Kansas City underground: How to explore the hidden locations beneath our streets
There's a lot of history buried beneath Kansas City streets, from Prohibition-era passageways and underground caves to the oldest bar in Missouri.
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You’ve heard about the subterranean chamber beneath the land near Worlds of Fun, right?
No? Well, it’s called SubTropolis, is owned by Hunt Midwest — yes, the same Hunt family that owns the Kansas City Chiefs — and is “wide enough to hold 42 Arrowhead Stadiums.” There’s even a train track winding through the colossal complex, and many, many exit signs.
And though the world may not imagine Kansas City as big in the underground scene — our ever-expanding streetcar system still operates where the sun shines — the limestone around these parts was shaped by glaciers and rivers and makes for good mining. Which makes for a thriving underground business community, as unnerving as a giant hole in the side of a bluff may be.
These limestone caverns aren’t the only channels running under the city. Through the years, Kansas Citians have utilized a number of buried passageways for transportation, illegal (at the time) or otherwise. Let’s just call it tunnel vision.
Parkville Commercial Underground
Ever wonder what it’s like to work underground?
Back in 2018, The New York Times did a profile on Gene Peters, chief executive of Rosnet, a restaurant software company out of Parkville, Missouri. The Missouri River town is known for its charming main drag and castle-like college, Park University. Hogwarts, who?
Anyway, what’s weird is that Peters talks about working beneath Park University in a limestone cave. Like SubTropolis, the strangely sterile space is separated by humungous numbered pillars.
“Working underground is no big deal to me,” Peters says in the interview. “I get in my car in my garage at home and drive underground here, so it’s all temperature controlled. I don’t even need a coat in the winter.”
According to the Center for Land Use Interpretation, the space was once also a limestone mine. Makes sense, considering the natural limestone ledge bordering the river.
Visitors to the underworld will even find a whiskey distillery within the mined area, which stretches for more than 1 million square feet. Just don’t forget your pillar number.
J. Rieger & Co.
Now here’s a story that comes full circle.
In 1887, J. Rieger & Co. — distillers of top-notch whiskey, vodka and gin — put down roots in the Livestock Exchange district of West Bottoms. At the time, the distillery offered over a hundred products, which were distributed by mail order across the country.
However, when Prohibition was enacted in 1919 via the 18th Amendment, the alcohol purveyor shut its doors. The Rieger family went into banking and the West Bottoms distillery was paved over.
If you’ve been in the cheeky, sophisticated Campground bar, you’ve set foot where the original J. Rieger & Co. building stood. The Campground recently unearthed pieces of the distillery’s tile floor as they were renovating their own bar.
But that’s not all that was uncovered. The new iteration of J. Rieger & Co. — and what would become a tasting room, lounge, speakeasy and outdoor beer garden — began taking shape in 2014. And as the historic structure they’d purchased was being repaired, Andy Rieger and crew found an eight-foot high, 400-foot-long tunnel beneath it.
They believe it was once part of the historic Heim Brewery, whose East Bottoms bottling plant they’d been renovating.
The Heim family owned property all over Kansas City at the turn of the century, including breweries called Rochester and Imperial, as well as the one in East Bottoms. One of the Heim brothers helped build a theme park there called Electric Park, which in turn gave inspiration to J. Rieger & Co.’s outdoor area of the same name.
Though it’s more a part of Midtown than Downtown, the space once known as Dean’s Downtown Underground is definitely down there. And you can drive your car right into it.
Sprawling beneath 31st Street (and beyond) for more than two million square feet, the “nation’s first subterranean business park” was blasted into existence by prolific businessmen Lester Dean Sr. and Lester Dean Jr. We say “blasted” because in 1973, the duo expanded an existing mine on the property using — what else? — dynamite.
In a blog post by writer Libbie Bond, the Deans are described as “among the first in America to visualize abandoned mines as commercial real estate.”
These days, units are available for business leasing or to store items that would benefit from the particular climate control found underground. Turns out, cave living is naturally energy efficient.
9th & State
Over in West Bottoms (again), 9th & State operates out of an old Pabst Brewery building on a street once known as the Wettest Block in the World.
No, it doesn’t have to do with the disastrous flooding experienced there in 1903 and 1951. The block earned its name due to the number of saloons found between the Kansas-Missouri state line and Genessee Street at the turn of the century. Out of 25 buildings, a whopping 24 were saloons.
The brick structure 9th & State calls home is one of a few left standing since those raucous Paris of the Plains days. And while it might take up two stories above the ground, co-owner Heather Hamilton wonders if there are remnants of a tunnel leading out of the basement.
Beneath the bar, there’s a hollow place in the wall that looks to have been covered up. The bar stools are original and survived some of the flooding.
When Hamilton and partner Sean Smith purchased the property in 2021, they also found a locked safe and penny tile beneath green carpeting. There’s evidence the second story was a ballroom, complete with a stage, dumbwaiter and box office window.
With these historical details in mind, who’s to say there isn’t a tunnel beneath 9th & State that was used to ferry booze between Missouri and Kansas? History is a mystery.
8th Street Tunnel
We’ve written about the 8th Street Tunnel before, and who can blame us? Its existence serves as a reminder of Kansas City’s knack for innovative transportation — especially as new railways for the streetcar go down all along Main Street.
Back in the 1880s, after a year of toiling through the bluffs dividing Downtown from West Bottoms, “rapid transit pioneer” Robert Gillham and a team of workers managed to push the last underground bricks into place. The tunnel was complete, though steep, so a new one was built to weave through it at a lower grade.
But as Kansas Citians began to rely more on buses and their own vehicles in the 1940s and 1950s, the 8th Street tunnel ceased operations. In the 2000s, you could still take an official tour — and potentially find a way in for a D.I.Y. glimpse into the void — but a modern-day viewing is near-impossible.
Word is the tunnel sustained water damage, so time will tell if it sees the light of day. We hope so.
O'Malley's 1842 Pub
If you haven’t spent a day wandering the streets of Weston, Missouri, you’re missing out. Weston’s downtown district was established in 1837, so there’s a lot of history here.
Known for its hiking trails (with Missouri River views), wineries and the McCormick distillery, Weston is also home to O’Malley’s, the oldest bar in Missouri.
And though O’Malley’s looks normal from the outside, the inside tells another story. It was built by a German immigrant named John Georgian, who — instead of relying on those trusty limestone caves we’ve come to know and love — dug out his own brewery space beneath Weston.
The main brewing cellar, now outfitted with seating areas, a bar and raised stage, reaches 55 feet underground. You’ll have to climb down to get to it, led mysteriously by a sequence of ramps and labyrinthine walkways. The air is cool and the barroom massive — almost cathedral-like. The walls themselves are limestone, of course.
Make sure to come up for fresh air, as well as bangers and mash.
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