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Each week, KCUR's Creative Adventure newsletter brings you a new way to explore the Kansas City region.

Ghost towns are all around Kansas City, if you know where to look

Shoal Creek Living History Museum
Libby Hanssen
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If you want to experience that ghost town vibe without leaving the metro, visit Shoal Creek Living History Museum in Northland’s Hodge Park.

Not all ghost towns are empty shells. From historic buildings to street names, you can still find remnants of dozens of ghost towns located across the Kansas City metro and just beyond its borders.

This story was first published in KCUR's Creative Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.

If you’re thinking of rows of abandoned clapboard storefronts, proliferate weeds, and wilting residences along a pock-marked dirt road, the term “ghost town” may seem a little misleading.

Around the Kansas City metro region, you can journey through the shadows of a former town without even realizing it. Some were gobbled up by urban expansion. Others dwindled when fortunes turned. Some are just a short turn off the main road, while others have reverted back to the lands on which they were built.

Not necessarily all ghost towns are empty shells. Generally, the term ghost (or dead or extinct) town is a place that was once thriving but has since changed in some essential elements: the population decreased, the town annexed, buildings destroyed through fire, flood, blight or eminent domain. Some places that qualify as ghost towns may have 100 residents or more.

According to the website Ghost Towns of America, there are 21 ghost towns in Missouri (10 of which are within 25 miles of Kansas City) and 308 in Kansas (20 within 25 miles of Lawrence).

However, research by Daniel Fitzgerald of the Kansas Historical Society includes over 6,000 “dead towns” in Kansas. In “Ghost Towns of Kansas,” published as a traveler’s guide in two volumes in 1988 and 1994, he estimated that if each of these communities had survived, you couldn’t travel 12 miles through Kansas without coming to a town — a much different reality than the clear skies and open spaces experienced in most of Kansas today.

Though perhaps only remnants and scattered memories remain, we’ve selected a handful of nearby ghost towns whose heritages inspire curiosity.

Shifting currents

Site of old Quindaro ruins
Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
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The ruins of the Old Quindaro townsite and cemetery sit high on a bluff overlooking the Kansas River.

Founded in 1856 by abolitionists from the East Coast, free Black people, and members of the Wyandot tribe, Quindaro is perhaps the most quintessential of the Kansas City region’s vanished towns. It was a ferry boat crossing and a stop on the Underground Railroad, but the town didn’t last long, diminishing even before the Civil War.

The neighborhood is still called Quindaro. There’s an overlook and audio tour of the area, with restricted access to the ruins (where townsite foundations still remain) and the old cemetery, sitting high on a bluff overlooking the Kansas River.

The area was also the home of Western University, which was founded in 1857 as the first HBCU west of the Mississippi River and closed in 1943.

Nearby, the Quindaro Underground Railroad Museum is in the Vernon Multipurpose Center, a former elementary school designated a Kansas State Historical Site in 2004. KCUR's Luke X. Martin reported on Quindaro’s role in helping enslaved people escape to freedom, and the dream of turning the National Commemorative Site into a historic tourist attraction.

Just across the river from downtown Kansas City, tucked under the Hannibal Bridge, is the hamlet of Harlem, one of the earliest settlements in the area. Northland News reported that in 1913, the oldest living resident said about the town: “Harlem was Harlem when Kansas City was Westport landing.”

The little ferry port was there in 1822, but after a devastating flood in 1951 and decades of industrialization, only a few homes and businesses exist today.

KCUR explored the town of Harlem in a story from 2015. Sadly, the 115-year-old Harlem Baptist Church, the last relic of the community, was severely damaged by fire in 2021.

Remnants

Marlborough.jpeg
"Jackson County, Missouri: It's Opportunities and Resources."
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Courtesy: LaBudde Special Collections
Marlborough, while never an incorporated town, began in the early 1900s and was lauded as a bustling growth community by the 1920s. Its main street (now The Paseo) is shown here in this photo from 1926.

Little remains of some communities, but the clues are there in the names of streets, parks, and sometimes a handful of protected (or just lucky) historic buildings.

Steptoe was a town south of Westport, founded in the 1850s. First inhabited by enslaved and free Black people, today it’s part of the African American Heritage Trail. In 1933, Steptoe Street was renamed W. 43rd Terrace. St. James Baptist Church, which was founded in 1883 with the current building erected in 1939, is still there and listed on the Kansas City Register of Historic Places.

