Independence, MO Part I: Frontier Trails Museum
Lee's Summit, MO
Independence, MO is located between where we were staying in Lee's Summit and Kansas City. Independence was the starting point for many of the pioneer trails. We spent a lot of time in Nebraska and the upper midwest last year and saw many places that related to the pioneer trails. Therefore, since we were so close to the starting point for those trails, we decided to visit the Frontier Trails Museum in Independence to complete the circle.
The Frontier Trails Museum is located in the remnants of the old Waggoner-Gates Milling Company that milled grain on the site from 1867 until they closed in 1957. The complex burned in 1967 leaving only the bottom two floors of the brick building to the right. This remnant was incorporated into the museum when it was built in 1990. The entrance to the museum is in the new, gray section to the left.
Outside the entrance was a statue of Jim Bridger who was a pivotal figure in the exploration and settlement of the northwest. He joined an exploration party in 1822 at age 18 and was one of the first white men to see the wonders of Yellowstone and the Great Salt Lake. He later became a fur trader; and in 1843, he and a partner opened a trading post that became known as Fort Bridger. The post not only traded with the Indians, but also supplied travelers on the Oregon Trail. To read about our visit last year to Fort Bridger, click here.
President Thomas Jefferson acquired 828,800 square miles of territory when he completed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis, who partnered with William Clark, to explore the newly-acquired territory. The expedition, which began near St. Louis and went up the Missouri River past the present-day location of Independence, did much to open up the northwest to settlement. We learned a lot about Lewis & Clark when we visited the Missouri River Basin Lewis & Clark Center in Nebraska City, NE last year. To read about that visit, click here.
The Frontier Trails Museum starts out its displays with a history of the Lewis & Clark expedition, and Margery is checking out some artifacts relating to Lewis & Clark's travels.
Lewis & Clark were followed by trappers and traders like Jim Bridger who we mentioned earlier. The display in the next photo shows some of the types of items that would have been traded to the Indians in exchange for pelts. These trade items would have included beads, buttons, knives, mirrors, hatchets, fish hooks, clay pipes, chewing tobacco and needles.
The Santa Fe Trail was one of the first trails to the west that originated in or near Independence. When Spain owned the southwest, they wanted only Spanish goods in their territories and did not permit outside trade. However, when Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico welcomed trade. A route to Sante Fe was opened in 1822, and it eventually became the roadbed for the railroad that reached Sante Fe in 1880. Unlike the other trails that carried settlers only in a westerly direction, the Santa Fe Trail carried traffic both ways. The photo below shows a display of a wagon that has just unloaded its cargo with a painted backdrop depicting the plaza in Santa Fe.
The Oregon Trail also started in Independence. The Oregon Trail was originally too narrow to accommodate wagons and was passable only to those who were walking or riding horses and to mule trains.
Before steam power, larger boats could only float downriver. With the advent of steam power in the 1840s, larger boats were also able to go upriver. They could sail down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and go up the Missouri River as far as Independence where travelers could buy supplies and join wagon trains for the trek west. With the increase in traffic, the Oregon Trail was widened and improved to accommodate wagons.
As the trail traversed the endless prairie, pioneers were thrilled to see landmarks like Scotts Bluff, Chimney Rock and Register Cliff. To read about our visit last year to those landmarks, click on the highlighted name. The photo below shows a scene at the Frontier Trails Museum with a pioneer wagon and Sentinel Rock in the background. Sentinel Rock stands opposite Scotts Bluff.
The next photo shows a panoramic view of Sentinel Rock (left) and Scott's Bluff when we visited there last year.
In 1847, Brigham Young led the the first band of Mormons into Salt Lake Valley. Many more Mormons followed. The Mormon Trail also began in Independence. It followed much of the same route as the Oregon Trail and branched off to the south near Fort Bridger.
In 1849, gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill near Sacramento California. This sparked a gold rush that caused the numbers of travelers departing Independence to swell as thousands headed to California to seek their fortunes. The California Trail also followed the same route as the Oregon Trail and then branched off to the south in Idaho.
Of course, only a small number of prospectors actually struck it rich. The Frontier Trails Museum demonstrated that fact by providing a wheel to spin that would indicate chance outcomes such as "You find gold, but someone steals it," or "You find nothing and go home broke" or "You find gold, but spend it on women and booze." We both spun the wheel and we both got the same result - "You find nothing, but you open a store and make a fortune selling shovels."
When the pioneers reached their destination, most of them would end up building some sort of shelter. There were no Lowe's or Home Depots, so they would most often build log cabins. The museum had a set of Lincoln Logs, and Paul couldn't resist trying his hand.
As time went on, river travel improved, and the starting point for the pioneers heading west began moving upstream to towns like Weston, St. Joseph and Council Bluffs. Council Bluffs was where the steamboat Arabia that we explored in our previous two posts was headed.
The frontier trails saw hundreds of thousands of pioneers and adventurers pass by over the years. When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, however, use of the trails declined because the railroads provided a faster, safer means of travel.
Also on the grounds of the museum is the Chicago and Alton Depot. The rail depot, which was built in 1879, was moved to its current location, and restoration was completed in 2002.
The photo below shows the waiting room.
The next photo shows the telegraph area. The two jars on the desk to the right are batteries that would have powered the telegraph. There was a collection of old telegraph keys on the counter above the desk. Notice the old telephone to the left. This would have been a later addition.
The baggage room had a number of old railroad artifacts, but Paul was drawn to this scale model of an old 4-4-0 steam locomotive.
And, of course, what would a sightseeing outing be without a tourist photo?
After we left the railroad depot, we made another sightseeing stop in Independence. We'll tell you all about it in our next post.