Sunday, March 23, 2014

Whistle stop at Grand Avenue

Storage buildings and propane tanks occupy the former site of the Grand Avenue Station .

Before there was a Union Station there was a ravine and a stream called OK Creek and tracks belonging to the Kansas City Belt Railway. Trains of three railroads – the Rock Island, the Milwaukee Road and the Santa Fe – ran on those tracks and stopped at a lovely four-story brick depot with a graceful roof topped by a wooden cupola at the edge of Grand Avenue. Or rather, just below and just east of the Grand Avenue Viaduct.

The station, designed by John Wellborn Root (then an associate of architect Daniel Burnham in Chicago) and built in 1889, served as a convenient alternative to the Union Depot in the West Bottoms, two miles away at the end of a steep cable car ride. On Grand, you could pull right up to the viaduct-level entrance and either descend the double staircase or ride the gasoline-powered passenger elevator down to the waiting room on track level. Outside, up a terraced slope rising to 23rd Street, a bed of red and yellow flowers spelled out Grand Avenue Station.

The station sat between the Grand and McGee viaducts. Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
Each day about twenty trains pulled in and out of the Grand Avenue Station. On March 23, 1910, one of them – officially a Santa Fe train – consisted of two guys on a gas-powered handcar following an old man, who was walking along the tracks. The old guy had departed Los Angeles on February 1, hoping to arrive in New York City in ninety days. On foot. He was ahead of schedule.

*     *     *

The old man was Edward Payson Weston, and he'd done this sort of thing many times. Long-distance walking had become a competitive thing, often followed in newspaper sports pages, and Weston had been a pioneering pedestrian. A year earlier, at age 71, Weston had walked through Kansas City going the opposite direction, trying to get to San Francisco from New York in 100 days. Plagued by bad weather, he fell short by five days.

Out west, where auto roads were scarce, railroads provided the most direct routes and Weston made use of them. A year before, on Union Pacific tracks. This time he had planned to walk the Santa Fe to Chicago, then other roads east. The railroad gave special permission (dispatchers kept tabs on his progress) and took advantage of the coast-to-coast press coverage, placing ads in newspapers along the route that suggested Weston chose the Santa Fe tracks for their comfort:

Weston was averaging 3.5 miles per hour, more than forty miles a day in mostly good weather, through deserts, mountains, plains and small towns where huge crowds came out to meet him and walk with him awhile. He slept six hours a night, either in Fred Harvey hotels or in farmhouses. He ate only breakfast, usually eggs, and rested Sundays. When he needed water, he signaled the trailing handcar with a small green flag he carried. Occasionally he stumbled and fell, scraping knees and elbows, and once near Lawrence he collapsed in unseasonal heat. But he kept going. A week before Kansas City he had celebrated his 72nd birthday by doing 72 miles through western Kansas.

 Weston hiked into Kansas City after spending the night near DeSoto, Kansas, reaching the platform of the Grand Avenue Station just before 2 p.m. as locomotives blew their steam whistles and thousands cheered. Santa Fe officials escorted him to a private home nearby to rest a couple of hours.

One thing local reporters wanted to know: Would Weston be visiting his wife and daughter while in Kansas City? As it happened, his daughter and son-in-law lived here, and his wife was staying with them in their home on Highland Avenue.

"My father is eccentric in his ways," the daughter had told the Post. "My mother is an old woman and when my father started out on his long walk she didn't want to remain at home alone."

For his part, Weston had previously told reporters that he was not married. Here, he was asked whether he had heard his "former wife" was in town.

"That is a subject which is taboo with me," he said. "I never discuss it. There is a skeleton in everybody's closet, you know."

After his two-hour nap in the private home, Weston resumed his journey. He stopped for the night at a farmhouse about seventeen miles east of Kansas City.

*     *     *

Forty days later, on May 2, 1910, Weston walked up the steps of city hall in New York, twelve days ahead of schedule. In later years he continued to walk long distances, and he lived to be 90, though he was in a wheel chair his final two years after being struck by a taxi in the streets of New York.

Grand Avenue Station lived to be 70. Perhaps its most memorable day came two years after Weston walked by, when the station was moved to make room for a new viaduct. Jacked up and resting on trucks, it was dragged half a block east by a single team of horses turning a winch. Its days as a train depot ended when Union Station opened in 1914, and it lived out its time primarily as a warehouse for various industries. 

In 1912 the station was moved nearer the McGee Street Viaduct.

"Intermittently, the station, blackened from soot of old coal-burner locomotives, had stood vacant, grass growing from its copper gutters, a home for countless pigeons, its windows targets for boys while adults cast verbal stones at its continued existence – a landmark, yet an eyesore," said a 1959 article in the Star.

That year, it was demolished for – you guessed it – a parking lot.

Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library

*     *     *