Courtesy of Greater St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau
Cradle of the West
The guide pointed to one of a dozen pelts on a table. “That there’s not a skunk. That’s genuine Alaskan sable.” It was a skunk, the guide admitted, but to the European fur market in the early 1800s, the term Alaskan sable sold better.
“See that coonskin cap over there,” the guide continued. “Nobody around here wore coonskin caps, but they were sold back east as genuine frontier wear.”
Those furry fables are among several unexpected lessons when visitors enter Missouri’s First State Capitol building in St. Charles. After all, when Missouri’s first legislators came to this frontier capitol, they walked into a dry goods store, with skins and hats, powder and pelts and fabrics. On the way upstairs to the capitol, they might stop to buy a brick of tea, the way they sold it around here.
Upstairs, the tiny governor’s office and the senate chamber flank the not-much-larger house of representatives, with its rows of benches and an 1804 King James Bible. Legislators stayed warm beside a stove at one end of the room and a fireplace at the other. Beef tallow candles offered dim light in these chambers, the cradle of democracy in a frontier state that would launch a million ships west. If your ancestors migrated west, it’s a good bet they passed through St. Charles, whether they were traveling by boat or overland trail.
The old customs house stands proudly on Main Street, just as it did when all westward travelers were obliged to stop to register. Sometimes they would spend the night in the customs house, especially on Saturday night, since the law prohibited traveling on Sunday.
Borromeo, Wherefore Art Thou?
Before there was a state of Missouri or a capitol or a customs house, or even a United States of America, a French Canadian fur trader named Louis Blanchette arrived by river to a spot he named Les Petits Cotes, the little hills. He and a group of French Canadian hunters and farmers established a settlement there that began to thrive. Because the French had earlier ceded the land to the Spanish crown, Spanish officials renamed the tiny town San Carlos Borromeo to honor King Carlos IV.
When Thomas Jefferson engineered the Louisiana Purchase, he sent William Clark and Meriwether Lewis on a mission to map America’s new western addition and find a water route to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis and Clark arrived in San Carlos Borromeo in 1804. Shortly after they pressed onward into the wilderness, the town’s French and English inhabitants began calling the town St. Charles. During the decades of America’s westward expansion, St. Charles was the launching point for expeditions and dreams. It shows in the facades of its lovingly preserved buildings, in the faces of its famous inhabitants, and the pathways that led from St. Charles to a new world.
A Succession of Superhighways
St. Charles began as a Crossroads of America. It still is. The first mile of federal interstate highway system started right here. And Lambert-St. Louis International Airport sits only seven miles away. Of course, the river was the first highway for trappers, traders, explorers, and settlers, but overland trails evolved quickly. In 1825, President John Quincy Adams authorized a bill by Senator Thomas Hart Benton to survey the road called the Highway Among Nations. You know it as the Santa Fe Trail, but locals called it the Boonslick Road, because it led past a central Missouri salt lick operated by the sons of St. Charles county judge Daniel Boone. In 1850, the Boonslick Road was planked for about ten miles, from downtown St. Charles over what is now Route N in St. Charles County.
Recently, the city recreated a portion of the old plank road, alongside the road that enters historic St. Charles and the riverfront.
Many of America’s most historic names had a rendezvous with St. Charles, and you can see, hear, and touch their history. Daniel Boone. Lewis and Clark. Zebulon Pike. Joseph Robidoux, founder of St. Joseph and Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable. Du Sable, known as “The Black Frenchman,” lived near Frenchtown for the last ten years of his life. The son of a French sea captain and a black ex-slave, du Sable established a small trading post on the Chicago River that grew into the city of big shoulders. In later life, he settled in St. Charles with his grandchildren, instructing them to bury him with Catholic rites in a Catholic cemetery. He is believed to be buried somewhere in the old St. Borromeo Cemetery.
He died in 1818, the same year Mother Philippine Duchesne arrived in town to build the first free girls’ school west of the Mississippi. For her pioneering work among settlers and Indians, she was beatified by the Vatican in 1940 and is buried in a shrine on the grounds of her Academy of the Sacred Heart, on the fringe of the Frenchtown Historic District. The shrine exhibits artifacts from the life of Sainte Philippine Duchesne, including a stained-glass window that hung on the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on the morning of her canonization, July 3, 1988.
The same year Lewis and Clark left for the wilderness, a toddler named Mary Easton arrived in St. Louis with her parents. Less than a dozen years later, George Sibley met Mary, and although more than twice her age, he was smitten. They married, and together they influenced the lives of thousands of Missourians. He surveyed the Santa Fe Trail and was the agent in charge of Fort Osage in western Missouri, where she taught American Indian children. Although the couple often disagreed on issues such as slavery (she supported and helped protect the abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy), they believed in the power of knowledge. Together they returned to St. Charles, and in 1827, they founded the Linden Wood School for Girls, the second-oldest institution of higher learning west of the Mississippi. Today, Lindenwood University is a testament to Mary Easton Sibley’s trailblazing for equal rights for women.
A Walk into History
A few years ago, a major magazine called St. Charles the “Williamsburg of the West.” Comparisons to Williamsburg are common, but there’s a subtle difference. Williamsburg is a delightful time capsule, presenting one specific period of America’s proud history. As you walk the streets of St. Charles, you realize that this community lives and breathes in historic settings that span several eras over its 250 years.
