Michael Portillo hits cowboy central in the former meat-packing capital of America - Kansas City. In Paola, Michael auctions livestock.
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I have crossed the Atlantic to ride the railroads of
North America with my reliable Appletons' Guide.
Published in the late 19th century,
Appletons' General Guide To North America
will direct me to all that's novel,
and striking in the United States.
As I journey across this vast continent,
I'll discover how pioneers and cowboys conquered the West...
..and how the railroads tied this nation together,
helping to create the global superstate of today.
My journey west has brought me
to the very heart of continental North America.
By the time of my guidebook - thanks largely to the efforts of navvies,
many of whom were immigrants from Europe -
this once-remote region was at the centre of a web of tracks.
Whatever might be the divisions,
politically between North and South
and culturally between East and West,
the railroads were creating united states.
Following the pioneer trail, I set off from St Louis, Missouri.
Continuing westward, I'll explore Kansas City and Dodge City.
I'll discover a surprising British outpost in Colorado Springs
before turning south to Hispanic Albuquerque in New Mexico.
My journey will end at Arizona's awe-inspiring Grand Canyon.
On this leg I begin in Kansas City, the largest in Missouri.
From there I travel to Saint Joseph,
once the Western terminus of the United States' rail networks.
..I'll marvel at the art of the auctioneer.
I'll have eight.
..learn of the perils of the Pony Express...
Wanted - young, skinny, wiry fellows willing to risk death daily.
..and discover the truth about the demise of one of
the Wild West's most notorious outlaws.
Jesse's not carrying a gun,
Jesse's back's to us,
so we're just going to murder him in cold blood.
To my great excitement, I will soon, for the first time in my life,
set foot in Kansas City.
Appletons' tells me it's the second city of Missouri
in size and importance with a population of about 40,000,
situated on the south bank of the Missouri River.
12 important railroads converge here. 12!
Imagine what sort of station I'm going to find.
This magnificent station does not disappoint.
Come with me on my journey in time back to 1914, when it opened.
Three magnificent chandeliers weighing tonnes,
a destination board on which was listed every major city
in the United States, East and West and North and South,
a waiting hall that could accommodate 10,000 people.
The crowds have gone to the airports.
Kansas City, founded as a port on the Missouri River,
was first settled by French fur traders in 1821.
The town once revelled in the nickname Paris of the Plains.
"If you want to see some sin," wrote journalist Edward R Murrow,
"forget Paris and go to Kansas City."
Away from a typically high-rise downtown,
I'm surrounded by historic reminders of a prosperous commercial past.
The 1891 edition of Appletons' says that
some of the largest packing houses are located in Kansas City,
such as Armour's and Fowler Brothers.
The packing business in 1888 was worth 50 million.
We are talking cattle.
This is the sort of place where they used to
heeeerd 'em up and moooove 'em out!
I'm meeting Bill Haw,
who runs the Kansas City Live Stock Exchange building,
to find out how this city was built on beef.
Bill, I get the impression from my guidebook that Kansas City
became an enormous centre for the meat trade. How did it begin?
You know, it was an accident of geography
as much as anything else, I think.
The cattle tended to originate in Texas, Oklahoma and the south-west.
They were put on trains with the eventual goal of going to Chicago,
but they needed to stop so that the cattle could be fed and watered.
Now, at some point that kind of evolves into the idea of
getting the cattle off the train in order to be slaughtered
-to continue as carcasses. Is that right?
-That is right.
I think the population, of course, had begun to move west,
so there was more demand in the central United States.
And the advent of refrigerated cars enabled them to be able to
kill the cattle here and then distribute it farther west.
And we're standing in front of a wonderful building.
It was the largest livestock exchange ever built,
and it absolutely reflected the fact that this was
the economic epicentre for the entire region.
Today, the renovated building has found new life as a business centre.
But the heyday of the international meat trade is a distant memory.
