Waterfront Town to Metropolis
By May of 1854 the air was already electrified by the sizzling-hot debate of pro-slavery versus anti-slavery when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Now, the western territory was open and available, and whoever settled Kansas first would determine its status as a free or slave state. A new frenzied wave of migration began. City of Kansas residents were acutely affected. Missouri was a slave state and most residents held a pro-South bias.
The addition of another free state on the Missouri border posed a threat. But the City of Kansas, with both its popular steamboat landing and its unsurpassed access to the new territory, held an economic advantage as this historic turn of events began to unfold. By 1880 the bluffs had been cut into the streets, the city ran several miles south of the river, the population was over 50,000, and the city was on its way to becoming a metropolis.
An idyllic scene of the City of Kansas from the opposite side of the river. Illustrations and Photographs courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.
Which Scene Do You See?
Despite the idyllic river scene on the left, hordes of people were rushed up the Missouri River during the contentious 1850s. They crowded the steamboat landing before passing through the city bluffs and scurrying to establish their physical presence and to influence which party – pro-slavery or abolitionist – would prevail. By 1855 the flood of immigrants dramatically swelled the population of the little City of Kansas. In a two-year period, 1855-1857, the Gilliss house Hotel reported 27,000 new arrivals.
“In front of the town the broad bouldered landing slopping down to the water’s edge presented a confusing picture of immense piles of freight, horse, ox, and mule teams receiving merchandise from the steamer, scores of immigrants wagons, and a busy crowd of whites, Indians, half-breeds… Carts and horses wallowed in the deep excavations; and the houses stood trembling on the verge as if in fear of tumbling down.
Albert Richardson, spring 1857