Kansas City's 8th Street Tunnel

When Robert Gillham, D.M. Edgerton and Millson McCormick punched Kansas City's 8th Street Tunnel through the city's West bluffs there were already a few ways up and out of the West Bottoms via street cars.  One was a route twisting around the bluff to City Market and then south into Downtown.  It was powered by horses and mules.  Two others were cable cars on 12th Street and on 9th street.  Both were very steep routes.  12th Street was at a 20% grade and 9th Street was at an 18% grade.  That 9th Street incline was wide open and scary. 

The 8th street tunnel was built in 1888 and went through the West Bluffs at an 8.8% grade, a much gentler slope.  It opened with cable cars in April of 1888 and was switched to electric cars in the summer of 1892.  It surfaced at the top of the bluff at 8th and Washington Street.  It was part of a straight shot that stretched from downtown, west through the tunnel, down to the Union Train depot, across the West Bottoms and over to Kansas City Kansas.  Kansas City had 314 miles of streetcars at its peak.  In 1904 the tunnel was redug at an even gentler slope going from 8.8% to 5.5%.  And it was extended east two blocks to 8th and Broadway.

The original tunnel is 810 ft long, 28 ft wide and 21 feet tall.  It cost $500,000.00 to dig and equip.  It took 250,000 lbs. of dynamite to tunnel through the bluffs.  It opened in 1888 and served KC until 1956.  The powerhouse for moving the cable, the cars and the people was located at the bottom of the tunnel on 8th street. 

By the end of the 1880s cable cars were in 50 American cities.   Their use peaked in 1889 to be replaced by electricity.  The 8th Street tunnel switched to electricity in 1892.  Why electricity?  It was much more efficient.  With cables, 60% of the energy was used to merely move the cable.  The tunnel’s cable was 1.5 inches in diameter and weighed 37,000 lbs.  25% was used to move the cars and only 15% of the energy was used to move the people.  Just as cable cars had replaced horse and mule drawn street cars, electricity replaced cable cars.

At the beginning of the tunnel use, only one car was allowed in the tunnel at a time.  The fear was that a car would lose traction on the 8.8% grade and its brakes would fail and an accident would result.  That is why, in 1904, the new 5.5% grade tunnel was dug.  Today, you can still walk in the old tunnel actually walking on top of the new tunnel’s roof.  You can see the brick work, the original old wiring, old light bulbs, the concrete supports that supported the double tracks and safety recesses for workers to duck into when a street car passed.

The tunnel operated from 1888 to 1956…………68 years.  It was temporarily closed in 1923 because the elevated tracks, at the west end, were deemed unstable and dangerous.  BUT too many people and businesses complained about the closure, so the elevated tracks were repaired and it reopened in 1928.  A grand re-opening celebration was held at the Hotel Muehlebach in KC's downtown.

The tunnel closed for good in 1956.  April 29.  It fell victim to the automobile.  1888-1956, nearly 70 years.  But what a closing day it was.

Free rides from noon-6:00.
3078 people rode free that day.
So many people rode that although the cars had 51 seats, many cars that day carried 100 passengers at a time.
The cars were supposed to run every 15 minutes but that was increased to every 6 minutes once the crowd arrived.
The last car through the tunnel had two dignitaries among its riders;  Elizabeth Walker was the little girl who in 1892, pushed the button that electrified the Streetcar line, and
JH Kerby, a 90 year old retired banker from Clay Center KS rode the last car also.  As a young 22 year old, he had driven his horse and wagon out of the tunnel with the 1st load of excavated dirt.  1st and last load.  He quit that $4.00 a day job because he felt it was too dangerous.


A few human interest stories go with the tunnel;

Yes, mushrooms were raised in it as a commercial venture.  The two mushroom stories are;
1. They were grown from 1923-28 while the elevated tracks at the west end were repaired.
2. They were grown in the abandoned part of the original tunnel.  But that story ends with the mushrooms being discontinued because of the smell of fertilizer.  Probably manure brought up from the stockyards.

2.       In 1960 the tunnel was designated as a fallout shelter.  Capacity was set at 640 people.  It could hold more but the ventilation was too poor.

3.       During the summers the street car operators would slow down so the riders could cool off.

4.       The tunnel was depicted in the Sept. 1888 Harper’s Weekly Magazine, as was the scary 9th street incline and Kansas City’s first Skyscraper, The 10 story NY Life Building, at 9th and Baltimore.

5.       A few accidents occurred in the tunnel when motorist tried to use it as a roadway.  Good luck driving on that elevated trestle when you get to the West end.

6.       And on April 5, 1899 an attorney named George Fearona was struck and killed by an electric streetcar while he was walking in the tunnel.  He was found by the operator of a different street car.

So it opened in 1888. Closed in 1956.  It was redug at a lesser grade in 1904.  It was switched from cable cars to electric street cars in 1892.  And it was 810 feet long, 28 feet wide and 21 feet high.  And its still under our Kansas City feet.

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