasis by the women in dealing with concerns of lower-income people and less on anything political,” said Barnes, the first woman to serve as mayor, holding office from 1999 through 2007.

“That gradually shifted over time.”

The HBO series also showcases a subplot involving the Black elite of New York City. It follows the fictional Peggy Scott, a young aspiring Black journalist whose decision to pursue a writing career dismays her father, a pharmacist who wants his daughter to take over his business in Brooklyn.

There were prosperous Black professionals in New York as well as in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and other cities, said Delia Gillis, history professor at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg and founding director of the school’s Center for Africana Studies.

“We don’t necessarily think about them, because they are the smaller percentage of African Americans when we look at the bigger struggle,” Gillis said.

“But even in Kansas City we had our own elite during this period.”

Attending to Business

There’s no debate that the completed Hannibal Bridge in 1869 secured Kansas City’s financial future. 

The railroads using the span drove Kansas City’s emerging economy, prompting the financing of related industries – meatpacking and wholesale lumber distribution among them – that would dominate the local economy.

While financial panics in both the 1870s and 1890s would suppress growth, the 1880s proved a period of spectacular expansion, with the community more than doubling its population – from 55,000 to 132,000 residents – between 1880 and 1890. 

Kansas City real estate values would boom to the vast benefit of those who had gotten in early, such as real estate entrepreneurs Kersey Coates and Thomas Swope.

Such wealth would result in handsome residences on Coates’ Quality Hill development as well as in other areas along Independence Avenue and Armour Boulevard, named for the meatpacking family.

Postcard of Armour Boulevard between Main Street and Warwick Boulevard.
Postcard of Armour Boulevard between Main Street and Warwick Boulevard. (Mrs. Sam Ray Postcard Collection | Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri)

Just as wealthy New York families would build new homes further “up” Manhattan, prominent Kansas City families in the 1890s would begin to move south. 

Between 1888 and 1898 about one-fourth of the city’s residents of  Quality Hill began moving south to Hyde Park, according to Richard P. Coleman, author of “The Kansas City Establishment: Leadership through Two Centuries in a Midwestern Metropolis,” published in 2006.

Rail entrepreneur Arthur Stilwell would plat Janssen Place – the Hyde Park cul-de-sac sometimes known as “Lumberman’s Row” for the timber executives residing there – in 1897.

The mansions built there and elsewhere would redefine the Kansas City standard of opulence. Corinthian Hall, the northeast Kansas City home built by wholesale lumber baron R.A. Long and completed in 1910, included a commercial-sized elevator, considered the first installed in a private home west of the Mississippi River. 

The Kansas City Museum at Corinthian Hall
The Kansas City Museum at Corinthian Hall was built in 1910 and is Kansas City’s first history museum. (Daniel Boothe | Flatland)

The home also housed domestic servants, a crucial component of the HBO production.

“Wanted,” read one local newspaper classified advertisement from 1875, a “stout, industrious woman to cook and wash and anything else there is to be done. Good quarters, conveniences, pleasant permanent home to a person who knows her place and will attend to her business.”

Long’s home would include residential quarters for its domestic staff on the second and third floors, as well as in its adjacent carriage house.

Julian Fellowes, the writer and producer of “Downton Abbey,” created “The Gilded Age.” Both dramas depict the distance between the aspirations of the wealthy families occupying large mansions and those of the servants in their employ.

The fictional lady maid to Agnes van Rhijn, matriarch of the fictional van Rhijns, spends her off-time assisting her ailing mother, existing in miserable fashion in a nearby tenement. 

The explosion of affluence so identified with the Gilded Age contributed to visible income inequalities, sometimes resulting in the jarring juxtaposition of extreme prosperity within eyesight of widespread squalor.

William Rockhill Nelson, founder of The Kansas City Star.
William Rockhill Nelson, founder of The Kansas City Star. (Courtesy | Missouri Valley Room of the Kansas City Public Library)

William Rockhill Nelson, Kansas City press baron, co-founded The Kansas City Star in 1880. In the years before his 1915 death, it was possible for Nelson to stand at a window inside his new Kansas City Star building, built in 1911 at 18th Street and Grand Boulevard, and see McClure Flats, a tenement district just a few blocks to the south.

Nelson famously championed the Kansas City parks and boulevard initiatives of the “City Beautiful” movement, while other wealthy residents addressed the young city’s vast number of challenges in good faith.

