Alleys & Ruins #100, Ghost Story (2007, West Bottoms, Kansas City, MO, 1:30am)
Alleys & Ruins no. 100, Ghost Story (2007, West Bottoms, Kansas City, MO, 1:30am)
Kansas City's run down West Bottoms district is a mecca of haunted houses. The city has a long history of sightings, turn-of-the-century haunted hotels, long-suffering ghosts, and other paranormal incidents - it’s been local folklore for a century. This colorful past has paved the way for the current crop of haunted houses.
For a fee, you enter an old abandoned building in the old warehouse district and actors dressed up as goblins will chase you down a hall. Among your many choices are “The Edge of Hell,” or “The Beast,” or the “Catacombs.”
These places run in the Fall before and after Halloween - just when I was there. They pipe out loud sounds of people screaming or moaning in pain; monsters or ghosts growling, and other sound effects that can be heard throughout the night in the barren run-down streets of this district.
There was a lot of humor in what was going on, and it was strangely appropriate background sound for my night of scouting and shooting. But as the night progressed, and as I became absorbed in my work, studying one dark corner after another, my skin began to crawl. I decided to let it crawl, and I let it crawl into my work until I finally left - a little more pale than when I arrived, but with an image I was happy with.
The West Bottoms is a land that time forgot. If you ever make your way to Kansas city (and I highly recommend visiting this beautiful city), you have to see the West Bottoms. It is an incredible collection of century old buildings, mostly dusty and neglected. You just feel like you're in a different time. This is one of my favorite places to shoot in the country: its old, run down, has a crap load of character and is relatively safe compared to many other places I've shot in. And it never seems to move on from its decrepitude! And there's a reason for that. It’s a major flood zone.
The valley where the Kansas and Missouri rivers meet has always been a flood zone, even before the area was settled. As the railroads, stockyards, and other industries arrived after the Civil War, their gradual encroachment on the river banks started shrinking the mouth of the Kaw River. By 1903, the width had diminished nearly by half.
The Kansas River breached its banks on May 30, 1903, and reached a height of 14 feet on the streets. By the time the waters subsided and the destruction could be surveyed, 19 lives had been lost, over 23,000 people had lost their homes, 16 of the 17 bridges nearby were destroyed, and all utilities were out of service. Unimaginable damage had been done.
In the wake of this flood, the city announced the urgent need for a flood control plan.
Widening of the river banks was finally agreed upon, but other improvements continued to be delayed. Major proposals were put forth over the years but none were fully acted upon. And yet regular, smaller floods continued to damage the west bottoms.
In 1944, a federal government proposal was approved by Congress. The proposal, which called for 112 dams, hundreds of miles of levees, and other flood protection structures, would take years to complete, but it was the most ambitious and promising plan yet to control the rivers in the Missouri River basin.
It was while this project was slowly being implemented that the disastrous 1951 flood struck the West Bottoms. The Central Industrial District was ravaged. Businesses were completely submerged, and many including the stockyards never fully recovered.
When it was founded in 1871, the West Bottoms quickly became the center of many of Kansas City's industries. Even though the area experienced frequent flooding from the surrounding rivers, it still managed to stay active for 80 years.
But this final 1951 flood was just too much. The downfall of the West Bottoms came quickly. Cities across eastern Kansas and Missouri were wiped out as flood waters flowed east towards St. Louis.
Since the West Bottoms sits directly on both the Kansas and Missouri rivers, it was hit the hardest. Flood waters put nearly two million acres of land underwater, ruining virtually all the businesses in the area.
CBS radio broadcaster Jim Burke described the devastation. "To those of you who have never witnessed a flood and the resultant effects, let me tell you, it's a sickening sight," Burke reported.
So the city packed its bags and moved up the hill to flourish where it is today.
The Great Flood of 1951 shut down the West Bottoms for the next 40 years. Most of the buildings remained derelict until the early 1990s.
Ironically, one of the big turning points for the West Bottoms was the haunted houses! The vacant, creepy vibe of the West Bottoms seemed like the perfect fit.
Eventually, people started seeing the area for its distinct character. The urban grit of the West Bottoms was a big factor in bringing people back. Successful businesses have started to bring in festivals and the arts as well. And now the old, warehouse buildings are being redone. Today you'll find a number of restaurants, urban wineries, antique stores, microbreweries and coffee shops.
Despite these successes, there are still areas of the Bottoms that are struggling. It could take many more years, but as someone who has explored the area a half dozen times, I can tell you it’s one of the city's treasures.
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