Can you imagine what this looked like 50 and 100 years ago?
248 acres of pens, 12,000 men, most of them horseback,
five rail lines capable of unloading 70,000 cattle a day.
It was an incredible amount of activity.
And somehow, the railroads were interleaved
amongst all those livestock yards.
You know, there's a quote from an 1890s Kansas City Star
that might explain that best.
"Kansas City's advantage is the result of
"an unrivalled geographical location.
"Every foot of the territory to which Kansas City looks
"can have rails laid upon it at a reasonable cost.
"These rails will point to Kansas City as surely as
"all roads pointed to Rome."
The Live Stock Exchange Building held its last auction in 1991,
but the region is still a cattle centre.
Today the markets are located outside town.
I've come south of the city across the state line
to a livestock auction in Paola, Kansas.
This looks like cowboy central.
I have a feeling I may be the only one here dressed in pink and green.
-Would you mind if I pull up a chair for a moment?
-Have a seat.
So, what brings you to the auction today? What are you selling?
-What kind of beasts have you got?
-What age are they?
-Yeah, a year old.
So, what's your business?
You take very young animals and grow them up to yearlings?
Buy them weighing 300-400 lbs and make them weigh 700, 800.
What is it about cattle that attracts a man to the job?
For me, it might have started out the glamour of the Wild West,
I grew up around horses and cattle, always rode a horse.
First thing you know, you're making a living at it.
-Bit of John Wayne in you.
HE SPEAKS RAPIDLY
I'll have eight. And 58.
Half. Nine and a half.
So, cattle 160, 427 straight up.
At this time, I'd like to introduce Michael Portillio, is that right?
-Close. He's going to come up and take the microphone.
-May I borrow that hat?
OK, we're ready. What are we starting at?
130 it is, 130...
HE IMITATES CATTLE AUCTIONEER
'Hmm. I think I got away with that!'
-Who is buying?
Buyer 120, buyer 120 at 135.
Thank you, guys.
I've heard that for Kansans,
smoke has the power to transform meat
from the mundane into the memorable.
I've been recommended a barbecue joint out at the airstrip.
Whoa, that is a lot of food!
What is this?
That's baby backs, and that's the bottom part of the spare ribs,
they cut it off. It has no fat on it, it's the most tender...
It's the cream of the crop when it comes to spare ribs.
It's so soft. It comes clean off the bone.
It's got a great smoky flavour.
I couldn't help noticing President Obama on the wall.
Did he have any ribs?
Well, he took a slab to go.
The population of Kansas City skyrocketed during the 1870s
thanks to the cattle trade.
An expanding network of railroad tracks brought people from across
the nation and soon, transport within the city was also needed.
I'm on the KC Streetcar.
According to the 1891 edition of Appletons',
electric or cable cars traverse the city in every direction
and render all parts accessible for five cents.
Do you know what it costs now?
It must be the only price to have gone down in 125 years.
Kansas City's cable and streetcar system
once stretched over 300 miles.
But the last service ran in 1957.
The streetcar returned in 2016 as part of a programme
to revitalise the city's downtown area.
It runs for two miles and extensions are being planned.
-Are you enjoying the KC Streetcar?
Are you regulars on the KC Streetcar?
-No, we've never done it before.
-You're not from Kansas City, then.
-Yes, we are.
So, why are you riding it today for the first time?
-Girls' night out.
-Girls' night out.
-So, better than taking the car.
Because you might be having a little drink tonight, perhaps.
-Just a little.
-We already did.
Like much of America, Kansas City owes the building of its
early railroads to Irish navvies.
I've come to the West Bottoms district to meet Pat O'Neill
from the Irish History Society.
Classically, a wave of Irish immigration
came to the United States after the Hunger of 1848-49.
-Is that true of Kansas City?
-It was, absolutely, yes.
Because, you know, the Irish bottled up in the tenements and again
always on the East Coast and they were looking for places to escape.
