Several industries have dominated Kansas City through its history. A few of them:
In some ways, Kansas City began with transportation. At the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers, it was a natural place to establish trade with the Indians. River trade moved from canoes to steamboats with an estimated 20 boats a day at the height of the river trade.
Kansas City’s location in the near center of the continental U.S. also makes it a logical stopping place for anyone, or anything, traveling in any direction.
Transcontinental railroads eventually turned Kansas City into the second-largest rail freight hub in the country, behind Chicago.
Better roads made trucking and warehousing important.
The Kansas City Southern Railroad, the only dedicated north-south railroad in the country, and Yellow Roadway Corp., the largest less-than-truckload carrier in the U.S., are among the current heirs to this history.
With the railroads came the cattle. Ranchers throughout the southwest drove herds to the Kansas City railheads, creating the need for the stockyards. From that grew the meat-packing companies, names like Plankinton & Armour, which by 1878 had 600 employees, as well as Swift and others.
Kansas City was surrounded by farmland, so grain storage, milling and baking sprang up. The Kansas City Board of Trade materialized to sell many of the commodities. Many of those businesses have waned here, driven by changes in food production, but still maintain an important presence in the city’s commercial food chain.
The range of products was determined in some cases by personalities as much as by demand for products. Joyce Hall came to Kansas City in 1910, launching one of the country’s largest private companies, Hallmark, from a shoebox of greeting cards. A year later, Ford Motor Co. opened a plant in Kansas City. Auto making, while employing fewer employees than it once did, is still a bedrock of Kansas City manufacturing.
World War II kicked the city’s manufacturing into overdrive, and vestiges remain today. A Pratt & Whitney engine plant eventually became Westinghouse Bendix. Today part of Honeywell Federal Manufacturing & Technologies, the plant still makes non-nuclear parts for the nuclear arsenal. The Lake City Ordnance Plant, which began to make munitions for World War II, has grown in recent years to provide munitions for Iraq.
— Eric Palmer