Missouri River

Laura Ziegler / KCUR

The Missouri River shaped Kansas City.

It ferried traders and explorers. It helped establish Kansas City's reputation as a transportation hub.

Slaves escaped across the river, where some settled in the town of Old Quindaro in the Kansas Territory, soon to be Free Kansas.  

But as important as the river is, we don’t get out on it much. And for me, growing up in a place that focused more on the prairie than the river, I’ve always been fascinated by the Mighty Mo.

Sam Zeff / KCUR

It’s the kind of story that’s a little hard to believe until you visit the neighborhood.

Just after 8:00 a.m., a school bus stops on North Freemont Avenue and kids pile on.

They have their backpacks, lunches and homework. It all seems normal.

Except they only live a few blocks from the school and aren't allowed to walk.

It would take Jessica Andrews’ four kids about five minutes to walk to Maplewood Elementary School in the Northland. “We’re really, really close. Why aren't they walking, it’s so close? There’s no sidewalks. It’s not safe for them to walk."

Alyson Raletz / KCUR

The counties and the towns across the Missouri River from what we know as Kansas City-proper have had an identity of their own for a long time. And you don't have to live here long to figure that out.

Scratch the surface of an old-timer up here and you might find some of the Old West.

Red-X today
Leigh Burmesch / KCUR

Before Walmart or Target, there was Red-X.


A fixture in the Northland’s Riverside community for more than 65 years, Red-X is not your average general store. For one, it’s monolithic. The L-shaped building takes up about 85,000 square feet. It’s a grocer, deli, pharmacy, liquor store, hardware store and unofficial museum.


Laura Ziegler / KCUR

It's not that there's a problem with plans to develop the Quindaro Township site in Kansas City, Kansas — some feel it's the way they're being executed.

The African Methodist Church owns nearly 100 acres of  the Quindaro site, once an important spot on the Underground Railroad, a thriving business and cultural community, and site of the first African American University west of the Mississippi.

Suzanne Hogan / KCUR

Kansas City is a new destination for barge traffic again. For the first time since 2007, barges are docked and unloading cargo at the downtown terminal.

The port is in the West Bottoms near the confluence of the Missouri and Kaw River. Just a few weeks ago, it didn't look like there was any activity at the terminal. But today, it's busy with traffic as a crane steadily unloads mill scale, a steel byproduct  from the barge, and semi trucks pull in to load it up.

Frank Morris / KCUR

More than four out of five Kansas City area residents have to cross the Missouri river to get to Kansas City International Airport.  For many it’s a lengthy drive, one that begs the question “why is our airport so far?”  

Laura Ziegler / KCUR

Slavery along the Missouri River in what is now the Kansas City metro area was not the slavery of Gone With The Wind.

University of Missouri-Kansas City history professor Diane Mutti-Burke, who has written extensively about slavery in Missouri, says slave owners tended to have less than 20 slaves. Those with more than 20 are historically defined as "plantations."

Caroline Kull / KCUR News

Port KC, the organization in charge of riverfront development in Kansas City, has an ambitious plan for the south bank of the Missouri River. 

For Michael Collins, the group's president and C.E.O, the idea of another park on the river isn't enough.

"We want to see what we can do to push the needle or do better than other riverfront communities across the country," says Collins.

Though Collins says it's too early to talk specifics, the first stage of development will be multi-family housing and mixed-use retail.  Groundbreaking is slated for this fall.

Cody Newill / KCUR

In 1992, Missouri voters legalized riverboat casinos along the state's waterways. The promise was that tax revenue would soar for local communities and state education coffers would be filled. 

And for Kansas City's smaller Northland communities of Riverside and North Kansas City, that's largely been the case. Both cities have grown to depend on revenue from their casinos, though there have been some costs that come along with legalized gambling.

Transforming the Northland

How Floods Shaped The Kansas City We Know Today

Aug 10, 2015
Montgomery / Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri

Kansas City owes its place on the map and its early prosperity to rivers. But those same streams that carried people and goods in and out — and later made easy routes for railroads – also created unforgettable chapters in the city’s history: destructive floods. With each disastrous chapter, Kansas City has recovered, adapted and sometimes changed direction.

Caroline Kull / KCUR

Talking about downtown in the Kansas City area can be tricky.

That's because there's more than just one.

Smaller cities pepper the metro, particularly north of the Missouri River.

And while the skylines of these municipalities don't stand as tall as Kansas City's, these often historic districts are just as iconic for their respective communities.

ANSWERS: How Well Do You Know The Northland?

Aug 9, 2015
Caroline Kull / KCUR

So, how well do you know the small downtowns of the Northland?

Hopefully by now you have tested your knowledge — below are the answers.

1. Kearney

Population: 9,038

Established: 1869

Sign for Harlem Baptist Church
Leigh Burmesch / KCUR

Head north out of downtown Kansas City on the Broadway Bridge, take the exit for the downtown airport and at the roundabout take a right turn into the tunnel. In less than five minutes, you’re in Harlem.

This once bustling river town played a pivotal role in the development of Kansas City — but most Kansas Citians have never heard of it.

Courtesy photo / Snow and Co.

If your stomach is grumbling in the Kansas City area, the Missouri River plays a big role on how to satisfy those hunger pangs.

