St Joseph, Missouri ~ Stepping Off Spot for the West

 St Joseph MO

Best known as the place where the Pony Express began in 1860, and where Jesse James met his end in 1882, St. Joseph, Missouri, holds a place of honor in the history of westward expansion.

Situated on the bluffs of the Missouri River, St Joseph began life in 1826 as Joseph Robidoux’s first trading post. Although Missouri had become the 24th state five years earlier, in 1821, the area was still Indian territory. Lewis and Clark haJoseph Robidoux_founderd passed by here on their way upriver in 1804.

When the fur trader filed the plat for the new town, he named it for his patron saint. Robidoux had only one stipulation for those wanting to buy lots of his land: no one could take possession until he had harvested his crop of marijuana. In those days, it was used in the making of hemp.

The town was destined to be successful because it’s location on the Missouri River made it easily accessable. Naturalist John James Audubon visited in May of 1843, (two months before its official incorporation) and described Robidoux’s settlement as “a delightful place for a populous city that will be here some 50 years hence.” St. Joseph celebrated its Sesquicentennial in 1993.

The settlement grew steadily, but the discovery of gold in California in 1848 turned it into a boom area. Gold seekers came across Missouri to St. Joseph by steamboat, to where the city’s location on the westward bend of the Missouri River made it one of two choice “jumping-off” points (the other was Independence, about 60 miles southwest). Gold rushers bought supplies here for the westward wagon trek. Estimates say as many as 50,000 passed through St Joseph in 1849 alone.

Another 100,000 or more pioneers would crowd the streets, bound for California and other points west, before the coming of the trains. And that’s why I chose it as a ssteamtrainubject for today’s blog post.

Where steamboats helped established St. Joseph as the place for travelers heading west, trains kept it there. The first train from the east arrived here February 14, 1859. Until after the Civil War, St. Joseph was the westernmost point accessible by rail. That means, until around 1870, if you wanted to get to Texas–or Colorado or Montana or anyplace west–by train, you had to go through St. Joseph. By 1900, one hundred passenger trains a day came into St. Joseph. I don’t know about you, but that number boggled my mind!

And where the train tracks ended, the stage coach lines began.Pony Express stables

If you read my blog on 11/27/09, you already know St. Joseph was the starting point of The Pony Express in 1860. And in 1887, St. Joseph became only the second city in the U.S.–after Richmond, VA–to have electric streetcars.

Wholesale houses for things like shoes, dry goods and hardware, helped ensure St. Joseph’s prosperity during its Golden Age in the late 19th century. At one time, the town ranked fourth in the nation for dry goods sales and fifth in hardware sales.

Cowboys were familiar with St. Joseph, too, since livestock was a large part of the economy beginning in 1846. Swift and Armour were important names in town.

I’m thinkiJesse Jamesng that song from the musical OKLAHOMA, “Everything’s Up To Date in Kansas City” probably should have been written about St. Joseph.

To top it off, infamous bank and train robber Jesse James, a Missouri native, tried to retire here in 1881. His wife wanted him to live a more normal life. And it was here, in a house on top of the highest hill, where, in 1882, one of his new partners, Bob Ford, decided collecting the reward for Jesse James would pay better than robbing the Platte City Bank.

St. Joseph is a town full of history. There are national parks dedicated to the Lewis & Clark expedition, museums housing collections about The Pony Express, Jesse James and westward expansion, and stunning views of the mighty Missouri River. Stop in sometime. You’re bound to learn something new. I did.

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19 thoughts on “St Joseph, Missouri ~ Stepping Off Spot for the West”

  1. very interesting tracy!
    100 trains a day!!! WOW!! that is amazing!! that’s a lot of traffic in and out…anyone who has lived in a town with trains knows only a few a day seems like a lot

    st joeseph is quite the place–so many interesting things…you could do a blog post about each specific one i’m sure and have us in the reading for weeks 🙂

    thanks for coming by–your book cover is lovely 🙂 story sounds great too!

  2. Thanks, Tabitha. And what an excellent idea about future posts. 😀

    100 trains a day is hard to believe. That’s four a day. I might have to do some more research on trains coming through St. Joseph, just to be sure. (I love any excuse to do research! 🙂 )

  3. St. Joseph will have to go on the itinerary for our next trip out that way.
    I agree about the 100 trains a day being a hard to fathom number. I worked in a library that was located in an old train station and adjacent to the rail yard. The trains rumbled and shook the building most days and we didn’t have anywhere near that number of trains. It must have been constant.
    Thanks for another interesting post.
    Have a great Memorial Weekend.

