The Shawnee concentrated south of the Kaw River in what is now southern Wyandotte and Johnson Counties. They initially settled in the Turner vicinity. Joust south of the Maple Hill Cemetery was where the main Shawnee Indiana village "in Wyandotte County" stood. The Shawnee Indians buy then had advanced to a certain degree of ccivilization. Many lived in log cabins, owned livestock, and ran prosperous farms. Most were eventually converted to Christianity.
The great "Shawnee Prophet" lived with a group of still loyal followers in the last Prophets Town at the mouth of the Whitefeather Spring. This is on the property of Mr. Jack Beemont at 3818 Ruby and the site was recently placed on the National Historic Sites Register.
Another Shawnee Indiana of major importance was Charles Bluejacket, a Shawnee Chief and ordained Methodist Minister. He attended the Prophet's funeral and had lived in this area until 1870. In 1897, he returned from the Oklahoma Reservation and located the Prophet's grave.
In 1827, about a mile or so upstream from the Turner Bridge, a trading post was established by Cyprian Chouteau of that renowned fur trading family. A lucrative trade was established with the Shawnee and Delaware who resided on the west side of the river. Howlong this post operated is speculation. It appears, however, to have existed until at least 1845. It was here in 1842 that John C. Fremont completed preparations for an expedition into the Rocky Mountains.
It was near this settlement that the Reverend Thomas Johnson built his Methodist Mission for the Shawnee in late 1830. This two story log mission was located in what is now the 5100 block of Edgehill Drive in Turner. A church was established and a school for the Indian youths. Literature, trades and crafts, and the art of mechanism were taught. The Turner mission was in operation until 1839, when a new enlarged Shawnee Methodist Mission and Manual Labor School was built on Shawnee lands to the south in Johnson County.
Shawnee Indian names appear on most old Argentine and Shawnee Township abstracts. The tribe ceded their reservation to the government in 1854. In return they received 200,000 acres of land that was divided among themselves. Each tribal member received 200 acres. By 1870, however, almost all of the Indians had sold their parcels of land and migrated to the Oklahoma Reservation. Other area Indian tribes such as teh Munsee, Delaware, and Wyandotte Indians also sold their lands. Wyandotte County was now ready for permanent White settlement.
Perhaps a point could be made that if the railroad had not come to the flat bottom lands along the Kaw there would not have been a town of Argentine or Turner. This statement is nothing unique in itself for many communities in America owe their origins and growth to the coming of the railroads. In 1875, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad came to the bottom lands of the Kaw between the present day communities of Turner and Argentine. On 128 acres of ground, they established terminal facilities, stransfer sheds, round houses, machine shpops, repair shops, a coaling depot and an enormous ice house. By 1890, the Santa Fe had 27 1/2 miles of track in the Argentine yards. The value of its property was $900,000 and it had a payroll of nearly 500 workers.
A small village quickly grew up by the railroad tracks. It was this location tha W. N. Ewing came upon in his search for a smelter site. Ewing, in the late 1870's, was the owner of a smelting establishment in Colorado. He encountered financial and technical difficulties there, however. Labor was also unreliable and scarce. Ewing thus carefully chose a site to relocate his smelter. Astride the railroad tracks and with the county's growing population, Ewing saw the Argentine site as fulfilling the economic considerations mentioned above. At that time, except for a few scattered farms, the area was largely uninhabited. The site for the smelter (now the Kansas City Structural Steel grounds) was an orchard. Emerson Park was a swamp marsh and where the town of Argentine was to be plotted, a large cornfield stood.
Work on the new smelter bagan in the summer of 1880 and was completed by the fall. Ewing and other prominent businessmen were aware of the need for some sort of an organized town. Thus, on November 8, 1880, James W. Coburn purchased 60 acres of ground from some Shawnee Indians and began plotting a town. He called his town "Silver City" which later became Argentine. The latter name is derived from the Latin word for silver.
On April 9, 1881, the Kansas Town Company of Wyandotte County was organized with an initial capital of $100,000. The incorporators of the company were William B. Strong, George O. Manchester, Jacob and J. R. Mulvane and E. Wilder. Coburn soon purchased 415 acres of land from this company. He turned over 75 acres of land to the railroad. The rest he plotted and put on the market. This new land became known as Mulvane's addition to Argentine. With the smelter's fortunes rising the town was soon growing and prosperous.
In the smelter's first year of operation, it refined 40 ounces of gold, 463,000 ounces of silver, and 3,100 tons of lead. In 1882, receiving ores from all parts of the continent, the smelter did a business of $10 million dollars. Over the next two decades this figure would be surpassed many times.