Case in point: The actual city of St. Charles celebrated the two hundredth birthday of its name in 2009.
St. Charles has a deep respect for its history. The Main Street historic district is packed into ten blocks, but it’s easily walkable. If you prefer, take the trolley as it winds among more than 125 unique shops packed with art, antiques, furniture, florals, textiles, and jewelry. There’s even an informative iPod walking tour.
Authentic and Affordable
The first thing that you’ll notice is the authenticity of this village. These buildings shout reality, right down to the horsehair plaster applied by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century slaves. The next thing you’ll notice is that most every attraction offers free admission.
Old homes and street lamps line the replica plank road at the entrance of the historic district. Reaching the junction to America’s past, the circa 1790 mill, now the Trail Head Brewery, welcomes hungry travelers.
Turn the corner at Boonslick and Main, where a Conestoga wagon marks the beginning of the Boonslick Road. A wedding party pours out of the replica 1791 San Carlos Borromeo church; a French vertical log structure built just the way the original was commissioned in 1791.
Among the lovingly preserved historic shops and bed-and-breakfasts, the architecture of Odd Fellows Hall still sings the way it did when music floated from its second floor music hall. The solid shops of Stone Row still face the old state capitol the way they did back in the 1820s.
The young capital city hosted four governors in five years. Then, as planned, St. Charles yielded the state capitol to Jefferson City, a tiny out- post on the rim of civilization. State leaders realized that as millions of settlers moved west, Jefferson City would become the centrally located gathering spot for the future.
Largest Historic District in Missouri
The old Market & Fish House is now a genealogy museum. The 1838 Newbill/McIlheney house displays hundreds of pieces of period Havoline China. The Grand Opera House, the second opera house on the site, once featured Howard Hughes’ father in a play. Hughes the younger would father an airline, TWA, which was headquartered seven miles away from this spot where Lewis and Clark left civilization on an uncharted route west. Down the street along Tavern Square, Eckert’s Tavern was the scene of many deals, including the drafting of the Santa Fe Trail.
The Frenchtown historic district is a vibrant old neighborhood featuring French architecture, mansard roofs everywhere you look. With its antique horse-drawn fire wagon, the Frenchtown Museum and Heritage Center is the perfect spot to start your tour of thirty-eight historic properties in Frenchtown. You’ll find more than 20 unique shops, with authentic furniture, glassware, and linens.
The people of St. Charles have always been innovators. In fact, the term soda pop originated right here, on 600 South Main Street. Behind that residence, Jacob Zeisler established a bottling plant for soda water. When folks would open his product by prying off the bottle cap, it would sound with a pop. And soda pop became a part of our culture. Today, www.sodamuseum.com, based right here in St. Charles, is the largest online source for authentic soda-related items for sale in the world.
The only thing little about the Festival of the Little Hills is in its name. Every August for three days, a quarter million people pack Frontier Park and Main Street to mix with three hundred vendors from thirty states. They all enjoy live music, street performers, entertainment, live demonstrations, food, and fun.
St. Charles also celebrates Christmas Traditions, the nation’s premier month-long Christmas Festival. Main Street comes alive with period characters in costumes, moving among more than 10,000 feet of live greenery, 1,000 handmade bows, and tens of thousands of Christmas lights. Imagine scenes from of a Dickens novel—the good scenes, mostly. The Yule Log spreads warmth, Frontier Santa spreads good cheer, and the whole town offers spreads of good food.
In addition, throughout the year St. Charles hosts 24 festivals and events, including Lewis & Clark Heritage Days, Oktoberfest, Riverfest, the Festival of Ice, and a Scottish celebration called Tartan Days.
Frontier Park, the site of many of these events, stretches along the riverfront between the Boat House and the Foundry Art Centre. There, you’ll find the historic old Katy railroad depot, restored to its 1895 Victorian gothic glory. Warm weather concerts waft from the Jaycees Bandstand.
While Frontier Park may be the city’s most visible venue, it’s not the only park in town. Upriver, two more city parks border the Missouri River. Altogether, 19 city parks spread over 660 acres. And that doesn’t count the world’s longest, skinniest state park, the Katy Trail, which runs right by the St. Charles riverfront, or the state park at the confluence of America’s two mightiest rivers.
Those rivers delivered German settlers to the area during the 1800s, and they instantly recognized the land’s potential. They established a wine industry that served America until Prohibition dealt the vineyards a blow. Today the fruit of the vine is back, and better than ever!
Recognized as the first federally approved American Viticultural Area, the Historic Missouri Wine Country’s nine wineries join with Wine Country Gardens to offer something new: several guided bus tours of the wineries, shops, and history around three delightful communities. Enjoy Augusta’s Wine Hall and a walking tour through the historic Walnut Street Architectural District. In pastoral New Melle, see the oldest working pipe organ west of the Mississippi, and the Boone Duden Museum. Walk in Daniel Boone’s footsteps in Defiance.
The Greater St. Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau promotes Greater St. Charles—the whole county from east to west, top to bottom. It’s a diverse area, with exciting contrasts through both urban and rural landscapes.
Visit www.historicstcharles.com or call 800-366-2427 for more information.