You've probably never heard of him, but if it weren’t for the work of Octave Chanute, those shiny streetcars might be climbing the hills of Saint Joseph, Missouri, not Kansas City. Instead of celebrating the Royals’ World Series win, we could be cheering on the Leavenworth Lions.
But in a single master stroke, Chanute’s Hannibal Bridge, completed in 1869, allowed cattle, and all sorts of other freight, to cross back and forth from Clay and Jackson counties in record time.
“You had to unload your train, ferry everything across, reload it,” said historian Bill Nicks, on a recent episode of KCUR’s Up To Date.
Nicks, who used to direct the Lenexa Department of Parks and Recreation, spends some of his time reenacting Chanute and has become something of an expert.
“It was the piece of infrastructure that made Kansas City the dominant city in the Missouri Valley,” said Nicks. Not only did the Hannibal Bridge dramatically cut transit time over the Mighty Mo, it bypassed the Kansas River as well, eliminating the need for a second bridge. With Leavenworth and Saint Joseph out of the loop, Kansas City was on the map.
Chanute’s planning acumen also helped calm the chaos of the Kansas City rail yards. “The seven railroads were bringing cattle in and selling and shipping,” said Nicks. You can imagine the bottleneck.
Instead, Chanute “provided 500 feet of platform for each of the trains to load and unload," and he introduced the Fairbanks scales, which were capable of weighing huge loads of cargo at once.
His ingenuity extended out like ribbons from the rail yards, too. By driving innovation into the preservation of wood, processes were developed using creosote and other chemicals to make railroad ties stronger, more stable and more durable.
“You could go faster with your trains, you could load them heavier, you could load them to their capacity,” said Nicks. Rail companies loved that because it cut shipping and maintenance costs dramatically.
Spending so much time suspended over rivers and valleys got Chanute curious about flight, and he took his ideas about bridge-building, and applied them to designing airplanes. His bridge trusses morphed into wing stabilizers on early triplanes and biplanes.
Chanute liberally spread his research into aviation, a practice the Wright Brothers benefited from. While Chanute missed their inaugural flight at Kitty Hawk by a few weeks, he was one of the first people informed of their success. Katharine, the sister who was instrumental in the Wright's success, telegraphed Chanute the same night Orville and Wilbur were finally successful.
"He was very important to them," said Nicks.
Despite his enormous impact on Kansas City, Octave Chanute remains a sleeper celebrity. With no street in town, no park or room at city hall named after him, things might just stay that way for the foreseeable future.
Luke X. Martin is associate producer for Up To Date. You can find him on Twitter, @LukeXMartin.