As we continue our long-term exploration of lines that unite and divide our metro, a project we call Beyond our Borders, we’re turning an eye to the border between Wyandotte and Johnson Counties in Kansas.
Long noted for their differences (and rivalry), Wyandotte was at one time, at least in part, Johnson County.
The making of a state
In 1855, the legislature of the Kansas Territory divided up the aspiring state into counties in preparation for statehood. Original counties include the familiar Leavenworth and Johnson — but Wyandotte County was not among them.
Leavenworth County extended all the way east to the Missouri River and the northern boundary of Johnson County was the Kansas River. Both counties lost territory when Wyandotte was created in January, 1859. At the time, stakeholders in both counties opposed the move. Here’s how it was described in the Leavenworth Weekly Times:
“The Leavenworth members (save Roberts and Wright) did their best to prevent the division. I have only to say that your delegates, especially McDowell, Clark and Marsh were active every way; and that they were backed by representatives from Johnson. Lockhart fought like a lion,” a Weekly Times reporter wrote.
The need for another county
Few details are given on the creation of Wyandotte county in newspapers or historical records.
Historian James Shortridge, author of Kansas City and How it Grew, believes promoters were interested in establishing a new political unit — Wyandotte County — because of the growth in population and industry along the Kansas river.
“The Kansas River now united rather than divided the businesses that would become Kansas City, Kansas,” Shortridge writes.
Politics at play
Linn Frederickson of the Kansas State Historical Society says there was a meeting on limiting the size of counties in July, 1859. Records show lawmakers felt that no resident should have to travel more than 20 miles to their county seat. When Wyandotte County was formed six months earlier, she speculates legislators might have been concerned with the size of Leavenworth and Johnson County, and decided later to formally put the rule in the books.
Also, in Wyandotte County’s infancy we see early signs of the partisan politics that would become key to its political identity in Kansas — particularly in relation to Johnson County. The fourth and final convention to ratify a Kansas state constitution was held in the city of Wyandotte. The two delegates from Wyandotte were refused entry according to History of Wyandotte, Kansas and its people.
“It was a Republican convention and the two Wyandotte doctors were Democrats. A duel almost resulted from the refusal of the convention to recognize the Wyandotte county delegates,” wrote Perl Morgan, editor of the book.
Early differences as counties develop
Around the turn of the century, shifts in commerce and demographics shaped the early profiles of Johnson and Wyandotte County.
In Kansas City, Kan., the slaughterhouse district flourished along the river bluffs. The main roads into town went through those districts so their distinct smell became associated with Wyandotte County, says Shortridge.
In 1893, packinghouse workers went on strike, and owners sent recruiters to Eastern Europe to find workers eager to escape the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The railroads headed south to recruit Mexican workers. By the turn of the century, Wyandotte County was shaping up to be a blue collar neighborhood with a large immigrant population.
In 1903, a big flood forced everyone out of the cheap housing along the river bottoms and they migrated to the surrounding bluffs, creating neighborhoods like Strawberry Hill.
Just to the south, Johnson County was predominantly farmland and small towns until J.C. Nichols developed Mission Hills as a suburb in Kansas City, Mo., in the early 1900s. To the east the land was already built up, so as the development grew, it spilled out onto cheap Kansas land. That is why Johnson County’s street numbers are aligned with Kansas City, Mo., and not Kansas City, Kan.
Mission Hills’ success inspired other developers. It’s thought that William B. Strang saw the devastation the 1903 flood had on working class neighborhoods and decided to develop a upland suburb. He built the Strang Line, an electric railroad that spurred the development of small towns that would later become Mission and Roeland Park. Strang bought up more land further south and developed Overland Park — the word “overland” indicated the area was flood-free. White, middle-class families flocked to the suburbs of Johnson County consistently from post-WWII onward.
By WWII, the characteristics that many associate with Wyandotte and Johnson counties were in place. Johnson County was primarily white, middle-class families who moved away from the industrial and urban Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo. Wyandotte was diverse, working-class and a first stop for immigrants and their families.
This look at the two sides of the Wyandotte County/Johnson County line is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.
We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them. Become a source for KCUR as we investigate Johnson and Wyandotte Counties.