Lewis and Clark (virtual) Ride: The City of Jefferson

[This is part five in a series of articles documenting my virtual bike ride across America, following the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition. For previous posts, click here.]

Three weeks after beginning their journey westward, Lewis and Clark reached the site of modern-day Jefferson City. There were no white settlers in this area – just water, trees and rocks. In fact, the Corps of Discovery passed the last European settlement right after shoving off from St. Charles (read the first piece in the series for more).

Crossing the Missouri River, just north of Jefferson City. (Google Street View image)

For the rest of their 3,000-plus mile journey, the explorers were literally in Indian country. The area south of the Missouri River was Osage territory – or “Osarge” as Clark writes in his journals. While they frequently came across Indians along their route, the expedition never did make contact with the Osage.

While Clark typically stayed with the keelboat, Capt. Lewis would often go ashore and explore. It was in the Jefferson City area where they began to find species of plants and animals that were – at the time – completely new to science. For example, in addition to finding “many curious Plants & Srubs [sic],” the corps also caught several large rats in this area that had never before been described, possibly the eastern woodrat (Neotoma floridana).

After Lewis and Clark returned from mapping their way to the Pacific, the United States began carving states out of the Louisiana Territory. When Louisiana became the 18th state in 1812, the remaining area purchased from Napoleon became known as the Missouri Territory. Then in 1819 the Territory of Arkansaw (yes, spelled the way it sounds until a few years after its founding) split off.

William Clark was the territory’s fourth governor (appointed by President James Madison), serving from 1813-1820. He ran his territorial affairs from the Mansion House in St. Louis, then the Missouri Hotel – neither of which still stand today. Then in 1821, Missouri became the Union’s 24th state. St. Charles would become the state’s first capital, and the upper floor of a hardware store served as the temporary seat of government until the permanent capitol at Jefferson City was finished in 1826.

The site of the first Missouri state capitol in historic downtown St. Charles – and the finish line for Day One. (Google Streetview image)

Today’s beautiful capitol building, completed in 1917 at the low, low cost of $4.2 million (still a deal at $83 million in 2018 dollars) is actually the third Jefferson City capitol. Before it burnt down in 1837, the original building was a 40-foot-by-60-foot, two-story brick structure situated on the site of the modern-day governor’s mansion. Its replacement was constructed in 1840 and it too was destroyed by fire in 1911. But the third one stayed up (I can’t help but think of the line about the castles that kept falling into the swamp in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

Headed east down Main Street, looking at the capitol building. (Google Street View image)

The twin bronze doors (each measuring 13 by 18 feet) are the largest cast since the Roman era. The statue in front of the entrance depicts Thomas Jefferson, the president that pushed for the Louisiana Purchase, who commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition, and whom the city is named after.

Just down the street from the capitol is the oldest prison west of the Mississippi. The Missouri State Penitentiary was built way back in 1836, receiving its first prisoner on the same day that the Alamo fell to Santa Anna’s forces, and was actually in use until 2004. I have been there – as a guest – visiting with my Boy Scout troop. Knock on wood, but I haven’t been to prison since.

Housing Unit 1, which became the Missouri State Penitentiary’s main entrance and is pictured here, was constructed in 1909. (Google Street View image)

It was at this prison that Sonny Liston took up boxing. After his release, he would go on to become heavyweight champion. James Earl Ray escaped this prison and evaded captivity for a whole year before assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..

It took Lewis and Clark three weeks to travel up the Missouri River to where Jefferson City is now. You, however, can hop in your car and travel the same distance there in two hours – or bike it in 13 hours (if you’re as slow as I am). I prefer to keep the focus on the interesting historical content rather than more personal elements of my virtual ride, but I have to say after all the drab, low-resolution images on my bike’s display, the high-definition city photos made me feel more like an excited tourist than a sweaty and out-of-breath guy pedaling away while staring at a screen in my gym. And at the risk of sounding like a commercial, I have to say that it’s a plus to have traveled nearly 200 miles along mostly rural highways and I have been able to watch the entire route on my display (please, good people at iFit, can you figure out how make the display look left and right?).

Anyways, after 177.6 miles, I still have 3522 miles to go before reaching the Pacific Ocean. Click here to see previous posts along my route.

Author: Chris Carter

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