Why isn't Independence closer to the river?

“Why wasn’t Independence settled closer to the Missouri River?” people often ask. A simple answer is that settlers needed fresh water and wood and in the early 1820s found those resources bountiful about three miles south of the river. That may also be why John Calvin McCoy platted Westport in 1838 about as far from the river south of Westport Landing (the City Market area of Kansas City today).

Early Jackson County pioneers were drawn to the plentiful natural springs available on the high ground that became Independence. While most watering holes ended up on private land, some remained available to the public. Others drew attention at the turn of the 20th century for their flavorful and medicinal properties.

The popularity of the J.B. Forbis spring, named after an 1868 emigrant to Independence, “flowed” back to a time when it was used by Native Americans; French trappers, traders watering their livestock while following the Santa Fe Trail and, later, by farmers herding their livestock to the Kansas City stockyards.

It even became a noontime resort of boys attending the adjacent Ott School before Henry Kloos, a homeopathic physician, acquired the land, covered the spring and converted it into bottling “White Springs Mineral Water.” Over the years, the property and business changed hands and names and was eventually capped by Louis L. and Dorothea Compton, who used the spring waters in their nationally recognized Polly’s Pop soda into the late 1960s. Today, while the water no longer runs freely to the surface, the Forbis spring is part of the city-owned Polly’s Pop Green Space.

Another such spring flowed at the former Harvey Vaile estate (today the Vaile Victorian Mansion). Miss Carey May Carroll, under her subscription company, “Vaile Pure Water Co.,” bottled its water and sold five-gallon jugs of “pure lithia water, with lithium salts.” It was a big attraction to the summer hotel developed as “The Vaile Inn.”

J.D. Cusenbary emigrated to Jackson County around 1840 and had a 322-acre farm between Independence and what would become Kansas City. After an industrious life in a variety of pursuits, Cusenbary, in 1900, proposed a racetrack on his farm. The attraction grew and expanded to become the wildly popular Fairmount Park. Then there was his mineral spring, which had long been known. Publicized for its medicinal properties, it was described in detail – including a chemical analysis – in the 1881 History of Jackson County, Missouri. The spring eventually fed into what became Fairmount Park’s lake.

If you’ve visited the National Frontier Trails Museum, you might recall that it is at the site of the former Waggoner-Gates Milling Company. The milling business on that site predated the company, but the spring that fed onto the property was long regarded as a watering hole for countless emigrants passing through on westward trails. The rubble produced from the 1967 explosion and destruction of most of the complex where Queen of the Pantry flour was produced filled in the spring’s ravine. Perhaps one day, it will be excavated and brought back to life.

All of the old springs in the 240 acres that became Independence are now “dry,” including the four spring-fed wells at each corner of the historic Independence Courthouse Square. One exception is the trickle of the restored Big Spring at the corner of Noland and Truman Roads, part of the Pioneer Spring Cabin interpretive site.

More information about this – or any other topic overviewed in this series – is available from your Jackson County Historical Society’s Archives and Research Library.