June 11, 2018
The Missouri River
DEFINITION: Causing or producing motion; changing, instigating, actuating; and, stirring strong emotions.
Comrade. Adversary. Sacred. Adventure. Mystery. Motion. A description of the Missouri River near St. Joseph, Mo., includes all of these words. It is intriguing, yet straightforward, much like the powerful body of water itself.
The Missouri River majestically frames St. Joseph, nestling the city within its banks and bluffs. The river creates a constantly changing backdrop of natural beauty, economic opportunity and recreation, woven together by a rich collection of shared stories and history.
This famed journey was just the start of an ever-changing and evolving river story. Commerce opportunities are only one of many impacts the river would make on Northwest Missouri.
A Crossroads of Progress and Prosperity
Only a handful of decades after Lewis and Clark passed through what is now St. Joseph, another adventurer staked his claim to permanent St. Joseph river legend: Joseph Robidoux. As the founder of St. Joseph, Robidoux established the Blacksnake Hills trading post with the Native Americans living in the region in 1826. The post became a fur-trading mecca, and St. Joseph was platted out in 1843. Robidoux, like many others to come, was drawn to the living presence of the river and its scenic bluffs that provided a vantage point for miles in each direction.
This early use of the Missouri River at St. Joseph for economic promise remains a key part of its history and its promise for the future. By 1848, gold had been discovered in California and thousands of settlers arrived by steamboat to St. Joseph. They ferried across the river and purchased what they needed to outfit their journey. Known as the “St. Joseph Branch” of the Oregon Trail, thousands of pioneers embarked on the western leg of their travels by crossing the Missouri River at St. Joseph – and simultaneously kickstarted the city’s tremendous entrepreneurial and manufacturing boom of the mid to late 1800s.
By 1860, St. Joseph had been fully established as the main supply purchase point for the rest of the West, fueled by the rolling Missouri River waters. Soon the soaring architectural treasures of church spires, multi-story manufacturing buildings and mansion rooftops were echoing the area’s peaked river bluffs.
So Many Ways to be “Rollin’ on the River”
On a typical sunny weekend, you’ll find visiting guests and locals alike biking and hiking the paved paths along the river banks. Interpretive signs dot the gently winding trails of the St. Joseph River Walk, drawing people close to the river, creating opportunities for spotting eagles and other wildlife throughout all four seasons. At Robidoux Landing, visitors can share the same view that inspired Joseph Robidoux, a moment that is especially dramatic and selfie-worthy at sunrise or sunset.
You might see couples, families and friends having lunch or dinner overlooking the river at the St. Jo Frontier Casino, and families learning about the area’s cultural and natural history at the award-winning Remington Nature Center. The nature center is uniquely situated and built to complement the water, bluffs and landscape, drawing thousands of visitors from across the nation each year to its extensive Native American and cultural exhibits. Outdoor educational programs and indoor exhibits change at the nature center to reflect unique angles of the region’s river history and invite new generations into the story.
The century-old and nationally acclaimed Boy Scout camp, Camp Geiger, affords some of the most coveted and secretive views of the Missouri River and bluffs – with certain vantage points open only to scouts of a particular rank and membership. The camp, located on the north side of the community, is known across the Midwest and the nation for its river bluff landscape, stone amphitheater, ropes course, climbing tower and shooting range – and it is a hallmark childhood memory for thousands of campers who return generation after generation.
Music, Events and Memories
At times, the sound of drums echoes across the riverfront area. But these are of a very different sort than early Native Americans who called the region home. These drums are the local and regional bands at events held at the French Bottom Access.
The historic Solar Eclipse of 2017’s band of totality center running straight through St. Joseph brought thousands of people to hang out along the river banks from all over the world. Additional events along the Missouri River in St. Joseph include 5K run/walks, bike races, car shows and more. Annual recycling events and special exhibits at the Remington Nature Center also serve to celebrate the river in St. Joseph while encouraging the community to come together in preserving and protecting it.
Flowing just under the surface are so many river memories shared by generations of St. Joseph residents. Some recall the jazz music and dinner cruises during the years when St. Joseph had an active riverboat entertainment venue. Others remember stunning waterfront fireworks at annual riverfront Fourth of July festivals. And others remember residents coming together to help sandbag or clean up after the Great Flood of 1993.
What the Missouri River meant to St. Joseph in the early 1800s and what it means to residents now really aren’t that different. Two centuries ago, it meant prosperity, opportunity and adventure for those moving to, through and from the area. On a given afternoon in St. Joseph, the Missouri River still means these things – and so much more, especially to those who have chosen to make St. Joseph their home and the Missouri River a part of their lives.
When visitors and locals visit historic Hall Street in St. Joseph, they usually look up. A lot. And then they stop and stare. They take pictures and walk very slowly. They usually return, because this neighborhood known as “Millionaire’s Row” tells the story of St. Joseph’s turn-of-the century wealth and opulence like nothing else.
Born in 1783 to a St. Louis family of merchants and fur traders, Joseph Robidoux would become the founder of St. Joseph, MO.
Games of chance and dining establishments have been a part of St. Joseph, Missouri’s uncommon character since the earliest settlers gathered to let off some steam and gamble on optimistic odds.
Walking into Café Belle Epoque takes you back in time. The copper tin ceiling, marble table tops, hardwood floors, wood-burning stove and jazz music seem to transport you to a period of economic glamour in historic St. Joseph.
Soon guests and residents could enjoy even more, both inside and outside, as a 1/2 cent sales tax increase hits the ballot, with revenues dedicated to renovation and enhancements of the city’s parks system. If approved, the tax increase would generate an additional $5 to 6 million dollars per year and could be shared across dozens of projects.