Saint Charles, Missouri: An Amazing Town To Visit
Filled With History
Saint Charles Is A Jewel For A Variety of Tourists
Ever been to St. Charles, Missouri? If not, it’s your loss! If you’re thinking of a place to visit that you probably never thought of, St. Charles is a surprising little jewel in the center of the country and minutes from St. Louis, and it’s well known attractions.
St. Charles is the second oldest city west of the Mississippi, founded in 1765 as Les Petites Côtes, "The Little Hills", by Louis Blanchette, a French Canadian fur trader. It’s name came from the Spanish district once located there, San Carlos, from Saint Charles Borromeo.
While anyone can find a commercialized modern-day site built for tourists, St. Charles and its famous Main Street were created over two hundred years ago for its residents. Today it is still alive and functioning largely unchanged in appearance from it’s early days. One major difference is the many restaurants and shops that adorn Main Street. Today it’s the second largest city along the Missouri River with a population somewhere over 65,000 residents.
Where Is St. Charles?
It’s practically in the middle of what the East and West coast refers to as fly-over country. St. Charles is just slightly northwest of St. Louis, MO., sitting right along the Missouri River. While St. Louis may be known as the “Gateway to the West,” the City of St. Charles, just miles away could easily be called "The Gateway" just as easily.
St. Charles Riverfront
The Frontier Park and Main Street area are the primary central gathering place and focal point for almost all festivities in the entire community. You will actually feel as though you were in a different era on Main Street, which sets one block away from the riverfront and is made up of 10 blocks of charming, truly historic and well preserved residences and businesses which are open year-round. Everything about it takes you back to a different time. All ten blocks are made up of small quaint retail shops, restaurants, coffee shops, small offices and real cobblestone streets that are visited by tourists as well as locals. The varied restaurants that dot Main Street are excellent with one end of the street anchored by a microbrewery in an old mill. The other end of the Mainstree area is anchored by a restored foundary featuring local artists! St. Charles historic district is a must visit. You will indeed have a hard time finding such a LONG historic street with so many restored houses and buildings (88 restored buildings dating from 1790 to the late 1800s.)
The historic main street area is not too big and it’s not too small, and it's all next to the largest river on the continent, just over a block away. Frontier Park which sits between Main Street and the river has been kept simple and essentially untouched by commercialism. Instead, it is punctuated by a stage for local concerts, and park benches for those who want to do some river watching. There are shopping centers and a casino near by, but not close enough to ruin the original historic ambience. In fact the historic area is tightly controlled by the “Main Street Preservation Board" which prevents modern day commercial signing and street advertising.
Right between the riverfront and Main Street is the Katy Trail, formerly a railroad right-of-way. Even the old railroad station is still there. Today it is part of a walking and biking path for 225 miles that starts in St. Charles and runs parallel to the Missouri River and the route that Lewis and Clark took. If you don’t feel quite that adventurous, you can take a brief stroll through Frontier Park and see the Lewis & Clark Statue.
Lewis & Clark Museum On The Riverfront
Much More To Enjoy
If you’re not into historic places, you will most likely still enjoy shopping and the other many things to do.
Events: Throughout each year, St. Charles, historic Main Street and Frontier Park along the Missouri River, play host to hundreds of thousands of guests with a variety of festivals, concerts, plays, historic re-enactments, parades and other special events including the Mosaics Art Fair, Fete de Glace Ice Festival, and Tartan Days.
The largest event is centered on the famous Lewis & Clark expedition and is called “The Festival of the Little Hills”. It is held every August and draws more than 300,000 visitors. It is known nationally as one of the top ten craft fairs and typically runs over a three-day weekend. This event along with the Oktoberfest, a couple of months later, features live demonstrations, live music, antique and craft booths, food and beverage booths, and other entertainment.
Lewis and Clark Museum or “Boat House"(as locals call it) is adjacent to the park and sits right on the river. The museum's purpose is to interpret the Lewis and Clark's experience and act as a real "boathouse" to store full size replicas of the keelboat and two pirogues used by the expedition. Here visitors are able to get up close to see these river worthy boats and visit with knowledgeable volunteers about their use and construction. This lower level of the museum permits the boats to be easily moved to the river for special events and making an annual journey where portions of Lewis and Clark’s route are retraced.
The upper level is strictly a museum for the Lewis and Clark expedition as well as the early 19th century life in St. Charles. “The Trading Post" gift shop at the museum, offers many historical books and unusual gift items.
The Foundry Art Centre resides in a 1940’s structure formerly used as a train factory and tank factory (during World War II), and is within walking distance of old Main Street. Rather than demolish the 36,800 square foot building, the community of St. Charles made a bold move to renovate the structure at a cost of $2.2 million dollars. The result was a wonderful facility for the arts that would help ensure that the arts and area culture remain alive and well in the city and county area. Here area artists can introduce their own unique works to the art community. There are also a variety of working artists with working galleries on the second floor of the facility.
The Foundry Art Centre also includes over 5,000 square feet of first class exhibition space to facilitate large national exhibitions. The facility also includes a Grand Hall with its high ceilings to provide space for performances and community concerts. Performances have included Erin Bode, St. Charles Symphony Orchestra, Robert Shaw and many more.
Frenchtown Historic District is just north of Main Street and includes another 20+ blocks of unique French-Canadian Colonial architecture with 58 historic buildings. This style of architecture can only be found in New Orleans, Quebec, & St. Charles, although this area is primarily known for its antique stores.
