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A Brief History of Thompson Avenue

Thompson Street in the 1960s
Thompson Avenue looking north from Concourse in the 1960s (archival photo).

This article originally appeared in the July 2020 edition of The Phunn, the newsletter of the Excelsior Springs Museum & Archives, which members receive quarterly. Memberships support the Museum’s mission of procuring, protecting, and sharing our local history today and for generations to come. For details on how to join the Museum, check out www.esmuseum.com.

Within living memory, Thompson Avenue was a starting point for “The Loop”- the beloved circuit for teenagers with a car full of friends winding through the downtown from Thompson to Broadway and back again. For those who grew up in the ’50s Doc and ’60s, it also was the place to shop at the “five and dime” stores such as Newberrys and Mattingly’s, or for clothing at Penneys and Mode ‘o Day, or for anything else you might possibly need at Coast to Coast or Brunke’s. At one point, you could drop off items at an Excelsior Laundry outpost. Or learn to dance from Lois Duncan herself.

But to envision the earliest days of that broad thoroughfare, it’s necessary to erase all those commercial buildings, the old service station (now the Chamber office), the McCleary’s Clinic, even Lewis Elementary School and the Vets Hall. The area was covered by 23 acres of park grounds surrounding The Elms Hotel – which before 1909 had been closer to the front of what is now Elms Boulevard and faced Fishing River. The park grounds extended west to Kansas City Avenue.

Music Hall Thompson
The Music Hall that burned in 1908 (archival photo).

Instead of Thompson Avenue, envision a grand promenade encircling the Elms Hotel and Park. That grand promenade was called The Concourse (always capitalizing “The”). Only a piece of The Concourse remains – the curved brick street we call simply “Concourse” that runs between Thompson and Kansas City avenues. Before there was a Thompson Avenue, just about the only other structures between the original town (concentrated on Broadway) and the Excelsior Springs railroad station (now site of Wabash BBQ) was the impressive 1,300 seat Music Hall and the earliest Sulpho-Saline Pavilion.

Thompson Ave boardwalk
Boardwalk on Thompson Avenue heading toward South Street (archival photo).

In the earliest Sanborn Insurance maps of the downtown, dated 1894, Wyman Street (not yet named “Thompson”) began at its north end around the site of the Relief Hotel (in the Caldwell Street area) and stopped at an old timber and iron bridge over the Dry Fork of Fishing River, just a little south of South Street. A year later, “Thompson Avenue” is mentioned in a newspaper article as being part of the route for a “Jubilee Day” parade. Jubilee Day marked the opening of the summer resort season and celebrated the completion of multiple public-private improvements, including a $15,000 sewer system, $25,000 macadamization of the major streets, $25,000 for sidewalks of flagstone, brick, hexagon blocks and granitoid, a $15,000 gas plant; and $20,000 in new residences. 

This is likely why the street was renamed “Thompson.” William Wellington (“W.W.”) Thompson was the town’s fourth mayor from 1894 to 1896, when these major infrastructure improvements were completed. While the business district essentially ended at that old iron bridge, a short section of what we today consider South Thompson Avenue began at St. Louis Avenue and ran only a short distance to what we know as Concourse today. That part of The Concourse in 1894 was home to the Christian Church (not yet named for William S. Woods) and the first Methodist Church in town. Hence the name of that short jaunt: Church Street.

The more significant path to the original downtown may have been Kansas City Avenue, which ran straight from the Excelsior Springs railroad depot (the Wabash), bordered the Elms grounds, and continued to that old iron bridge over Fishing River onto Wyman Street. The bridge in 1900 included a boardwalk into the business district. But the retail business district for the first two decades of the town’s history was mostly concentrated on Broadway, with Marietta and Main streets also serving as key business arteries. Wyman Street had a few businesses – mostly small cottage hotels and some residences.