August R. Meyer was the real genius benind the smelter's prosperity. Meyer had been in the smelting business in Colorado. In 1881, he purchased the controlling interest in the Argentine smelter and called the reorganized company the Kansas City Consolidated Smelting and Refining Company. Under his leadership, in the years 1881-98, over twenty-two million dollars worth of gold, seventy-four million dollars worth of silver and thirty-six million dollars worth of lead were produced. In 1898, the peak year, the Argentine Smelter produced one-twelfth of all the gold, on-eighth of all the silver and one-fifth of all the lead produced in the United States. The Argentine smelter was credited with being the largest smelter in the world and Argentine was referred to as the "Silver Refining Capital of the World".
Ores were shipped by rail to Argentine from throughout North and South America. The huge smelting grounds conprised 18 acres. Approximately one-third of this tract was covered with buildings. There were five general departmets in the plant. They were: the assaying, sampling, roasting, smelting, and refining departments. Most of the smelting process required skilled labor. Consequently, many smelter workers came from Europe to work here. At one time, almost half of the town's population was comprised of the smelter colony.
Work at the smelter was an extememly hazardous occupation. Workers became ill from the sickening fumes of the melting ore. Some workers becamed paralyzed and died from lead poisoning. Winds blew the toxic fumes directly over Argentine. Because of fog and high humidity, smelter fumes covered the little city for much of the year. Vegetation and grass could not grow in many areas. Occasionally fumes were so bad that dogs and cats suffocated on the streets.
The 12 hour work days at the smelter definitely made it not a good place to work. Good wages, however, were paid. In fact, the Argentine smelter once boasted of the reputation of paying the highest wages of any manufacturing firm east fo the Rocky Mountains. In 1901, the following wages were paid: common laborers - $1.50 per day; Vitriol plant employees - $1.80 per day; furnace men - $2.00-2.70 per day; gold room employees - $2.00 per day; blast furnace men - $3.00 per day, and superintendents and foremen - $75-$150 per month.
Due to the value fo the precious ores, great security was employed at the plant. Armed guards patrolled the gates. Men were searched whenever they entered or left the smelter. Heavy bricks of gold and silver, however. were usually left unguarded on the docks. These ores were shipped by Wells Fargo wagons to the railroad depot. All gold went to the federal mints where it was exchanged with its value in money. Silver was stamped with the company's trademark and sold on the open market. Eventually, most of it ended up in the federal mints. Lead was sold on the open market as was zinc and metallic sulfates such as blue and white vitriol.
By the end of 1882, the prosperous little town of Argentine consisted of approximately 50 buildings between what is now 21st and 23rd Streets. New lots in the town ranged from 125-300 dollars each. The first church was organized in 1882. In 1884, the first post office opened. In August of that year the first city elections were held with G.W. Gulley being elected Mayor; George Simmons, Assistent Mayor; A.J. Dolley, Police Judge; Charles Duvall, Marshall; and J. H. Holderman, City Clerk. Later that month a school bond issue was passed. Seven thousand dollars were appropriated to build a school house.
Like may frontier towns, Argentine had its wild and rough era. The town had scores of saloons and only a handful of churches. Brawls between smelter and railroad hands were common. Horse and poultry rustling was an early problem. George Simmons organized a horse league to chase these rustlers. When caught, violaters suffered severe penalties. They were taken before a justice of the peace who would then pronounce a sentence of either 20 years in the penitentiary or hanging. Legend has it that rustling was soon no longer a problem.
The smelter's phenomenal success stimulated the rapid growth of the town. In 1884 the first post office was opened and three years later the first bank. In 1888, J. T. Thayer, a building contractor, built the East End of the city. Wealthy smelter and railroad officials along with the socially prominent families of the community lived in this exclusive residential area. At that time the East End was prerhaps the most beautiful residential addition in the greater Kansas City area and was comparable on a much smaller scale, to the Quality Hill, Hyde Park, Parkwood, and Westheights residential development of a later era. It was in this area between Tenth and Sixteenth Street that T.J. Enright, Charles Green, Hugh J. Smith, J.C. Harmon, W. W. Mack, Dr. O. B. Blachley, and the Steffens, Fleming, Berns, Landrey, Larson families, among others were to make their homes.
With this and other new subdivisions, Argentine's population rose from 3,264 in 1888 to 6,500 in 1890. In that year, Argentine became a city of the first class. Some streets were already graded. The city was divided into sewer districts and plans were being made for a complete sewer system. The city had a splendid water system. Water was pumped from the Kaw River to a large reservoir on a hill southwest of the town. The Fire Department in 1890, under Chief Harry Higginbothom, was modern and could boast of a hose cart and a team of trained hrses. The Police Department consisted of Chief Higginbothom and four assistants. Police Judge Wortman reported the collection of $5,878 in fines that year.
