Flat Branch Park is a far cry from the train depot and dump it once was
It was close. The train had just started to move when they drove up to the station.
Professor Fred McKinny was determined the kids would catch the train. He followed the train until the engineer spotted his Ford station wagon and backed up to the station. The three kids, including future Columbia mayor Darwin Hindman, finally got on the train, laughing.
Hindman has fun memories of the railroad. He recalls taking the train at midnight to McBaine and returning at 3 a.m. He remembers the pot-belly stove on the train during the winter and the servicemen lighting the coal oil lamp.
The 73-year-old mayor marvels at the changes he’s seen at Flat Branch, which was Columbia’s original settlement. The railroad tracks are gone. Katy Station is now a restaurant, and a park occupies what was once unkempt land.
The story of Flat Branch is one that’s written by time, starting nearly 200 years ago.
The early days
While most of central Missouri was dense wilderness in 1810, a speculative company called Smithton Land had its eye on Columbia. The company bought large amounts of land and began building houses.
The first settlement was built on the banks of Flat Branch Creek on land roughly bounded by what are now Locust, Ash, First and Tenth streets. In a time pre-dating modern faucets, houses typically were built next to the water.
When the westward movement began in the early 1800s, businesses and houses boomed around Flat Branch Creek. The creek was close to two major routes of the movement, Boone’s Lick Road and the Missouri River. It was similar to a modern-day interstate rest area.
“Wagon trains stopped for a rest; men would stock up and get wagons repaired; kids would get out and run around; horses, mules and oxen were traded,” said Deborah Thompson, a historian and executive director of the Boone County Historical Society.
Though Flat Branch hosted Columbia’s first public market, Market Square, commerce was centered along Broadway. Built as the original main street, Broadway was a wide road that allowed wagons to park on the side.
The railroad years
The MKT (Missouri-Kansas-Texas) Railroad was completed in 1895 — with Katy Station located about 20 feet east of the creek — bringing more access, travel and excitement to Flat Branch.
“In the early 1900s, the college boys would go to Katy Station to wait for the girls to arrive,” Thompson said. “The girls were dressed in their travel clothes, wearing hats and gloves, and the boys would offer to take their luggage.”
But the railroad didn’t bring only delight. It also brought industry: stockyards, lumber, coal, petroleum and grain. Gasoline, heating oil and diesel came in by rail and were unloaded into tanks.
The days when Flat Branch Creek provided a water supply were long gone. With no sewage system in place for the expanding town, the creek became a trash dump.
“The place was probably pretty disgusting in the early 1900s,” said Chris Cady, environmental specialist at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. “I heard that people would take an old telephone pole, cut it into a couple of shorter pieces, lay them across the creek banks, and build an outhouse on them.”
By the mid-1900s, Flat Branch had become an eyesore. Houses were dilapidated and streets were muddy. A city report from that time described the area as “blighted,” “unsanitary” and “deteriorated.”
A federal program called Urban Renewal affected major townships across the country in the 1960s. Residential areas around Flat Branch Creek were replaced by brand new public housing, and new roads, sewers and water lines were built.
But for the creek and the area immediately around it, urban renewal was akin to plastic surgery. The upper ranges of the stream were built into box culverts. Industry covered both banks. Pollution and contamination continued to plague the area.
Howard B. Lang, a 94-year-old Columbia resident and mayor from 1953 to 1957, recalled that fuel was loaded at a site south of the stream.
“Gasoline trucks would come and fill up their tanks; of course, there were leaks,” Lang said.
City sewage and industrial waste were directly deposited into the creek. The water was not only polluted, but it was also full of dangerous chemicals, according to Frank Stack, a Columbia artist who used to paint around Flat Branch.
“I once saw a 20-feet-across rock next to the creek,” Stack said. “After a while, I went back to pose a model. The water was so polluted that the rock had broken down.”
But mostly, at that time, Flat Branch had been forgotten.
“I knew there was a Flat Branch, and that’s it,” Lang said. “Like everyone else, I just drove by.”
The area was so obsolete that only children looking for someplace to play ventured there.
“When we were kids, we would go over to Flat Branch and play hide and seek,” said Wynna Elbert, a 62-year-old Columbia resident. “We used to hide behind the tombstones (in the cemetery). Sometimes we walked in the Flat Branch underground culvert, and came out in the Warren family’s garden. We would steal (their) watermelons, apples and grapes. Then, Uncle Warren got a dog.”
The struggle back to nature
The railroad right of way was abandoned in the 1970s, and the city decided to convert the abandoned railroad into a fitness trail. Plans to revitalize the Flat Branch area were proposed, and there was much public debate on what to do about the historical but blighted neighborhood.
In 1980, a plan was proposed to build a shopping mall near Flat Branch Creek, but a public vote defeated the proposal. Slowly, the idea of creating a park on the bank gained popularity.
“It reflects how our priority has changed over time,” Thompson said. “We are more concerned with environment, recreation and leisure.”
However, it took about two decades for the idea to become a reality. Soil contamination was found when a deteriorated warehouse in Flat Branch was torn down in 1997. By the end of 20th century, state and federal cleanup funds became available. Flat Branch Park was dedicated in 2001, and since then it has become a place where people go for walks, have a picnic or attend community festivals.
Elbert said it’s impossible to not appreciate the positive changes of the area.
“My brother’s daughter had her wedding there (the park) last summer,” she said.
And so, Flat Branch Creek’s nearly 200-year history circles back to where it began.
“Is it a coincidence that our town’s original settlement area is now again a community gathering place?” Cady asked. “I don’t think so.”