By Diane Euston
As Kansas City and the surrounding area began to grow in population, there was an increasing need for reliable medical care. Between 1840 and 1850, the population of Jackson County almost doubled, rising from 7,612 to 14,000.
A young man born in Kentucky and raised near Higginsville, Mo. answered the call for health care professionals, settling in a small community on the levee at the Town of Kansas in 1848.
The story of Dr. Isaac M. Ridge is one of tenacity and sacrifices in a time of Kansas City’s history that saw tremendous growth and change.
Isaac M. Ridge’s Rise to Doctor
Isaac Ridge was the seventh born of eight children to William Riley Ridge (1791-1875) and Sarah Mary Gill in 1825 in Adair County, Ky. After his mother died when he was two years old, his father married Sophia Dillingham and relocated from Kentucky to Lafayette County, Mo. where his father and stepmother had seven children.
Isaac’s father, a veteran of the War of 1812, was a farmer of modest means. Despite this, Isaac was sent to a private school in Dover, Mo. six months out of the year. The other six months were spent working on the farm or in a blacksmith shop. After graduating from school in Dover, Isaac was drawn to study medicine under the town’s physician, Dr. I.S. Warren.
A brilliant scholar, Isaac moved to Lexington, Ky. to continue his studies at Transylvania University where he wrote his graduate thesis on miasmata, the foul-smelling vapor rising from organic matter which was believed at the time to cause disease. He graduated with honors in 1848 after two years of medical training.
Early Town of Kansas and Native Americans
There were other doctors, including Dr. Benoist Troost, in the Town of Kansas at the time, but when Dr. Isaac Ridge arrived in June 1848, he was the “first graduated physician to locate in Kansas City.”
The Town of Kansas was better known then as Westport Landing, and the town focused primarily along the levee. When the young doctor arrived, all he had with him was “a horse, a stock of medicine and $25.” Dr. Ridge opened an office near Main St. on the riverfront and quickly became a trusted source for healthcare.
Dr. Ridge later spoke of his earliest memories of the area at the time. “Of all the places I ever visited in my life, Kansas City was about the most unpromising,” Dr. Ridge laughed. “I’m sure I never had the least expectation that it would grow into a great city.”
Early on in his practice, the doctor would ride far distances into Indian Territory and administer care to the Wyandot Indians. Historian Carrie Westlake Whitney wrote, “By his kindness and skill toward the Wyandotte Indians, he won their friendship and gained a great influence over them, which extended rapidly to other tribes.”
Dr. Ridge was given the name “Little Thunder” by the tribe. Dr. Ridge later explained, “That was, I think, because when I was a young man I had a strong voice, and when any of my Indian patients didn’t follow my prescriptions, I would scold in pretty loud tones.”
His relationship with the tribes served him well, and he learned that if you treat them “with honesty, uprightness and truthfulness,” they will support you. However, if you deceive them or take advantage of them, “they will never forgive nor forget, neither will they lose an opportunity of showing their complete disgust for those whom they think wronged them.”
In his earliest days administering to white families and Native Americans, the doctor would ride up to 150 miles on his horse in one day.
The population in the early 1850s was scattered throughout the county, and at the site of what would be Kansas City, there were few settlers in a few dozen frame houses without much hope for its future. Dr. Ridge recalled in 1903, “All of what is now Kansas City was covered in a dense forest with thick, heavy underbrush. Only a few narrow roads led from the little settlement to the surrounding country. . . I used to call it the city of seven times seventy hills.”
The Cholera Epidemic and Marriage
Just one year after Dr. Ridge arrived on the levee, the cholera epidemic hit the little hamlet. At the time, the Town of Kansas had begun to grow due to the increase in traffic on the Santa Fe, California and Oregon Trails – especially after gold was discovered in California.
The increase in population meant an increase in patients, and as one of the only doctors in town, he was taxed by the overwhelming call for his services. During the cholera epidemic, the doctor got the disease and barely survived.
