Published June 29th, 2020 at 5:28 PM4 minute read
Back in the day, a nickel bought a ride across the city and state line by way of a streetcar.
As Mary Lou Roberts recounted for the Kansas City Star in 2000, one could hop on a “dinky bus at 12th and Belmont, transfer to the streetcar at 12th and Jackson and then travel across the Kansas-Missouri state line, ending the trip at 18th and Kansas Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas.”
This was known as the Kaw Valley line, one of a few streetcar lines that eased transport across the state line.
For Kansas Citian Greg Stockoff, the Kaw Valley Line loomed large in his father’s stories growing up. Stockoff’s dad would ride it to get ice cream at the Velvet Freeze, a historic sweet shop near 18th and Vine.
“(It was) a summer treat for him,” Stockoff said.
About a year ago, Greg Stockoff’s father, Jack, died at age 92. So, Greg began to reminisce about growing up in Kansas City, the old streetcars, and the ones that exist today. That got him thinking about history, so he asked curiousKC:
“What’s the story on streetcars that connected Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri in the 1930s and 1940?”
The simple answer is that streetcars were one of the main modes of local transportation for decades. They began with mule-drawn streetcars in late 1870, which evolved into cable cars and later electric streetcars before all but disappearing in the mid-20th century.
In the 1880s, Kansas City Public Service Company acquired land that was once meant to be part of a railroad system, according to the Kansas City Public Library.
According to the book “A Splendid Ride” by Monroe Dodd, passengers took roughly 52 million rides on Kansas City streetcars in 1902, ultimately surging to 135 million rides in 1923.
The two main players in the construction of the Kaw Valley Line streetcar were Willard E. Winner, a streetcar line builder and Kansas City real estate developer, and John William McDaniel, who was a financier and developer.
Here’s an excerpt from “Heartland Traction: The Interurban Lines of Kansas City” by Edward A. Conrad that details how the plans unfolded:
“In early September 1899, a group of local businessmen organized the Kansas City, Lawrence & Topeka Railway with the intent of building an 86-mile interurban line between Kansas City and Topeka. Among its directors were Winner and McDaniel.”
Seventeen years later, the Kaw Line came to fruition after many delays in construction. Of the city’s five streetcar lines, the Kaw Valley took the longest to construct.
In late 1916 and early 1917, the streetcar offered hourly trips to the city, and also scheduled a 100-minute “shopper special” to Kansas City, Missouri every day except for Sunday, according to “Heartland Traction.” By 1922, nearly 500,000 passengers rode the Kaw Valley Line to go to work.
Kansas residents who sought an “evening of revelry” outside of their dry state were able to do so on a train dubbed as the “Drunkard’s Special.”
Notably for such a racially divided city, the streetcars weren’t segregated by race or ethnicity, according to the Midtown KC Post. One effort to segregate the streetcars was rejected by voters.
Though it thrived early in the 20th century, the Great Depression stymied streetcar growth. It also became cheaper to ride a bus than a streetcar. So, in the 1950s city leaders thought it best to focus on a bus system and cut the cable on streetcars in 1957.
Although streetcars were on pause for nearly 59 years, they eventually made a comeback with a price tag of almost $100 million and several years of construction.
In some ways, the new streetcar line running from the River Market to Crown Center evokes the old streetcars.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Greg Stockoff’s father as George. His name is Jack Stockoff.