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Thomas Swope did well, gave much

The Examiner

In the early years following the Louisiana Purchase, steamboats by the hundreds brought people and supplies up the river to ports such as Independence, Westport, Fort Leavenworth and St. Joseph, where many disembarked and were outfitted for wagon trains heading on out the Santa Fe, California and Oregon Trails. 

Portraits of the Past

One of those coming up the river in 1855 was a rather shy, tight-fisted and modest man named Thomas Swope, who jumped off the boat at Westport Landing.

Westport was four miles to the south of the river, but Swope was intrigued by the young Kansas City that was growing up on the river levee at Westport Landing at a time when steamboats were arriving at a rate of six or seven hundred a year and wagon freight was piling up all along the riverfront. The small town seemed to be on the verge of a rapid growth with a population of 442 people, who were living in houses perched on cliff tops and huddled under muddy bluffs. He quickly analyzed that since the Missouri River lay to the north, the town must grow to the south.

Thomas Swope was a businessman and could have been considered a visionary, because he immediately bought a rugged cornfield immediately south of the levee district up on top of the bluff and divided it into building lots. Swope went on to make untold millions selling those lots in what became the heart of downtown Kansas City.

The gentle, quiet man who loved his whiskey and suffered from dyspepsia saw extraordinary events unfold before him as he watched the steel and concrete buildings go up in his cornfield.

In his later years. His wealth laid heavily on his mind. It bothered him that he made his millions so easily while he saw others who worked so bitterly hard for meager wages. At one time he took to handing his business manager a ten-dollar bill each morning to help someone in need.

With his wisdom and foresight, however, coupled with his new-found generosity, Colonel Swope eventually did share his wealth and bestowed millions through his philanthropy. But none of those gifts ever matched the one he bestowed on the community when he bought 1,334 acres seven miles southeast of downtown and donated it to the people, a noble expanse of land known today as Swope Park.

Swope Park became a gem of green space that is even larger than New York City’s Central Park. Today, you can meet many exotic animals at the Kansas City Zoo, which is located within the park. You can enjoy apes, lions, bears and elephants, as well as the new camel-feeding deck. You can touch stingrays, visit a polar bear named Berlin, see a Sumatran tiger exhibit, visit Australia and see a world-class African exhibit. The highlight could be the Helzberg Penguin Plaza, home to more than 30 penguins. When you tire of walking you can hop the train, or ride the carousel, a boat, tram or the Sky Safari to enjoy the views of the animals from the air.

Other favorite attractions at Swope Park include the Lakeside Nature Center, a free nature center with hands-on exhibits, or Go Ape KC, offering treetop zip line and obstacle adventures. In Swope Park, you can hike, go swimming, drown fishing worms and even picnic.

Following the death of his brother and with his own health failing, Thomas Swope moved in with his sister-in-law in Independence, where he was allegedly poisoned by her son-in-law, Dr. Hyde. Apparently, Thomas Swope was murdered for the money.

Reference: “KC Going Places,” fall/winter 2019-20.

Reach Ted W. Stillwell at Ted@blueandgrey.com or 816-896-3592.

Ted Stillwell