Kansas City's Fairmount Park

by John M. Olinskey and Leigh Ann Little

Thanks to Lorraine Lass and the Standard Oil Sugar Creek Archives

Chapter 11:  1904
Sugar Creek, the Town 
Kansas City's Fairmount Park ~ Kansas City History, Sugar Creek History, Independence, Missouri History, and more
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The first white men to trample on the land now called Sugar Creek were the people of the Louis and Clark expedition to the West Coast via the Missouri River on June 23 to June 25 in 1804.

In 1834 the Mormons, facing persecution, fled Independence and camped along the bluffs just west of the present day VFW before they could escape across the river.  

In 1849 an ox-drawn railroad was built between Wayne City, a riverboat landing about a mile down river from the creek, to the Independence Square,  financed by some Independence entrepreneurs led by William Gilpen.  The enterprise was the first commercial railroad west of the Mississippi.  Starting in Wayne City the tracks ran west to the creek in between the bluffs.  It then turned south along the creek (now Sterling) for a short distance to Elizabeth street.  Turning east from there it wound its way up Forest to Sugar Creek Boulevard, and where U. S. 24 Highway and Crysler intersect is the only remaining physical reminder of the old railroad.  Behind the business building now at 2421 U. S. 24 Highway is an earthen railroad trestle.  From there it snaked its way to where the Independence Post Office is today, but there was a turn-around and stable then.  The oxen were loaded on board so that the train could coast back down hill to the river.  When a sandbar and a plague in 1855 killed the project, freight and passengers moved a few miles up river to a town originally called Possum Trot (now Kansas City, Missouri).  The Civil War Order #11 screwed things up, Major Gilpin was one of many to be run out, and later became Governor of Colorado.

A county map drawn in 1877 showed the owners of Sugar Creek to be James Mallinson, 80 acres, J. D. Cusenbary, 160, J. Kronehart, 80, William Chrisman, 90, I. W. Duncan, 220.  J. Foster owned 59 and had a house exactly where someday there would be an oil refinery.

In early 1889 oil was discovered in southeastern Kansas and Northeastern Oklahoma. In 1896 Standard built a refinery in Neodasha, Kansas.  Meanwhile electricity was replacing nasty-smelling, black smoking, dangerous kerosene.  In 1885 there were 250,000 light bulbs in use by Americans; by 1902, 18,000,000.  Soon only the country folk would be burning kerosene.  Something had to be done.

The oil fields back East were playing out.  South of Paola, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas were like a mini Saudi Arabia.  The oil was coming out of the ground faster than the Neodasha refinery could refine.  In 1896 production was 500 barrels a day.  By 1903 production had risen to 2,500 barrels a day while the oil being brought out of the ground was as much as 13,000 barrels a day.  Pits were being dug in roads and ponds were made out of oil.

Standard was in the thick of it.  Two miles north of Neodasha, Mr. Rockefeller, Inc., bought 320 acres and spent 1.5 million on a tank farm with 40 tanks holding from 37,500 to 60,000 barrels.  He soon had $3 million worth of oil stored by Spring, 1904.  To bring the oil to the farm, pipe was laid by 400 skilled and semi-skilled laborers.  Standard would lay pipe to any rig producing 50 barrels a day or more.  That cost another million.  When, in 1900, Prairie Oil and Gas Co. was incorporated, it was the point of the spear for Standard.  If you bought stock in Prairie you were okay but there were some stocks that were worthless, like the Gold Standard Oil Company of Arizona.  But there were some people who made money.  George Banks, a farmer living near Independence, Kansas, was making $100 a day from just three wells.

At that time, America was an oil exporting country and 80% of the oil and gas was used East of the Mississippi river.  On January 24, 1904, it was announced by Standard that a pipeline was going to be built from the Kansas Oil Fields to the refinery at Whiting, Indiana.  The 700 mile 6-inch pipe would cost $4 million and take 2,000 men 7 months to complete.

