Formed as a state in 1821, MISSOURI acted as bridge between the two halves of America for much of the nineteenth century, when cities like St Louis on the Mississippi and Kansas City and St Joseph astride the Missouri boomed as depots for cattle heading east and settlers heading west. Due to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery was permitted in the state, though it remained within the Union during the Civil War (Confederate guerrilla forces attracted considerable support, however). Today the big cities of Missouri provide most of the allure, though the densely forested Ozark Mountains in the south offer a welcome contrast to the plains.
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Perched just below the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri river, ST LOUIS (pronounced, whatever Judy Garland may have suggested, “Saint Lewis”) boomed in the nineteenth century as the gateway to the West, and later played a significant role in the development of jazz and the blues (Josephine Baker, Chuck Berry and Miles Davis were all born here, and Scott Joplin developed ragtime in the city’s honky-tonks). As the name suggests, the roots of St Louis are French; originally part of Louisiana Territory, it was founded in 1764 by French fur trader Pierre Laclede and later became a major port for steamboats. In 1904 the World’s Fair was held in the city at the peak of its fortunes, but beginning with an ugly race riot in 1917 the population began to fall, decreasing by two thirds in just seventy years. Once the fourth largest metropolis in the USA, today St Louis is a medium-sized suburban city, best known for the mind-bending Gateway Arch, one of America’s most distinctive monuments, and Forest Park, with its bevy of free museums. An astonishing feat of engineering, the former dominates downtown St Louis; a glittering arc of steel, its vast size is hard to appreciate until you get up close. Designed by Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen and completed in 1965, the 630ft-high stainless-steel parabola commemorates the role of St Louis in the western expansion of the USA, especially honouring the epic Lewis and Clark Expedition, which set off from here in 1804, and all the pioneers that came after. It’s fun to take the four-minute tram ride up the hollow, gently curving arch, as tiny, five-seat capsules carry you to a viewing gallery at the top, where you can linger as long as you like – the views of St Louis, the mighty Mississippi and the surrounding tree-studded plains are spectacular. To avoid lengthy waits, pick up a numbered ticket early in the day and come back at an appointed time.
No other place had as much influence on Mark Twain as his boyhood home of HANNIBAL, an otherwise sleepy ensemble of nineteenth-century red-brick and clapboard gently sloping towards the Mississippi. Twain, born Samuel Clemens in 1835 in Florida, Missouri, based his seminal novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on his early life in Hannibal, and today the short stretch of historic properties on Main Street is crammed with restaurants, gift shops and museums dedicated to his memory.
The town is 120 miles north of St Louis, squeezed between two steep bluffs; walk up to the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse to the north (accessible by 244 steps) or drive up Lover’s Leap to the south (both sunrise–sunset; free) for killer views of the old houses and the muddy expanse of the Mississippi.
Kansas City and around
Kansas City and around
Forget all those Midwest stereotypes – KANSAS CITY is a dynamic urban centre of more than two million people, with Art Deco skyscrapers and fountains, a fabulous art museum and a rich cultural heritage that includes jazz and an influential African American community. Then there’s Kansas City-style barbecue, one of America’s most celebrated dishes.
Founded in 1838, the city today actually comprises two fairly distinct – and governmentally separate – cities, separated by the state border and the Missouri River. Virtually all the major points of interest sit on the Missouri side (known as “KC”), while the Kansas section (“KCK”) maintains a much lower profile.