The Lawrence Waterfront

by Dale Nimz
Photos courtesy of Watkins History Museum

From the first year of European-American settlement in 1854, Lawrence was a planned community. After 1849, pioneers along the trail to California were impressed with the geographical features of a site where the Kansas River turned northwest opposite a prominent ridge (Mount Oread). Eventually, Lawrence, the “free state fortress” was located on relatively level ground between the two valleys of the Kansas and Wakarusa rivers.

Believing that steamboat travel was possible on the Kansas River, early settlers dreamed that Lawrence could become the regional metropolis serving a vast western territory. In the spring of 1855, several boats called at the town site, but the river was barely navigable in 1856. Droughts in 1857 and 1860 also made river travel impossible. After the Kansas Pacific Railroad reached Lawrence in November 1864, leaders abandoned river transportation.

Ten years later, a Kansas River dam was finally completed at Lawrence, but it was not reliable as a source of water power until J. D.Bowersock had it repaired in 1878.  Water power encouraged the development of local manufacturing. Bowersock led the local entrepreneurs

who mainly built their businesses on the river’s south bank. He inherited the dam and the Douglas County Mills, bought the Lawrence Paper Company and the Pacific Mills. Later, he was a director of the Consolidated Barb Wire Company and the Griffin Ice Company. The Kansas River dam helped retain businesses in Lawrence that might have moved away to larger cities, but after the great flood of 1903, Lawrence lost most of its manufacturing enterprises.

After manufacturing declined, agriculture helped support Lawrence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The rich floodplain soils of the Kansas River valley were immensely productive and agriculture was the most important use of the land along the Kansas River. Canning local produce dated back to the incorporation of the Lawrence Canning Company in 1881. The company marketed canned corn and tomatoes.  Later, the Kaw Valley Canning company continued the industry. Potatoes, apples, and distilled vinegar were other important products.

After the great flood of 1951, many farmers abandoned vegetable farming for mechanized production of soybeans and corn. Recently, vegetable farming in the Kansas River valley in general has revived as small-scale farmers grow vegetables and fruits for local farmers’ markets, restaurants, and Community Support Agriculture programs. The Lawrence Farmers’ Market is one of the most popular in the state.