Tag Archives: Missouri

Missouri Continues

Hermann 3After roaming central Missouri for a whole long day (which you can read about it in the previous entry) the time came to find some place to stay overnight. So during one of our usual pit stops, when we refuel the car, stock up on coffee (for my girlfriend), cold coke with plenty of ice (for myself) and chocolate (for both of us), we opened our vast array of maps and started deliberating about where to go. It was then when I spotted the small town of Hermann located on the banks of the Missouri river, less than an hour from our current location. Somehow I remembered from one of the many guidebooks on the US I have read over the years that it was supposed to be a nice historic place.

In fact Hermann turned out to be a real gem. Located about 80 miles west of St Louis it was established in 1837 by the Deutsche Ansiedlungs-Gesellschaft zu Philadelphia (German Settlement Society of Philadelphia) and named after Hermann der Cherusker, a Germanic leader who defeated the Romans in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD (his mildly kitschy statue in the town was dedicated in 2009).

HermannNowadays this small place (population only about 2500) is a centre of the, so called, Missouri Rhineland. Located mostly in the Missouri River Valley this area is named for its similarities to the Rhineland region in Germany and for the German settlers who determined that this part of Missouri would be good for grape growing. German influences as well as connections with Philadelphia are visible throughout the town. For example most of the historic buildings are constructed with bricks and they really resemble some of the Philadelphia’s old neighbourhoods. In fact Hermann has over 110 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, many of them converted to lovely B&Bs and guest houses.

We managed to get a really good price for a room in one of the inns in the centre of the town. It probably helped that we arrived mid-week and outside the main tourist season. During our visit the town was actually quite deserted but that suited us fine as we could see that it was the sort of place which gets swamped by visitors during the summer weekends. Instead we had its charming streets pretty much to ourselves.Harbour Haus Inn

The following day we headed east towards Saint Louis, but we passed its downtown and went straight across the Mississippi River to one of its eastern suburbs (located actually in Illinois) to see one of the most unique sites in this part of the US, the Cahokia Mounds. This historic park is one of only 21 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States and is located on the site of an ancient Native American city (c. 600–1400CE).

Cahokia Monks MoundCahokia was the largest and most influential urban settlement in the Mississippian culture which developed advanced societies across much of what is now the Southeastern United States, beginning more than 500 years before the European contact. At its peak in the 1200s it was among the largest cities in the world and its ancient population would not be surpassed by any city in the United States until the late 18th century. Today, Cahokia Mounds is considered the largest and most complex archaeological site north of the great Pre-Columbian cities in Mexico.

Part of the complex is its fascinating museum displaying Mississippian culture artefacts unearthed during many of the archaeological digs as well as explaining what we know about this culture (not that much at all). But of course the highlight of the visit was the climb to the top of the Monks Mounds which apparently is the largest man-made earthen mound in the North American continent. From its top, located about 30 meters above the ground, you can see many of the 80 mounds which are part of the whole site. There is also a splendid view towards the downtown St Louis with its skyscrapers and the famous Gateway Arch well visible.

Gateway ArchAnd that’s where we headed next. Yes, it is super touristy, with security checks, a queuing system based on Disney attractions and bus-loads of schoolchildren but we simply couldn’t resist the idea of riding to its top. Also, let’s face it, as an engineering marvel it was really too strong a temptation for geeks like us.

The arch is 192 meters tall (still the tallest arch in the world) and is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. It was designed as a monument to the westward expansion of the United States by the famous Finnish-American architect, Eero Saarinen who won the design competition in 1948. However construction only started in 1962 and lasted until 1967 when the monument finally opened to the public.

