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Resurrecting Quindaro Once a Haven for Escaped Slaves, the Kansas Historical Site Languishes in Ruins With an Uncertain, but Hopeful, Future

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Above image credit: The remnants of old Quindaro were painstakingly cleared and cataloged in the 1980s, but dense growth has once again obscured the buildings after years of preservation misfires. These ruins are said to be from the Peoples Variety Store, which was an outfitter and dry goods store. (Mike Sherry | Flatland)
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13 minute read

As Americans north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line debated slavery, a boomtown that sprouted from the scrub along the Missouri River emerged as one of the most unlikely bellwethers of the national mood in the run-up to the Civil War.

That community was Quindaro, Kansas, and virtually overnight it became something of a prototype on the prairie, buzzing with Free State activists and serving as a busy station on the Underground Railroad.

None of that energy exists today, however, as the desolate site sits in a struggling part of Kansas City, Kansas. It hardly lives up to one description billing it as “the largest known archaeological shrine to freedom.”

If anything, the tract is more like a field of broken dreams, with precious little to show for the money (which runs into the millions of dollars) and manpower poured into the area in failed efforts to develop or commemorate the site.

Thirty years ago, with the town’s history all but forgotten, the owners of the land — Kansas City, Kansas, and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church — proposed turning the site into a landfill. A required archaeological survey, however, revealed a mother lode of unanticipated historic remains, including the remnants of the port where six steamboats a day docked.

As a result, angry community groups scuttled the plan to bury Quindaro under tons of municipal trash like an American frontier Pompeii. For a time, it appeared that old Quindaro’s story might live once again. Ambitious plans were drawn, meetings were held, more than 100,000 artifacts were collected, and grants were sought to gain regional and national recognition for the site.

It came to naught.

Today, the foundations of hotels, homes, and other buildings — once the centerpiece for a proposed interpretive park — have mostly crumbled.

A stone and concrete overlook built a decade ago presides over a 10-story bluff scarred by erosion and covered by weeds and saplings. High-voltage power lines loom overhead, and interstate oil pipelines slice through it.

Trash lines creek beds. Signs give phone numbers for tours, but pick any day to visit, and chances are you’ll be alone. Nearby, an outdoor glass-enclosed bulletin board that once offered tourist information about Quindaro is empty except for a faded cigarette package.

Yet, it remains a remarkable site — the only existing remnant of a pre-statehood Kansas town. Unlike the cities of Lawrence, Leavenworth and Kansas City, the old Quindaro ruins comprise a “time capsule” of frontier Kansas, still pristine land, unobscured by modern roads and housing developments.

So why hasn’t more been done to recognize Quindaro? For instance, why, in a state with more than two dozen National Historic Landmarks — a list that includes the first oil well in Kansas — is Quindaro not on the list? It is a hard question with sometimes even harder answers.

A review of hundreds of pages of documents and interviews with nearly a dozen individuals involved in efforts to recognize Quindaro found various reasons for the failure — even as preservationists mount yet another effort to gain the site the national recognition they think it deserves.

Black History

The tortured history of the site takes on an added poignancy now, with the nation marking Black History Month in February, especially because some blame Quindaro’s neglect on a resistant vein of racism and neglect toward an underserved African-American community.

“Let’s be honest, this is in a back end of an African-American part of a poor city,” said Larry Hancks, a former planner for Kansas City, Kansas, and author of a journal article about Quindaro.

Others see contempt for black history as the oral histories of the Quindaro Underground Railroad site are discounted as “folklore,” this despite documentation to the contrary. “If something was considered African-American history, it wasn’t important,” said Chester Owens, a former Kansas City, Kansas, city councilman and Wyandotte County historian. “That’s the way it has always been, and nothing really has changed.”

Others blame a persistent mistrust of the motives of the AME Church. The church owns most of the Quindaro site, and critics claim its profit motives make it a difficult partner. Besides its failed plans to lease to Browning-Ferris Industries for a landfill, one church proposal — ultimately rejected — called for a $225 million housing, commercial and golf course development called The Ruins at Quindaro Harbor.

“One of the things we had to deal with is the distrust between some people in the community and the AME Church,” said Lavert Murray, a retired economic development director for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas. He worked with the church, the city and Kansas City Kansas Community College to get a Save America’s Treasures grant in 2005.

“Some saw the AME Church as pursuing its own agenda to make a gain off the ruins,” Murray said. “I don’t say that I believe that. But I just say it to convey the forces we had to deal with.”

Some people are more direct. “The reason Quindaro is a ruins is because of the AME Church,” said Corranzo Lewis Jr., treasurer of the Old Quindaro Museum.

