An early photo of a Kansas City Southern steam locomotive. Photo courtesy Kansas City Southern Industries.

“…From Kansas City to the Salt Water!” – The story of the Kansas City Southern Railway

“…from Kansas City to the Salt Water!

 By Topher Wilson

          Much can be said for the Midwest’s contributions when it comes to the country’s intricate railroad network. In fact, from 1850 to 1900 (the “boom” years for American railroads) the middle states added nearly 20,000 miles to the nationwide track system. This interconnectivity would go on to help thrust the country into one of the world’s most thriving industrialized centers during the turn of the century. Locally, during this same time, the booming presence of expanding railroads could be felt in a big way.

Arthur Stillwell loved to build streetcars, railroads and towns, of which 40 are named after him.

         In the late1890s local businessman and South Kansas City resident Arthur Edward Stilwell (of Stilwell, KS and, eventually, Port Arthur, TX fame) began implementing plans to form his own railway company. He hoped to connect many of Kansas City’s southern suburban hotspots. However, Stilwell found himself needing a partner. So, in 1887, he joined up with a fellow businessman who knew the region and its transportation needs very well, Edward Lowe Martin (of Martin City, MO fame). The pair founded the Kansas City Suburban Belt Railway that same year. The rail system served everything from the Argentine district in Kansas (which encompasses what is now southern Wyandotte County, the Turner Community, and some of Johnson County), to the commercial districts in downtown, and all the way east to Independence, MO.   

Edward Lowe Martin, founder of Martin City, also invested in the Kansas City Suburban Belt Railway, later known as Kansas City Southern.

Within a couple of years Stillwell and Martin looked to expand their company onto the national stage by connecting Kansas City with other networks of railroads being built in the American South. By doing so, this would allow those in Kansas City to travel and trade in the Gulf Coast as well as provide a very valuable train route to important port cities like New Orleans. This gulf route would enhance Kansas City’s position as a grain market and helped the city become the primary wheat market in the nation. The new slogan would be, “The shortest route from Kansas City to salt water!”, so in 1897 the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad was born with exactly that goal in mind.

To  celebrate the track’s completion, festivities were underway at Fairmount Park in Independence, Mo. A cannon was fired and a billboard unveiled reading “Kansas City is now connected with its own seaport, Port Arthur, by its own rails, the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf.  The last spike has just been driven.” A band played “Port Aruthur’s March.” At night searchlights placed atop several downtown buildings signaled to the world that Kansas City had become a beacon of commerce.

This 1893 map projected the KCP&G route to travel from Kansas City to Sabine Pass, Tex.;  instead, its southern terminus became a newly created town called Port Arthur, LA,  near Lake Charles.

In 1900, the KCP&G became the Kansas City Southern Railway. It would come to exceed the goals of the original owners. Known in the industry as “The NAFTA Railroad” many of the lines extend from the Midwest to as far as Mexico City. As KCS negotiates a merger with Canadian National, the roots of the company remain local with the KCS headquarters found today in the Quality Hill neighborhood.  

(This article first appeared in the December 7, 2015 issue of the Martin City Telegraph and has been updated.)

Uncle Sam stands atop Kansas City to shine a spotlight on the KCP&G Port Arthur route. The postcard shows all the railroads going east and west through Kansas City, but only one headed south to the gulf. Postcard courtesy LoRee Knoll.

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