Police and fire department photos bring Kansas City history to life
Kansas City Star reporter Brian Burnes talks about the collection of historical photos of the Kansas City police and fire departments published in Out of the Past, a special section in this Sunday's print edition of The Star.
Kansas City Star reporter Brian Burnes talks about the collection of historical photos of the Kansas City police and fire departments published in Out of the Past, a special section in this Sunday's print edition of The Star.
Kansas City’s first steam-engine-powered, water-pumping fire engine was financed by a freight operator.
That made sense.
The business of shipping goods and merchandise west along the overland trails was part of what built Kansas City. Freight operators who stored merchandise in warehouses lived in fear of flames that could destroy their inventory.
To address such concerns and help ensure the future growth of their community, Kansas City area leaders established professional fire and police forces. The archival photographs in this special section document both the earlier and more recent results of that investment.
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For this project, The Star searched its photo collection and others, including the Missouri Valley Special Collections Department of the Kansas City Public Library, the State Historical Society of Missouri in Kansas City and the Jackson County Historical Society.
The photographs document fire and police protection in Jackson County from its horse-drawn days through the 1950s. Personal perspective came from Sgt. Tony Sanders of the Kansas City Police Department, who is president of the Kansas City Police Historical Society, and Ray Elder, retired Kansas City Fire Department captain and historian with the Kansas City Fire Historical Society.
That first steamer arrived in Kansas City in 1868, brought up the Missouri River by steamboat. A waiting crowd applauded its official dedication, and with good reason. Before that, citizens had done their best with buckets and whatever water they could find.
In those days, “Fires were not fought and subdued, but were simply harassed by a promiscuous mob of humanity, who usually went about it in a wild, excited manner, in many instances menacing rather than preserving property. The flames generally died for want of material to subsist upon and consume,” then-Kansas City Fire Department director Francis Wornall said in 1940.
The idea that public safety was a quality-of-life benefit delivered by public servants had taken root in Jackson County over many years. The Independence Fire Department incorporated in 1843, six years before Independence did.
The Civil War chaos that soon left much of the county a “burnt district” prompted occasional efforts to maintain civil order. During the war, Independence officials doubled the size of its “night watch” from five citizens to 10.
After the war, Kansas City officials paid capable town marshals to maintain order. One of those was Thomas Speers, who won election to that post in 1870.
Speers was a former St. Louis alderman who in 1868 had moved to Kansas City to open a brick-building business. In 1874, a state police board with members appointed by the governor appointed Speers as Kansas City’s first police chief. Over the next two decades, Speers worked to control the growing community with the occasional advice of colleagues such as Wyatt Earp and “Wild” Bill Hickok, according to Kansas City police historians.
In Independence, city officials in 1878 dissolved the community’s “night watch” of observant citizens and four years later approved an ordinance establishing the city’s first police force, consisting of “not more than five men, of good moral character at least twenty one years of age.”
The pay: $1.30 a day.
Kansas City area firefighters and police officers evolved as counterparts did across the country, transitioning from horse-drawn to automotive vehicles and adopting improved communications systems.
Efficiency suffered during the 1930s, when positions within the police and fire departments depended upon applicants’ standing with the Pendergast political machine, which doled out jobs as patronage.
Then four lawmen and one federal penitentiary inmate died in a June 1933 shootout just south of Union Station’s main entrance.
The Union Station massacre occurred only a few months after the swearing-in of President Franklin Roosevelt. Within a year, Roosevelt had signed nine anti-crime bills, creating a new federal criminal code. The bills made a federal offense of transporting kidnapping victims or stolen property across state lines, enlarging the jurisdiction of what grew to become the modern Federal Bureau of Investigation.
FBI agents had the authority to carry firearms. One of those agents, Lear B. Reed, became the Kansas City police chief in 1939.
State control of the Kansas City Police Department had ended in 1932.
But state officials believed the department had become so compromised during the Pendergast machine years that they turned to Reed to transform it. Reed instituted several innovations, such as a new police academy where recruits could be properly trained in modern police procedures.