In February of 1904 a stranger to Kansas City called Mr. Allen came to the Sugar Creek valley and within 2 weeks bought 70 acres at $200 per,  he said, for a dairy farm.  Mr. William Mallinson sold 30 acres, George Collins 20, and Hugh McElroy 20, all of the land east of the public highway which is now Sterling Avenue, but for years would be called Fairmount Avenue.

On Tuesday, March 1, the headline on the front page of the Kansas City Journal announced the Birth of Sugar Creek.  It read:


It wasn't announced to be a site for an oil refinery, but for a railroad repair shop.  Since this area stayed above water in last year's flood, it was the perfect place for something. By April the ground was being cleared and locals began asking questions, like one asked of Mr. J. D. Cusenbary, longtime resident, whose land Fairmount Park was built on. “What's  going on?” by a reporter from the Journal.  "My home is in the vicinity of the land which Mr. Allen recently purchased, ostensibly for dairy purposes, and I am in touch with affairs in my neighborhood.  While I do not know for certain that the Missouri Pacific is the real purchaser behind Mr. Allen yet I have reason to believe that such is the case."  But he went on to say that for the last several days people from the railroad, along with several strangers, had been walking among the hills and paying detailed attention to the landscape.

In 1903 the Missouri Pacific Railroad bought 40 acres from Judge Edward Gates of Independence.  It was flat and didn't flood.  Word soon got around to what was really going on.

Meanwhile, back in oil country, the good people of Kansas were getting teed off.  The price of oil Standard was paying recently dropped 20 cents a barrel to $1.19.  Producers complained that they were paying for the new refinery.  On top of that, the $1 per foot first rumored for right-of-way turned out to be 20 cents per rod (16 1/2 feet).  The whole price Standard paid for pipeline right of way was only $11,000.  But the farmers were hired to build the pipeline.  They worked in three waves, first came digging a 1 foot to 5 foot deep trench (depending on the terrain).  Second came the crew laying the 210 miles of 8 inch pipe, last were the people to cover the thing and stomp it down.   Soon Standard put a cap on the amount of oil that they would buy, from 1000 per district per day to 600.   It was to eliminate any competition.  In 1902 an oil man with 27 years in the field back East named C. D. Webster, came to Humbolt, Kansas and opened an independent oil refinery to compete with the Standard Oil refinery in Nevada.  For a while things went fine, many stores in Humbolt and the surrounding towns bought his product at 20 cents a gallon.  In May of 1904 well dressed representatives of The Octopus, i.e. goons, came to the area with a proposition the store owners couldn't refuse.  Buy from Standard or they will open a store in every town and sell it for 5 cents a gallon.  Soon Mr. Webster's independent oil refinery was the pumping station for oil heading for Sugar Creek.

It didn't take long for the local investors to see opportunity.  Filed on March 22, the Sugar Creek Townsite Company Inc.  What they did was pool their money, $10 thousand, borrowed $20 thousand, and purchased all of the land around the proposed venture.

Ten men bought shares at $50, 200 shares were issued.  T. T. Critttenden, Jr. of Kansas City, led the way with a purchase of 70 shares,  while E. F. McElroy, a local, kicked in $500 for 10.

Article IV of the incorporation documents stated that the corporation go on for 50 years, which didn't happen.  The town outgrew their land.

From the Jackson Examiner, April 8, 1904  page 3:

A New Town Already Started at the Oil Refinery Site now a Railroad Stop.

A new town is springing at the mouth of Sugar Creek where the workmen are laying the foundations for the big Standard Oil refinery.  Electric roads and county roads are headed for this point and there will be a population of several thousand here within a short time.  The Kansas City Times of Thursday says, "The Santa Fe railroad has a depot at Sugar Creek, the site of the refinery to be erected by the Standard Oil Company.  It is only an old freight car but the officials say that it fulfills its purpose more adequately than the Union passenger depot used by the railroads in Kansas City.  A sign 'Sugar Creek' adorns the box car and trains stop there regularly.  The station will appear on the next issue of the Santa Fe time cards."