  4. Hi Tracy, great post! I live in a town where we have a lot of trains come through. Over the past few years train traffic has picked up a lot! Now its not a 100 trains a day I am sure, but more then there was say five years ago. It started when we had all the problems with fuel! I guess they started shipping by rail more!

  5. Wow, Tracy, thanks so much for the great post!
    Being a Missouri girl, I have visited St Jo many times and have always been interested in its history. You uncovered so much that was new to me. The idea of four trains an hour is hard to comprehend.
    I especially love the Pony Express Museum. Didn’t I hear they were having a big re-emactment ride soon?

  6. Quilt Lady, growing up, my best friend lived next to the B&O tracks. I loved them, but they were really loud. I can imagine one every fifteen minutes, 24 hours a day.

    I suppose it’s like living on the glidepath for O’Hare Airport.

  7. Tracy, there are about FIVE points in this post where I stopped and thought REALLY???


    Mind boggling indeed. Think of it. How did the town function with the trains in and out constantly.

    And the electric streetcars in 1887? Where’d electricity come from in 1887?

    I’m amazed.

    I could go to St. Joseph and see that museum. I don’t live THAT FAR.

    I’ve never seriously considered St. Joseph MO as a destination before.

  8. Awesome blog, Tracy. Like Mary, I’m incredulous at some of the stats. The hundred trains a day means…three every hour?. Yowza. I remember researching Jesse James for my first book (the hero was a fictional cousin of his) and he and Zee did try to live a normal life at the end under an alias Thomas Howard. That’s why the famous/infamous folk song about him says “The dirty litle coward that shot Mr. Howard and laid poor Jesse in his grave…”

    Sounds like another place to add to a future Missouri adventure. I’d love to see Mark Twain country, and my ancestors came from Cape Girardeau and St. Louis. I love looking at the old pictures.

    oxoxoxox Thanks for great info, Tracy.

  9. Great post. My family has been very interested in trains. My granddaddy worked for a line. My husband builds models. My son works for a law office representing the train companies. But the mind boggles at the number.

  10. I lived across the river from St. Jo, on the Kansas side. I haven’t been there forever. I’ve been meaning to go to Atchison, KS for research. I’m sure I could run up to St. Joseph, too. It’s only about an hour and a half away.

    Thank you for sharing, Tracy.

  11. This is my hometown!!! Thank you for talking about it. It is so rich in history. A few weeks ago they had the 150th Anniversary. A descedant of Johnny Fry rode in with the historical mailbag. We even had a Buffalo Bill contest.
    The air is rich with the history of Jesse James. I just learned that one of my relatives helped in several of the bank robberies. Go Figure…I never knew.
    My mother worked for many years at the Exchange Building which is part of the cattle yards that helped support this town for many many years.
    Besides Swifts and Seitz, we have other well known names: Stetson Hats, Chase Cherry Mash Candy Bars, Mead Paper Co., Quaker Oat Oatmeal and several others.
    Joseph Robidoux was a very important man here. As was Jesse James. Both homes are still here and can be seen along with the Pony Express Stables and Pattee House which houses a lot of this towns history.
    We have great musuems, a beautiful old theatre, magnificant old mansions, a Casino, great parks and wonderful parkways systems which are so beautiful to drive, ride or walk and just about anything else you would want to see. Soon we will house the Kansas City Chiefs summer training center.
    Not to far away are several Amish communities such as Jamesport, Mo. Historical Weston, Mo. and it’s wonderful sites. Atchison, Ks., the home of Amelia Earhart. There are several Indian Reservations in Eastern Kansas too.
    It really is a nice place to visit. Thank you again for talking about my hometown and please come see us here. We’d love to have you! Thx, Lisa

  12. Hi Lisa! The tourism division should put you on the payroll. lol You did a beautiful job of describing your hometwon–and made me want to visit again soon. Thanks for stopping by!

  13. What great posts! Lisa you wrote a great post about old St Joe. I gotta add some more. The birth place of Walter cronkite. His father (or grandfather I don’t remember) was a dentist here for many years. St Joe was also a location of The National Biscut Company (Nabisco) and in the building at Main and Francis was where the first Premium saltine cracker was made givin the name premium by the folks of St Joe who said it had a premium taste. Aunt Jamima pancake was invented here too. The fist black man to stay at the Robidoux was Jack Benny’s side kick “Rodchester”. When Jack came to St Joe to do a show in the 40s blacks were not allowed to stay at the Robidoux. But Mr Benny told them if Rodchester couls not stay then he would not stay and no show for St Joe! They changed the rule right then and rodchester became the first. Mr. Benny refered to this at other shows saying “Ah but they loved me in St Joe”!

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