A familiar voice called out my name, which startled me since I was walking in the early morning hours through the cavernous lobby of Union Station, once Kansas City’s crossroads to the world. A friend from Platte Woods and his wife were catching a train to Michigan. I was dropping off a friend for her journey to Milwaukee. There we stood, quite a distance from Platte County, but catching up on family and things. We did so quickly because the train was soon to depart. People are still on the move in a not-most-modern way to travel, riding railroad trains.
Today, the Kansas City International Airport is the region’s key terminal for travel throughout the nation and the world. A major overhaul is planned by city fathers. Construction of a new terminal will affect jobs and development in the entire metro area. But Platte County will likely get the biggest construction-time nudge because the airport’s in the county’s center. Transportation has now and then provided various nudges through history.
Archeologists have excavated Native American artifacts from Hopewell Culture village sites in the county’s Line Creek valley that date from 100 to 500 A.D. I’ve always felt that site was prime due to water, timber, prairie on the uplands, and most importantly, a close proximity to the main highway of the day, the Missouri River.
A thousand years passed and in the 1700s French fur traders and modern Native American tribes used the Missouri River to freight hides and furs downstream to a growing America. Lewis and Clark logged the county’s natural resources in their journals and mentioned the “Petite River Platte” on June 30, 1804. On their way back in 1806, they partied on an island off the county’s northwest shore with other trappers headed upstream. It only took a few more decades for pioneers to arrive. Soon after, the county’s first settlers were shipping hemp down the river and welcoming steamboats bringing store goods up the river. They made a financial killing selling food and supplies in 1849 to people going west for the California gold rush.
Then came a lull. Other ports in other places garnered western trade. The river changed course at Weston, a key port. The Civil War ended the hemp trade, as it relied on slave labor.
But then our county’s railroad era began. Historian W.M. Paxton noted their arrival. A groundbreaking for the Weston & Atchison Railroad Company was observed on April 27, 1859.
“July 15, 1859, the W. & A. Railroad and the A. & St. J. Railroad were consolidated with the Platte County Railroad,” Paxton wrote.
“In January, 1860, the road went into operation to Atchison. In December, 1861, it was finished to Iatan, and connected with Weston and Leavenworth by steamboats. April 4, 1861, the road was finished to Weston.
“In 1863 the name was changed from the Platte County Railroad to Platte Country Railroad. In 1867 it took the name of Missouri Valley Railroad, and in 1870 the road was named the K.C., St. J. & C.B. Railroad.”
Paxton also tracks in his book bonds being sold to investors and money being lost for railroads lines that were never built. But some lines were built. Towns like Edgerton and Dearborn arose because of them. Platte City perhaps never grew too big because of a lack of rail, although a line once reached into Tracy across the river.
Waiting for someone at a train station or saying goodbye leaves an emotional impression on memory. The passenger stations where hugs, tears, smiles and laughter once occurred still stand locally in a few places. Weston’s old passenger station now serves as city hall. Parkville’s has served as a chamber of commerce and museum site. Some rail lines that once were active are abandoned. But the freight and coal trains still rumble through Parkville and Weston.
Highways are key carriers of people and freight. Platte County’s serve commuters and cross-country travelers. Maybe 2018 will be the year when Missouri gets better highway funding.
But my visits to Union Station make me wonder, will light rail or passenger shuttles rolling on the freight rails ever move north? I hope so for the sake of future generations. You can move a lot more people faster on a train, and we have a lot more people arriving in the coming decades. Union Station and passenger trains are still alive. The possibility that passenger rail in some form will return to the county someday lives, too.
Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area, may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.