"The Santa Fe has nearly completed the 4,000 foot switch it is building at the refinery site. Considerable material has been unloaded at the site and two warehouses have been built and are now loaded with the material  which will be used in the construction of the refinery.  Active work has begun and within six weeks 400 men will be at work putting up permanent building."  

In reality, there were many more than that.

By June 1, 600 to 700 men were employed and working ten hour days, six days a week.  First were hundreds of common laborers, paid 17 1/2 cents per hour, led by W. A. Eaton, at 37 cents per hour, T. J. Griffith, and W. E. (Whitey) Moore, earning 27 1/2 cents per.  There were 36 carpenters, 40 cents, and 19 carpenter helpers, 17 1/2 cents, four water boys, fourteen people in the office, and two messenger boys, all 17 1/2 cents.   Ten watchmen worked around the clock, seven days a week, some working over 100 hours a week at 25 cents per hour.  The boiler shop had 235 employees, paying from 40 cents to employee # 1169, Charles Mallinson, who was paid 14 1/4 cents an hour for seven hours on June 30, earning 83 cents before quitting.  Some didn't last that long, it was very hot, dirty work.  The masons, all 29 of them, were the best paid, earning 62 1/2 cents an hour, for an eight  hour day.  Helpers got 21 7/8 cents.  The two men in the blacksmith shop and three men in the machine shop earned from 35 to 20 cents.  The pipe shop had 180 earning 30 cents to 17 1/2, bringing the amount of money being dumped into the local economy at around $30,000 a month.  Cold beer was 5 cents, and there were no taxes.

On June 23, Michael and Sophia Onka, Mike being a former soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army, bought two lots for $300 at 6% interest on Evans Street, which was named after J. E. Evans, the boss of bosses at the refinery.  They opened a grocery store and boarding house, accompanying up to 90 men, and many watering holes and bordellos, along with barber shops and cafes, soon lined the dirt street.  There would be no murders or cops; everything else was fair game.  On July 6, a quote in the Journal spoke of possible doom for the new boom town.  "Independence is casting its eyes towards the Sugar Creek refinery.  The refinery town cannot incorporate because no town can incorporate within two miles of another."  The reason, taxes.  

August began the selling of stocks to the public from a number of oil related corporations.  Kansas Petroleum Company, on August 2, ran a full page ad in the Journal with a photo of "THE GREAT STANDARD OIL REFINERY NOW UNDER CONSTRUCTION AT SUGAR CREEK."  Stocks were offered at 5 cents per share.  On August 28, another ad promised that this was the last chance to buy at 5 cents because on the first of September the stocks would be sold at 10 cents per share.  It was never heard from again.  At that time Standard Oil stock was hundreds of dollars per share.

On September 26, the pipeline from Humbolt to Sugar Creek was finished, and on October 24 at 5:00 in the morning, the building of the refinery was complete, with the first product being kerosene.

Many of the men who worked on the refinery were from the Whiting, Indiana refinery, like Whitey Moore, who stayed here and raised a family that turned out to be good plumbers and pool players.  On January 5th, under the headline, "HELP SUGAR CREEK" since the $4 million refinery was growing even more money was to be put into expansion.  Already $1 million more had been spent.  Sugar Creek, then being called "The Oil City".  Train service known as the Sugar Creek and Maywood Railway Company's tracks were lined with tank cars being filled for the trip back east, the tracks creating a lake in Fairmount named after a man named Crisp.  

190,000 barrel storage tanks were built.  Six million gallons of water was being used in October.  By January, 1905, water usage was up to 12 million gallons, by summer 20 million was projected.  Already the plant boasted a gas plant, fire department, and water works.  Electricity would come later.

Rumor had it that the refinery in Whiting was to be shut down as would rumors a few years later about Sugar Creek.  But it would survive for 75 years.  Meanwhile, the once-tranquil valley, quietly eroding over the eons, grew expeditiously into one hell of a great place to grow up, producing a bunch of heroes.  Best of all, Fairmount Park is going to reopen, and be open for 30 more years.  The best was yet to come.

Copyright © 2006 John M.Olinskey


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