Days 97-99/ June 3rd-5th – North Kansas City, MO: Riverboat gambling

One of the dubious advantages of crossing America on foot is that we see the honest, unvarnished outskirts of the cities that we pass through as well as the polished glamour of downtown.  And the eastern edge of Kansas City was about as honest and unvarnished as it gets, a wasteland of liquor stores and body shops, patrolled by frost-scarred cars with doors held on with duct tape.  The 24-hour laundromat was closed, which one would have thought a theoretical impossibility.  There was a forlorn, abandoned pharmacy with long-dead beige plants in its windows, and inside Monica’s Diner, which had clearly shut down some years ago, loose cables dangled from the ceiling like the roots of an invading plant.

Liquor store in North Kansas City

North Kansas City: Last liquor store for 125 yards

It was an unexpected place to see the familiar sight of a Lewis & Clark Trail marker: two brown silhouettes, one of them (perhaps Lewis) leaning on his upturned rifle, the other (perhaps Clark) pointing out some distant prospect ahead.  Here, standing in mute horror, they overlooked a bleak scene of cars teeming down the Chouteau Trafficway, past a belching factory and alongside a concrete yard with a sign reading ‘Junk Cars Wanted’, before crossing a litter-strewn plain of rusting rail-sheds and rotting concrete pill-boxes.  You could almost hear them agreeing to turn back to St. Louis and pretend they hadn’t discovered anything at all.

View of Kansas City on the Missouri River

Kansas City: No more steamboats, plenty of casinos

Each time that we’ve crossed the Missouri there’s been a casino nearby, presumably because of some folk memory of riverboat gambling.  This third time was no exception, and we crossed north over the river with the biscuit-coloured skyline of Kansas City to the west and with the pink walls of Harrah’s looming out at us from the far bank.  Kansas City is, as much as anything else, a casino town, with four big riverside operations that manage to extract $150 million each month from a population of barely two million.  Indeed, they provided the only public transport into the city, in the form of the ‘Casino Cruiser’ bus, which dropped us off at the Ameristar in the early evening.

The bus was filled with commuting casino employees, for the most part poor black cleaners and dishwashers.  We expected them to have a disdain for gambling born of their daily proximity to it, but during the journey they talked of nothing else, scheming and plotting ways to beat the odds and trading stories of big wins they had witnessed.  Two men, both about fifty, were in heated discussion.

“Them new Rio machines, south-west corner?  Ain’t paid out nuthin’ for three days.  They’re ready!  Hoo!”

“Nah.  Lady yesterday was playin’ ‘em.  Hittin’ rows up, down, diagonal, all night.  Wastin’ your time!”

Inside, the Ameristar was superficially like any Vegas casino – a trompe-l’oeil blue sky painted on the ceiling, and a ‘street’ of restaurants surrounding a large rectangular playing area partitioned off with chest-high glass.  But there were no buzzing craps tables or matey blackjack games, no boys’ weekends or shrieking bachelorette parties.  There was nothing on the playing floor but roughly a thousand video slot machines, which took only banknotes and casino charge cards, quarters having evidently proved too inefficient a method of extracting money from visitors.  The names of the machines – ‘Mermaid Paradise’, ‘Party in Rio’ – were at odds with the slouching zombies parked in front of each one.  The players were a cross-section of the middle-aged, elderly and obese, seated alongside a striking preponderance of wheelchairs, mobility scooters and even oxygen tanks.

“Don’ tell me,” one of the men on the bus had said to us disapprovingly.  “Don’ tell me there ain’t no disability cheques goin’ inna they machines.”

The machines pinged, beeped and chimed together in a sort of endless, syncopated crescendo just within the range of human hearing, a hypnotic chant that rang in our ears when we stepped out into the silence of the car park.  It was hard to believe that a place like this could be a primary leisure choice for thousands of local people, but the slow stream of cars down the service road leading to the casino confirmed that it was so.

Kansas City skyline from Old Market

Kansas City: Entirely built from Lego, but still very nice

Downtown Kansas City was, fortunately, a good deal better, an immaculate grid of mirrored high-rises overlooking neat boulevards lined with potted trees, scattered with fountains and – rare for a Midwestern city – populated with purposeful pedestrians.  It was like a town carefully built out of Lego and then brought to life.  It sits at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell this from downtown, both river-fronts being effectively blocked off from it by an interstate and a railway line.  It is, strictly speaking, two cities, the much larger one here on the Missouri side.  It styles itself as ‘The World’s Barbeque Capital’, but we had lunch at a little sandwich shop favoured by local businessmen, three of whom were chatting at the next table.

“You know, we’ve been looking at this thing from a brand perspective,” said one, “but what if it’s more subtle than that?”

To escape these horrors, we went to see one of Kansas City’s biggest tourist attractions, the steamboat Arabia.  The Arabia was on a routine run on the evening of September 5th 1856, from St. Louis upriver to Sioux City, when it struck a log and sank within minutes, mercifully without fatalities apart from a luckless mule tethered below decks.  It sank into the mud at the bottom of the river, and soon disappeared from sight, as well as from memory, until it was rediscovered in 1987 by five local men, friends who made a hobby of looking for sunken steamboats, forty feet down under a farmer’s field (the river having substantially changed its course in the intervening years).

Cargo of the Steamboat Arabia

The cargo of the Steamboat Arabia: A 19th-century Homebase

The five men funded from their own pockets an astonishingly ambitious excavation, complete with dozens of cranes and industrial pumps, which revealed that although much of the boat itself had rotted away, its cargo, mostly merchandise bound for small-town general stores along the upper Missouri, was almost intact.  Tens of thousands of items had been recovered – often by the crateload – representing the largest collection of antebellum artifacts in America.  There were dishes, basins, kettles, coffee-pots, thousands of pieces of cutlery, glassware, whale-oil lamps, spoons, jugs, flat-irons, mirrors, candles, buckets, pipes, weights, scales, tools, shovels, tongs, saws, buttons, clothing, shoes and above all 5,000 pairs of boots – something of a running joke for the staff, who, twenty years later, are still in the process of restoring and re-stitching them in a process that takes several months for each pair.

It took about ten days to cross the state on a steamboat in the 19th century, only about twice the pace we’ve managed.  It doesn’t seem to have been an appealing way to travel; Mark Twain wrote of a voyage in 1850:

 ‘We were six days going from St. Louis to St. Joe, no record is left in my mind, now, concerning it, but a confused jumble of savage-looking snags… and of reefs which we butted and butted’.

Sometimes travelling on foot didn’t seem so bad after all.

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2 Responses to “Days 97-99/ June 3rd-5th – North Kansas City, MO: Riverboat gambling”

  1. Spencer Rotton Says:

    May I use the picture of: Kansas City: Entirely built from Lego, but still very nice. for a school project?

  2. cutlery usa amazon Says:

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    Days 97-99/ June 3rd-5th – North Kansas City, MO: Riverboat gambling | The Walkover States

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