Luther Smith, a longtime Quindaro resident and a member of the Western University Association, which advises the AME Church on the Quindaro property, said the board supports building an archive at the site. But so far there are no plans for the church to pay for it. “We’re not getting funding from the AME Church,” Smith said. “So right now we’re at a standstill.”

Stacy R. Evans, pastor of the AME’s Allen Chapel in Quindaro, said that she wants to end the “negativity” and that the church supports improvements at Quindaro, including new trails and an interpretive park. But part of the problem in the past has been other groups that tried to sideline the church.

“All groups have behaved badly,” said Evans, who is also chairperson of the Western University Association. “They can’t (push us) out because we own the property.”

Murray and others argue that these complaints define a more frustrating and overarching reason for why redevelopment efforts failed to gain traction. With no common vision for the site, there has been a stultifying lack of cooperation between church leaders, city officials, the state, professional archaeologists and community activists.

“There has been a lot of acrimony and combat resulting from the different views of what should happen, for instance, with the artifacts,” Murray said. Indeed, news accounts describe meetings and demonstrations punctuated by booing, hissing and name-calling.

“I think it’s reasonable for there to be people upset by all of this,” said Robert Hoard, state archaeologist for the Kansas Historical Society, where most of the artifacts taken from Quindaro are currently stored.

Still, Hoard and others say that a renewed and broad interest in preserving Quindaro offers new hope for cooperation.

A major symposium scheduled for April 20-21 at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas, which will bring together scholars, historians, archaeologists, community groups, educators and officials, is sparking new interest. The symposium complements a broad-based effort, already in the works, to gain National Landmark status for Quindaro.

The symposium is sponsored by the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, with heavyweight support from the Kansas and Missouri humanities councils, the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Midwestern Studies Center, the Kansas State Historical Society, the Kansas City (Missouri) Public Library and Johnson County Community College.

Freedom’s Frontier is a federally funded nonprofit organization created under the National Heritage Areas Act of 2006. It works with other state historical organizations and parks to preserve, conserve and interpret historic and cultural geographical spaces that shaped the frontier, the Missouri-Kansas Border War and struggles for freedom.

“This is the first time in a long time that I have seen this level of consensus building take place around Quindaro,” Hoard said. “There is a positive effort now to bring together all the interested parties.”

“It’s time,” said Gordon Criswell, assistant county administrator for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County. “We need a big visible win.”

The effort to save Quindaro goes back to at least 1937 with a failed plan to make the site a state park. But the more recent history begins in 1983 when Browning-Ferris Industries, in partnership with the AME Church, proposed the landfill. The AME Church would receive $5,000 a month, or $60,000 a year, for 15 years.

News of the proposed landfill ignited the community, which surprised city officials. Until then, there had been little if any recent call to develop the site. Indeed, years had gone by with few or no protests as the valley filled with old tires and mattress springs. Outsiders had hauled away stones from the toppled ruins, including from the remains of Western University, which was the first black college west of the Mississippi River.

Owens, the former councilman and historian, recalled that most people had no idea what was there. Indeed, he said when the AME Church hierarchy first began to survey what to do with the property, including a plan to build houses after the landfill, no one seemed aware of what lay buried beneath the bluff.

So the Kansas City, Kansas, City Council voted to approve the landfill, with Owens casting the lone vote against it. “Prior to that nobody said anything,” he said.

Almost immediately, people in the community, such as Jesse Hope, whose family was one of five in the community that could trace their history directly back to slaves who had escaped to Quindaro from Missouri, rallied against dumping on “our sacred ground.”

As a result, the city required Browning-Ferris to conduct an archaeological survey of the site, with the intent that any historic finds should either be protected, relocated or marked in some way. Few were prepared for what was discovered.

“No one knew what was really down there,” said Larry Schmits, the archaeologist hired by Browning-Ferris to conduct the survey. “And no one got really excited until after the excavation.”

But as the project expanded, he hired 30 workers, paid for by Browning-Ferris, and in three years freed the stone foundations from the weeds and earth, and collected thousands of artifacts. “The thing snowballed,’’ he said. “The site proved more historically productive than originally thought.”

A singular intersection of cultures emerged, each of which left its imprint on America’s identity: the Wyandot Indians who were there first and worked with the Free Staters to found the town and the African-Americans who found safe haven there and stayed to build a community.

Many viewed this collaborative record as essential to understanding the larger narrative of abolitionist and anti-slavery politics in pre-Civil War Kansas. Interest in Quindaro exploded. Feature articles appeared in newspapers and magazines from Kansas City to New York.

Digging Up The Future

All this history and more began coming to the surface as Schmits’ archaeological dig continued at the site from 1983 to 1987.

“You have an archaeological record there of a territorial townsite from the 1850s,” Schmits said. “I don’t think anyone would disagree that there is a better historical record there (at Quindaro) than anywhere else in the state.”