Reed served two years as chief and described his experiences in a book titled “Human Wolves,” published in 1941. He had aged five years in his first six months of service, Reed wrote.
Francis Wornall received his appointment as fire director during the post-Pendergast cleanup in 1940, and Kansas City police and fire protection began new, more efficient eras.
But at least one person lamented the passing of a more evocative time.
In 1933, John Egner, who had served as Kansas City fire chief before World War I, stood as the surviving member of the Kansas City fire crews that achieved international celebrity at fire protection expositions in 1893 and 1900.
“There was more romance in fire fighting in those days,” Egner said in a 1933 interview in The Star.
“Of course, departments are more efficient now with their fast motor trucks and motor-driven pumps,” he said, “but they have nothing to compare in thrills to the sight of fire horses galloping down the street, drawing a steam engine with its smoke billowing out.”
1900 CONVENTION HALL FIRE: City leaders rallied to rebuild the Convention Hall in time for the National Democratic Convention held that summer. Today, those efforts serve as the origin story for the "Kansas City Spirit," the name often given to the community's response to disasters throughout its history. Photo from The Star's files
1900 CONVENTION HALL FIRE: Kansas City firefighters were celebrated for their performances at the International Fire Congress in Paris in August 1900. But that was only a few months after they had been unable to stop a swiftly moving fire that destroyed Kansas City's Convention Hall the previous April. "The fire got too much of a head start," said Ray Elder, Kansas City Fire Department historian, noting that firefighters did succeed in preventing the blaze from spreading to nearby buildings. Although the fire's cause never was precisely determined, Elder cites high winds that spring day that likely helped spread the fire in the large open building. Photo from The Star's files
1959 SOUTHWEST BOULEVARD FIRE: On Aug. 18, 1959, a gasoline tank exploded on Southwest Boulevard, killing six men, including five firefighters. Flames from the explosion soared 1,600 feet in the air. Photo from The Star's files
ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION: The first recorded Kansas City vehicular accident occurred in 1901 when two steam-powered vehicles collided on 11th Street between Oak and Locust streets, according to Sgt. Tony Sanders, president of the Kansas City Police Historical Society. Statistics kept by the Automobile Club of America recorded that in 1909, there were 200,000 motorized vehicles in the United States. Just seven years later, in 1916, the organization counted about 2.2 million vehicles. By the early 1920s, the National Safety Council compiled accident statistics and sponsored Safety Week campaigns. By the 1920s and 1930s, photographers were documenting traffic accidents to which Kansas City police officers responded. Often the photographs included a small chalkboard on which investigating officers wrote their names, the date and the location of the collision. This photo is undated. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
AFRICAN-AMERICAN FIREFIGHTERS: The first African-American hired by the Kansas City Fire Department was Edward S. Baker in 1887 as a "supplyman." Fire Chief George Hale established the city's first all-black fire company in 1890. The Fire Station No. 11 crew first operated out of a tent at the corner of Independence and Park avenues. In 1917, the company received a new fire engine, housed at its station, then located at 1812 Vine St. Photo courtesy of the Jackson County Historical Society
CLARENCE KELLEY: The most recognizable modern Kansas City police chief may have been Clarence Kelley, who joined the department in 1961 after retiring from a long career with the FBI. Under Kelley, police established a helicopter unit, expanded the department's canine corps and installed the department's first computers. He retired in 1973 to go back to the FBI, this time as director. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
CRIME LAB: A police crime laboratory, which included ballistics experts, was among the innovations of Lear B. Reed, a 14-year agent for the FBI who was appointed Kansas City police chief in 1939. He established a police academy where recruits received instruction in professional police methods and also introduced military khaki uniforms that suggested a department more disciplined than the police force that operated during the years of boss Tom Pendergast's political machine. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
