Starting as a mining camp, the meteoric growth of Webb City, Missouri reached a population of more than 15,000 people in a period of about twenty-five years. Webb City occupied the central district of the largest lead and zinc mining area in the world. More than 100,000 people lived in the immediate area of the Webb City district. This included the city of Joplin.
While plowing a field on his farm one June morning in 1873, John C. Webb’s plow hit a considerable sized rock causing his mules to come to an abrupt stop. Upon inspection of the sizable boulder, he discovered that he had found pure lead ore. While Webb knew the value of what he had uncovered, he pondered the discovery and continued to plant and cultivate his corn crop for the year.
In 1874, Webb tried his hand at mining. As soon as he would dig just few a feet deep, the mine-shaft would promptly fill with water. After he ordered a large pump and with the help of his prized mules, he was able to unearth a chunk of lead ore weighing more than 1000 pounds. After discovering that mining was a laborious task with a continual race with water, he decided to hire experienced men to lease his land on a royalty basis. This wise decision caused him to become the first millionaire in the area and the great mining boom of the Webb City area occurred. The Webb City district became known as the richest zinc and lead field in mining the world.
People came by railroad, covered wagons, horseback and afoot. They built shacks, stores, hotels, restaurants and saloons. Hard rock miners liked their liquor, and at the turn of the century the east side of Main Street (formerly Allen) supported a saloon almost every other door, and the self-respecting women of Webb City used the west side of the street, while the east side was reserved mostly for men and few women of “lesser estate.”
John C. Webb was a religious man and a Southern Methodist. When he laid out the town of Webb City, of which he originally wanted to call Webbville, he reserved one whole block, across from his home and 160-acre farm, for a Methodist Church and a school. The church space was used for the school, therefore he bought an adjoining lot of 100 square feet and build a brick church building on it at his expense and gave it to the congregation. It was originally named “The Webb Chapel” by Reverend Ben Deering, who was the pastor of the church at the time of Mr. Webb’s death in 1883. A building owned by Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, now AT&T, stands on the corner of Broadway and Liberty Streets on the site of the first Methodist Church.
As the population of the community grew rapidly, the need for law and order became imperative. In December 1876, W.A. Ashcroft, O.Jacobs, James Smith, J.E. McNair and R. A. Sterling, acting under the authority of an expression of the citizens tax payers, drew up and presented a petition to the county court praying for incorporation for the city. On the eleventh of that same month, the grant was obtained and the aforementioned gentlemen appointed trustees to serve until their successors should be elected and sworn in. The first meeting of the board of trustees of Webb City was held at the office of F. Brurein on the evening of December 11, 1876.
By 1879 Webb City had a population exceeding 3,000 within the boundaries of the town. Allen Street, now Main, was a bustling mass of men, horses, wagons and buggies. The first telephone was introduced in Webb City in 1881 when Charles W. McDaniel installed an exchange in town. Colonel James O’Neill, an early Webb City business leader, saw the need for public utilities and built a water works and gas system for the city. These modern conveniences made Webb City an equal to any other town, with her gravel streets being watered daily and lighted by gas at night.
Webb City’s appearance was shaping into a real metropolitan city by 1893. The business section of Allen Street stretched seven blocks with business buildings crowded closely together on each side. Business sections overflowed on adjoining streets and extended westward on Daugherty. Many business places had reached a substantial maturity having been established for fifteen or twenty years. The city was bursting at the seams with a semicircle of mines engulfing her. A hospital at Broadway and Tom provided operating space for the removal of limbs maimed or broken in mining accidents.
This was not a time to boast, nor was it a time to cry. It was a time to work and build. Residences for the rich and the poor were constructed with all the speed, money and brawn the citizens could muster. Storehouse and warehouse space was at a premium and all the stores, hotels, restaurants, blacksmith shops and all the other services required to keep the city going was based on one economic source – the mines.
A. H. Rogers from Springfield saw great business potential in the Southwest Missouri mining fields and built a horse-drawn streetcar line from Carterville into Webb City in 1889. He operated this line until 1893 when he consolidated with the Joplin Electric street railway and the Jasper County Electric under the management of the Southwest Missouri Railroad Company. Extensions of this railroad were made to Prosperity, Oronogo, Alba and Duenweg. The new railroad company experienced considerable difficulty in securing a franchise in Webb City because many of the merchants felt that an inter-urban line to Joplin would have a tendency to take business away from the local merchants. Mayor G. M. Manker suggested that a clause be inserted into any franchise the city gave the railroad which stipulated that all car-barns and/or headquarters must be located in Webb City. (Today those buildings house the Webb City roller-skating rink “Skateland” and the“Clubhouse”)
The citizens of Webb City were not amiss in their civic and social obligations. Many lodges came into existence and their progress was marked with much enthusiasm. All news was faithfully recorded in the Webb City established in 1879 by Milholland and Single. During this decade, two additional newspapers were printed for brief periods – The Webb City Star, and The Record. In 1890, the Webb City Sentinel began its daily publication and continues to serve the Webb City community today by website at (webbcity.net)
In 1918, the curtain fell on the mining boom in Webb City when the greatest ore strike in the history of the Tri-State district was discovered in Oklahoma. The rush to get to the new mine fields was so great that the Webb City mines were closed in a matter of hours. Business and professional people of the city were stunned and they met in the form of the Webb City Commercial Club, now the Webb City Chamber of Commerce. An average of 140 members met each week to talk about rebuilding the town. With great economic development and progressive minds, they brought a shoe factory, a leather factory and several other small businesses to Webb City. They encouraged existing industries to expand and the exodus from Webb City was stopped.
Webb City attained the distinction of increasing her industries more than any other city of like size in the United States.
Any Webb City historian is honestly unable to end the story of this community. Each year brings progress and the numerous corporations located in Webb City extend their operations throughout the world and even into space. The property encircling the community that used to bring forth the prosperous zinc and ore have been reclaimed for retail and industrial businesses. Historic Route 66 still runs right through the center of Webb City’s National Register Commercial Historic Downtown District and sees hundreds of travelers from all over the world.
The perpetually optimistic people of Webb City look to the future with confidence, guided by an enthusiastic forward-thinking City Council, Mayor and city staff.
John C Webb