In my opinion the best place in the St. Louis area associated with the explorers is St. Charles, a town on the Missouri River about thirty minutes west of St. Louis.
With it’s tree-shaded brick streets and stone and brick buildings with real wood shutters, it feels historic. St. Charles was the first permanent settlement on the Missouri River. The French founders called it Les Petites Cotes (little hills). A sign in the town says it was first settled in 1769 (before the American Revolution) and officially founded in 1780 (a year before Yorktown). It’s historic district running nine or so blocks along the river is filled with restaurants and shops of all kinds – antiques, collectibles, crafts, goods from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (couldn’t find goods from France!) and tsochkes of all kinds. It oozes charm and character.
When I lived in St. Louis and was missing access to the eighteenth century places I loved in the East, I decided that St. Charles was probably the closest thing to a Williamsburg I could find west of the Mississippi.
William Clark arrived in town with his expedition on May 16, 1804. They stayed a few days awaiting Meriwether Lewis’s arrival from St. Louis. The journals record that “a number [of] spectators French and Indians flocked to the bank to see the party. This village is about one mile in length, situated on the north side of the Missouri at the foot of a hill from which it takes its name… This village contains about 100 houses… and about 450 inhabitants chiefly French, those people appear poor, polite, and harmonious.”
During the brief stay, the town made them feel at home with dances and dinners. It was the last bit of “civilization” they would see until their return in September 1806. Several of the men were disciplined for being absent without leave and insubordination.
Today the town is proud of its Lewis and Clark connection. A huge boathouse on the bank of the Missouri holds the replica boats used by the area’s Lewis and Clark re-enactment group. A small museum explains the expedition. A large statue of the two explorers with dog Seaman sits in a spacious park along the river. The dirty river is wide at this point and rolls along at a decent pace, carrying debris collected on the journey from its source in distant western Montana.
I like when history sites don’t require me to tax my imagination, when they offer enough genuine evidence from a time period to help the mind paint a picture of what could have been. St. Louis lost a lot of its historic core when the Arch was built. St. Charles managed to keep its historic buildings. It cares for preservation and those that seek Lewis and Clark will be rewarded in St. Charles.
Have you been to St. Charles? What did you think?