Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Cape Girardeau, the Great River Road, and Beyond

Our trip continues as we venture on to explore Cape Girardeau, Missouri. The city, situated along the Mississippi River, was first established as temporary trading post around 1733. Soon, many fur traders came to the area and the town was officially incorporated in 1808, prior to Missouri statehood. The advent of the steamboat in 1835 led it to become the biggest port on the Mississippi River between Saint Louis and Memphis. The Battle of Cape Girardeau during the Civil War took place here on April 26, 1863 when the Union and Confederate armies collided in a fierce, four-hour artillery barrage in which 23 Union and 30 Confederate soldiers were killed. Today, this historic city features 39 sites that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Of these, eight are historic districts, which include multiple contributing properties.

We start out at Fort D. It was constructed in 1861 by Union troops at the same time as three other Cape Girardeau forts. Construction began on August 6, 1861, under the direction of Lieutenant John W. Powell from Illinois. Reportedly, Fort D housed both 24 and 32-pound cannons, which would easily control any upriver movement on the Mississippi River. In order to keep warm during the winters, soldiers dug artificial caves in the hillside below the fort and stayed in these. In 1936, the site was purchased by the American Legion post, and the earthworks were restored to their original height, with some modifications. A stone building, constructed in the middle of the fort at the site of the original powder-house, was dedicated to the city and today is part of the City of Cape Girardeau Parks & Recreation Department. Fort D did not see action during the Battle of Cape Girardeau and probably never fired its guns in anger, serving mostly as a symbolic deterrent. The earthwork walls remain intact and historical signage throughout the fort's grounds bring its storied past to life.

We then head on down to the Mississippi River and the historic downtown district. Here, we check out the historic Common Pleas Courthouse, Port Cape Girardo, and the many other historic buildings.

We then begin our trek up the Great River Road, with our first stop at the Trail of Tears State Park. Though there is a great overlook of the Mississippi River and the the Bushyhead Memorial, which commemorates all the Cherokee who died on the trail, there is very little history of the Trail of Tears itself. The history is probably featured in the Visitor's Center, which was closed, but there are no interpretive signs in the park which show the trail or describe the harsh conditions that the Cherokee faced during their trek. Thousands lost their lives on the trail, including dozens on or near the park’s grounds. Though probably a campers' and hikers' paradise, the park offered little for a history buff like me.

We head north on the Great River Road until we are forced to detour back west due to road construction. But, that was definitely ok, when we run into another lil' semi-ghost town called Oak Ridge. This tiny village of less than 200 folks has a couple of antique stores and some very interesting historic buildings.

Back on track, I'm thrilled to enter Old Appleton, another semi-ghost town of about 80 souls. Here is the beautifully restored 1879 Old Appleton Bridge, as well as a couple of other historic buildings.

Heading north, we wind up in Illinois at the Kaskaskia Village. Confused as to how we crossed the Mississippi River without knowing it, we soon find out that the boundary between Missouri and Illinois here is not the river, as the "Big Muddy" shifted long ago due to flooding. Later, after doing a bit of research, I find that a curse goes along with old Kaskaskia. I'm sure you'll be hearing more about that on the website.

We then continue on our trek up to the very historic city of Ste. Genevieve, labeled "Missouri's Most Historic Town." This still small village today, Ste. Genevieve was established somewhere between 1722 and 1749. The first permanent European settlement in what now is the state of Missouri, the community was established as a trading outpost and was later settled by lead miners, farmers and fur traders. Before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the dominant architecture was French Creole with wooden homes built in several styles. Most of these homes feature galeries, or porches, surrounding the homes. Most of the earlier French structures are gone, but Ste. Genevieve holds the distinction of the having the largest concentration of French Colonial buildings in the country. Three of these buildings - the Amoureux, the Bolduc, and the Guibourd-Valle houses - are open to the public.

From here, we head westward to the Missouri Mines State Historic Site in Park Hills, Missouri. Momentarily, I feel as if I'm in Colorado, surrounded by mining equipment and ore tailings. Located in an area known as the Old Lead Belt, this region was the nation's major source of lead for more than 60 years. Serious small-scale mining for lead began in Southeast Missouri about 1720. A large demand for lead in the late 19th century brought major corporate enterprises to the Old Lead Belt, leaving behind more than 1,000 miles of abandoned multilevel mine tunnels and 300 miles of underground railroad tracks.

In 1975, the St. Joseph Lead Co. donated the 25 buildings of their largest mine-mill complex and the surrounding land to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. These properties became Missouri Mines State Historic Site and St. Joe State Park. The 19,000 square-foot mine-mill powerhouse has been developed into a large museum that interprets Missouri's mining history and displays old mining machinery and an outstanding mineral collection.

One last stop at Fort Davidson in Pilot Knob, Missouri. Here, was one of the largest and most hard-fought battles in Missouri -- the Battle of Pilot Knob. It occurred when Confederate Major General Sterling Price invaded Missouri from Arkansas, leading an army of 12,000 men. On September 26-27, 1864, while en route to the St. Louis area, Price attacked the weakly defended Union post. Though greatly outnumbered, the 1,450 Union soldiers at Fort Davidson defended the fort, killing some 1,000 Confederates. Today, a visitor center interprets the battle and the earthworks of the old fort can still be seen.

We then circle back to Cape Girardeau for a good night's sleep and continue on tomorrow.

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