EARLY KANSAS CITY FIREFIGHTERS: In 1867 the Missouri legislature authorized Kansas City to finance fire protection through taxes. This led to a court injunction. So early Kansas City firefighters named their initial piece of equipment for the sponsor who paid for it. At top left, one fire crew stands with the "John Campbell," Kansas City's first steam-engine-powered water pumping engine, or "steamer," named for the freight operator who paid $5,500 for it. Firefighters put it into service in 1868. The top right photo shows the steamer acquired in 1872 after city officials found funding for it. It was named the "Dr. Lykins," for Johnston Lykins, who served as the city's second mayor. The bottom two photos show the McGee Hook and Ladder Company, whose equipment was financed by E. Milton McGee, who served as mayor from 1870 to 1871. Steamers often were accompanied by three crew members: a driver, a stoker who lit the coals or wood in the steamer's fuel box and kept the fire going, and an engineer who operated the steamer. After arriving at the fire, engineers would place a suction hose from the steamer into any available cistern, well or pond. "Firefighters got to know the town real well and knew where they could find water," said Ray Elder, a retired Kansas City Fire Department captain who also is historian for the Kansas City Fire Historical Society. The city or the fire department started placing cisterns around the city in 1871. After fires, firefighters were responsible for replacing the cistern water. Responsibility for inspecting the readiness of Kansas City cisterns lasted until World War II, Elder said. The fire chief in the cameo portrait, Michael Burnett, served from 1874 through 1875. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
EARLY POLICE BREATH ANALYZING DEVICE: The first prototypes for devices that measured a person's breath to obtain blood alcohol content appeared in the 1920s. The individuals being tested would be asked to blow into a balloon. When an officer released that captured breath into a chemical solution, the air would change color according to the blood alcohol content. Interest in such devices grew after the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. In 1934, the number of drunken-driving deaths in Chicago quadrupled in the first six months of that year compared to the same time period the previous year. By the 1950s, more portable devices were being used. In this undated photo, the Kansas City police officer seated in the chair wears a cross on his left sleeve. The cross, probably green, was associated with traffic safety enforcement, said Sgt. Tony Sanders, Kansas City Police Historical Society president. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
GATLING GUN: The Kansas City police department organized in 1874. The department's first chief was Thomas Speers, who had served as town marshal from 1870, and helped guide the community out of the chaos of the Civil War years. Speers was known for being proactive. He would assign officers to watch for known criminals at Union Depot in the West Bottoms. When those criminals arrived, they would be put on notice as being responsible for any lawlessness that occurred during their visit. Perhaps out of the same instinct, Speers and some of his officers posed in 1886 with a Gatling gun, a rapid-fire weapon introduced during the Civil War. Just two years before police officers in Cincinnati, Ohio, had deployed a Gatling gun to disperse rioters. Sgt. Tony Sanders, president of the Kansas City Police Historical Society, doesn't believe police ever used the Gatling gun. "It was more of a show of force," Sanders said. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri
GROUP POLICE PHOTO: Formal group photographs of officers, which remain a Kansas City police tradition, date back to the turn of the 20th century. In about 1900, some Kansas City officers wore "bobby"-style hats with black versions for winter wear. The white gloves may reflect how much a priority Police Chief Hiram W. Hammil, who served from 1913 through 1917, placed on police officers being properly dressed. Hammil established a police uniform shop, operated by two full-time employees, devoted to pressing and mending police uniforms. Each officer's uniform was to be cleaned and pressed once a week. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
HALE WATER TOWER: Here, firefighters demonstrate the Hale Water Tower at 19th and Central streets in the late 19th century. Photos courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
HORSE-DRAWN FIRE WAGON: This photo shows a horse-drawn fire wagon running on Westport Road near Pennsylvania Avenue in preparation for the fire department's trip to Paris in 1900. Fire department horses were revered by the firefighters who trained and cared for them. For their trip to Paris, firefighters took horses Buck, Mack and Charlie. The animals became familiar to thousands of Kansas City residents who watched them drill almost daily in preparation for the trip. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
HORSE-DRAWN KANSAS CITY FIRE DEPARTMENT ENGINE NO. 14: Four firefighters from Kansas City stood in the wagon around 1906. Kansas City's horse-drawn era of firefighting began to end in 1909, when the department acquired a right-hand drive Pope-Hartford roadster. Motorized fire equipment allowed the fire department to place fire stations at greater distances across the city. Jackson County Historical Society
