Just a few months ago, Kansas City officially opened its new downtown streetcar line to the public. The 2.2 mile line was — and still is — steeped in criticism, controversy and praise, depending on who you talk to.
But look back 60 years ago, and you would see hundreds of miles of streetcar rails stretching across the Kansas City area. Before cars and buses, streetcars were a major part of everyday life.
And believe it or not, one of the biggest innovations in that transit system was a single tunnel that led from the industrial quarter of the city to downtown: the 8th Street Tunnel.
From cable cars to streetcars
In the late 1870s, a man named Robert Gillham came from New York City with a wild idea: He wanted to build a cable car line that could take workers down the 200 foot bluff into the industrial quarter, called the West Bottoms.
At the time, Kansas City was only the third city in America to attempt such a project.
The Ninth Street Incline, finished in 1885, was a truly spectacular feat of engineering. But it was also prone to cable breaks, sending passengers careening down the ramp.
After the 9th Street Incline, Gillham got an offer to help build a new line on 8th Street that would tunnel through the bluff to be truly continuous from downtown Kansas City, Missouri onto Kansas.
The tunnel took hundreds of workers nearly a year to complete, but by 1888, the fine brickwork was finished. But, cables still snapped due to the steep grade of the incline, so plans were made in 1903 to build a new tunnel through the original at a less intense grade.
Gillham died of pneumonia in 1899 at age 45, but his dream lived on to become an electric streetcar line that serviced thousands, if not millions, of passengers.
Shut off, but not entirely
From 1904 until 1956, the 8th Street Tunnel and Kansas City's streetcars saw plenty of ups and downs as business fluctuated due to the rise of cars and buses. Historian and former Kansas City Fire Department Captain Ray Elder remembers fondly riding through the tunnel with his aunt in the 1940s.
"She took me with her to go over and get her paycheck and stopped to see a friend in Kansas," Elder says. "One time, the lights went out. Boy, that tunnel was dark. You don't see any shadows — none whatsoever."
The tunnel was shuttered a year before Kansas City's streetcar lines met the same fate. And for roughly 40 years, it stayed dormant underground.
But developer DST Systems bought the land above the tunnel and rediscovered it in the mid '90s. Elder, who hadn't seen the inside of the tunnel in decades, got a chance to go back in thanks to a family connection to the company.
After talking with the State Street Bank on top of the tunnel and developer DST, Elder was allowed to run tours. He reckons he took more than 200 people through.
"I call it a hidden jewel of Kansas City," Elder says. "We were only going to stay 30 or 40 minutes at the most and we stayed two and a half hours. And word just kind of spread little bit by bit over time. I think I've been in the tunnel between 50 and 75 times since 2004."
And since that time, Elder has collected articles, photographs and all sorts of records on the tunnel (as well as a few mementos from inside the tunnel stashed away in his personal collection). In many ways, he's the authority on its history.
While Elder's tours were officially sanctioned by developers, it was also quite easy for people to just find their own way into the tunnel in the '90s and early 2000s.
One of those people was artist and filmmaker Jamie Burkart. In 2006, he hosted a film screening inside the 8th Street Tunnel after leading participants on a scavenger hunt of sorts through downtown Kansas City.
Jamie set up a projector that showed three films: a fellow artist's call to action for more artistic and shared spaces, the classic "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and an old streetcar training video from World War II.
Burkart says, ideally, he wants to see the tunnel to be opened up to the public.
"Really, there should be school field trips to this tunnel," Burkart says. "It's such an important part of our heritage and it's important for young people to have this vision for what Kansas City can be."
Urban explorers took a shine to the tunnel after it was rediscovered as well. Urban explorer Jaclyn Danger (not her real name) says the tunnel is one of the only significant underground places in Kansas City.
"There's not too much in the underground culture here," Danger says. "A lot of the other tunnel systems that did exist for mail running or beer running have all been filled in. Now most of the tunnel systems are fiber lines."
You can still find posts online from folks wondering how they can get a glimpse of the tunnel. But even Elder, who once had full access, hasn't been in the tunnel for quite some time. He says he was told that the tunnel's condition is too risky and too much of a liability.
So, can you still get in?
Developer DST Systems still does run some tours through the tunnel, but very rarely. Even yours truly couldn't get in, and PR representatives declined to comment for this story. But KCUR's Laura Spencer managed to snag a tour back in June.
She says the tunnel is showing signs of molding due to water seepage.
"Because it is this wet, enclosed area, it could potentially fall in at some point," Spencer says. "I think that's why it's not open to the public, that's why it's available only for occasional tours."
But inside, you can still see both the original brickwork and the newer concrete tunnel built through it. For Burkart, Elder and many more, it's still an important reminder of Kansas City's history and the dozens of miles of rail that used to web throughout the metro.
Cody Newill is digital editor for KCUR 89.3 and co-host of Question Quest. You can reach him on Twitter @CodyNewill.