Why 1893?

The purpose of this site is to create a cumulative picture of life in Kansas City, Missouri, in one year: 1893. Drawing mainly on items in city newspapers of the time, it presents a profile of the people, places, events, and opinions that made up the life of the city.

If one had to pick a year when Kansas City made a deliberate move from frontier boom town -- "Mushroomopolis" was one of its nicknames at the time -- to urban center, it would probably be 1893, the year Frederick Jackson Turner advanced his famous thesis on the significance of the frontier in American history.

Figures from the old Wild West like Bat Masterson still walked the city's muddy streets, the police chief was a friend of Wyatt Earp and other legendary western lawmen, train robberies and lynchings were common in the region. At the same time a generation of Kansas City pioneers was passing away, and the city population was booming with the arrival of foreign immigrants and people leaving small towns for the opportunities of the city.

Civilizing the city

Among civic leaders there was the sense of a need to turn the page on the past. In small ways, such as the city ordinance against driving flocks of animals through city streets or the editorial in a city newspaper arguing for legislation to prevent medical students from dumping "the friendless bodies of unburied men" into the Missouri River, as well as large ones, 1893 was a transitional year for the young city.

The City Beautiful

City leaders struggled to pave the streets and install water, electricity, sewer, and telephone utilities to serve the city's fast-growing population. Shapers of opinion like William Rockhill Nelson of the Kansas City Star campaigned against lynching, train robbery, policy shops, and dominance of city government by the political machine known as "the push" or "the gang." The Parks Commissioners put forward an ambitious plan for transforming the city's unpromising topography into a system of parks and boulevards.

In the world

In 1893 the city could claim to have "the largest smelter in the world" and the "greatest facilities of any place in the world for handling live stock," in the words of the editors of the Daily Journal, The editors imagined an Easterner visiting the city and being surprised at "the bustle of the hundreds of incoming and outgoing trains at the Union Depot… the magnitude of the buildings and the magnificence of the architecture.. . Buildings that would adorn the finest streets of any Eastern city," tenanted by businessmen with "the bustle and energy of the business men of either New York or Chicago… All this surprises the man who thought Kansas City was a "wild West" sort of a place…."

The Panic of 1893

1893 was a critical year in the city's history for another reason: it marked the beginning of a prolonged contraction in the U.S. economy: by some measures, the worst depression in U.S. history prior to the Great Depression.

The Kansas City economy was only beginning to recover from a collapse in housing prices following on the housing boom of the late 1880s when the "Panic of 1893" hit. A stock market crash and bank failures and panics across the country were followed by a long period of high unemployment, labor unrest, falling farm prices, and business failures.

The depression that began in January 1893 brought an end to the Gilded Age. It continued for at least another six years (David O. Whitten, The Depression of 1893), but even in its first year Kansas Citians were discussing fundamental issues related to immigration, unemployment, race, the gulf between rich and poor, and the role of government. The outlines of Progressive era reforms can already be seen in criticisms of the shenanigans of railway oligarchs and eastern financiers.

For the most part, attention here is entirely to Kansas City, Missouri, and to a lesser extent Kansas City, Kansas. Events in their respective states get less attention; events in the U.S. generally, even less. But some stories, such as the Geary act on Chinese exclusion or the near-annexation of Hawaii, are included if they attracted significant editorial attention, since they help to define the spirit of the times and the political climate in late nineteenth century America, and make interesting comparisons to early twenty-first century America.

Topics

in the Kansas City and Johnson County Public Libraries:
Kansas City Star, Kansas City, Missouri
Kansas City Times, Kansas City, Missouri
Kansas City Daily Journal, Kansas City, Missouri
Kansas City Mail, Kansas City, Missouri
American Citizen, Kansas City, Kansas

email: contact@kansascitystories.com