And the catholic priest here in Kansas City actually put out
a notice in the late 1840s,
early 1850s for Irish to come to Kansas City to help them
expand the city by cutting the streets through these bluffs.
And so they naturally gravitated to better jobs on the railroad.
Kansas City's importance as a rail hub was secured in 1869
when Irishman Charles Kearney helped to persuade
the Hannibal and Saint Joseph Railroad to construct
the first permanent rail bridge
across the Missouri River and Kansas City.
By the 1870s, they're making cuts through these bluffs in every
direction so railroads can take off from Kansas City.
Where was the old union depot?
Well, the Union Station, you'll see that kind of empty area down there?
-Well, that's where the Union Station was.
That's also what they called the wettest block in Missouri,
because it had some 40-some saloons within two blocks -
mostly Irish saloons, I might add -
and there was an area down in here that was shared by Irish immigrants
and blacks, and it was cold Hell's Half Acre because
it was the most prone to flooding.
When the water came up 10 or 12 feet,
it would send the cattle and the pigs in every direction.
It would turn train cars over on their sides, even off the bridges.
Despite those hardships, the Irish community quickly put down roots.
The first Irish business in America opened in Kansas City in 1887.
The shop and bar are now run by Kerry Browne,
great-granddaughter of the founder.
-Well, thank you, and cheers.
So, how did it all start?
My great grandparents came over from County Kerry, Ireland,
travelled by train and stopped here and thought, "This looks like home."
This is the store early on.
This is my dad, this cute little fellow here,
and you can still see how it looks the same.
Here's the papers of my grandfather when he came from Ellis Island.
James R Browne from Knocknagoshel, County Kerry, Ireland.
If you think of how young he was,
he was about 17 years old and left home.
This sheet is for steerage passengers.
-They came in the cheapest class.
Think of that journey, think of what it must have been like.
I can't imagine.
You've done very well, your ancestors -
some of them did very well -
but do you feel sadness about those who left Ireland in the first place?
Yeah, it had to be awful.
When you think of leaving those people,
knowing you'd never see them again...
And there wasn't the connections like we have now
with internet or a phone - they said goodbye for good.
And they'd have wakes, the Irish wakes,
like a ceilidh at the crossroads,
and everybody in the town would gather and have music and dance
and send them off, knowing they'd never see them again.
# And it's no, nay, never... #
'Generations after the Irish arrived in Kansas City,
'memories of home and those left behind run deep.'
# And it's no, nay, never
# No, nay, never no more
# Will I play the wild rover
# No, never, no more. #
Go on ya!
North of Kansas City lies a town that once held the distinction
of being the most westerly point on the United States rail network.
A gateway to the untamed prairies,
it was also where an American legend was born and another died.
During the 1850s, railroads had been built over a tremendous distance
from the east coast into the heart of the American continent.
But 2,000 miles remained before they'd reach California.
I'm at Saint Joseph, Missouri, the westerly terminus
of the delightfully named Hannibal and Saint Joseph Railroad.
How to provide a connection to California
before new lines could be built?
Hannibal would doubtless have recommended elephants,
but the Americans chose ponies.
The Pony Express carried mail between Saint Joseph
and Sacramento, California.
From there, it would continue to San Francisco by ferry.
I'm meeting Suzanne King and her husband John to discover more
about this institution of the American West.
-Hi, Michael, how are you?
-Good to see you. Hello, John.
-And who is this?
-This is Renzy.
She is a Morgan horse and Morgans were one of the breeds of horses
that were used during the Pony Express.
Now, I see we're standing outside the 1860 Pony Express office.
-May we go inside?
The Pony Express made its headquarters
in the Patee House Hotel, now a museum.
It offered a last taste of luxury for guests heading into
the inhospitable western terrain.
Well, Suzanne, really, here we are touching history.
This is the original furniture of the Pony Express office.
But what was the concept of the Pony Express?
