How the Irish Laid the Groundwork for Downtown Kansas City

Though Kansas City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade moved out of downtown several years ago, the historical imprint the Irish have left on our metropolitan landscape will never fade.

In fact, without Irish immigrants, our city’s skyline would look drastically different. In commemoration of St. Paddy’s, learn about Kansas City’s real Irish history.

Cliffs over Walnut Street? It was truly a different time. Some of the oldest photographs in the Missouri Valley Special Collections show a rough, original landscape that would have presented a navigational challenge to the festive floats that parade in the streets of on this day every year.

In the mid-1800s settlement and transportation in the area we now know as downtown was hampered by a forbidding topography of limestone bluffs. And while KC’s Irish immigrants indeed brought the levity associated with St. Patrick’s Day, history shows that they also brought the knowledge and labor necessary for the construction of a major industrial city – right when it was most needed.

Looking north along Delaware between cut-through bluffs toward Missouri River.

During this period, the towns of Westport and Independence thrived as primary points of departure for travelers on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails, as well as centers of commerce for fur trappers and Native Americans. The invention of the steamboat made it possible to ship people and goods up the Missouri River to these towns, which previously could only be reached by arduous overland travel. A convenient natural stone wharf on which to unload a steamer was soon discovered near where the Kaw River flows into the Missouri. However, the difficulty with this “shortcut” was that the journey from the river’s edge to Westport was straight up a rocky incline several hundred feet high.

Early view showing Delaware and 3rd Streets with a house perched on top.

A small settlement known as Westport Landing sprouted up around the wharf, but in order for its growth to continue, something had to be done about the roads leading inland. Father Bernard Donnelly, one of the area’s first Catholic priests, was experienced in both civil engineering and the stone-cutting trade. Born in the Northern Irish town of Kilnacreeva in County Cavan, Father Donnelly had acquired an education and worked at various capacities in the British shipyards of Liverpool before being called to the priesthood.

Early view looking west at 4th and Grand; shows workmen grading the bluffs.

Donnelly soon saw that his knowledge of quarrying and brick-making would be as useful to his parish as his theological training. To attract the manpower necessary for the task of cutting roads of a reasonable grade into the bluffs at the river’s edge, he advertised for laborers in newspapers and magazines popular among Irish immigrants in the eastern United States. In addition, Donnelly assisted some 300 workers from the northwest Irish province of Connaught in settling an area of boarding houses near 6th and Broadway, which became known as “Connaught-town.”

Early view of riverfront area with levee at the foot of Walnut Street.

These individuals made their living doing the backbreaking work of digging with picks, drills and other tools through the thick stone of the bluffs. When the cutting was complete on the roads (which sometimes more closely resembled canyons), Donnelly led the manufacture and laying of brick paving stones. Another Irishman, Edmond O’Flaherty, was in 1857 appointed to the position of City Engineer, only the third in the history of Kansas City, and shares credit with Donnelly for leading these early grading and paving projects.

Father Donnelly also saw to the housing needs, education, and spiritual well-being of the Irish he attracted to Kansas City, establishing some of its earliest schools and orphanages. He advocated temperance, a movement he had joined before ever traveling to the United States.

Unidentified man near bluffs along Main between 2nd and 3rd.

In later years, when the humble settlement on the riverbank had become a proud city, Father Donnelly was instrumental in gaining positions for many Irish Americans who had arrived as laborers and developed into tradesmen and contractors.

Many descendants of these immigrants now celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Kansas City each year by parading down the gentle grade of the very streets created by their predecessors.

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