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curiousKC | What’s the Earliest Known Photo of KC? A Journey Through the Past

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Above image credit: In this edition of curiousKC, reporter Jacob Douglas tracked down the oldest known photographs of Kansas City. (Collage by Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Missouri Valley Special Collections)
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5 minute read

In the middle of a pandemic, it can be easy to feel nostalgic. When the present is so nightmarish, it’s hard to not look to the past. Digging into history can be a great way to distract ourselves from the current state of the world.

The curiousKC team has our readers covered. One reader asked: “What is the earliest known photograph of Kansas City… or what would become Kansas City?”

The world’s oldest photograph was taken in 1826. It was taken by Nicéphore Niépce out his window in France. 

People have been taking photos since the early 1800s, but most photos have been lost to time, or haven’t been preserved well enough to look at nearly two centuries later. Flatland searched the Missouri Valley Special Collections of the Kansas City Public Library to find some of the oldest photos taken of Kansas City. Here are the results:

Main Street 1864

(Missouri Valley Special Collections | Kansas City Public Library)

This photo shows Main Street, looking north from 6th Street. Horses and wagons line up where parked cars and scooters currently reside. Bullene Dry Goods is visible from this view. The department store would eventually become a part of the Emery, Bird, Thayer Dry Goods Company that was established in 1889. 

It was the same year as the Battle of Westport, which is sometimes known as “The Gettysburg of the Midwest.”

Coates Homestead 1868

(Missouri Valley Special Collections | Kansas City Public Library)

The Coates Homestead stands tall over recently planted trees on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 10th Street. The home belonged to Kersey Coates, a businessman who was well known in Kansas City in the late 1800s.

Coates was a colonel in the Missouri Militia during the Civil War. In 1871 he organized the first Kansas City agriculture and industrial fair. He was also a founding member of the Chamber of Commerce, and a member of the first Board of Trade. He died on April 24, 1887.

Public Square 1870

(Missouri Valley Special Collections | Kansas City Public Library)

The public square included what is now known as the River Market today. It got that name from the open-air farmers market that was located in the public square. Here, people gathered and seemingly lined up their horses and wagons like it was a parking lot. 

The River Market was designated as a historic district in 1978.

Broadway Boulevard 1870

(Missouri Valley Special Collections | Kansas City Public Library)

With the camera facing southeast, this photo was snapped of Broadway Boulevard heading up to 10th Street. This would have been between the Coates Opera House on the west side of Broadway, and the Coates House Hotel on the east. 

The Coates House Hotel was built in the late 1860s. Kersey Coates built the opera house diagonal from the hotel in the same decade. The hotel was rebuilt after Coates’ death in 1887. The new hotel opened in 1891. After the rebuild, high profile guests such as President Theodore Roosevelt, President William McKinley and poet Oscar Wilde stayed at the hotel. 

A fire in 1978 killed 16 residents. The building is now used for apartments and is rumored to be haunted. Residents have reported strange noises coming from appliances and shadowy figures moving around in the building.

West Bottoms 1870

(Missouri Valley Special Collections | Kansas City Public Library)

This was taken from the top of the bluffs on Quality Hill at 8th Street looking down on the West Bottoms. The bottoms were home to stockyards and meatpackers in the late 1800s.

Eight years after the photo was taken, The Union Depot would be built in the area, which would become a rail transportation hub in the city for years to come.

Kansas City and Westport Streetcar 1870

(Missouri Valley Special Collections | Kansas City Public Library)

This mule-drawn streetcar is taking Kansas City residents from downtown to Westport. The fare at the time was 25 cents. The city has an interesting history with streetcars

In the mid-1880s, cable lines began to replace horse- and mule-drawn streetcars, which we reported on back in June. The Southwest Boulevard line was the first to become powered by electricity in 1896. By 1948, seven streetcar lines had been replaced by trolley bus lines. By 1959, there were no more streetcar lines – until the new downtown streetcar line opened 2016.

Man Sitting Near Bluffs 1870

(Missouri Valley Special Collections | Kansas City Public Library)

A man wearing a distinct black tophat sits on the bluff overlooking Main Street, between 2nd and 3rd streets. 

Steamboats 1880

(Missouri Valley Special Collections | Kansas City Public Library)

At the foot of Main Street, people gather to get on a steamboat traversing the Missouri River. 

Steamboats first appeared on Western rivers in 1807. Before steamboats, flatboats were the main source of transportation by water. They could only be carried by the flow of water. Steamboats made water travel much more efficient, with the newfound ability to travel upstream. 

Kansas City Skyline 1895

(Missouri Valley Special Collections | Kansas City Public Library)

This photo was taken looking northwest from 9th and McGee streets. The skyline was lacking some current staples in the late 1800s, but the city still sprawls out, showing how impressive the burgeoning hub of Midwest commerce was at the time.

Correction: This story has been updated to delete a photo of Main Street that had been mislabeled as being from 1868. The correct date for the photo could not be determined.

Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.

curiousKC is supported by

CommunityAmerica Credit Union

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