Kansas City's Fairmount Park

by John M. Olinskey & Debra Topi

Chapter 1:  1887 - 1892
Kansas City's Fairmount Park ~ Kansas City History, Sugar Creek History, Independence, Missouri History, and more
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State Shoot, Washington Park, Kansas City Mo.
Kansas City, Mo., State Shoot, Washington Park

Did you know that Mount Washington Cemetery was once an amusement park called Washington Park? 
Also, that one of the first airports in Kansas City is now called R. J. Roper Stadium in Sugar Creek and it was then called Fairmount Park, located between 24 Highway and Kentucky Ave? That what is now Northern Boulevard was the bed for a railroad that ran through Fairmount Park to Kansas City? Or that Red Skelton, star of the stage, screen, radio and TV performed there in the 1930's?  He married a Sugar Creek girl, moved to Hollywood and "He Dood It," as he would say.

In the 1880s Kansas City was a boom town and was referred to in the newsprint of the day as the "New Chicago". The population was 55,785 in 1880 and more than doubled by 1885 to 124,474. On June 29, 1886, the newspapers announced that the Dummy Line was being revived.  The Winner Investment Co. had just purchased property near the Bethsaida Springs, and the Kansas City-Independence Park Railway Co. line was to be completed by winter time. The next year, Rock Creek was dammed and a large 20 acre lake filled, which was to be Swan Lake at Washington Park. Rock Creek ran through Independence to the Missouri River. Four hundred acres were set aside for the park.

Early on, family picnics were in fashion. As the park became more popular and the area developed, fortunes were made. A park at the end of a rail line was a common practice in other parts of the nation, and because of an influx of capital from eastern cities such as Boston, Kansas City was on the cutting edge of the new technology.

In the Washington Park area, developers began selling land around the proposed park raising prices and value. At the time, Independence was known as the Royal Suburb, and land speculations were rife. The headlines in the KC Journal (June 20, 1888) read:

"MOUNT WASHINGTON!: 5 miles east of Kansas City, 18 minutes from Grand Avenue, upon a high elevation with views of the surrounding county and the Missouri River, sloping to the south, and covered with sugar maples. The Missouri-Pacific Railroad, with12 suburban trains daily, just to the south. The Kansas City-Independence Park Railroad (an electric road) is graded almost to the addition."

W. V. Lippincott, Jr. 129 W 6th St., Kansas City MO

In June of 1888, a reporter for the Kansas City Times reported that in his opinion,
"Washington Park was the most picturesque spot between the Allegheny Mountains and the Rockies." Washington Park was huge, 382 acres, one mile east to west, one and a half miles north to south. Covered with blue grass, rocks as big as houses, and beautiful wild flowers and ferns. Horse drawn open summer cars were boarded on 12th St. and 15th St. and slowly headed east. They crossed a then crystal clear Big Blue River at 15th Street, detraining at the bottom of the big bluff.

Because of the Park's large size, both ends had entrances. After a long walk up the bluff, the west, i.e., the first entrance was at Stark Avenue. Another entrance was by Rock Creek, and one in the middle. The north entrance was where the bus stop is now. Many of the patrons would enter the park at one end and, after a day of fun, return to the city from the other.

The high ground on Blue Ridge was then called Bald Nob. A 107 foot lookout tower was built and a museum at its base featured old coins, books, and other historical curiosities. Several rustic foot bridges crisscrossed Rock Creek, linking nature with the man made attractions. The springs were linked by a bridge to the double L-shaped pavilion, which included a large restaurant. A band stand was already in use, attracting many quality musicians. It is said Jesse James and the boys once hid among the huge rocks and thousands of trees, like the Oaks, Elms, Hickorys, Sugar Maples, Basswoods, Sycamores, Mulberrys, Locusts, Wild Cherry, and Paw Paws.

The flat ground from where now there is a Dairy Queen, to Al Waits Service Station, was the ball field, the hill to the east were the bleachers and above this was the camping ground. The 20 acre lake featured an island for picnickers. Two steam-powered boats were already in dry dock and workmen were optimistically painting oars and John-boats, in preparation for the liquid fun. No dancing or ball playing on Sunday and, of course, gambling and strong drink was never allowed. Admission to the park was free and uniformed watchmen always patrolled the grounds.