Andrew Drumm, a Kansas City stockyards livestock commission agent, resolved to finance a farm-based home for orphan and indigent boys in what is now Independence after one night being directed to a downtown Kansas City alley.

There he saw many of the city’s impoverished young newspaper vendors sleeping in the snow.

Shaken, Drumm reportedly returned home to tell his wife, “I will do what I can to remedy that.”

But sometimes the Kansas City practitioners of noblesse oblige would forget the obliging part. 

Following the Panic of 1893, the Commercial Club – predecessor of today’s Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City – decided that returning prosperity to the city “did not extend to handing out charity to the unfortunate,” wrote Lawrence H. Larsen and Nancy J. Hulston in their 1997 book ”Pendergast!”, a history of the family political machine.

That decision, they wrote, would prove to benefit West Bottoms foundry worker and tavern owner Jim Pendergast, who in 1892 just had been elected to represent the city’s First Ward on the city’s Board of Aldermen. 

Pendergast, the authors added, “seized the opportunity to greatly expand his own welfare efforts,” which “greatly extended the power and prestige of his faction.”

It was the start of the political machine, soon led by Jim’s younger brother Tom, that would dominate Kansas City in the 1920s and 1930s.

Buy-in From Boston

George Russell: “Did you know they shot Jesse James?”

Bertha Russell: “He had his troubles, I have mine.”

To the railroad-owning Russells of the HBO series, the 1882 death of the country’s most infamous train robber represented but a mere Missouri footnote.

It was the East Coast-financed railroads, after all, that had proved the difference for Kansas City. By 1880 the former frontier settlement claimed a population of 55,785, compared to communities that had been rivals for the Hannibal Bridge. They included Leavenworth – which that year counted 16,546 residents – and St. Joseph, where James had been killed, home to 32,431.

But the crucial investors in Kansas City’s case had not been the fictional robber barons in New York but actual financiers in Boston.

Local urban historian Daniel Serda, in a 1992 address hosted by the Midwest Research Institute, described the influence of early Kansas City boosters like Robert Van Horn and Kersey Coates – often credited with winning Eastern support for the Hannibal Bridge’s construction in Kansas City – as being “wildly exaggerated” and only part of the story. 

Far more crucial, Serda said, were the “Eastern capitalists who financed Kansas City’s railroads and several key industries,” such as the stockyards in the city’s West Bottoms.

The interest of the Boston industrialists in the Kansas City region predated the 1869 completion of the Hannibal Bridge, according to Serda.

Following the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which left the status of slavery based on “popular sovereignty,” or the sentiments in those living in the two new territories, anti-slavery Massachusetts investors established Kansas settlements like Lawrence. 

In Kansas City the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Co. (later renamed the New England Emigrant Aid Co.) purchased the riverfront Gilliss House, which became a local abolitionist headquarters.

Soon Charles Francis Adams, Jr. of Boston – a grandson of sixth president John Quincy Adams and great grandson of second president John Adams – would prove one of Kansas City’s key backers.

He first saw Kansas City in about 1860 and didn’t see any alleged destiny in the frontier outpost’s proximity to the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers. 

In a diary entry made almost 30 years later – tracked down by Serda at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston – Adams described the future Kansas City as a “mere steamboat stopping place” that seemed “no more important than a dozen others up and down the stream and immeasurably less important than several.”

But Adams saw opportunity after the first railroads arrived.

In 1874 Boston investors, including Adams, reorganized what became the Kansas City Stock Yards Co.

Unidentified men looking into West Bottoms livestock pens filled with cattle. Also shows stock runways and a portion of Livestock Exchange Building.
Unidentified men looking into West Bottoms livestock pens filled with cattle. Also shows stock runways and a portion of the Livestock Exchange Building. (Courtesy | Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri)

But was their interest only financial? 

The investment of the pre-Civil War abolitionists of Massachusetts in both Kansas and Kansas City places them on the right side of history. But perhaps there could have been other motivations, such as seeing the United States achieve its manifest destiny.

No, according to Serda.

“They were looking to make money, it’s that simple,” Serda said recently. “There was no other altruistic motive.”

There were still prominent Massachusetts families in Kansas City who would seek to act as agents of community betterment.

In 1878 the Union Depot opened in the West Bottoms – an unmistakable signal of Kansas City’s prominence. Managing the depot was George H. Nettleton, the Massachusetts-born civil engineer who earlier had served as general superintendent of the Hannibal & St. Joseph line. The Kansas City and Cameron Railroad, a subsidiary of the Hannibal & St. Joseph line, had built the Hannibal Bridge.