Not everyone was impressed. Browning-Ferris attorney John Bukaty Sr. played down the find at the site as “just foundations under the ground, a few walls 3 to 4 feet high. Believe me, there’s nothing good to look at unless you’re a pretty good dreamer,” he said.

But there were plenty of dreamers. Community groups pressed hard, taking their case to the city’s landmarks commission and the state Legislature.

Marvin Robinson, who helped found the Quindaro Town Preservation Society, an ad hoc community group, showed up at every City Council meeting and wrote dozens of articles in The Kansas City Call pushing officials to act, sometimes using impolite terms.

Robinson never apologized. “I was just following the philosophy of my hero, Frederick Douglass — ‘agitate, agitate, agitate,’” he said.

Some would-be opponents now credit his persistence. “When everyone else went home, Marvin stayed,” remembered Hancks. “Marvin was the driving force behind Quindaro,” he said.

The landmarks commission sided with the community groups, and the state was sympathetic to the idea of finding a way to buy the land, or gift it to the Kansas State Historical Society.

The obstacle, this time, was cash. There didn’t seem to be any. It would cost $3.5 million to $4 million at the time for the state to acquire the site and reimburse Browning-Ferris for the money it had spent already. And additional costs could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain the site.

John Reynolds, assistant state archaeologist, favored doing something with the site but said there was little that could be done. “It is unlikely that these ruins can be preserved. For one thing, who’s going to pay for it?”

Still, sympathetic legislators and city officials began to consider the fate of the site from a different perspective, the environmental impact. The Environmental Protection Agency had recently revised its regulations, and the city decided to delay Browning-Ferris’ permit, which was to begin dumping on June 1, 1989.

Newspapers throughout the state editorialized in favor of saving the site. And the site won support from the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C. In December 1989, the City Council formally declared its opposition to the landfill for the first time.

Browning-Ferris responded, asking for $15 million in damages from the city. In 1991, the AME Church joined in, asking for $940,000 as compensation for losing its 15-year lease.

In the midst of the court fight, then-Gov. Joan Finney appeared at the John Brown Statue, which stands on the site of Western University, to sign into law a bill that banned any landfill within a half-mile of a navigable river, but on the condition the city compensate Browning-Ferris.

By that time, Browning-Ferris had all but had enough. It settled with the city, agreeing to abandon its landfill in return for the city agreeing not to increase taxes on its medical waste incinerator in the Fairfax region of Kansas City, Kansas.

One unintended consequence of the settlement, however, was that excavation on the site came to an abrupt stop.

Schmits said that without any further funding coming from Browning-Ferris, he couldn’t continue. He boxed up the 100,000 artifacts and stored them in his office in Shawnee for safekeeping; they sat there for two decades.

A Slideshow of Artifacts (Photos: Brad Austin | Flatland)

A map of the archaeological areas at the Quindaro site

A woman's hair comb

A pickax head

Lid from a pomade container

Hotel dinnerware

Hotel dinnerware

Bowl from hotel

Atlas mason jar


Although his plan had been to begin a study to analyze the ruins, that now had to wait. And while community activists were delighted that they had something to show tourists, the ruins were allowed to fall back into disrepair.

Though some criticized Schmits for not backfilling the ruins to preserve them, he said he had no means to do that.

And besides, the community groups didn’t want the ruins buried again. So now, with the landfill no longer part of the picture, the city needed someone with deep pockets to pay to develop the site.

The AME Church tried with the proposed $225 million upscale housing and commercial development The Ruins at Quindaro Harbor. The development was to include restaurants, a clubhouse and a championship golf course that would “meander along major parts of the ruins,” according to a brochure promoting the project. None of it was ever built.

Hope for Quindaro resurfaced in 1994, with a $120,000 grant through the Kansas Department of Transportation, which was related to funding for roads through the area. Again Schmits was asked to perform the work and provide a development plan.

Schmits contends that he did just that, providing a preliminary proposal for trails and signage, but that the city wanted more than he could deliver with the available funds and rejected his plans.

The city invited additional proposals and talked about getting an additional grant for $1.1 million that could be used to develop public access roads, parking and walking trails. But it didn’t happen.

So again, nothing was done, and a lack of money blocked efforts to restore the historic site yet again.

Quindaro Artifacts

The amount of money spent to recognize Quindaro over the years is difficult to pin down.

The Kansas Historical Society is home to a 6-foot-deep stack of studies, reports, maps and other documents produced by federal, state and local government officials, along with other experts including architects and archaeologists. The time and other expenses to produce them easily could exceed $1 million.

Other expenditures are easier to calculate.

Browning-Ferris Industries spent several hundred thousand dollars for the archaeological dig on the site and more than $2 million overall to prepare the site for a landfill. The company also received an $800,000 tax abatement for a medical waste disposal facility at another site as part of a settlement when Kansas City, Kansas, revoked approval of the Quindaro landfill.