Around the turn of the Century the Noke's Opera House was a social gathering place and added cultural refinement to the little town. The Opera House was bulit between 21st and 22nd Streets and was later owned by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. For many years, the Metropolitan Street Car Company of Kansas City, Missouri had a line running into Argentine with a terminal on 24th Street. A person could catch an electric street car in Kansas City, Missouri and journey through Kansas City, Kansas to Argentine. The fare was five cents with children under twelve not charged.
The Argentine City Hall was located on the southwest corner of 24th and Silver. The two-story brick building was completed on November 16, 1891 at an estimated cost of $8,000. The building served a multiple purpose. The basement contained cells and housed the town's prisoners. Each morning prisoners formed into chain gangs and were marched up to Monkey Mountain, where they broke rocks in a quarry for the Street Department. The Fire Department was located on the first floor. The City Council held its meetings on the second floor. One room was used as a library and part of it was utilized as the firemen's sleeping quarters. Classes were also held on the second floor until the high school was built in 1908. Most of the City Hall was torn down in 1930 and the remainder was razed in 1958.
Argentine has a rich journalistic heritage. Almost since the founding of the town newspapers have been in existence. Several newspapers such as: The Argentine Advocate, The Eagle, The Labor Review, The Argus, and The Shiftings operated for only short periods of time. One weekly newspaper, however, founded in 1887, by Joseph Landrey, is still in existence. This is the Argentine Republic and it was owned and operated by the Landrey family until September of 1917. Then it was sold to E. W. Wells. The name of the paper was then changed to the Kansas City Advertiser. In 1937, the paper was renamed the Wyandotte County Record and is now called The Silver City Record.
The future for Argentine around the turn of the Century looked very promising. Business was booming. The 1890's were the best years of production for the Argentine smelter. Dark clouds were gathering over the horizon, however, August Meyer, in the late 1890's, had sold the controlling interest of the Kansas City Consolidated Smelting and Refining Company. The Argentine smelter was then only one of twent-four owned by the Guggenheim family which had a large "smelting trust". As the trust grew larger labor-management relations became more impersonal. To the Board of Directors in New York, the Argentine smelter represented only a profit or loss on the balance sheets.
For two decades, ores had been shipped to a facility in El Paso for reduction work. Then, they were sent by rail to the Argentine smelter for the final refining process. Freight rates, however, had continued to rise. It was now more profitable to send the El Paso ores by water to the trust's newer plant at Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Also refining works were being built closer to the Colorado ore fields. Suddenly, neither the El Paso nor the Colorado ores were coming to Argentine in any great quantities.
Rumors circulated for weeks in the fall of 1901, that the smelter might close. There had been periodic layoffs in the past, however, and during the annual house cleaning, the smelter was always closed down for a few days. Unfortunately, this time the situation was entirely different. In a matter of weeks the payroll was reduced from 800 to 400. The Silver Trust advised the town of the smelter's closing, but would not specify whether this would be permanent. Workers, however, were advised to seek other employment. By the end of August, additional men were terminated and more would go by September 15.
Friday, October 4, 1901, was the Argentine smelter's last day of operation. Only 100 men were still on the payroll. The small Vitriol Department would remain open for almost a year. It employed only 50 men, however. A prevailing gloom now descended over the town for Argentine's biggest employer had ceased operations. The livelihood of at least 700 families was effected and many of these were forced to move away. Many refused to believe that the smelter's closing was permanent. August Meyer, a member of the Board of Directors of the Guggenheim smelting trust, tried for months to get the smelter reopened, but even his efforts failed. Standing as a silent testimony to the glories of a bygone era was the huge brick smokestack that stood on the north side of Metropolitan Avenue near 21st Street. Constructed about a year before the smelter's closing, it contained 700,000 bricks, cost $20,000 to build and stood 187 feet in height. In 1958, the smokestack was razed to make room for a storm sewer, thus removing the last vestige of Argentine's era as the "Silver Refining Capital of the World".
The smelter's closing resulted in the greatest financial crisis Argentine ever faced. It was a deciding factor in convincing town officials to seek annexation into Kansas City, Kansas. Other financial setbacks also facilitated this decision. A prolonged railroad strike severely effected teh town in 1894. In a bank failure in 1896, the town lost $22,000. The town's treasurer embezzled $18,000 in 1897 and a smallpox epidemic in 1902-03 cost the town $5,000.