In 1906, Erastus Livingston “E.L.” Morse and others with property interests on Thompson Avenue began pushing for a new city hall to be constructed there; others wanted it to be built on South Main Street. On Jan. 25, 1908, the new city hall opened at 406-408 Thompson Avenue, which has been renumbered 414 Thompson Avenue and most recently housed the Fishing River Market. After a promising start, devastating floods and fires marked the rest of 1908. June floods destroyed most of the bridges into town and caused the south approach to the old Thompson Avenue bridge to collapse.

An August 1908 fire at the north end of Wyman Street destroyed the 32-room Relief Hotel (then called the Anthropological Sanitarium). The landmark had been the site of the town’s first bathhouse dating to 1884. But it was another devastating fire in 1908 that changed the history of Thompson Avenue. On Sept. 24, the Music Hall was destroyed. It had seated 1,300 when it was being used as an opera house but had been converted into the Music Hall Bath House and Sanitarium by 1908. By April 1910, the fires prompted the city to prohibit any new frame buildings from being built through most of the downtown, requiring new structures to be all brick.

It was 1910 before ads for lots in “The New Morse Block” from 423 to 433 Thompson Avenue began appearing in the local newspapers. The Morse brick buildings continued filling up, becoming home to cafes, dry cleaners, hardware stores, grocers, and ladies’ shops. Under the business name “Music Hall Bath House Company,” Morse would continue to develop Thompson Avenue until his death in 1930.

JJ Newberry
The J.J. Newberry store opened in 1929 (archival photo).

The year 1923 was another pivotal one for Thompson Avenue. On Feb. 8, property owners met with the city to discuss widening the avenue from its intersection with Concourse to South Street, Spring Street, or Broadway. Also in 1923, several more significant buildings were opened along the part of the avenue still called Wyman: The Elks built their new lodge (which in more recent years was the community center); William Beyer built a new theater building at the corner of Wyman and South streets; W.A. Craven built out his commercial block on Thompson Avenue.

In 1929, the character of the street changed again with the announcement of the coming of the town’s first chain stores: J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward, and Newberry’s. The J.C. Penney store was opened in August, but not where many may recall shopping at Penney’s. Morse had razed the Excelsior Trust building (the bank had moved further north on Thompson two years earlier) to build the J.C. Penney store.

JC Penney Thompson
The first home of the J.C. Penney Store that opened in 1929. (archival photo).

J.C. Penneys moved in September 1943 to the building now known as the Montgomery Event Parlor. When the event parlor was more recently renovated, the original brick parapet was uncovered, revealing the intertwined “MW” initials in the stepped centerpiece. The Montgomery Ward Company had opened there in October 1930, but it had moved to Broadway. Also in August 1929, the J.J. Newberry Department Store was the second chain store to arrive in town, located in a building constructed by the Music Hall Bath House Company in 1925. It remained in the same location until October 1975 when it became Radley’s Variety Store next door to the Coast to Coast store, which Radley’s had operated since 1967.

Thompson Avenue has seen a resurgence in the past few years with new shops and venues filling the once-vacant buildings. (photo by Kevin Morgan).

In 1943, a major fire once again reshaped Thompson Avenue. On March 8, fire gutted three small tin-sheathed buildings being used by the Bryant shoe shop, Rosa Lee Ford’s restaurant, and John Melling’s taxi stand. Once again the fires were followed by a devastating flood. In June 1943, cascading tons of floodwater, silt and mud flowed into the two lower floors of the Hall of Waters and damaged property all over the downtown, including Penneys, McDavid Motors, Silvers Garage, and the Gem Drugstore on Thompson.

Thompson Avenue has had bursts of boom and bust, and endured floods, fires, and hard times as longtime businesses and downtown residents left for the population-rich west side hills of the town. Today the avenue is sparked by a revitalization effort led by the Dubious Claims Micro-Brewery, the Fishing River Market antique mall, Bliss Antiques, Blue Bird Couture (one of three new dress shops downtown), the newly opened Woodchux Axe throwing gym right next door to Dubious Claims, and a many more new shops on the horizon.

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