Of course I have seen the arch in books and on TV but in reality it turned out to be way more impressive than I expected. It looked so light and fragile that it was hard to believe how it can stand at all. The structure is made of two layers of welded steel with concrete poured between them. The outside layer is made of shiny stainless steel and the arch has equilateral triangle cross-section. All this makes it really blend with the sky. Seriously, if you stand directly underneath and look up it practically disappears.Gateway Arch 2

To get to the top of the arch we had to ride in a strange and claustrophobic tram. Basically each of the absolutely tiny capsules seats 5 people and makes you feel like an astronaut during a launch as everything is shaking and making noises during the journey up. But the views from the top reward all the scary moments as well as the queues to the tram. To the east you can see the mighty Mississippi and to the west the downtown St Louis with all its skyscrapers, spaghetti junctions, baseball stadium and straight long avenues stretching towards the western horizon. It is really hard not to take plenty of pictures.St Louis

After safely getting back to the ground level we wandered a bit around the downtown in search of something to eat and I have to say that it doesn’t really impress. I mean you can see some fantastic architecture (mostly from the pre-war period) but there isn’t much happening and the whole place looks way too quiet for its size and the size of the grand buildings. Or too big for the amount of people on the streets. Well, that is the price of suburbanisation, the US downtowns are way less lively than European cities of similar sizes.

We decided not to spend the night in St Louis but instead drove about 60 miles south along the Mississippi river to yet another small historic town, Ste. Genevieve (named after Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris).

Ste Genevie 2Founded in 1735 by the French Canadians it is the oldest permanent European settlement in Missouri as well as one of the oldest colonial settlements west of the Mississippi River. Similarly to Hermann, where we started our day, there are many old buildings giving this small town a really pleasant feel. However in Ste Genevieve the buildings are older. The oldest of them, described as “French Creole colonial”, were all built during Spanish rule. For example the oldest surviving buildings like Louis Bolduc House or the Bauvis/Amoureux House were constructed in the 1790s. Ancient by American standards.

Like in Hermann we spent our evening leisurely strolling around the town photographing many of its historic structures. Unfortunately, unlike in Hermann, we didn’t manage to find reasonably priced accommodation in the town (arriving late on Friday didn’t help) and had to drive to its outskirts and book ourselves into characterless but cheap local motel. Still I found our stop in historic Ste Genevieve worthwhile and would recommend it to anyone (especially if you are interested in colonial history).

Ste GenevieIt was about to be our final night in the fascinating and varied state of Missouri as the South was calling us. I have to say that we really enjoyed the Show Me State. It offers a great mix of historic sites, varied landscapes, small towns and big cities. It is worth mentioning that apart from St Louis Kansas City (which I visited few years ago) is also located in Missouri. If you are looking for a real America, Missouri is one of the places where you can find it.


Ha Ha Tonka Natural BridgeMissouri, “The Show Me State”, is part of the Midwest heartland which is not often visited by foreign tourists (or American ones for that matter). This fact is probably one of the reasons why I enjoyed it quite a lot. Apart of course from the fact that is has surprisingly a lot to offer.

We entered Missouri via the interstate 44 travelling east from Oklahoma and headed straight to the centre of the state, where we decided to have a lunch break in one of the state parks, specifically in the quirky named Ha Ha Tonka State Park. I’m not kidding you, it is a real name and according to some sources it means “the laughing waters” in one of the native languages. The park preserves examples of karst geology, among them sinkholes, springs (I guess that’s where the name comes from) and a quite impressive natural bridge, more than 23 meters wide and spanning about 20 meters. But the really unique feature of this park are the ruins of a castle. Yes, a castle.Ha Ha Tonka Castle

A wealthy Kansas City businessman, one Robert M. Snyder, wanted an European-style castle as his country retreat. Construction started in 1905 but when Snyder died the next year in a car accident his sons finished it and subsequently leased it as a hotel. Eventually it burned down in 1942. Since then only the picturesque ruins remain. They are located on top of a steep rock visible from across the valley and offering stunning views of the karst landscape of central Missouri. A great place for a lunch stop and a walk.

