During the Civil War, both armies slaughtered and ate most of the livestock they encountered, so following the war, the cattle industry in this country was pretty well decimated. What little cattle there were available all had tick fever, which was kind of like today’s Mad Cow disease (I guess), anyway it left them inedible.
The only herds of any size were the Longhorns of the Southwest and they were still pretty much a wild animal. Somehow, they had to get those cattle back East where the markets were. So, the long cattle drives were born that cowboy folklore was built around.
They would drive the Longhorn out of Texas and New Mexico, up through Oklahoma and Kansas to the nearest rail head at the time, and that was Abilene, Kansas. They would load them onto cattle cars and ship them eastward toward Kansas City.
When railroad construction first begun in this country, they were not huge conglomerates like they are today. Anyone with a little money and a big ego started a railroad. Each company had to build its own tracks and bridge its own rivers.
Following the Civil War there was a great push by the Federal Government to reach the Pacific Coast by rail and they began giving huge land grants as an incentive to the railroad builders to head west.
The railroad men bridged the Mississippi OK (a piece of cake), but they found the Missouri River different than anything they had ever encountered as the river bottoms were nothing but silt, or sand, and every attempt to bridge the Big Muddy failed and the bridges would wash out. So, the government was called upon to handle that problem.
The proposed location for a government backed bridge appeared to be headed for Fort Leavenworth, since that is where the military was located. If that had of been the case, then Leavenworth would have become the “Big City of the West.” But, as fate would have it, the Kansas legislators all went to sleep that night as usual, however, Robert Van Horn, a U.S. Congressman from Kansas City, stayed up throughout the long hours of the night to ramrod the legislation on through Congress, which brought the bridge to Kansas City instead of Leavenworth.
A well-known French engineer named Octave Chanute was brought to Kansas City to figure out the Missouri River. What transpired next, changed the way that bridges have been built in this country ever since. Using an old German technique, he built a dike in the middle of the river to divert the current, dropped big metal tubes into the river bed, and sucked out all of the silt - all the way down to the bedrock, which was down about 80 feet at Kansas City.
The bridge piers then rose from the bedrock and the first train steamed across on July 3, 1869. Incidentally, that original bridge is still there today, the Hannibal Bridge next-door to the Broadway Bridge down by the old airport.
So, all of the railroads headed for Kansas City to cross the new bridge, making Kansas City the second largest rail yard in the country, second only to Chicago. As the cattle came into Kansas City from Abilene, they were able to transfer them to any rail line headed to any market back East, where the people were.
The cattle buyers soon swarmed to Kansas City and holding pens had to be built in order to transfer the cattle, which were the beginnings of the Kansas City stockyard, which was Kansas City’s first million dollar industry; in fact they soon turned a million dollars a day. So, as you can see, Kansas City earned the title of “Cow Town” honestly.
Reference: Jackson County, Mo. It’s Opportunities and Resources, M.E. Ballou and other sources.
Ted W. Stillwell is available to speak before any club, church, civic, senior, or school groups.
To reach Ted W. Stillwell, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 816-252-9909.