Well, the concept was to improve communication between
the Atlantic and the Pacific coast.
Saint Joseph was the furthest west that you'd get on a train,
however, communication for the rest of the country was slow.
And so, with the Pony Express,
the communication was condensed into ten days.
The idea was proposed by California Senator William Gwin
to freight magnate William Russell in 1859.
It was visionary and in harmony
with America's growing sense of manifest destiny,
that the nation was fated to span the continent
from sea to shining sea.
The first rider, Johnny Fry,
left Saint Joseph on April 3, 1860.
What sort of riders did they have to recruit?
Well, if you take a look at the advertisement...
"Wanted - young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18.
"Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily.
And these intrepid riders, what sort of perils did they face?
Well, you did have Indian activity, you had the heavy winter snow,
the rains washing out the gullies, the trail,
and you had groundhogs, because a horse would run across that,
they could break a leg.
-The groundhog was at least as dangerous as the Indians.
Over 400 horses and 80 riders galloped between
a chain of stations that crossed hostile terrain.
Riders could be in the saddle for 100 miles at a time.
This sounds like a very expensive operation.
Well, they had 172 stations.
Each of those stations had to be staffed and stocked,
and you have all the costs of the horses and the feed and food.
And the letters at that point in time cost 5.
The high price deterred most people from using
the Pony Express for their mail.
The final nail in its coffin was the connection
of the cross-country telegraph,
which provided instantaneous and affordable communication.
That service opened on October 24, 1861,
and two days later, the Pony Express announced its closure.
Here's something that only lasted 19 months.
Why does this little incident live in our minds, in our history?
Because it accomplished what the whole country wanted it to do
at that point, which was communication.
And the skiddy, wiry fellow, the rider,
has joined the panoply of the American heroes.
Because on the Pony Express it cost 5 to send half an ounce
in ten days to California, most of the correspondence
was official, governmental, military and so on.
So I've decided to send my letter, get my money's worth,
to John Gately Downey, who was, of course, the governor of California.
The Pony Express is commemorated with an annual ten-day ride
from Saint Joseph to Sacramento.
John and Suzanne have taken part since the 1980s and their children,
Kristen and Richard, carry on the tradition.
Kristen, I've been to the Pony Express office and I've paid
-my 5 for half an ounce.
-Would you put that in your mochila, please?
Thank you very much.
Now, I believe that every young man who made this ride
had to take this oath.
-Would you like to raise your right hand, please?
And pronounce the oath.
I agree not to use profane language, not to get drunk,
not to gamble, not to treat animals cruelly
and not to do anything else that is incompatible
with the conduct of a gentleman.
Godspeed. May my letter reach its destination safely
-and may you be kept safe as well.
Robin Hood, Bonnie and Clyde -
can it ever be right to treat the bandit as a hero?
For me as a train lover, the question arises poignantly
in the case of that terror of the railroads, Mr Jesse James.
Jesse James was one of the most famous outlaws of the Wild West.
Trains, stagecoaches, banks -
little was safe from his larceny.
'Ralph Monaco is a Missouri historian and former member
"of the Missouri House of Representatives.
"He's an expert on the James gang."
Ralph, who was Jesse James?
Part of him is still a mystery to this day,
the mystique about him, but he was certainly a young man who was
raised in Clay County under a Southern mind-set by his mother.
They were slave owners themselves.
He is thrust into the Civil War as a guerrilla.
When the war ends, he tries to surrender,
he's shot through the lung, nearly dies.
And then, how did he pursue his criminal career?
It was really the gang led by his older brother Frank,
who was born in '42, Jesse was born in '47.
They went directly after the source
of what they thought were all their privations -
railroads and banks, owned by the union men, the Yankees, if you will.
And we're going to get our revenge,
and in the process we're going to get rich.
During the American Civil War, supporters in Missouri of
the Southern Confederacy were barred from voting
and holding public office.
