In Kansas City, we celebrate small water.
Story by EDWARD M. EVELD | Photos by KEITH MYERS
The Kansas City Star
We beam when suburban creeks get prettied up and trail-ified. We go all combatant if our city fountains are threatened.
Our big water — our genesis — we mostly ignore, those of us who are conscious of it at all.
I mentioned to a friend one morning recently that I was headed out on the river. His head cocked to one side, like when a dog hears a peculiar sound.
“What river?” he asked.
In 1958 a group of young Texans, football recruits for the University of Kansas, came to Kansas City. KU put them up at the Muehlebach Hotel downtown, and that first morning they headed out to take a run along the riverfront.
Little did they know.
“We couldn’t get to the river,” recalled Darby Trotter, a longtime Kansas Citian, the memory plenty fresh. “We ran into all this junk.”
If this story were about another American city — any major U.S. city that fronts a river, lake or ocean — the next sentence might have begun, “A lot has changed in 41 years…”
Instead, here at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers, only a few things have changed. For instance, this holiday weekend, folks will have gathered for RiverFest at Kansas City’s Berkley Riverfront Park, a downtown waterfront green space less than a mile long.
Mostly, though, our urban riverfront is more mystery than destination. I went looking for ways to get close to the rivers, for some signs of a river connection.
The river reconnection
On Fairfax Trafficway in Kansas City, Kan., there’s a sign, a small brown one, easily missed.
The sign says “Kaw Point” with an arrow that directs you into an expanse of concrete next to the public levee building. Across this barren lot, at the back of the complex, is a flood wall. Next to the flood wall is a narrow lane that leads to Kaw Point Park.
This is the spot where the nation’s longest river collides with the prairie-based Kansas (or Kaw).
I stood on the bank here among the cottonwood trees on a crisp June morning, mist on the water. To the left, the Missouri — flowing south, ready to make its abrupt turn — and to the right, the Kaw.
Lewis and Clark liked the spot enough to camp near here in 1804. American Indians called it home long before.
Straight ahead is the jumbled current of the two rivers, the sharp bend of the Missouri and the downtown skyline perched above the water.
To experience where the city and river connect, it’s an essential location. It’s also a place of unity. Forget the state line, somewhere deep in the Missouri River. Forget city boundaries. The waters flow together here.
With such a welcome from the road, though, it can feel like you’re not supposed to be here.
Mike Calwell, for one, wants you to come. He has talked to city authorities about signage, even offered his own, but no movement yet.
Calwell and volunteers with a group called Friends of Kaw Point Park have worked — really worked — to restore the point, which not too long ago was overgrown and often flooded. The group built a boat ramp in 2004 along with a path, although the latter still regularly got swamped in high water.
So this spring, with Calwell’s leadership, leftover stone donated by Johnson County Water District 1 and help from Garney Construction Co., volunteers stabilized the point’s banks and, in an impressive touch, built an amphitheater. Its boulder seats face you toward the point.
First performance in the new 500-seat venue by the Friends group: in October, a play, “Grinder’s Stand,” about the death of Meriwether Lewis.
Once I started to feel the river connection, naturally I wanted to be out on the water. I heard that a fellow named Jeff McFadden toured folks around the downtown parts of the river in his houseboat — a true story but four years old.
“One of those things,” McFadden said. “It didn’t turn out to be a moneymaker.”
Not to mention the bureaucratic complications and insurance expense. He quit after a few years of trying, which he enjoyed. He loves the river and even got married on a pontoon boat on the Missouri River downtown.
“There were bald eagles and ducks all around,” he said. “The river is fascinating downtown. People don’t have any clue.”
Before McFadden there was a riverboat that for years toured the river from the end of Grand Boulevard, and then from a spot near Kaw Point.
Back in 1997, though, the Missouri River Queen became the Georgia Queen and left for the river-friendlier city of Savannah, Ga.
No houseboat. No riverboat. No canoe outfitter at the rivers’ confluence who throws open his shack when the weather gets warm.
Calwell suggested I talk to Laura, his wife. As the Kansas Riverkeeper for the Friends of the Kaw, she leads canoe trips upstream a bit on the Kansas River, an opportunity that was news to me.
A typical trip is a 5-mile float starting near De Soto in Johnson County and ending at Cedar Creek in Olathe. That’s about two hours of floating, spying blue herons and bald eagles, interrupted by an hour on a sandbar, cooking hot dogs. (The Kansas City Paddler store in Lawrence also offers kayaking on this stretch of the Kaw.)
“It’s a good dose of the river, and you’re not exhausted when you come in,” she said. “People are surprised they can do this in town.”
I wanted a more urban connection. So Calwell brought two kayaks to Kaw Point, and we put in as she went over safety instructions. What was odd, perhaps, was how odd it didn’t seem.
Except that we were the only two in sight. Canoes and kayaks do abound here at a couple of annual events for paddling enthusiasts, this weekend’s “Gritty Fitty” race from Lawrence to Kaw Point and in August the Missouri 340 race to St. Charles, Mo.
But on this afternoon of scudding clouds, Calwell and I were alone on the river.
After taking in the Kansas City skyline from the water, we turned right and paddled easily against the slow current of the Kansas River. I felt small but safe in the water.
A train chugged by high overhead, an intriguing perspective from here, looking up at the soaring railroad and interstate bridges. Soon we floated under the James Street Bridge, with KCK’s Strawberry Hill neighborhood on the bluff to the right.
