St. Joseph, Missouri
The City of St. Joseph, Missouri, is integrally tied to the can-do entrepreneurial spirit of fur trader Joseph Robidoux, who established a trading post in the Blacksnake Hills during the 1820s to do business with Native American tribes. Robidoux’s ruthless business sense enabled him to push his trading empire as far as the Rocky Mountains. The Platte Purchase of 1837 annexed land owned by Robidoux to the State of Missouri, which spurred the fur trader to begin plans for a new town on the banks of the Missouri River. Robidoux formally incorporated his town, St. Joseph, in 1843, just prior to the California gold rush of 1849.
Due to St. Joseph’s location, the city served as an important outpost for westward expansion. Shrewd businessmen, such as Robidoux, made huge fortunes selling goods to those headed west during the gold rush and as a result, St. Joseph became a wealthy city. Growth and prosperity continued with the arrival of the railroad in 1859, which further cemented “St. Joe’s” position as a transportation and communication hub. The short-lived Pony Express chose the city as its eastern terminus, securing the city’s historical associations as a significant frontier settlement.
The Civil War era was a particularly challenging time for St. Joe. Largely sympathetic to southern ideas about slavery, the city’s close proximity to Kansas Territory’s “Free-Staters” led to violent clashes in the streets. The legacy of violence continued when Jesse James chose to make the city his home and was killed in St. Joseph in 1882.
After the war, businessmen of the city once again saw opportunities and began shaping St. Joseph into a wholesaling center for the nation. The 1880s witnessed a “golden age” for St. Joseph – a period of brief but rapid growth that resulted in much of the exceptional architecture that still characterizes the city.
At the turn of the twentieth century, St. Joseph supported one of the nation’s largest centers of livestock and meat packing. These activities, centered in the southern part of the city, made many wealthy and attracted a diverse workforce. In 1899, the Livestock Exchange Building on Illinois Avenue (listed to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004) was erected as a symbol of the city’s livestock and meat-packing industries.
Until the mid-to-late twentieth century, St. Joseph’s economic strength remained strongly tied to its industrial associations. As the world economy began to shift toward globalization, packing houses and factories began to close in the 1960s. Compounding the situation in the 1970s was “urban renewal” that in the name of progress, led to the demolition of many historic structures.
Today St. Joseph is on an upward trajectory. New industries have arrived and the city supports a university. Most visible is the revitalization of St. Joseph’s downtown and historic neighborhoods – Southside and Frederick Avenue. What began as a colorful frontier settlement and evolved into a wealthy, burgeoning city is fully evident today through St. Joseph’s collection of unique and noteworthy architectural treasures. Though much has been lost, much more remains intact and ready to tell the story of St. Joseph, one of Missouri’s most interesting and attractive cities.
Interested in Becoming a Host City?
Bill Hart, Executive Director