From Ha Ha Tonka we drove about 60 miles north to Jefferson City which is the capital of Missouri. Let’s face it, I simply couldn’t resist visiting yet another state capitol. And I’m really glad I succumbed to my weakness as it turned out to be one of the most interesting capitol buildings I have visited during all my voyages across America. The classic “capitol-looking” building opened in 1917 after the previous building burned in 1911. Its dome reaches 73 meters above the ground and is topped with a statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. The most interesting aspect of the capitol design is this sort of symbolic statuary, as well as the paintings decorating the interior. Outside, either side of the impressive main steps on the south side of the building, there are two statues representing two great rivers which meet in the state, Mississippi (the male statue) and Missouri (the female statue). In front of the steps, and dominating the entrance, is a large statue of Thomas Jefferson. The columns on the south portico are 15 meters tall and really give the building the look of a Roman or Greek temple. There is also a frieze showing the history of Missouri. On the north side of the building, just by the river, there is a bronze relief, depicting the signing of the Louisiana Purchase by Livingston, Monroe and Marbois, and the Fountain of the Centaurs.Missouri State Capitol 2

The interior of the capitol is no less symbolic or impressive. Most of the grand central hall under the dome is covered with murals depicting the people of Missouri. To give you some examples, the murals are called: “The Miner”, “The Scientist”, “The Builder” etc. Like in many capitols the similarities with the art of communist Eastern Europe is striking. In the wings of the building there are over 40 lunettes (semi circular paintings) depicting the history of Missouri and its resources.Inside Missouri State Capitol

There is so much art and architectural detail in the building that we could have spent hours there. If we were Missourians we could contact our state representative and tour even more parts of the capitol, including top of the dome. But, as we don’t have any representative, we decided that enough is enough and went to have a walk around the town. Jefferson City is a rather small but quite pleasant place, located picturesquely on a high bluff over the Missouri river. It has quite a decent main street but apart from the capitol there is not much else really to see or do. So after getting a quick bite we were on the road again.

25 miles north of Jefferson City we arrived at the small town of Fulton (population around 12,000), which was actually the main reason why we were in this neck of the woods in the first place. So what’s so special in Fulton? Well, it is home to the National Churchill Museum which includes an historic London church relocated there stone by stone. Now, I’m really interested (not to say obsessed) with the general and political history of America and with the transatlantic links, while my girlfriend is really into archaeology and building conservation. We simply couldn’t skip a place like that.

So, let’s start from the beginning. In 1946 president Truman invited Churchill to give a speech in his native state of Missouri and chose Fulton’s Westminster College as a site as he had a close aide who graduated there. Churchill gave his “Sinews of Peace” speech there in March 1946 in which he used the famous phrase: “an ‘iron curtain’ has descended across the continent.” . At the time it wasn’t seen as particularly important but it quickly became one of the most famous of the Churchill speeches.

St. Mary Aldermanbury ChurchNow, let’s move to 1962. St. Mary Aldermanbury, one of the Christopher Wren’s churches, is lying in ruins in the heart of the City of London, only its tower and shell remaining. It was bombed and burned during the war and its remains were soon to be demolished. At the same time a LIFE magazine feature on war-ravaged, soon-to-be-demolished Christopher Wren churches in London prompted the suggestion to import one of the churches to Fulton to serve as both a memorial and the College chapel. Eventually St. Mary Aldermanbury was chosen and its remains were shipped, stone by stone, from London to the tiny Fulton. Then the foundation stone of the reconstruction was laid in October 1966, 300 years after the Great Fire of London. After rebuilding the exterior walls the interior was also meticulously recreated based on pre-war photographs. And that’s how small Fulton in the rural heart of Missouri ended with a classic bit of London architecture.