A few historic homes remain, though the neighborhood is squeezed between the ever-expanding St. Luke’s Hospital and the nightlife of Westport. The sidewalk tiles spelling “Steptoe” that once signified the town’s borders are no longer there.

The neighboring towns of Dodson and Marlborough were once just south of the city limits but were absorbed in the 1940s. Founded in 1888, Dodson’s history is explained in an article for the Martin City Telegraph by local historian Diane Huston. Three buildings remain (built circa 1912) at 85th and Prospect Avenue, the hub of the business area.

Marlborough, while never an incorporated town, began in the early 1900s and was lauded as a bustling growth community by the 1920s. Its main street (now The Paseo) is still home to buildings from that boom time, though many are vacant. The Marlborough Community Coalition is working to restore the area’s vibrancy.

A few historic markers around the area offer insight into the unique communities that dotted the region. North of the river, a marker near Barry School commemorates the Town of Barry, founded in 1829.

Linden, founded in the 1880s, became Gladstone in 1952. The original public park of Linden is now known as Central Park and remains a focal point of the community.

Eminent domain

Freedom Rings
Libby Hanssen
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Near the Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum and old townsite, artist Stephen Johnson created the art installation Freedom Rings, with large golden circles representing the 10 lost communities of the Wakarusa River Valley.

Progress opened up possibilities for some and spelled doom for others. The river first invited settlement, with river trade and ferry ports, but flooding made those communities vulnerable. Trails, bridges, railroads, automobiles and air travel changed the way we navigated our spaces.

The town of Hampton was a farming community in Clay County, one of several smaller settlements and farms annexed by the Kansas City International Airport. Amongst the fields, all that remains is the road name and cemetery. But from those relics sprang the Heart Forest, a project from the mid-1990s, a symbol of Kansas City still observable today from the air.

People have literally changed the course of the river, the lay of the land and our relationship to our surroundings. A collection of small towns south of Lawrence, Kansas, were ousted when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created Clinton Lake.

The Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum shares these histories near the old townsite of Bloomington, founded by abolitionists in 1854. Most of the town’s land is underwater but is commemorated as Bloomington Beach, now the site of summer fun.

The museum is open from May through October. This season, the featured exhibit is “Remembering Richland,” with collected images, artifacts and stories from those who grew up in the area. Near the museum and old townsite, artist Stephen Johnson created the art installation Freedom Rings, with large golden circles representing those 10 communities.

Historic sites

Virginia School House
Libby Hanssen
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The Virginia School House is a relic of the Monticello community that once thrived in northern Johnson County. Now it's one of several stops featured in Monticello Community Historical Society's self-guided tour.

Oftentimes, the only sites left of a community are a school, a church or a cemetery.

The Monticello Community Historical Society in Shawnee, Kansas, represents a handful of communities that once thrived in the northern reaches of Johnson County: Monticello, Wilder, Clare, Holliday, Chouteau Station and Zarah.

The museum is housed in a former fire station (open to visitors by appointment) and the historical society has put together a driving/biking tour of these locales, linking the townsites and remaining historic buildings and sites. This self-guided tour takes about 90 minutes by car, the route crisscrossing railroad tracks as it leads you through rural scenes, suburban subdivisions and industrial parks, demonstrating how separate and self-reliant these communities were back in the horse-and-buggy days.

Lecompton, Kansas, is near Lawrence along the Kansas River. Originally called Bald Eagle because of the many eagles along the waterway, it was appointed the territorial capitol of Kansas, and later the county seat. But when it lost the seat to Lawrence, the population sharply declined. Historically, losing a political seat or a bid for the railroad was often the start of a town’s decline.

Admittedly, it's a bit of a stretch to call Lecompton — which still has approximately 700 residents — a “ghost town." There’s a short stretch of shops in the middle of the residential area, as well as a collection of historic buildings, including Constitutional Hall. Built in 1856, it's the oldest wooden building in Kansas.

The town hosts two museums dedicated to Lecompton’s role in Kansas and Civil War history and has historic markers designating significant sites, with the tour narrated by Lecompton students.

If you want to experience that ghost town vibe without leaving the metro, visit Shoal Creek Living History Museum in Northland’s Hodge Park during the weekdays, when the buildings are closed and the grounds are deserted. Established in 1975, the replicated town is a collection of historic buildings from around the area dating back to the 1800s, which have been moved and refurbished in period detail.

The park, open from dusk to dawn, is free to visit except during special events when reenactors stage scenes from the early days of Clay County. The only permanent residents here are a small herd of bison in their pasture.

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