Friday, June 28, 2013

My Missouri: Union Station Kansas City

It seems like almost every big city has a Union Station. Have you ever wondered why that is?  I wish there was a more dramatic story behind this catchy name, but in reality all it is, is a commonly used name for any railroad station whose tracks, terminals and facilities are used by more than one railroad company. It's all about unity, people, unity.  Unity with a little bit of flare. All the the Union Stations that I have been in are fantastic historical landmarks. 

The Kansas City Union Station opened to the public in 1914, but like most of Kansas City history, the preface of the station has to do with the river, the Missouri River that is. The original rail station in the city was located in the West Bottoms area, which is a meeting place of the Missouri River and the Kansas River. This was prime location for industry and trade dating back before the Louisiana Purchase when French trappers actively traded with the Kansas Indians. All major industries, including the stockyards, which defines Kansas City, started and flourished in the West Bottoms and the easy access to the river and river transport.

But a river can also turn on the city.  In 1903 a devastating flood washed away most of the Bottoms including the railroad station.  In 1906 twelve railroad companies united to form the Kansas City Terminal and plans for a grand Union Station, at a new higher ground location were started. Three years and 6 million dollars later, the station was open to trains and the public and became a national railroad hub.

Many historical sites  have their own legends and fables, and our Union Station is no different. One of the most infamous days in the station's history is June 17, 1933 also known as the day of the Kansas City Massacre.  A team of FBI agents was transporting a convicted mobster, Frank Nash, back to the Leavenworth Penitentiary which he had escaped from in October of 1930.  He was caught (re-caught?) in Arkansas and put on a train to Kansas City along with an entourage of law enforcement. Additional FBI agents were to meet the train and drive Nash by car to Leavenworth. Upon exiting Union Station, Nash, the FBI agents and additional law enforcement officers walked right into an ambush orchestrated by Pretty Boy Floyd and other mobsters to free Nash. After the storm of bullets ended, Nash along with four officers were dead.  This bloody day led Congress to strengthen the FBI and agents  were armed from that time forth. 

There are marks on the outside walls of Union Station said to be bullet holes from that fateful day. In all reality and fact, these holes probably aren't from bullets, but they sure do add a sense to drama as you enter the station. 

Union Station, a heavy travelled station for most of the 20th century fell into disrepair and when Amtrak pulled their trains and services from Union Station in 1985, the station was for all purposes closed.  In the 1990's voters on both sides of the state line approved a tax to restore and reopen the station. Union Station restored in all it's glory was reopen in 1999 and Amtrak brought their trains back in 2002. A lot the station is now devoted to exhibits, shops and Science City, a science museum. 

The Grand Hall

I recently visited Union Station, not only to walk the halls like millions of travelers before, but also to see  Real Pirates, a National Geographic traveling exhibition. It tells the store of the Whydah, a slave ship that after being captured by Captain Sam Bellemy, was turned into a pirate ship. It only sailed  along the eastern coastline for 2 months under the pirate flag before it was sunk off the coast of Cape Cod due to a powerful storm. Only 2 survived (spoiler alert: they were captured and hanged), and the boat laid in a watery grave for 260 years until it was discovered by underwater explorer Barry Clifford in 1984. 

You can't take pictures inside the exhibit,  but picture it full of histories of the boat, the slave trade (the original purpose of the boat), Sam Bellemy, his crew and the generalities of the "Golden Age" of piracy. But the true stars of the exhibit are the artifacts from the actual ship; weapons (lots of guns and cannons), the bell (still immersed in salt water for preservation purposes) that rang the warnings of the dooming storm, the shoe (and leg bone) of the youngest crew member,  9 year old John King, and of course, a real live treasure chest filled with silver. There are also interactive stations aimed mainly at the younger folk and displays about underwater exploration, how they found the ship and how they remove and preserve all the artifacts. Tickets are a tad pricey, but I believe the exhibit is worth it,  as well as support of National Geographic and their work and mission.

Since I was already at Union Station, I had to go across the street and up the hill to the Liberty Memorial. The memorial was built to honor and remember those who fought, who were lost, and who survived World War I. Also located at the memorial is the National World War I Museum (an excellent museum).  The base of the Memorial provides my favorite view, not only of Union Station, but  of the Kansas City skyline.  

Trains! Pirates! Kansas City! Oh my. 

More Information and sources cited:
Union Station
Kansas City Massacre
Real Pirate Exhibition

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