May 9, 2018
The Murals of Downtown St. Joseph
Written by Beth Conway | Photos by Patrick Evenson
DEFINITION: Showing a particular feeling, thought, mood; conveying a story.
The drive throughout downtown has become more colorful in the last five years, thanks to the creation of larger than life murals that convey the unique spirit of St. Joseph. Beginning in 2013, seven murals have been painted on or in various downtown buildings showcasing St. Joseph’s uncommon, historic past.
With many of muralist Sam Welty’s paintings, he allows the public and even children to assist in their creation. The special thing about Welty is his versatility, or the ability to paint any image, as opposed to being tied to a certain genre. It’s also the feeling of being truly connected to a community that helps Welty dig deep and take real ownership of his creations, even though he may not be from the area.
“Before the first mural project even began, I was delighted and impressed with the city and, more so the people of St. Joseph. They were so welcoming and encouraging from the start. Sometimes this is not the case, but St. Joe has been wonderful to visit and learn to appreciate as a second hometown. I have made so many friends and learned so much about the area’s history that it is easy to feel like the more I visit, the more I belong. The people have such a commitment to their mutual history and heritage that, even when there may be disagreement, they are able to find the common ground of caring and community,” Welty said.
The first mural located along Edmond Street between Fifth and Sixth streets depicts the city’s cornerstone prominence as the “Gateway to the West,” during westward expansion. Entitled Queen of the River Towns, King of the Trails, the image of wagon trains and settlers covers the backside of six buildings spanning a city block and at several points exceed 100 feet in height.
Around the corner on Seventh Street, between Edmond and Felix Streets, is the Native American Mural featuring Chief Keokuk. It depicts him peering around at the settlers in the adjoining scene. Chief Keokuk fought in the Black Hawk War in Illinois, along with future President Abraham Lincoln. Later he would lead the Sac and Fox tribes, but would fall into disfavor with other Native Americans because of his support of the United States government. The other renderings in the mural are those of ancient tribal elders.
The third mural entitled, Days of Civil War, portrays the town’s early involvement in the American Civil War, consisting of the infamous train wreck on the Platte River Bridge at the hands of guerrillas. The mural also features the Union fortification called Fort Smith (which was recently located atop Prospect Hill in north St. Joseph), and the Provost Marshal’s headquarters in the Patee House Hotel, along with Union Troops. Lastly, there is an image of President Abraham Lincoln, who visited the city twice in 1859. This mural is located on Edmond between Sixth and Seventh streets.
A musically-themed mural at Coleman Hawkins Park on Felix Street Square displays five of St. Joseph’s more notable musicians. Music has a strong history in St. Joseph and the artists included in the Musicians of St. Joseph are Coleman Hawkins, Saxophone Jazz Legend; Bugsy Maugh, a celebrated Blues favorite and well-known father of musicians Larry and Lin Buck; Jeff Lux, musical artist, and finally, Steve Walsh, the lead singer in the rock group Kansas.
The fifth mural is on the north side of the Bolin Hydraulic Building at Ninth & Penn streets, directly west of the Pony Express National Museum, and is dedicated to the progression of the community as a western transportation hub for the country. The Pony Express portrays Johnny Fry as the first Pony Express Rider, followed by a stage coach and a period locomotive. In 1859, St. Joseph became the western terminus of nation’s railroad leading in part to the Pony Express, which carried the mail to Sacramento, Calif., from 1860-1861.
Mural six is The Castle at Krug Park. The land comprising the largest park in St. Joseph was deeded to the City by the Krug family. For many years, the Castle served as administrative offices for the Parks Department and even included a zoo with a bear on display. The park is a beautiful setting where families can picnic, feed the ducks, fish, view special events, and occasionally hear a concert.
Finally, the latest of Welty’s creations is located inside the St. Joseph Visitors Bureau administrative offices at 911 Frederick Ave. Welty was commissioned by the Buchanan County Tourism Board to paint a mural for the new Visitors Bureau that opened in August of 2017. In December of 2017, over the course of a week, he painted Welcome to St. Joseph. Based loosely off a historically accurate painting from the 1800s, this is the view our founding father, Joseph Robidoux, would have seen when he settled here 175 years ago. Today, a 1200-pound bronze statue of Robidoux, sculpted by famed artist Joe Beeler, proudly stands in front of a beautiful mural depicting the banks of the Missouri River and his first trading post in the city.
Sam Welty is of Virginia Beach, Virginia. He is well known on the East Coast for his many renderings and has painted numerous unique impressions.
“The murals that have come to life in St. Joe offer so much to the local landscape so anything specific is difficult to put into words. When I take a moment to recall the look of the downtown area only a few years ago, the drastic improvements are staggering! There have been so many people working so hard to bring new life to downtown, it never ceases to impress and amaze me. I am proud to have been a part of that incredible transformation!” Welty said.