The town known today as Kansas City has enjoyed a unique and celebrated heritage. The historic City Market, the home of the Arabia Steamboat Museum, is located a short walk away from the mighty Missouri River. The longest river in the United States, the Missouri River brought to the area the French Canadians and creoles from French Louisiana to trap beaver. The explorers Lewis and Clark climbed the steep river bluffs that would become Quality Hill in 1806. Francois Chouteau, at the age of 24, came up the river from St. Louis to establish a trading post for his family. Chouteau’s Landing, as it was called, was established in 1821 and was located near the Arabia Steamboat Museum on the south bank of the river.
While the area has known many famous explorers, few had greater effect on the future of Kansas City than did John Calvin McCoy. Often referred to as “the founder of Kansas City”, McCoy asked the captain of the steamboat John Hancock to land a supply of good for him “in the woods” at the rock landing above Chouteau’s treading post, a place later called West Port Landing, the birth place of Kansas City.
In November 1838, McCoy included in a group of 14 investors calling themselves the Town Of Kansas Company, put in a successful bid of $4,200 to purchase 257 acres from the estate of the late Gabriel Prudhomme, a Frenchman who owned the valuable ferryboat property with its natural rock landing. Thus, the town was born. Known as the Town of Kansas until 1889, when a new city charter officially named it “Kansas City”.
By spring 1855 whole companies of settlers – men, women and children were traveling westward. By now, Kansas City was the jumping-off point for settlers traveling on the Santa Fe, California and Oregon trails. The hotel on the riverfront, know variously as the Union, the Western, the American and the Gillis House, recorded 27,000 arrivals in just two years, 1856 and 1857. The parlor floors were converted into sleeping quarters, and a bell was put atop the roof to announce meals.
With the increased trade, the city began pushing southward, digging through the steep banks to earth to make way for roads and buildings. As a result, a checkerboard of man-made dirt canyons inspired the nickname, “Gullytown”.
Following the end of the Civil War, the city began a construction project that would establish itself as a major city and rail center. Trailing behind Leavenworth and St. Joseph in population, its future rested upon being the first to build a permanent rail crossing spanning the Missouri River. Thought for years to be impossible to construct, “The Bridge”, as it was called, was designed by a self-trained civil engineer named Octave Chanute in 1867. The Hannibal Bridge, completed in July 1869, even featured a mechanism that would swing the span open in 2 minutes to allow for steamboats to pass.
In its first year a quarter-million people passed through town, including 70,000 by train. Kansas City’s population grew from 4,000 in 1865 to 32,000 by 1870. A building lot worth $400 in 1856 sold for $11,000 in 1871. Kansas City was on the march and wasn’t looking back.
Even as Kansas City grew and expanded its borders, the City Market remained a vital part of the area’s history. As immigrants arrived in Kansas City, many settled into the neighborhood. This still is visible in the diversity of restaurants and shops located in the area immediately around the museum. Cuisine from Ethiopia, Thailand, Mexico, and the Middle East can be found within a block of our museum. Of course, you can also find Kansas City style Bar-B-Q and trendsetting farm-to-table restaurants nearby.
Kansas City residents are most familiar with the area as the home of the citywide farmer’s market on Saturdays. Events are held to coincide with the farmer’s market nearly every weekend during the summer. After visiting the Arabia Steamboat Museum, grab a cup of coffee, tea, or a smoothie and see the wide variety of organic and heirloom produce that is grown throughout the area. This is all part of the reason the cultural vibrancy of this beloved Kansas City neighborhood has lasted for over 150 years.
Whether your plans include learning about Kansas City history or modern local culture, the historic City Market area will provide exactly what you are looking for. A visit to the Arabia Steamboat Museum provides far more than a single attraction. It provides a look into how Kansas City residents lived 150 years ago and how we still live today. This is a tradition as old as the Town of Kansas itself, and one we are proud to be a part of.