Dr. Ridge later claimed that the epidemic “killed off more than half the population of the little village of Kansas City.” Cholera, along with smallpox, were some of the most dangerous diagnoses at the time. His treatment for smallpox was often successful and was said to “avoid disfigurement” of the patient.
His patience and tenacity in fighting cholera gained him many new friends in his adopted home, and this included some of the most prominent of the growing community. He caught the attention of Eliza Smart, the 19-year-old daughter of one of Kansas City’s earliest supporters, Thomas A. Smart (1806-1879).
Thomas A. Smart, a native Virginian, first moved to Kentucky where he met and married his first wife, Harriet Thompson in 1827. The couple had nine children including Eliza. The family arrived at the future site of Kansas City in 1834 where Thomas purchased 80 acres of land that borders 9th St. to the north, 12th St. to the south, Main St. to the west and Harrison St. to the east. Their farmhouse stood at 11th and Main just east of Kansas City’s original city limits.
Along with his brother, Thomas built the first store, a log cabin, on the levee and sold “groceries and Indian goods.” He was a successful businessman, state representative and judge in the Jackson County Court during his lifetime.
Thomas lost his wife during the cholera epidemic in May 1849, and in February 1850, his daughter, Eliza married Dr. Isaac Ridge. The couple would have five children between 1850 and 1868, three living to adulthood (William b. 1852, Thomas b. 1859, and Sophia b. 1864).
In 1857, Thomas Smart gave three acres near 9th and Main St. to his daughter and son-in-law where the doctor built an impressive 11-room brick home in 1859 at 910 Walnut. In exchange for the valuable land in growing Kansas City, Dr. Ridge agreed to give free medical care to the Smart family until Thomas’ death.
Dr. Ridge was named Kansas City’s first city physician in 1860 – a position he held for 10 years. In these early days, the city didn’t have a health department yet, and his duties included sanitation practices.
The Civil War Doctor and Injury
A man from the South, Dr. Ridge was a slaveholder, enslaving five people in 1860. With the help of his enslaved labor, Dr. Ridge built the first pest hospital on an island on the Missouri River which remained in use until the 1880s.
During the Border Wars leading up to the Civil War, Dr. Ridge and his family were surrounded by Kansas guerrillas at their home in the middle of the night. When they threatened to kill him, Dr. Ridge begged for them to spare his family and explained who he was. Because of his reputation as a well-known doctor and surgeon, the guerrillas left his family unharmed.
When the Civil War broke out, the doctor refused to take up arms against the United States because he was a Freemason. In fact, Isaac was the first Master Mason in Kansas City and was a member of the Knights Templar.
Despite his neutrality, Dr. Ridge was unable to stay completely out of the war. In the early formation of the Missouri State Guard under command of Gen. Sterling Price, Dr. Ridge was ordered by the general to attend to the soldiers. He was present at the Battle of Lexington and saved many lives, including “his warmest friends fighting on the other side.”
A trained surgeon, Dr. Ridge took his Hippocratic Oath seriously and attended to anyone injured.
President Abraham Lincoln took notice of the doctor’s incredible skill and allegedly “offered him any position in his province on the Potomac if he would accept service in the army.” Dr. Ridge received this communication from high officials stationed in Kansas City. Again, his oath to the masons prevented him from accepting, as “he could not fight against his relations and friends.”
Although Dr. Ridge made it through the war without injury, he was not so lucky just a few years later. In February 1867, the doctor was on his way to William Montgall’s home four miles south of the city to attend to an ill family member.
Just shy of a mile from the home, a man on horseback ordered Dr. Ridge to stop. When he refused, the highwayman drew his gun and shot at him, a bullet striking his thigh and burrowing in his knee joint.
The Daily Journal of Commerce reported, “The suspected parties are known, and our sly ones have an upon them. . . If this continues, we must hang a few upstream on suspicion.”