The Kansas Department of Transportation provided $120,000 for roads. Federal and local grants gave $400,000 to stabilize the remains of the Quindaro brewery, and provide cleanup, signage and an overlook building for the Quindaro site.

It’s difficult to envision those expenditures from the Quindaro overlook today.

Throughout that time community groups continued to seek a way to develop the site, but they were not always working together.

However, after a public symposium at Kansas City Kansas Community College in 1998, Doris Bailey, president of the lay organization of the AME Church, and the Rev. Sylvia Drew together came up with their own idea for a new grant.

“During that time we realized there was a lot of AME history we didn’t want to lose,” Bailey said. Their plan had three phases: to clean up and stabilize the area, develop trails and physical signage that could attract people and more funding, and finally construct an interpretive center to archive artifacts, documents and other memorabilia.

Drew was an accomplished grant writer, and Bailey traveled to Washington, D.C., to call on U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback and Rep. Dennis Moore, both of whom agreed to back the project. Bailey was even invited to the White House.

Their efforts paid off in 2001. They won a $1 million Save America’s Treasures grant from the National Park Service, with the condition they obtain matching funds.

Unfortunately, Drew died of complications from surgery on the day the grant was announced. Instead of the grant dying, however, the AME lay organization formed a relationship with Kansas City Kansas Community College and the city of Kansas City as tri-administrators of the grant.

The first thing the group did was reduce the grant to $200,000, to make it easier to match, and the community college met the match by providing in-kind services.

Sociology professor Steve Collins and his students provided cleanup and documentation work. “We spent every weekend for the next six months cleaning up” trash and debris, Collins said. Over the next three years the school would continue to provide services, including creating a digital history of Quindaro.

The city provided architectural design work, and another archaeologist, Chris Scheon, was hired to stabilize some of the ruins, in particular the old brewery that was also the site of the Rev. Eben Blatchley’s school for the children of escaped slaves. Money was also used, in part, to build the present overlook at the top of the bluff. But that was about as far as they got.

Community groups felt dismissed because they hadn’t been included as administrators of the grant. “I feel misled,” said Jesse Hope III, who was president of Concerned Citizens for Old Quindaro.

Hope and Robinson, of the Quindaro Town Preservation Society, were upset because they wanted assurances the money being spent on the site would produce jobs for the community and not just for outsiders. Hope has since died.

Murray, the now-retired economic development director who represented the city, agreed there were hurt feelings. “There were different views of what should be done,” he said. “And that led to dissension and bickering quite frankly,” he said.

“But you had to get beyond the infighting and create a moving train — something for people to get on board.”

A succession of leadership changes within the local AME Church also affected the momentum, creating some turmoil.

“I don’t want to speak ill of people,” Bailey said, “but there were some things that happened that I didn’t approve of. There were people who came along who said we can do this better — there were people who were money-hungry.” She said she was asked to turn over her leadership.

“I’m not sure what happened to the last penny,” she said.

At one point, Collins said, the new AME project leadership told him to place stop signs at the entrances to keep out community groups that were conducting tours. “I didn’t get the impression they were trying to build bridges to the white or black community,” Collins said.

After both Murray and Collins retired from their jobs and withdrew from the project, it “kind of fizzled.” Murray said the idea was to continue to obtain more grants and work with the Kansas State Historical Society to move forward.

One thing the city was able to do was work with Schmits in 2007 to move the artifacts housed in Schmits’ office to the historical society’s offices in Topeka, where they are stored in boxes in the basement awaiting a time when they can be analyzed and placed on view in an interpretive center.

But even that was not without controversy. “People were opposed to housing the artifacts with the state. Some groups wanted to gain ownership even though they didn’t have any place to house them,” Murray said.

The agreement to house the artifacts at the historical society has the condition that they are to be returned to the community within 15 years if an archive facility exists that has the capability to care for them. If not, they stay in Topeka.

That time is ticking away.

Murray remains optimistic. “Without question there is still the possibility of consensus,” he said. “You need people with passion to step forward again. Get beyond the infighting. Get people to move forward.”

However, he said, “I don’t know of anyone stepping up with that passion.”

Despite a history of false starts and disappointments, there are still those who are confident about Quindaro’s future.

One of them is Anthony Hope, who operates a small museum commemorating Quindaro near the town’s original site. Just like Quindaro, the museum’s building has seen better days and is badly in need of a new roof and other repairs. But he prefers to be optimistic about the museum, just like he is about Quindaro’s future.

“God has been good to us. It hasn’t fallen down yet,” he said.

—Steve Everly, David Hayes and Paul Wenske are long-time Kansas City-area journalists. Follow Flatland @FlatlandKC.

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