St. Mary Aldermanbury InteriorWe arrived just in time to get inside the church, we got there literally less than 15 minutes before closing. It was weird feeling to see a church like that in a place like this. In the basement there is a display about Churchill, his speech, war politics and the cold war but we skipped it and headed straight upstairs to see the reconstructed interior. Suddenly everything looked like we were teleported back to London, a bizarre effect. After a quick tour of the interior we had a walk around the campus. Apart from the church there is also a fragment of the Berlin Wall and a Churchill statue. Overall the whole place has a really quirky feel, especially on this small campus in rural Missouri. Fulton is way smaller even than Jefferson City and its main street was largely deserted by 5pm.Westminster College Campus

There was no point in hanging around the town for too long so we decided to head east. We needed some place to stay between Fulton and Saint Louis. In search of something more interesting than yet another motel by the freeway we stumbled upon the small town of Hermann located on the banks of Missouri river.

But more about it in the next instalment.

The Ozarks

The Ozarks is another often overlooked, but interesting, part of America. Located mostly in Missouri and Arkansas, Ozarks is a physiographic as well as cultural region with boundaries quite difficult to define. Most Europeans (and some Americans too), have probably never even heard about it. Which is a shame as it is a fascinating place.

I started my Ozarks exploration in the capitol city of Arkansas, Little Rock. The capitol building was an obvious place to start. You might have realised by now that as a bit of geek I never skip capitol building if I’m close to one. The Arkansas capitol is so similar to the national one in Washington DC that it was apparently used as a substitute by film crews on a few occasions. The interior offers the usual mix of frescoes which sometimes makes you feel more like you’re in an ancient Roman temple or renaissance church than in government building. It is fun nonetheless.

But the biggest attraction of Little Rock is the William J Clinton Presidential Library, one of 13 currently administered by the Office of Presidential Libraries. Located right next to the Arkansas River, on 30 acres of a former run-down warehouse district, it is a great example of urban renewal. Exhibits are of course quite biased (no mention of Monica here) as the place was founded by donations from Bill supporters. You can see the presidential limo and the full size replica of the oval office among the more serious documents. The building itself is quite an attractive, cantilevered, steel and glass structure reaching into the river. The whole complex is located in a nicely landscaped park just a short walk away from the River Market district, in itself an attractive part of Little Rock.

Next I headed west to Hot Springs which is a historic spa town as well as a national park. In fact it is the oldest federal reserve which makes it the oldest part of the National Park System, even older than the famous Yellowstone or Yosemite. There are 47 hot springs protected in the historic downtown district of the city. The most interesting part of the town, and a great place for an afternoon stroll, is the Bathhouse Row. It consists of eight historic buildings from the beginning of the 20th century and is managed by the National Park Service. Two buildings (Buckstaff and Quapaw) still operate as a spas, another one (Fordyce) was converted into a museum and visitor centre. The bathhouses are all quite eclectic buildings in neoclassical, renaissance-revival, Spanish and Italianate styles aligned in a linear pattern with formal entrances, outdoor fountains, promenades and other landscape-architectural features.

Hot Springs was for many years an illegal gambling mecca and among its many guests was Al Capone, whose favourite retreat was the impressive Arlington Hotel which still dominates the town’s skyline. A great way of getting orientated is a visit to the viewing tower on top of the Hot Springs Mountain offering fantastic panorama of the whole town. Alternatively, (if you don’t want to pay the tower admission for example) there are good viewpoints on the West Mountain Drive.

North of the Hot Springs I entered deep into the Ouachita Mountains. These low but rugged mountains are technically hills, but let’s not be too precise and allow for some justified exaggeration. Ouachitas are not geologically part of the Ozarks Plateau but they are often included in the wider, cultural meaning of the Ozarks. And the scenery is definitely mountainous and even more scenic than further north. I chose state Hwy 7, officially designated as an Arkansas Scenic Byway and it was an excellent choice. The road twists and turns deep into the lush forested countryside and every moment offers new great views. Traffic was sparse, surface smooth and nicely profiled curves made it an absolutely fantastic drive. Not to enjoy it you must either hate driving or suffer severe motion sickness. By the way, if you have any of the aforementioned problems you shouldn’t visit rural America in the first place.