After that, the Kaw’s wooded banks almost hid the fact of where we were, in the heart of our oldest industrial areas. It was actually serene. The only interruption: two dogs that scurried down to the river’s edge, splashed in the water and were on their way.
For a speedier river connection tour, Laura Calwell recommended John Trager, aka Captain Catfish. People hire Trager and his boat for a day on the river. (He’s one of a handful who offer such a service. Figure $250 and up for a daylong trip.)
Most customers want to fish, although some like to hunt for stuff, like bison bones, fossils, old glass.
“People are into collecting,” Trager said. “I take them from gravel bar to gravel bar, sandbar to sandbar.”
The fishing has been exciting: “The other day, a bighead carp came flying out of the water right at us, hit the anchors off the bow, ricocheted and hit a passenger on the arm, broke his watch and bruised him.”
I mostly wanted to see the city.
From Kaw Point we crossed the rivers’ confluence where the water depth drops from about 20 feet to 40, then followed the U-turn toward the skyline.
I knew that the downtown airport was directly on the left, but it was out of view from the river — all trees. Junky piles uglied up the topside of the right bank here, and a foamy discharge bubbled along the river edge below.
The city proper was ahead, perched above us. Trager zipped downstream — we saw only one other boat, a fisherman Trager knew — past the giant concrete diamond that will be the new Paseo Bridge and on to the Harrah’s Casino in North Kansas City.
On the way back to Kaw Point, we slowed down to look up at Berkley Riverfront Park, populated by two walkers, and to wave at someone looking down at us on the Town of Kansas Bridge, another essential river-connection locale.
Trager’s tour, of course, is one few people will get to take. Stay tuned: Word is that a new river excursion boat is in the works, although plans for the river often get delayed and deferred.
Down to the river
Main Street restarts on the north side of City Market and heads toward the river. As the street ends, a former casino boat pier, now the Town of Kansas Bridge, begins.
It’s a bridge only in the sense that it bridges the steep drop-off from the market area to the riverfront below, a site near the original Town of Kansas settlement. The bridge opened in 2002, but it’s still a discovery to many Kansas Citians.
After a June storm, I stood at the end of the lofty pier and watched what looked like the output of a logging operation float by below. The storm’s aftermath had kicked up the current and lots of woody debris.
The chocolaty water of Old Muddy reminded me of what was said about the Missouri and other rivers before they were dammed and channeled: “Too thin to plow, too thick to drink.”
At the end of the bridge, there’s a long set of stairs and a sizable elevator. Inside, I found that I was on the “third floor” and that pressing “1” gets you to the river bank. (There’s no “2.”)
Walking west from here along the riverfront is a no go — you’re stopped at the levee by a fence and no trespassing signs. But eastward lies a short stretch of the developing Riverfront Heritage Trail that runs through a natural area, interspersed with old, random concrete leftovers.
Here, in June, workers removed much rubble and were planting four acres of the long-planned Wetlands Ecosystem Restoration Project, an effort by the Port Authority of Kansas City, the U.S. Corps of Engineers and others.
Besides a crescent-shaped pond and meandering wood-chip paths, prairie grasses and plants, including coneflower and liatris, are going in as well as wetland plants, such as mist flower and pickerelweed.
It’s a glimpse of what the waterfront could be.
The trails link
For now, hikers and bikers can’t continue eastward to Berkley Riverfront Park because they’re stopped by the ASB railroad bridge. But the Port Authority broke ground a few weeks ago for a $3 million underpass that will dive below the tracks next to the riverbank.
“The thing that’s neat is that by getting underneath the railroad tracks, it will get you right next to the river,” said Darby Trotter.
Yes, the same Darby Trotter. He is head of Kansas City River Trails. The organization employs donated money, in-kind services and federal dollars to develop the Riverfront Heritage Trail system and facilitates construction by the Unified Government, the city of Kansas City and the Port Authority.
Besides the trail sections next to the river, the system’s dedicated paths and on-street sections stretch from the downtowns of both Kansas Citys, through the west side in Missouri and around the Crown Center area. (There’s a map at www.kcrivertrails.org.)
The section along the river, when complete, will create a fine urban river connection: from Kaw Point Park, across the Kansas River, through the bottoms to the City Market, down to the Town of Kansas site and through Berkley Riverfront Park to near the Paseo Bridge.
Another big gap in the trail along the rivers — short but geographically challenging — is also scheduled for closure this year. The Woodswether Pedestrian Bridge crosses the Kansas River near Kaw Point, but there’s no way to get from the point below to the bridge above.
Hanging over the Kansas River, the pedestrian bridge provides a top-down view of the confluence of the rivers, plus an intriguing display of public art and ironwork. With no motorized traffic, it’s a refuge, with the roar of the immense Interstate 70 viaduct overhead and a train bridge alongside.
For now, a good way to access the bridge is from James Street in KCK’s Central Industrial District.
A big-league city
While the struggle continues to reconnect with our rivers and riverfronts, we have our reasons why progress is glacial and results mixed.
Some go way back, some are more recent: the harsh geography of the bluff, the industrialization of the bottoms, a redevelopment focus on “inside the loop,” which, as Trotter said, oddly defines us by where we happened to put our freeways.
Anyway, similar problems have been overcome elsewhere to create welcoming waterfronts.
In Kansas City, we agonize over keeping up. We fret about what we’re missing compared with other cities our size and bigger.
It’s not necessarily a bad impulse.
But maybe what we’re missing is not another professional sports team, not more convention hotel rooms, not more places to spend money.
Maybe what we’re missing is our rivers.