Moove over! It’s time to embrace Kansas City’s Cowtown Past

Kansas City is well known for its steak and barbecue, thanks to its cowtown history.

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Kansas City’s stockyards in the West Bottoms grew from 13 acres to 207 acres over time.

Moove Over! It’s Time to Embrace Kansas City’s Cowtown Past

By Diane Euston

   Tell a native Kansas Citian that this place is “just a Cowtown” and many will jump to an automatic defense. “We aren’t a Cowtown!” we bark while chowing down on the best steaks and barbecue in the country.

  Kansas City, indeed, is more than just a Cowtown. But the expansion of this municipality is forever linked to the setting up of the stockyards and meatpacking plants in the West Bottoms. Without this advancement in Kansas City’s history, it is likely that the city would have stayed just another small town west of the Mississippi.

A New McCoy Enters the Scene

 Post-Civil War, the markets in St. Louis, Chicago and to the east were desperate for livestock. Texas had plenty to choose from.


Cowboy McCoy (1)
Joseph “Cowbowy” McCoy

In 1867, Joseph “Cowboy” McCoy, who had no relation to the city or to Kansas Town Company’s John C. McCoy, searched for a location on the Kansas Pacific (now Union Pacific) line where Texas cattlemen could drive their herds up north and load the cargo for delivery.

 McCoy pitched his idea the Kansas Pacific offices in St. Louis. They were unconvinced of his plan but agreed to give him a percentage of any livestock traffic loaded in their cars.

 He chose Abilene, Ks. and bought land at the town site for $5 per acre, built pens to hold 3,000 head and campaigned to Texas cattlemen that choosing to drive their herds to Abilene made sense.

 McCoy thought Kansas City was a good stopping place for the cattle to fed, fattened and then  reloaded for the northeast market.

 This innovative idea became the beginning of Cowtown, and the city rose to the challenge.

Hannibal bridge 1869
The Hannibal Bridge 1869

 Bridging the Gap

 Becoming a railroad hub during the 19th century was imperative to a town’s future. In that regard, Kansas City was well linked in all directions–except north.

 The Hannibal & St. Joseph line built in northern Missouri provided an ideal opportunity. If it could be extended into Kansas City, the city would have access to Chicago, New York and Boston.

 The solution was that Kansas City needed a bridge – and fast.

  After careful planning , a proposal to the House Committee sealed the deal. Kansas City would build a bridge over the Mighty Mo, a feat never accomplished on its muddy waters.

 Construction began in 1867. Engineered by Octave Chanute, the Hannibal Bridge took 2 ½ years to construct and opened on July 3, 1869. Even though richer and larger projects would be completed by Chanute, he always considered the Hannibal Bridge his greatest masterpiece.

 The Journal of Commerce reported the next day, “Kansas City from now on will boom!”

The Stockyards

By 1871, the railroad lines banded together to create the Kansas City Stockyards. They chose 13 ½ acres in the West Bottoms on the Kansas side and added a primitive exchange building. In the first year alone, 167,000 head of cattle were unloaded and loaded in the stockyards. This number would double in the following two years.

 The Chicago Tribune reported in 1873, “The growth of the live-stock trade of Kansas City is steady and rapid.. . it is thought the business of 1873 will show an increase of fully 30 percent.”

 In 1875, the stockyards had quadrupled in size and began to spill over onto the Missouri side. The business of buying and selling in the stockyards surged the population of the city. Kansas City was growing 2 ½ times faster than the national average and six times faster than St. Louis. The opening of Union Depot in 1878 in the West Bottoms was a true symbol of the growth of the city. It was the largest depot outside of New York and was considered by some to be excessive. But within just a few short years, the city’s population swelled and the railroad lines kept coming.

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The stockyards In 1886. Smoke in the distance is coming from the meatpacking plants.

 Between 1880 and 1890, Kansas City’s population grew 42 percent and marked the area as a new metropolis.

 Trading quality meat was at the heart of the Kansas City Stockyards, and many felt it was time to showcase it. In 1899, the American Royal Agricultural Show began and continues today as part of the city’s heritage.

 Exactly 39 rail lines would lead into and out of Kansas City by 1908. The nine-story Kansas City Livestock Exchange Building was erected and 100,000 livestock passed through the yards per day. The stockyards became Kansas City’s first million-dollar industry and flourished until they permanently closed their doors in 1991.

The Armour meatpacking plants was the second largest in the country.

The Meatpackers Seek Their Millions

 The idea of the local butcher was really only something available in larger cities due to lack of refrigeration. Small towns and farmers were left with the option of canned or cured meats up until the close of the Civil War.

 Slaughterhouses and meatpacking companies flourished in Kansas City following the birth of the stockyards but only operated in the colder months when meat didn’t spoil as quickly.

  One meatpacking company with locations in Milwaukee and Chicago smelled the opportunity cooking in Kansas City. Plankington & Armour opened its doors in the West Bottoms in 1870 and was an immediate success. By 1878, the company needed five acres of land and by 1890, it was the second largest meatpacking house in the country.

 The company, run locally by Simeon B. Armour, namesake of Armour Blvd., reorganized in 1892 as Armour & Co. They installed a refrigerated plant to operate year-round. It was one of the “Big Four” packing houses, which included Armour, Cudahy, Swift and Wilson and was one of Kansas City’s largest employers.

 By the middle of the 20th century, meatpacking plants were on the decline. Advancements in technology and smaller, efficient plants near livestock houses were the wave of the future. Armour closed permanently in 1967, and the last of the “Big Four” followed in 1976.

In 1923, 60,206 head of cattle were marketed in a day. Note the Livestock Exchange Building to the left, once the largest building of its kind, still stands in the West Bottoms.

Cowtown Label is a Crown of Achievement

Cowtown commerce birthed Kansas City culture. Bankers, jewelers, and various capitalists flooded into the city to build upon the shoulders of the livestock industry. Kansas City grew like a weed due to the sprouting stockyards and meatpacking plants. It certainly isn’t a romantic beginning, but without this dirty industry, the city certainly wouldn’t look the same as it does today.

 We should be proud of our royal Cowtown crown. Oh, and pass the barbecue sauce.



1 thought on “Moove over! It’s time to embrace Kansas City’s Cowtown Past

  1. Really enjoy your stories. One suggestion from someone who does not live in the KC area. Once in awhile please add a map of the KC area and show us the main location of your story. For example, where is the West Bottoms relative to the current city? I live in Webster Groves, MO.

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