INDEPENDENCE FIREFIGHTERS WITH AXES, 1887: Organized fire protection in Jackson County didn't begin in Kansas City. Independence firefighters date the incorporation of the Independence Fire Company to 1843, which makes their department one of the oldest west of the Mississippi River. Still, Independence firefighters had to make do with buckets and axes until the city received its first fire engine in 1853. This photograph shows firefighters standing in Independence Square, with the county courthouse visible in the background. Each firefighter holds an ax, often used to break holes in roofs or floors in burning structures to release smoke or gases. Today, the Harry S Truman Independence '76 Fire Company, a nonprofit historical society, maintains the legacy of Independence firefighting, as well as antique firefighting equipment. Photo courtesy of the Jackson County Historical Society
INDEPENDENCE FIREFIGHTERS WITH HORSES: This photo, from about 1900, depicts the first paid firefighters in Independence, according to Richard Webb, president of the Harry S Truman Independence '76 Fire Company. Fire protection in Independence had grown more efficient with the installation of fire hydrants. Although that meant firefighters could hook hoses directly to hydrants, their ability to direct water on a fire was dependent upon the water pressure. Photo courtesy of the Jackson County Historical Society
KC POLICE BAND: Throughout the early 20th century, Kansas City police officers participated in department bands and vocal groups that often performed in public. Some officers who sang or played instruments received badges that read "bandsmen" on them or patches bearing a musical harp and horns. In 1941, a Kansas City police quartet released a recording on Decca Records called "Bringin' Home the Bacon. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
KANSAS CITY FIRE DEPARTMENT ENGINE COMPANY 29: In this photo, a Kansas City fire department crew trained to go to England for an international firefighting competition in 1893. Jackson County Historical Society
LAFAYETTE TILLMAN: Lafayette Tillman, sometimes identified as the first African-American officer on the Kansas City police force, was not. That distinction belongs to William F. Davis, appointed to the department in 1874. No documented photos of Davis exist, said Tony Sanders. By 1920, the police department employed 11 black officers. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
MOUNTED POLICE: In the late 1800s, Police Chief Thomas Speers hired an officer to ride a horse around the city, patrolling and serving papers. This officer performed so well that Speers assigned other officers to such duty. At one point, the Kansas City Police Department had 45 horses. In 1913, Police Chief H.W. Hammil acquired Packard motor cars for the department, allowing officers to operate more efficiently. The driver of the first motorized police car earned $90 a month, $30 more than a regular beat patrol officer. The job was a patronage position controlled by the Pendergast machine, according to Sgt. Tony Sanders of the Kansas City Police Historical Society. By 1929, horses had been phased out of police service. In 2006, mounted officers returned to the Kansas City Police Department with the assistance of a nonprofit foundation. Today, members of the Mounted Patrol keep their horses in a Swope Park stable, participating in special events and conducting occasional patrols. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
OFFICER HONOR ROLL: This composite photograph, assembled in 1936, salutes members of the Kansas City police force who had died in the line of duty. The photograph allowed space for additional names. Police officials dedicated their first memorial following the 1902 death of Sgt. Frank McNamara. City leaders collected about $3,000 to create and install the monument, which depicted an officer wearing a "bobby"-style hat. In 1921, officials dedicated a second memorial, a 14-foot bronze statue depicting an officer holding a child. Though the memorials stood at separate sites in Kansas City, in 1938 both were placed in front of the new police headquarters at 1125 Locust St. In 1949, the 10-foot-tall granite base for the statue had the names of 65 officers inscribed on it. Today, the memorial honors 119 officers killed in the line of duty. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
PARKING METERS: Historians date the appearance of the first street parking meter to 1935 in Oklahoma City. It didn't take long for the concept to spread to Kansas City, where officials installed some of the first parking meters on Troost Avenue in 1936. Retailers were said to like the meters, as they introduced deadlines to drivers, prompting them to see to whatever businesses they needed to conduct and then leave, allowing the next potential customer to park. Still, then and now the meters needed enforcement. A 2014 analysis by the Kansas City Municipal Court found 2,037 individuals with three or more parking warrants for unpaid tickets; the worst individual driver had 73 such violations. The Kansas City police parking enforcement office added more personnel that year. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri
POMPIER RESCUE METHOD: In the late 19th century, Kansas City fire crews also practiced a dramatic rescue technique with equipment sometimes called the "pompier" ladder. The ladders, which features a large hook at the top to attach to window sills, could be used by firefighters to scale the sides of tall buildings. On Sept. 3, 1889, firefighter Bernard McGreen died from internal injuries after he fell from the eighth floor of a downtown hotel while using the ladders. Still, Kansas City firefighters continued to practice such rescues. These 1893 photos show several firefighters using the ladders to scale a building with the help of an actress then appearing at a nearby theater. Photos courtesy of the Native Sons of Kansas City Photograph Collection (K0528), State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center-Kansas City
POMPIER RESCUE METHOD: On Sept. 3, 1889, firefighter Bernard McGreen died from internal injuries after he fell from the eighth floor of a downtown hotel while using the ladder. Still, Kansas City firefighters continued to practice such rescues. These 1893 photos show several firefighters using the ladders to scale a building with the help of an actress then appearing at a nearby theater. Photos courtesy of the Native Sons of Kansas City Photograph Collection (K0528), State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center-Kansas City
PROHIBITION: The Volstead Act, passed in 1919 and taking effect the next year, provided enforcement for the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. The Kansas City Police Department officers sometimes made a show of busting up illegal distilleries. This photograph may have been taken for publicity purposes, said Sgt. Tony Sanders, president of the Kansas City Police Historical Society. In 1922, downtown police headquarters hosted temperance leaders who poured homemade spirits into street sewers and watched as illegal distilleries were pounded "beyond redemption," according to the Kansas City Times. Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
RADAR PATROL: A motorcycle officer wrote the first traffic ticket in 1908 while on duty patrolling Troost Avenue, according to Sgt. Tony Sanders. In the 1920s, the growing number of traffic accidents prompted greater traffic enforcement efforts by the Kansas City police. In 1921, all police stations distributed free copies of a small pamphlet titled "Rules for the Regulation of Street Traffic." According to the pamphlet, the speed limit on Cliff Drive in the Northeast area was 12 mph, and 15 mph on any other park roads, as well as streets, avenues or boulevards in the city's "congested district." Otherwise, motorists had to honor a 20 mph limit on all other streets and roads within the city limits. In 1954, the police department introduced radar speed limit enforcement. A traffic officer mounted in the vehicle's rear seat monitored the speed of motorists as measured by the device deployed from the rear of the vehicle. By the end of that first year, radar enforcement had resulted in 3,904 speeders being cited. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
1959 SOUTHWEST BOULEVARD FIRE: The fire on Aug. 18, 1959, was one of the community's worst. The fire that began at a service station near East 31st Street and Southwest Boulevard spread to large fuel tanks standing nearby. Firefighters from both Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan., arrived, as did crews from several suburbs. Then a tank holding more than 20,000 gallons of fuel erupted, killing six and injuring many more. After the tragedy, firefighters across the country established safer, more effective methods for fighting fires involving flammable liquids. In 2009, on the 50th anniversary of the fire, friends and relatives of those killed and injured helped dedicate a memorial at the location. Photo from The Star's files
TOY REPAIR: During the 1920s, firefighters at several Kansas City fire stations sometimes devoted their downtime to repairing toys for children before the holiday season. Throughout the year, parents would bring to stations toys that had been broken or that their children had grown out of, said Ray Elder, Kansas City Fire Department historian. Here, firefighters repair dolls and toy wagons in the 1920s. Photo courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
Many historic images used for this supplement came from the Missouri Valley Special Collections Department at the Kansas City Public Library. Members of the Kansas City Police Historical Society donated their historical records to the Missouri Valley Special Collections Department in 2011. Other images are courtesy of the Jackson County Historical Society and the State Historical Society of Missouri in Kansas City.