The historic Quindaro Townsite, once a key locale on the Underground Railroad and a flourishing abolitionist community, needs new infrastructure to help attract visitors.
The House of Representatives passed legislation Monday that could help by making Quindaro a National Commemorative Site through the National Park Service.
The designation would open up the area to new assistance from the government, including help with planning, exhibit design and archeological surveys.
Advocates want to improve Quindaro’s walking trails, and possibly build a visitors’ center.
Upping the site’s profile wouldn’t hurt, said Gordon Criswell, the deputy county administrator for the Unified Government of Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandotte County.
“To look at it now all you would see is a lot of overgrowth but you would literally need to stand at the overlook and sort of imagine where all these various buildings would have been,” Criswell said.
That’s why advocates are hoping to fund some type of exhibit close by, which could allow visitors to better visualize what once was.
The artifacts were unearthed during archaeological digs at the site that uncovered the foundations of the town’s original buildings. Federal assistance could help preserve those foundations, many of which are rapidly deteriorating limestone, and allow for widening and paving trails to help visitors explore them, Criswell said.
The Old Quindaro Museum, which is run out of a home built in the early 1900s, includes some artifacts and runs tours for visitors. The museum could use upgrades, including a new roof, said Anthony Hope, a fourth generation descendant of slaves who once escaped to Quindaro. Clearing the area beneath the overlook would help with their tours too, he said.
During the mid-1800s, Quindaro was a key port to which escaped slaves would flee from slave-holding Missouri to Kansas, a free state. The town was once home to its own newspaper and churches, as well as the first university for black students west of the Mississippi River.
Due to economic pressures, and mounting competition from other Missouri River ports after the Civil War, Quindaro began to languish. Today its ruins reside in an area struggling with poverty, said Jim Ogle, the executive director of Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, one of the groups pushing for the designation. Bringing more attention to Quindaro could help, he added.
“It is going to lead to things like highway and street signs to the area to encourage people to come and learn its stories,” Ogle said.
Efforts to gather the designation for Quindaro began about three years ago, Ogle said. It was a cooperative effort including Freedom’s Frontier and the owners of the site, the Allen Chapel AME Church and the Unified Government of Kansas City.
“The first mention of an effort to preserve this historic site is found in a local newspaper more than 90 years ago. Unfortunately, nine decades have passed without much significant investment in the site,” said Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, who proposed the House bill, on the floor Monday.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, introduced a similar Senate bill, which will be considered by the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Quindaro’s supporters were initially calling for upgrading their place on the National Historic Registry to a National Historic Landmark designation.
The Commemorative Site status “carries the same weight” as the Historic Landmark label, Ogle said. It sidesteps the nomination process for the Landmark designation that can take years, while still permitting Quindaro to use National Parks Service signage and branding materials and opening the site up to technical assistance from NPS.
“It’s a technical difference that allows the Quindaro site to get national recognition faster. Our ultimate goal is still to achieve Landmark designation, and we feel that this bill is the right step toward achieving that goal,” wrote Haley Brady, a spokesperson for Yoder’s office, in an email.
The designation would be a big step for the site, Criswell said.
“It is a diamond in the rough. That’s how we see it here in Kansas,” he said. “And we want to try and add some glitter to that diamond.”