Morevoer, the city suffered throurgh disastrous floods in 1903, 1904, and 1908. In the 1903 disaster, 3,000 citizens out of the total population of 7,000 were rendered homeless. From Spear Avenue to the bluffs in the east the Kaw River was one mile wide. Water ran ten feet deep in parts of Argentine. A smaller flood in 1904 resulted in flood waters from one to ten feet deep. The 1908 flood, which was an oddity in that it was really two successive floods, achieved third place ranking behind the floods of 1951 and 1903 in terms of property damage to the Argentine and Turner communities.
In 1907, under the leadership of Mayor Charles W. Green, Argentine began to actively seek annexation into Kansas City, Kansas. Due to Argentine's financial blight this was not easily attained. The city was to reject Argentine's petition several times with the first time coming on May 22, 1907. The adoption of a commission form of government by Kansas City, Kansas, however, resulted in Argentine's annexation into the city on October 15, 1909. Effective the following January 1, Argentine became the seventh ward of Kansas City, Kansas. According to Census figures of 1909, Kansas City, Kansas had a population of 102,947 and Argentine 8,442. The new combined total after annexation was 111,389. Following is a list of mayors of the former city of Argentine: G.W. Gulley (1882-83), David G. Bliss (1883-84), J. A. Healy (1884), W. F. Noyes (1884-85), G. W. Gulley (1885-86), Timothy J. Enright (1886-88), G.W. Gulley (1888-89), Steven March (1889), William McGeorge (1889-91), J. O. Gaskill (1891-93), Dr. David E. Clopper (1903-05), H.R. Rossiter (1905-07), and Charles W. Green (1907-09). Besides having the distiction of being Argentine's last mayor, Charles Green later served two consecutive terms as the mayor of Kansas City, Kansas (1913-17).
The fortunes of Kansas City, Kansas now became the fortunes of the Argentine community. Argentine received cultural and economic advantages as an extension of the city. Memories of the time when Argentine was a separate city have not been forgotten, hwever, as this was a time of prosperity and adversity, happiness and sorrow.
A complete listing of early business would be impossible. Following is a listing, however, of some of the prominent businesses of early Argentine: (Druggists) J.O. Gaskill & Co., McGeorge, J.C. Rawless & Co., Bottomley, Crown and Fleming; (Grocers) Bowman Brothers, Boehm, Adams, Borgstede, Sable, Green, Steffens, Lapham Bros., Chamberlain, Reygeart, and Cheatwood; (Dry Goods) Bliss and Dauzenroth; (Dairies) Olson, McMahon and Vanmol (Royal Dairy); (Auto Dealers) Davidson, Stirling and Woodruff; Monahan and Graham Hardware, Scherer Tailors, the Wendt and Jefferies Coal Houses, the Reynolds Jewelry Co., the Petzold Bakery and the Simmons Funeral Home.
An economic godsend to the struggling community was the arrival of the Kansas City Structural Steel Company in 1907. Beginning as the dream of two young men: Howard A. Fitch and Olaf C. Smith, the Kansas City Structural Steel Company was once considered the largest steel fabrication plant west of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. For many years it was still the largest plant west of the Mississippi River. Probably only the railroad contributed more to the economic stability of the Argentine community.
The steel company, for $50,000, purchased the property of the defunct Kansas City Smelting and Refining Company. The first shop payroll began on June 20, 1907 with Fitch as President and Smith as Vice-President. The company's first job was a contract for an addition to the Jones Store Building. Sales for the first year totaled $7,000,000. The Kansas City Structural Steel Company fabricated the steel for most of the buildings constructed in the greater Kansas City area.
The company has also fabricated the steel for many famous bridges. Some of the bridges were also built by the company's erection crew. The company also fabricated many structures for mining and smelting industries. During World War I the company built steel railroad tank cars and the rudders for ships. During World War II the company built 407 landing craft barges for the United States Navy.
In the decade following the First World War the company did a booming business. By the spring of 1919, 500 men were on the payroll. By 1926 a business of between four and six million dollars was done annually. Two million dollars had been invested by the company. The land alone was appraised at more than $125,000. In 1929, a $300,000 addition was built onto the plant. During the decade of 1920-29, shipments of steel averaged 36,634 tons a year. The record year of tonnage was also recorded in this decade as an incredible 58,124 tons of steel were produced in 1923.
Like other sectors of the economy, the steel industry was hit hard by the Depression. From 1930 to 1938 the company produced only an average of 16,319 tons a year and even briefly went into receivership and was reorganized in 1935. The company's fortunes slowly improved, however. In 1936, a profit of $133,360 was realized and in 1937, $204,643.