However, even with all the hoopla, Washington Park never did catch on. It did set the stage for Fairmount Park, when, in August, 1891, the ninth annual reunion of the ex-Confederate Veterans of Missouri, was held in Washington Park. Across the state, there were 1500 members and more than a third attended. Jackson County alone had more than 1800 former rebels. Among the notables were Generals Jo Shelby, Joe Blackburn and Elijah Gates. They led the divisions in parade from 6th & Broadway to 15th & Grand, where the soldiers boarded trains for Washington Park. Besides the thousands of soldiers of both armies, there were three senators and various state, county and city VIPs. Next came the fire department, the retail clerks, the 3rd Regiment and Battery B. For 2 days the park was transformed into a military camp. North of the 15th Street tracks there were 5 command tents and 250 smaller ones. Tables to feed 2,000 people at a time were spread out under the trees.

An old vet put it this way,

"Jackson County was the hot bed of strife during the war. The animosities here were the strongest just after the war. Now our children have been raised and educated with the children of Union Soldiers. They have formed lasting friendships and our sons and daughters have married the children of the men we fought. Here we want to meet them and bury our animosities."
As many as 40,000 people passed through the park in those two days. The veterans paid a dollar for each badge to identify them and their unit. The money went to the veterans home, just purchased in Higginsville; $18,500 for 362 acres. Many of the men were destitute, causes being wounds received while serving the Confederacy or were disowned by family. These men did not have to pay for their badge or anything else at Washington Park.

On May 23, 1891 an open-door meeting led by Arthur Stilwell was held in Independence where details of the new Air Line (an electric trolley line that ran from 2nd and Wyandotte to Fairmount Park) were discussed. A large crowd was present. 70 acres was purchased from J. D. Cusenbary, including the spring. An earthen dam was scooped out of the ground and what resulted was an 18 acre lake.

In 1892 Cusenbary Springs (later known as Fairmount Park) opened to the masses. By the 4th of July the park had a pavilion, band stand, gymnasium, shooting gallery, merry-go-round and of course a beautiful lake with a fleet of boats. On the 4th of July 8,000 people celebrated Independence Day in what was to be the first of 40 there. The newly formed artillery band made music all day while Battery B fired the cannon.

After the 4th of July, every Sunday afternoon and evening was concert time at both Washington and Fairmount Parks. In early August, gymnasts such as the Vorwaerts and other Turner groups, ventured to the park. At 2 pm sharp a program of athletic exercises began which lasted all afternoon. It started by a grand drill of 200, next an iron wand exercise by a class of 50, after which a class of 40 from each society gave an exhibition on 3 vaulting horses. Then there was a grand display of ladder pyramids, followed by an exhibition on both the horizontal and parallel bars.

On the lake, a canoe spear combat created much merriment and the whole performance concluded with tug-of-war contests between the societies. The balance of the day was spent dancing to music of the band, who played until the last train left, taking the Turner Societies home to some Ben-Gay.

A three cornered debate was held on Labor Day weekend, September 5, between three well-known politicians in a time of much labor unrest. One's name was Cyclone Davis, a name well deserved. To make a long afternoon short, everyone got drunk and gave the politicians hell.

On September 17, the Kansas City Star featured a small ad on the amusement page informing the public that from now on Cusenbary Springs would be known as Fairmount Park. The cafe was newly opened and the electricity had been turned on. An electric fountain had been built in the lake. Fairmount Park featured the finest boats and the best band in town. The last weekend of the season featured Alphonse King, "who could walk on water".

So ended the first year of Fairmount Park.


1. Ellis Island opens. 7,000 new arrivals per day

2. Grover Cleveland elected president again.

3. John L. Sullivan is defeated by Jim Corbett in the 21st round.

4. Motorcar makes its first run in Springfield, Massachusetts.

5. Bob and Emmet Dalton killed in Coffeeville, Kansas while trying to rob two banks.

6. "Does Coca Cola cause cocaine addiction?" reads the headlines in the newspapers.

7. Shell Oil gets its start by Marcus Samuel, a seashell seller.

8. Chicago's first elevator railway goes into operation.

9. The $1.00 Ingersoll pocket watch is introduced.

10. Economic depression begins in the U.S.

11. Telephone service between New York and Chicago begins.

12. Book matches patented by Joshua Puesy.

13. First Hawaiian pineapple cannery opens.

14. Lizzie Borden accused of killing parents.

Copyright © 2005 John M. Olinskey

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