Resentment grew and James' attacks on union targets made him
a hero for many.
Tell me about one of the gang's lurid railroad crimes.
I think the one we can certainly point to happened here in Missouri,
in Daviess County, is the Winston train robbery.
1881, the train is filled with many railroad employees, in fact.
Things didn't go well.
They stopped the train as a regular stop,
they surrounded the train, they robbed the train.
And what's the tragedy of it is that while the mystique of
the James gang is so interesting, you've got to remember that
the stonemason was killed,
the conductor was killed on the train.
Despite those murders,
the gang gained a reputation as Robin Hood-like figures.
Legend had it that they would steal money from the railroads
but would not rob the passengers.
The railroads were not going to let their trains be robbed again,
so they brought in the number one Detective agency in the world,
Thomas Pinkerton, and they were going to get
Jesse James and Frank James.
-The noose just tightened and tightened.
-Yes, it did.
'After a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities,
'James moved his family to this Saint Joseph house in 1881.'
-What had brought Jesse James here?
-To hide out.
Jesse James had moved his family from Tennessee to Missouri,
city to city, town to town, on the run,
because there was a bounty on their head.
Governor Crittenden issued a 10,000 reward.
As they were living here in Saint Jo,
their name was the Howard family,
but they were also known as the Johnson family, the Woodson family.
James invited his most trusted accomplice, Charley Ford,
and his brother Robert to live with him.
But James was double-crossed.
Robert had done a deal with Missouri Governor Crittenden
for the reward on Jesse's head.
There was a hot Monday morning.
Jesse James was here in this very room,
and for whatever reason he decides to take his holsters off
and went to feather duster the picture on the wall.
And the Ford boys were over here and that was their golden opportunity.
Jesse's not carrying a gun, Jesse's back's to us,
so we're just going to murder him in cold blood.
Bob pulled the trigger, his wife came running into the room,
saw her husband laying on the ground,
blood coursing from his head.
Now, wait a minute, you're being quite sentimental about
a man who killed a lot of people. Why has he become some sort of hero?
There's multiple reasons,
but one simple answer is John Newman Edwards.
He was the owner of the Kansas City Times newspaper -
well-known publicist, well-known writer.
Anything Southern-minded from the war he supported,
and he considered Frank and Jesse as nothing less than
Knight Errants of the Round of the olden days.
And so when he was killed,
Edwards writes this editorial that just condemns the entire
state of Missouri because of the conspiracy with these bad guys.
And it violated the law of the West -
you don't shoot somebody in the back of the head
when their back is turned.
That dirty little coward who shot Mr Howard
has laid Jesse James in his grave.
And that ballad will never die.
# Jesse James was a lad that killed many a man
# He robbed the Glendale train
# But the dirty little coward
# That shot Mr Howard
# Has laid poor Jesse in his grave. #
If Jesse James is a doubtful American hero,
recognition should surely go to the Irish navvy
who, by laying the railroad tracks,
played a big part in the building of the United States.
Those pony riders who galloped between Saint Joseph and Sacramento
were special men, too.
It took cattle to build the West,
and those drovers required true grit.
I salute the cowboy, the guy in the hat.
I pay homage at the cathedral of basketball...
-Turn in two. Good job. There we go, good score!
..get my hands on a vintage hooter...
Wow, that was fun.
..and head out on the range where the buffalo roam.
What fantastic animals, aren't they?
On the next leg of his American adventure, Michael Portillo hits cowboy central in the former meat-packing capital of America - Kansas City, Missouri. In Paola, Kansas, Michael auctions livestock to the latter-day John Waynes of the state and then dines out on smoky spare ribs.
In the West Bottoms district, he explores the city's Irish heritage and discovers the first Irish business opened in America, still family- owned and run by the great granddaughter of the founder. In St Joseph, Missouri, Michael discovers the legendary Pony Express, not a train but a mail service, and investigates the treacherous death of the outlaw Jesse James.