In 1887 Nettleton and his wife Julia would be among Kansas City leaders sharing a luncheon with President Grover Cleveland, visiting Kansas City with his wife Frances Folsom Cleveland.

Because of the generosity of Julia Nettleton, the Nettleton name would remain familiar in Kansas City well into the 20th century.

No ‘Brainless Butterflies

If Gilded Age Kansas City had a moment, it was 1887.

By 1887 there were 15 railroads running into and out of Kansas City. As noted by historian Richard P. Coleman, that year marked the first time the city’s population crested 100,000.

President Cleveland’s visit also occurred during the debut of the annual Priests of Pallas fall festivals, planned by the city’s elite and highlighted by a parade and masked ball.

It was during the 1880s, Coleman noted, that a select social leadership of some 200 men and women, later identified as the “Head Set,” emerged in Kansas City.

Some cities, however, could claim 400 such residents.

In 1888 Ward McAllister, an actual New York society maven depicted in HBO’s “Gilded Age,” told the New York Tribune that there were only about “400 people in fashionable New York society.”

If any host sent out invitations higher than that number, he added, guests could conceivably include “people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease.”

A “Hoye’s Blue Book,” which listed the members of leading private clubs and other prominent residents, first was published in Kansas City that same year.

Among the most prominent – and serious – 19th century Kansas City residents was Sarah Chandler Coates, the Pennsylvania-born wife of Kersey Coates.

Sarah C. Coates
Sarah C. Coates. (Courtesy | Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri)

“Be mirthful and happy as you will, but be not brainless butterflies of fashion,” she once told fellow members of the Young Ladies’ Lyceum, meeting near Philadelphia.

“For there is work to do in this world.”

In 1870 Coates would be among the founders of the Women’s Christian Association, one of Kansas City’s earliest charitable organizations. The group rented a building at 11th and McGee streets where members opened a home for indigent women and children.

“She was the glowing example of the earliest female community leaders in Kansas City,” Kay Barnes said.

“She grew up in Pennsylvania in a very erudite Quaker environment and apparently was brilliant, serving as a principal of a school at the age of 17.”

Beyond the Women’s Christian Association, other organizations emerged in the 1890s. Members of the Athenaeum and the Kansas City Woman’s City Club through the early 20th century would address a long list of issues, among them availability of pasteurized milk, playgrounds and separate prison facilities for incarcerated women.

Also active was the Kansas City branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, whose mission included serving the wives and children of those who had succumbed to alcohol.

In 1900 Julia Nettleton, by then the widow of George Nettleton, who had died in 1896, donated her Quality Hill home to the local WCTU branch. That spring, 31 women moved into what became known as the George H. Nettleton Home for Aged Women, considered one of Kansas City’s first nursing homes.

Later the George H. Nettleton Home, built at 5125 Swope Parkway in 1917, operated through 1999.

It would be an example of the benevolent philanthropy of some Kansas City women that would later evolve, in larger women’s organizations, to active political involvement, Barnes said.

In a research paper, “Civic Housekeepers: Women’s Organizations, Civic Reform, and the 1940 Elections,” Barnes documented how Kansas City women’s organizations over time took a more pronounced interest in politics, eventually leading to the active role the groups took in the 1940 election of clean-up mayoral candidate John Gage.

That election is considered the end of the Pendergast machine’s political domination in Kansas City.

A Sense of Authenticity

Critics have praised “The Gilded Age” for including the challenges faced by a prosperous fictional Black family, which includes the young journalist Peggy Scott.

It’s an example, according to Delia Gillis, as to how the production benefits from the input of Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a Rutgers University history professor who served as a consultant.

“She has background in 18th and 19th century women, including African American women, and that is one of the reasons the show is successful,” Gillis said.

“You get a sense of authenticity in this series, as opposed to other shows in the past.”

Segregated Kansas City had its own prominent residents during the Gilded Age years, Gillis said.

Two examples were John Edward Perry and his wife Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry.

The former, a son of enslaved persons in Texas, graduated from a Nashville medical college before coming to Kansas City in 1903. 

In 1910 he opened a private hospital, the Perry Sanitarium and Training School for Nurses, near 12th and Vine streets. In 1916 it became Wheatley-Provident Hospital, considered the first hospital to serve Kansas City’s Black community.