Business was good in the war and post-war years. In 1946, the company had 500 employeeds on the payroll. Two sales offices were maintained in Denver and Tulsa. By 1947, the company could boast of an annual payroll of $7,000.000. The company also has generally experienced good years financially in the decades of the 60's and 70's. The company, today, employs approximately 325 people. Thomas M. Fitch, a grandson of the founder, is the president of the company.
The Santa Fe Railroad has made an even greater economical impact on the Argentine community. Even as early as 1920, at least 6,000 freight cars and more than 500 passenger cars on 144 trains passed through Argentine each day. Approximately 3,100 employees received an average monthly payroll of $240,000. The 6,500,000 bushel capacity grain elevator in the Argentine yards was at one time the largest west of Chicago and the second largest in the country.
Today, on the average, 6,200 cars are handled through the Argentine yards. The total working trackage at Argentine can now accommodate nearly 15,000 cars. In Argentine, the Santa Fe makes direct connections with twelve other railroads. In an average year it has been estimated that enough oranges pass through Argentine by rail to provide each resident of the country with about six each. Enough potatoes pass through to provide 100 pounds for every citizen of the metropolitan Chicago area. Enogh piggy back trailers and containers pass through the yards, that, if placed bumper to bumper, they would extend over more than 1,200 miles of highway.
As mentioned earlier, the Santa Fe came to the Argentine Turner area in 1875. In 1888 through service was initiated to Chicago over its own track. All switching was done in the flat yards until the Santa Fe opened its first gravity classification yard in 1949. This yard incorporated the latest technology. Fifty-six classification tracks and restarters were operated manually from three towers at the hump yards.
The need for greater speed and reliablility coupled with the strategic importance of Argentine led to the decision in July, 1967, to construct a $2,000,000 eastbound freight classification yard. Major construction was completed by the fall of 1969 and by the spring of 1970 the new yard was in operation.
The entire Argentine yard, including the new eastbound yard extends for over nine miles along the Kansas River. The yards vary in length from 180 feet to 6,440 feet. Physically, the new facilities include a 48 track classification yard holding 7,736 cars; a ten track departure yard holding 804 cars; and an eleven track transfer yard capable of holding 762 cars.
The Argentine yard is one of only three terminal points on the Santa Fe Railroad that is equipped for the major serving of diesel locomotives. These repair yards were constructed in 1954 with improvements made in 1960 and enlargements in 1967 and 1968.
In 1961, a modern terminal office building and freight office was constructed on the north side of the yards. This structure consolidated into one unit offices for the local agent, the division superintendent, communications and freight house facilities. This three-story terminal office building also houses the offices of the Santa Fe Trail Transportation Company, a trucking outfit whose freight handling operations are coordinated with the Santa Fe's rail freight facilities. Recently, the Santa Fe built a new credit office building at 42nd and Kansas Avenue. The Santa Fe Railroad has thus employed generations of Argentines and is one of the largest employers of Kansas City, Kansas consistently employing approximately 2,000 people.
Other major business in Argentine have contributed greatly to the growth of the city. The Nation al Zinc COmpany at one time had a large plant in north Argentine. Founded by August Meyer around 1903, this plant worked twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. Brimstones were shipped from Louisiana and Texas sulphur mines to the plant and were made into sulphuric acid. The Kansas salt fields were tapped and salt materials were used in the making of muriatic acid. Nitrate of salt was imported from Chile for use in the manufacture of Nitric acid.
Salts were sold by the company for use in the manufacturing of cattle and hog remidies. Salt was also sold for use in the dye, glass and paper industry. The company had many storage tanks on its fourty-acre site. Muriatic acid was stored in wooden tanks, sulfuric acid in steel tanks, and the nitric acid in glass or earthen ware. A business of about $1,500,000 was done annually. In the 1920's, the company had a force of 150 men. The company also had zinc smelters in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and Sprink, Illinois. The ruins of this large thriving enterprise are still visible on the north side of Kansas Avenue across from the Sinclair facilities.
For many years a plant of the Sinclair Refining Company has been located in Argentine. At its peak, 400 people were employed. This local branch of the Sinclair Refining Company encountered grave financial difficulties during the Depression. Also, Kansas City, Kansas had been trying to annex this area for many years. Rather than accept annexation, Sinclair closed its main facilities in Argentine in 1931. Sinclair rebuilt the refinery in 1949 and converted it into a pipe line terminal. Sinclair still maintains a distribution plant in Argentine although the actual refining of raw materials has halted.