Ameristar Casino St. Charles offers a river version of Las Vegas-styling gaming. It is a 130,000 square ft. casino featuring huge stunning stain glass skylights and over 2,700 slot and video poker machines, 30 table games, and live poker. The casino complex includes an adjoining streetscape that contains first-class restaurants, entertainment spots, and more.
Fast Lane Classic Cars is a well-known stop in St. Charles. It is a classic car dealer but can also be considered a classic car "gallery". If you enjoy just looking at classic cars and other interesting items, then Fast Lane Classic Cars is a great place to visit. They have hosted up to about 5000 visitors a week at times and best of all, there is no admission. Why no admission? Because it is very much an active auto showroom with lots of classic automobiles for sale. You may even be able to take one for a spin! Fast Lane Classic is truly a unique place to visit and has become nationally known. In fact they even ship cars anywhere in the world. Whether or not you’re in the market to buy a classic car or have one to sell, Fast Lane Classic Cars is a fun place to visit for young and old.
Soldiers at Lewis & Clark Days
If You're Remotely Interested in History
St. Charles and St. Charles County offer the history buff a large well-preserved historic district on the riverfront, as well the home of Daniel Boone who spent his last twenty years in St. Charles County.
St. Charles also played a significant role in the westward expansion of the United States. In April of 1804, the famed explorer William Clark (the second half of Lewis and Clark) arrived on the shores of St. Charles. With him were 40 men, and 3 boats. The group waited for Meriwether Lewis to arrive from nearby St. Louis, as they made final preparation to depart from St. Charles. As they awaited Lewis's arrival, William Clark and the men entertained the townspeople on their boats.
Lewis arrived via St. Charles Rock Road (the only road that ran between St. Charles and St. Louis) on May 20. St. Charles welcomed both explorers and the night before they departed, they attended dances, dinners, and a church service during this time. The expedition launched the next afternoon in a keelboat and two other Pirogues. It was here where they first used the Missouri River as a way to look for a water-way to the Pacific Ocean.
Clark noted this event in his journals as he wrote, "Set out at half passed three o’clock under three Cheers from the gentlemen on the bank and proceeded on ....”
This was to be the last American town they would see for more than two and a half years and 7,000 miles, as they explored the land gained by Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase.
During the first 60 years, St. Charles was governed and influenced by the Spanish and the king of Spain. In fact the Spanish Lieutenant Governor, Carlos de Hault de Lassus appointed Daniel Boone commandant of the District, which included St. Charles. Daniel Boon served in this capacity until the United States government assumed control in 1804. At this time "San Carlos" became anglicized to "St. Charles." Daniel Boon continued to live in St. Charles County surrounded by his children and grandchildren until his death at the age of 85.
Daniel Boone Home
Statue of Lewis and Clark
There is a large bronze statue near the St. Charles riverfront dedicated to Lewis and Clark and the location where the famed explorers left.
Many of the families that had settled in St. Charles and were there to welcome Lewis and Clark, have a large number of descendants that have remained there to this day, including my wife’s family.
Christmas in St. Charles, MO
A Very Special Time In St. Charles Every Year
As winter closes in on St. Charles, beginning Thanksgiving of each year, residents and visitors alike can experience a variety of interesting sounds and smells. They are all taking place on the streets of St. Charles, as the city becomes a very special place to visit during the Christmas holidays. The entire 10 blocks of historic Main Street go all out in decorating the street and the riverfront! Even the handful of residences that sit atop many of the historic building and shops; join in decorating this historic Christmas setting. Horse drawn carriage rides are also decorated for Christmas. So just why is the Christmas shopping season on Main Street in St. Charles, MO so special?
A few years after the early beginnings of Spanish control, “Las Posadas” kicked off the Christmas season now known today as Christmas Tradition began. It depicted Mary and Joseph looking for a shelter on a donkey. In the early years it was strictly a small local event. Thanks to the City of St. Charles and a grass roots effort, “Las Posadas” has been continued on Main Street each year for quite a long while now, thanks to the participation of local merchants and over 5,000 citizens and visitors who follow the trip of Mary, Joseph, and the donkey, while singing familiar Christmas Carols. It all ends with the burning of the yule log.
Throughout all times on Main Street in St. Charles you will hear the “clip clop” of horse hooves on the cobblestone pavement, but during Las Posadas you will also hear Victorian Era carolers in period clothing singing old-fashioned Christmas carols up and down Main Street. Many characters of Christmas's past can also be found wandering the streets, including over 30 strolling costumed legends and period Santa’s from around the world, who all interact with guests. The Santa’s are dressed in each Country’s period clothes and hand out candy to the children.
On weekends you’ll experience the sound of the Lewis and Clark, Fife and Drum Corps playing Christmas tunes as they march their way down Main Street and up to the old historic State Capital building. In addition, there is also the sound and aromas of kettle corn, and chestnuts roasting which easily takes everyone back in time to a warmer and more simplistic life. The shops and streets become full of shoppers who enjoy a nice nippy walk after a great dinner at one of the local eateries. If shoppers feel a bit cold there is also plenty of hot chocolate and wassail available from many of the merchants.
The only non-period element of the festivities up and down the street is thousands of warm white Christmas lights in windows and wrapping the trees that tower above the street. The lights draw attention to the historic buildings that are also decorated with live greenery and red bows. Even the park and the old train depot along the river are full of Christmas lights.
All of this and more make St. Charles an entirely different experience from anywhere I’ve ever been.
Visit during the next holiday season and if you don’t hear the voices of Christmas past, you might consider that you do not have a heart or maybe even the Christmas spirit!