“It’s very much a psychological thing, you think you’re crossing into another country (when you cross the Missouri River),” said Jerry Nevins, co-owner of Snow & Co., an upscale frozen cocktail bar that started in the Crossroads Arts District. “Most everybody goes south.”

Just south of the river, you’ll find a plethora of dining options at independent restaurants in Kansas City on both sides of the state line.

Maureen Didde--CC / flickr

 A tweet by the City of Smithville caught our eye the other day — according to the United States Census Bureau, their population is on the verge of hitting 10,000.  


Northland suburbs are growing in leaps and bounds — much faster than downtown Kansas City, or communities like Overland Park.  


Julie Denesha / KCUR

My colleague, Donna Vestal, and her husband Eric like living in the Northland.

They have space. Their expansive backyard spills down from their deck like their own personal park where they enjoy a rural kind of quiet.

They like their living situation well enough to endure what can easily be a 30-minute commute daily across the Missouri River.

To save gas, Donna and Eric frequently commute together. He works downtown and she works at KCUR in Midtown.

Tim Kiser / Wikimedia Commons--CC

The Kansas Department of Transportation wants to know what drivers would be willing to pay for a new bridge over the Missouri River near Fort Leavenworth – if it saved them time.

The 60-year-old Route 92 Centennial Bridge is “functionally obsolete,” industry parlance for an old bridge that doesn’t really work for today’s traffic.

Alyson Raletz / KCUR

Cara Smith didn't move to Parkville, Missouri, for the Missouri River.

But that's why she stayed.

Caroline Kull / KCUR

Pull in to the tiny Nelle Belle’s diner (pronounced “nell-ee bells”) on U.S. Highway 69 in Claycomo any weekday morning, and you’re likely to find the parking lot packed.

CC Library of Congress

Imagine the United States' expansion westward.

Most people picture wagons traversing the trails and railroads chugging towards the coasts.

But before trails were blazed and tracks were laid, mighty steamboats bore hundreds of tons of cargo and passengers through the nation's arteries – its rivers and waterways.

Before the Civil War, St. Louis was the last stop west on the railroad, so anything, or anyone, needing to go to Kansas City went by steamboat. 

All Aboard

Jul 14, 2015
Wikimedia Commons

It was smelly, crowded and potentially life-threatening, but riding on a steamboat was de rigeur for travelers to Kansas City in the mid-nineteenth century. For a brief and some might say "golden" era, the steamboat was also the primary agent of settlement and change. How steamboats shaped Kansas City.


Why Is Downtown Kansas City South Of The River?

Jul 10, 2015
Vincent Parsons / Flickr--CC

There’s something pretty obvious about how the Missouri River divides Kansas City: All the tall buildings are on one side of the river. It seems downtown Kansas City is firmly entrenched on the south side of the river. But … why?

Julie Denesha / KCUR

We’re learning a lot about the Northland in Kansas City.

But we know you know more.

As KCUR continues its look at the Missouri River as a dividing line in Kansas City — part of our Beyond Our Borders project — we’re posting photos of life north of the river on a new Tumblr site called Northland Exposure.

Alyson Raletz / KCUR

The Northland. Kansas City north. Northtown (also spelled Northtowne in some cases.)

Whatever you call the part of the Kansas City metropolitan area north of the Missouri River, we wanted to know more about its boundaries. But the answer is a little muddy.

Julie Denesha / KCUR

It's a big week for the Broadway Bridge – expect lane closures and delays as inspectors check the safety of the 60-year-old structure.

“The paint looks OK on Broadway, but when you really get in your bucket truck and you hang over the edge and start looking underneath, there is a lot of deterioration, a lot of areas — they call it section loss,” says Brian Kidwell, assistant Kansas City district engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Two years ago, inspectors found problems — big ones — that necessitated closing the bridge for repairs.

Suzanne Hogan / KCUR

It doesn’t take long to drive a car across the Missouri River.

Depending on traffic, the roughly half-mile trek can take just one minute. But if you don’t have a car, the Missouri River can seem like a much larger obstacle.

According to the U.S. Census, about 84 percent of the Kansas City metro population drives alone to work. That leaves the other 16 percent commuting by other means, like carpooling, public transit, walking, biking or just working from home.

Julie Denesha / KCUR

As KCUR begins an exploration of how the Missouri River unites and divides the Kansas City metro, we must first consider our unique congregation of bridges. There are 10 of them, if you include the highways. Thirteen if you count the rail tracks that go over the river. And each one — though probably many people can't identify them by name — offers a unique perspective and connection for travelers.

As part of the Beyond Our Borders project, we'll soon take a look at the current state of the bridges and how we use them. But for now, we offer a little bit of history.

Caroline Kull / KCUR

More than half of Kansas City —  51 percent — is located north of the Missouri River, in the area widely referred to as the Northland.

Standing in Berkley Riverfront Park looking across the Missouri River, the Northland is just a stone’s throw away. Yet from south of the river, the Northland can feel like another city altogether.

To figure out why, I spoke with people both close to and far from the Missouri — in the River Market area near downtown Kansas City and at Oak Park Mall across the state line in Overland Park, Kansas.

The DLC / Flickr-CC

Whether you're craving Malaysian almond chicken, French duck confit or even hot dog fried rice, head north of the Missouri River — the Northland has become a dining destination.