The bullet was in a location that couldn’t be operated on, so Dr. Ridge lived the rest of his days with a bullet lodged in his knee.
From Doctor to Real Estate Mogul
As Kansas City grew, Dr. Isaac Ridge welcomed the arrival of other doctors and assisted many of them in getting a start in medicine. Although he was an allopathic physician, he openly signed a petition to welcome a homeopathist on the medical board of the asylum. “For surely, the homeopaths should be given a chance to kill with little pills as well as allopath’s with the big ones,” Dr. Ridge joked.
In 1875, the doctor retired from medicine and focused on real estate. Just three years later, his wife, Eliza passed away at the age of 47.
In 1882, he married Miss Margaret Campbell (1856-1923). Margaret, a native of Cincinnati, moved to Columbia, Mo. where she was director of music at the university. She met Dr. Ridge through one of his daughters whom she taught. She was 31 years his junior.
Just a year prior, Dr. Ridge took 85 acres outside of the city limits and set his sights on building an impressive mansion that equaled his status in society. Sitting at 21st and Woodland Ave., the 30-room mansion had a tower that could “be seen for many blocks.” It sat on top of a hill with a commanding view of Kansas City to the west and featured a third-floor ballroom for entertaining. The mansion became known as “Castle Ridge.”
The Kansas City Star later reported, “The desire when [Castle Ridge was built] was to have a house bigger and more ornament upon it than the next-door neighbor, and the effect was neither Gothic nor classic.”
Castle Ridge’s grounds included an orchard, vineyard, large pasture and two ponds. He spared no expense building the home; it was said to cost $80,000.
The three acres he once lived on was now in the heart of the city and ripe for development. In 1890, he tore down his house on 9th and Walnut to make room for a line of business houses known as the Ridge Building near the Junction.
Completed in 1893, the Ridge Building was “recognized as one of the best office buildings west of the Mississippi.” The building spanned from Main St. to Walnut St. where 200 offices were built on upper floors. The third and fourth floor were reserved for masonic use.
The Legacy of a Pioneer Doctor
On May 7, 1907, Dr. Isaac Ridge died inside Castle Ridge from arteriosclerosis at the ripe age of 81. He had been ill for over a year and unconscious for a month. His second wife and three children were by his side when death called.
Among his possessions was an old ledger from his days as Kansas City’s pioneer doctor which revealed over $50,000 in unpaid doctor’s fees that he had long since forgiven.
The Kansas City Star wrote after his death, “Dr. Isaac M. Ridge was one of the men whose life and work were identified with the early history of Kansas City.”
Castle Ridge stood for decades with its commanding view of Kansas City to the northwest. As the city grew into the boundaries of the impressive estate, the Ridge children slowly sold off portions of the original tract. And, as the Black population of the city settled on the east side, the land became too valuable to hold Castle Ridge for much longer.
In 1920, Castle Ridge was purchased by Western Baptist College, an African American institution formerly in Macon, Mo. The female students resided inside Castle Ridge while male students lived in the old stable on the property.
In 1929, Western Baptist College moved to 21st and Tracy, and in 1931, the Kansas City School District purchased Castle Ridge and its remaining acreage to build Lincoln High School. Lincoln, founded in 1867 as a school for African American children at 10th and McGee, expanded into a separate high school in 1890 at 19th and Tracy.
Castle Ridge was torn down, and today the land is the home of Lincoln High School, completed in 1936. Fittingly, Lincoln High School became known as “The Castle on the Hill.”
Despite challenges, Dr. Ridge didn’t give up on Kansas City and her residents, and they revered him for it. As one obituary aptly stated, “Many incidents in the interesting and notable life of Dr. Ridge can be recalled as illustrating those fine qualities in the man whose labors in Kansas City were so abundantly prospered and whose enjoyment of the world was happily prolonged to such a ripe period.”
He will, and always will be, Kansas City’s first university-educated physician who saw promise in a settlement growing south of the Missouri River.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com