What's Your KCQ?

Could the city’s tunnel to West Bottoms be used by today’s streetcars? A KCQ answered

Robert Felix, a Kansas City native who grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and now lives in Shawnee, has always known about the old cable car tunnel that runs below Eighth Street from downtown to the West Bottoms.

As the new Kansas City Streetcar system gains popularity he submitted this question to our “What’s Your KCQ?” series: Could the Eighth Street tunnel/streetcar line be restored and used to link the West Bottoms to downtown?”

“If it could be rehabbed I think it would be a really cool connector between downtown and the West Bottoms,” Felix said.

Felix’s question follows our last KCQ about the inclines built in the late 1880s to transport Kansas Citians across the bluffs that separate the two neighborhoods.

The short answer to Felix’s question is no.

The long answer is this:

There are a variety of barriers to making the tunnel part of the modern streetcar system.

When the tunnel was used, around 1888 and after, it held a non-electric cable car as part of an elevated line that operated differently from the current streetcars.

The route was quickly abandoned for a Ninth Street line which was then abandoned yet again for a 12th Street line, according to David Johnson, a member of the Kansas City Streetcar Authority board and chief strategy officer for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.

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A State Street company brochure shows the West Bottoms in Kansas City. New Yorker Robert Gillham arrived in Kansas City in 1878 and built the Ninth Street Incline, a cable car line that ran straight up the bluff toward Quality Hill. State Street

The Streetcar Authority did consider using the old 12th Street route in its 2012 study, but that proposal was rejected by voters.

In order to make the Eighth Street tunnel functional for today’s purposes, engineers would need to figure out a way to run the car in the tunnel, build a structure for it over Interstate 35 and land the car in the West Bottoms, which is a flood plain, Johnson said.

The city would also have to either buy or condemn private property over the entrance of the tunnel. The entrance sits under the State Street building at Eighth and Washington.

“It’s probably something the engineers would say I don’t know why you would even bother,” Johnson said.

Despite no longer being in use, Johnson said, the tunnel is still a fascinating piece of Kansas City history. He called it a relic of a time when Kansas City had a comprehensive, privately run transit system.

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The Eighth Street tunnel in Kansas City is shown in a State Street company brochure. Emerging from the West Bottoms near Broadway, the 1904 tunnel was used for trolley service until April 29, 1956. An earlier tunnel immediately above was built in 1888 and later closed. State Street

Johnson was able to tour the tunnel a little over 10 years ago. At the time, he said, the cable car tracks were no longer visible but lines of the original Edison light bulbs still stretched the length of the tunnel.

“It’s interesting from a historic perspective but it’s really not interesting from a ‘oh let’s put streetcars here’ perspective,” Johnson said.

For its part, The Star was not able to examine the tunnel first-hand.

In its current state, the owners of the property sitting above the tunnel’s entrance would not allow reporters and photographers to enter the tunnel because, they said, it is a liability. The property is managed by DST Systems.

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The Star and the Kansas City Public Library are interested in answering your questions about the Kansas City region. Submit your questions on The Star’s or the Library’s website. (See the module below.) Then we will investigate and report out the answers to your KC curiosities. We’ll show you who we talked to and how we found the answer. We’ll also teach you about the available resources. Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.

How did KCQ get started?

The Star started its relationship with the Kansas City Public Library through its work with the News Co/Lab at Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. We are working with ASU to educate the public on how journalism happens, how stories are reported and the importance of transparency in our work.

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Robert Felix asked this question as part of our ongoing “What’s Your KCQ?” series in partnership with the Kansas City Library. Do you have a burning question about the Kansas City area? Tell us in the module below or click here if you are unable to see the module.

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Katie Bernard covers Kansas crime, cops and courts for the Kansas City Star. She joined the Star in May of 2019. Katie studied journalism and political science at the University of Kansas.