Have you ever heard of a town called St. Charles, Missouri? Yeah, probably not. How about St. Louis? Yes, of course you have heard of St. Louis. In fact, when you think of St. Louis you probably think of the Mississippi River, the St. Louis Arch, and the start of the Lewis & Clark expedition to discover the West. However during our recent visit to Missouri, we were surprised to discover the importance of a little town outside of St. Louis, called St. Charles. Not only is St. Charles the original Missouri capital, this beautifully preserved historical city was the actual launching point for the Lewis and Clark Journey and others who braved westward expansion.
St. Charles, Missouri – the Original State Capitol
St. Charles was founded back in 1769 by a French-Canadian as a fur trading post. After all, this area was claimed by the French back during that time. But in 1804 the area was transferred to the US as a part of the Louisiana Purchase. It officially became the state capital of Missouri in 1921, but only lasted until 1926.
This historic city has a beautiful main street area, with 26 blocks of more than two dozen homes built in the 19th century Colonial Style. This area was home to a number of important businesses that provided the goods needed for early pioneers. The river provided important transportation, and in later years, the railroad stopped at nearby Katy Depot on a regular basis.
Boone’s Lick Road – the Official Starting Point for Westward Expansion
The now famous Daniel Boone actually moved to the St. Chalres area from Kentucky. He was known for being a good fur trader with the Indians and first created a trail following old Indian paths. These paths originally led to a salt spring nearby. Salt was critical to early pioneers because it helped to preserve meat. Ultimately this trail became known as Boone’s Lick Road, the original start of the trails leading west to California, Oregon, and New Mexico. This made St. Charles the last point where pioneers could get their supplies before setting off into the unknown, on their journey of westward expansion.
The Lewis & Clark Expedition Actually Launched from St. Charles, Missouri
More than 200 years ago, President Thomas Jefferson asked two men to explore the newly acquired land from the Louisiana Purchase. Their mission was to locate a pathway to the Pacific Ocean. and pave the way for westward expansion of the United States. These men, Meriwether Lewis & William Clark, set up the Corps of Discovery’s encampment here along the banks of the Missouri River in St. Charles. Many of us believe that Lewis & Clark set off on their journey from St. Louis, but technically, it began at St. Charles. Just up the Missouri River from St. Louis, St. Charles was really the very last place of civilization where they could get their final supplies for the journey.
In fact, their going away party was held at an inconspicuous home in St. Charles that still stands today. The Trayon house was where Lewis and Clark’s going away party was the night before they left. 3 men were supposed to stay down by the river to watch the supplies; however, they could hear the party going on and couldn’t resist! They ended up leaving the supplies and going to the party. They returned late the next day, hungover, and were publicly flogged before being sent on the journey!
At half past three on May 21, 1804, their boat & team of explorers departed St. Charles. They worked their way up the Missouri River, and ultimately made it to the source. This was a dangerous and exhausting journey. Not only did they have to haul their boats and gear up river (without the help of modern machinery), but they encountered natural landscapes that challenged them, such as water falls that required them to remove the boats from the water and carry them up hill! Braving harsh weather conditions, they also encountered Indians, who were ultimately critical to the success of their mission to the Pacific, as well as new animals and plants.
Visiting St. Charles, Missouri Today
St. Charles is a wonderful, and charming town to visit. This lovely town really feels like you have stepped back in time. With the cobblestone streets and historic buildings dating back to the late 1700’s or early 1800’s. This area is rich with history and stories from a time gone by.
We highly recommend stopping into the tourism office so that you can pick up useful information about town, including a walking tour of St. Charles that will explain the history of the town and buildings. This is a great way to explore! Beyond the history, there are some great shops and restaurants along Main Street, and then you can pop over 1 block to the park along the Missouri River to relax or go for a scenic walk down the Katy Trail. Renting a bike at the local bike shop is also a great way to explore the area!
Events & Festivals Year Round in St. Charles, Missouri
We could tell that St. Charles always has a reason to celebrate! We were actually in town for a Geocaching Event, but they also had the Missouri River Irish Festival taking place in town as well. This made for a really fun weekend of festivities! These events were held in Frontier Park, just 1 block from Main Street in St. Charles, and rests alongside the Missouri River. This is a wonderful venue for events, and the Katy Trail runs alongside as well
Upon stopping in the tourism office, we learned of many other events that are held in St. Charles year round. Over the Fourth of July Holiday weekend they have “Riverfest” which is a huge celebration with parades, music, food, and fireworks all along the river. We could tell that with the history of this place, that would be a really cool event to check out!
Apparently, the town goes all out for Christmas too. Decorating town and people dressing up in period costumes looks to be a lot of fun. Of course their is Oktoberfest, as well as Halloween festivities too. Musical concerts seem to take place year-round, as well as farmers markets and craft festivals. Another hugely important event is, of course, Lewis and Clark Heritage Days – which are in May each year. This event includes reenactments, parades, a military encampment, fife & drum muster, musket and cannon demonstrations, along with period music and food. This event is a really awesome experience for history buffs and families!
St. Charles is Still a Normal Town
Being such an important and historic town, St. Charles is a wonderful tourist destination. With so many activities, shops, restaurants, events, and natural beauty, travelers will really enjoy their visit. However, St. Charles doesn’t necessarily feel like just a tourist town. This is a real town, with locals going about their daily lives. As someone from their tourism office put it “St. Charles isn’t just an old town full of tourists wandering the streets. Some of the buildings on main street are still lived in, just like back in the day, and these are real businesses who cater to more than just tourists. Locals come to this are to do their shopping and dining out. This is still a real town that is thriving, it just happens to be really old and important!”
We love that quote and think that it sums up St. Charles perfectly. So next time you are looking for a road trip or a family adventure, don’t overlook this small town of St. Charles, Missouri. We absolutely loved our visit and were completely blown away at what we found. It wasn’t at all what we were expecting, but we were so glad that we discovered St. Charles.