After two hours of fun I arrived to the Magazine Mountain State Park. With an elevation of 839 m it is the highest point in the state of Arkansas. Fortunately for all the lazy folks you can drive almost to the top of it and from the parking lot it is just short walk to the highest spot itself. Unfortunately, Magazine Mountain is a flat topped plateau and the highest point is in the middle of the forest so there is no view whatsoever. But don’t be worry, there are good vista points along the road encircling the mountain and some of them offer truly spectacular panorama of the surrounding landscape.

Still heading north I crossed the Arkansas River and entered the Ozarks proper. This time I chose the state Hwy 23. It is another Arkansas scenic byway, imaginatively called Pig Trail Scenic Byway due to its steep hills and hairpin turns, especially in the middle section. Later the land gets a bit less forested, more of the farmland, and less mountainous. Traffic was as sparse as on Hwy 7 before, so it was another splendid drive. Good empty road and country music made a perfect combination. I was really enjoying every minute of it.

Route 23 led me straight into an absolute gem of the Ozarks. The town of Eureka Springs. I have to admit that before planning this trip I had never really heard about it. I guess most people in Europe, and many in the US as well, are in exactly the same situation. I find it a real shame as this small town (population just over 2000) is absolutely fantastic. The area always had a reputation as a healing place and when Europeans arrived they quickly established a spa town. By the middle of the 19th century it was a flourishing tourist destination. The entire town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a unique Victorian resort village. Its steep, winding streets are filled with well preserved Victorian villas and mansions, many with lush gardens. Due to the hilly topography some buildings have street level entrances on more than one floor. For example the Catholic Church has a street-level entrance to its bell tower. Many of the old houses were converted to small, independently run, B&Bs and hotels while buildings in the historic downtown offer some interesting shopping.

The best way of exploring Eureka Springs is simply to wander aimlessly for hours. Getting lost greatly enhances the experience. Just remember to take an extra memory card and batteries because the place is so photogenic, you won’t be able to stop snapping picture after picture. The inhabitants are a friendly, diverse crowd, with a sizeable artistic and retired community. It’s a bit out of place in the conservative and homogeneous Ozarks.

But the traditional south is never far away. Just outside of town there is a big (seven-storey high to be precise), concrete statue of Jesus, known as Christ of the Ozarks. It is a rather kitschy structure, part of the religious entertainment complex. You can actually see it above the trees looking south from Eureka Springs.

One religious attraction you definitely shouldn’t miss is the Thorncrown Chapel. Built in 1980, it is one of the most stunning buildings I have ever seen. The structure, constructed largely of local wood and other materials, gives the impression of being open-air but is in fact glass-enclosed. And because it is located in the dense forest when you enter inside you still somehow feel outside and connected to the nature. It’s an absolutely amazing piece of art, architecture and human ingenuity. It is located a few miles west of Eureka Springs, just off the US Hwy 62.

I place Eureka Springs high on the list of my favourite American destinations, but the most popular destination in the Ozarks is actually the town of Branson, located just across the state border in Missouri.

Sometimes called the Live Music Show Capital of the World it is a family friendly place whose biggest attractions are various live shows. According to some statistics it has actually more theatre seats than NYC’s Broadway. Some less enthusiastic folks call it Las Vegas for the hillbillies and seniors, which might be a bit harsh judgement, but it’s definitely not my sort of thing. So after a really tasty barbecue I continued moving north heading towards Kansas City, which I describe in different article. As I already mentioned the Ozarks boundaries are hard to define but somewhere between Springfield and KC you will see the landscape getting definitely less exciting.

The Ozarks have much more to offer than I described here; wild rivers, lakes, rugged topography, great barbecue joints hidden in small towns and much, much more. I simply didn’t have enough time to explore it all. I especially wish I had spent more time in the Missouri part of the Ozarks. Well, maybe next time. All I can say after my short visit, it is definitely an underrated region and well worth visiting.