When Kansas City Mayor Milton Payne took office in 1855 he face an immediate and formidable task: to make his city accessible by cutting streets south from the Missouri River through the looming bluffs along the riverbank.
He authorized almost an entire year's budget to cut back the edge of the bluff, improve and widen the levee, and pave a quarter mile section of it.
"Main street was open though at an exhorbitant angle. All along the whole levee the Bluggs showed... far above the tops of the highest buildings & 'Jimpsom' weeds, Dog fennel & old gnarled trees with three or four houses interspersed were all that were to be seen of Kansas City from the river." Theodore Case, spring 1857
Kansas City's First Public Works Project
Irish laborers only with picks and shovels accomplished much of the backbreaking work.
Workers carved 45 feet of rocky earth from the bluff along Walnut Street and used that earth to fill deep gullies elsewhere in the city.
In 1858 and 1859 newspaper ads in Eastern Newspapers sought additional Irish labor from Boston and New York, and finally, the first rough streets - Delaware, Walnut, Main, and Market - rudimentary as they were, cut through the bluffs.
The Main Street engineering feat was feature in Beyond Mississippi, by Albert D. Richardson, 1867.
By the 1870s machinery and blasting powder supplemented the sweat of manual labor and the city had its streets.
The towering riverfront bluffs, an obstruction to the city's founders, had finally been subdued, reduced, and civilized.
Photographs courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.