Perry’s wife, Fredericka – a granddaughter of abolitionist, writer and orator Frederick Douglass – served as a juvenile court worker and advocate for Black children needing foster care services. In 1934 she founded a local home for young Black women which operated through 1943.

Ida B. Wells.
Journalist Ida B. Wells. (Courtesy | Library of Congress)

“They do represent the elite, very active in philanthropic ventures,” Gillis said.

Gillis also has been pleased with the storyline of journalist Scott, who seems inspired in part by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the Black journalist, educator and activist whose reporting on lynching across the United States often placed her in personal peril. 

Despite Wells-Barnett posthumously receiving a Pulitzer Prize special citation in 2020, she still has not received the popular or scholarly attention her investigative journalism demands, Gillis said.

“If you think about it, she was one of the ‘Muckrakers,’ but she has not been taught as being among that group,” Gillis said. “So seeing Wells-Barnett come alive as Peggy Scott in the HBO show is really nice. 

“I really appreciate a popular culture piece that does have some authenticity grounded in history.”

Ending With a Flourish

In the HBO series, fictional characters bump up the occasional actual historical figure with Kansas City connections. 

A peripheral figure is the New York architect Stanford White, commissioned by George and Bertha Russell to design their mansion. White would become a partner in McKim, Mead & White, the New York architectural firm that designed Kansas City’s New York Life Building.

Today considered the city’s first skyscraper, it opened in 1890 at 20 W. Ninth St.

Another connection: Corinthian Hall. In the early 1900s architect Henry Hoit, hired by R.A. Long to build his Gladstone Boulevard home, selected New York interior decorating firm William Baumgarten & Company to acquire the mansion’s tables and chairs. 

The New York Life building, with its handsome facade and ornate detail, is the city’s first skyscraper. (Brad Austin | Flatland)

Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the railroad tycoon, in the 1890s had chosen the same firm to outfit his Rhode Island mansion known as The Breakers – where the “Gilded Age” production team shot several scenes.

In such ways Kansas City’s Gilded Age would end with a flourish.

The initial edition of The Independent – still following today the city’s prominent – was published in 1899, the same year the city’s new Convention Hall opened.

The swift rebuilding of that building after an April 1900 fire in time for the Democratic National Convention that July would help inspire a new municipal narrative, “The Kansas City Spirit,” invoking resilience and triumph over adversity.

A lot of Boston folks would be left out of that story, said Daniel Serda.

“If you look at the official histories of Kansas City from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they are not mentioned except maybe in passing,” Serda said

“And, in regard to the Gilded Age, they were without a doubt the absolute wealthiest people in Kansas City at the time, and their omission from the official accounts is really peculiar in that respect.”

Two things may explain this, Serda said.

“The primary one is that there were a lot of other people in Kansas City who had taken credit for the entire growth and development of the city to that point – whose affairs and daring and exploits and foresight and wisdom all had been documented in the official chronicles. 

“So, part of what was going on was a lot of chest-beating from a lot of other people who wanted to take credit for Kansas City becoming the premiere city of the Missouri Valley.”

A second reason, Serda said, is that several of the Massachusetts investors and innovators left Kansas City, taking their personal papers with them.

One example was Charles F. Morse, another Boston native. In 1878, he left his post as general manager of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in Topeka and moved to Kansas City, where he became general manager and later president of the Kansas City Stock Yards Co.

He later served as president of the Kansas City Street Railway Co. and one of the first prominent Kansas City residents to move to the Hyde Park district. Morse retired in 1913 and returned to Massachusetts.

Today his records – like those of Adams – are held by the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.

During his years in Kansas City, Morse had to deal with James A. Reed, elected mayor in 1900.

Whatever his shortcomings as a boxer, Reed would seek to increase regulation of city utilities, encouraging it to invest in new facilities and grant universal transfers to passengers.

Reed also would preside in Convention Hall over the Dec. 31, 1900 Century Ball, whose attendants were invited to leave personal notes in a “Century Box” for Kansas City residents to open 100 years later.

On Jan. 1, 2001, during a Union Station ceremony, Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes, assisted by an archivist, unpacked the box. Among the items retrieved was the note written by Reed, addressed to his counterpart 100 years in the future.

“Dear Sir,” it read.

“It was a great example of how times have changed,” Barnes said.

Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer and author. He is serving as president of the Jackson County Historical Society.

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