Discover Vintage America March 2013
Floods and urban progress destroyed Harlem, Missouri
Before Kansas City became a town, steamboats brought new settlers to the area. During the early 1800s, some would be dropped off on the north side of the river, where a cluster of log cabins became known as Harlem.
Vera Eldridge, a Clay County historian and an early contributor to this paper, described Harlem’s beginnings. In 1825, according to her account, James McCoy and his father, Isaac, had property grants in Harlem and began a settlement. Years later, James McCoy wrote “I lost several log cabins in the flood of 1844, when the river reached from bluff to bluff, the worst flood in history.”
The outlaw Frank James was born in Harlem. In 1864, his brother Jesse stayed at the John Simms boarding house to recover from a bullet wound in his chest. Later, their mother would move Jesse to the home of Pastor John Wilson Mimms, whose wife Mary was the sister of Jesse’s father, Robert James. As Jesse recuperated at the Mimms home, he was cared for by his cousin, Zerelda Mimms. Zerelda ? called “Zee” by Jesse, would become his wife 10 years later.
The Annie Cade ferryboat, sole link to “City of Kansas” in early days of Harlem (from 1974 Discover North article)
Eldridge reported that Harlem citizens were feisty about liberty in 1861 when Missouri was considering joining the Confederacy. In that year, some Harlem residents published a notice in the Western Journal of Commerce stating: “If the citizens of Missouri secede from the Union, the citizens of Harlem will secede from Clay County. We have our own flag now and it is floating on the breeze!”
The Northern sympathies demonstrated in Harlem at a time when much of western Missouri tended to sympathize with the South add to the mystery of how Harlem got its name. Eldridge suspected that a resident who hailed from New York may have been responsible, but no one knows for sure.
Settlers kept building cabins and shacks in the low-lying Harlem and watched high water from the Missouri River drive them out repeatedly before 1908 when a railroad levee was built. By the turn of the century, around 500 settlers made Harlem their home. Birdie Cole Luther, who was born in Harlem, told Eldridge that Harlem “was a pretty place, with neat homes, flowers and lawns.”
Harlem Baptist Church, lone evidence of community life in the village near the north bank of the Missouri River (photo by Ken Weyand)
In 1869, the Hannibal Bridge at Harlem made the village an important trading center. Two railroads converged at Harlem, bringing passengers and freight to a depot located at the railroad intersection. The railroad bridge eventually would funnel traffic from several rail lines through Harlem and across the river to Westport and the fast-growing settlement called the City of Kansas.
Harlem would be a thriving little town before North Kansas City existed. Travelers would leave Harlem and follow a rock road that eventually took them to Avondale, the next town of any size. An early settler recalled that in the late 1800s the area that would become North Kansas City consisted mostly of a “bunch of willows about 15 feet tall.”
According to the Official Program of North Kansas City’s Golden Anniversary in 1962, the Annie Cade, a ferry named for the daughter of the boat’s captain, Al Cade, began operating from Harlem Harbor in 1879. The ferry usually landed at the foot of Main Street or Grand Avenue. But high water sometimes forced it to land at the foot of Broadway. This meant that ladies from north of the river using the ferry to visit the fancy shops downtown had to walk through the “red light district” to get there. The Annie Cade plied the Missouri River from Harlem until 1912, when the A.S.B. Bridge opened.
Early map of area north of Missouri shows Harlem ? before bridges were built. (from 1974 Discover North article)
Elmer Rosenbaugh, a Harlem native whose father owned the town’s livery stable, recalled Harlem’s early days. “When I was a boy, all the people going to Kansas City had to come through Harlem and go over to the city on the old Burlington Bridge or go across the river on the ferry boat. I rode the Annie Cade many times.”
“People would leave their teams of horses in Harlem and go on the ferry as passengers. The stable charged them a dime, or a nickel more if they wanted the horse to have hay. The ferry fare was a nickel.”
Besides the livery stable, Rosenbaugh remembered Harlem having a couple of hay barns, saloons, a post office, a school and a grocery building. He said many of the residents lived in modest houses, many on stilts because of the frequent high water. “When I was about three or so, the water came up and we moved across the river. The team backed up into the house to load and the water was about halfway up on the wheels. We wouldn’t leave for good; we always said the Burlington Railroad levee would protect you until you got out.”
When the Kansas City Municipal Airport opened in 1927, many travelers would drive through Harlem to get there. Later, airline pilots and overnight passengers would stay at a motor inn, located just beyond the railroad underpass in Harlem. The airlines left for the new Kansas City International Airport in the 1970s, and the motor inn eventually became an apartment facility.
Today, Harlem is an industrial area, bypassed by major bridges and highways. Only a few dilapidated houses and a church remain. Freight trains rolling through the area occasionally make driving through Harlem something of an adventure.
Ken Weyand can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org