Choices, choices! When the American Queen docked in Cape Girardeau, the shore excursion choices were many. And they all sounded interesting to me.
However, our time in the Missouri town was limited. The River Times newsletter left on my cabin bed the night before noted that we would arrive in Cape Girardeau at noon and have to back on board at 4:30 for a 5 p.m. departure.
On the free Steam cruiser options, we could visit the Mississippi River Tales Mural, The Red House Interpretive Center, Old St. Vincent’s Church, The Glenn House, Crisp Museum, Old Bridge Overlook and Park, Cape River Heritage Museum and Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau. Whew!
Know how far I got on my time in Cape Girardeau? I rode the Steamcruiser on its first round dropping off passengers at the various stops, just so I could get a lay of the land. Then I got off at The Red House Interpretive Center to chat with the folks there and strolled back to the American Queen and admired the floodwall murals on the way. Really going to have to go back to Cape Girardeau sometime to see what I missed.
“Cape Girardeau has a population of about 45,000,” said guide Linda Hill. “We’re located about halfway between St. Louis and Memphis … We’re Rush Limbaugh’s hometown. His father is a judge and his grandfather was a judge. The family is well regarded around here.”
In the 1730s, a young Frenchman named Jean Baptiste Girardot established a trading post at a rock promontory jutting from the west bank of the Mississippi River. This large promontory was referred to as “the cape,” a significant headland projecting well into the river.
However, Girandot was a trader, not a settler, and by the middle of the 1700s, Girardot had moved on. His name with some spelling changes remained.
Although the Mississippi River was the reason Cape Girardeau exists, the mighty muddy Mississippi has also been devastating to the community. Every few years, the river would ravage the downtown area, wiping out businesses and bankrupting proprietors.
In order for the city to survive, something had to be done to tame the river. Plans took decades. “In 1956 work began on our flood wall to protect Cape Girardeau,” Linda said. “The wall was finished in 1964 at a cost of $4 million.”
The huge wall has saved the historic downtown area many times over, particularly during the historic flood of 1993 when the river crested at 48,49 feet, nearly 17 feet above flood stage.
Since the city had such a large blank canvas, they decided to turn it into a work of art. The result is the Mississippi River Tales Mural with its pictorial history of the region and the Missouri Wall of Fame, featuring dozens of famous and infamous Missourians.
Dedicated in 2005, the 1,100-foot-long Mississippi River Tales Mural has 24 panels seeming to be in 3D, leaping out at viewers.
“It looks as though the wall is made out of stone but it’s not. It’s just concrete but it was painted to look like stone,” Linda said.
My favorite two panels are the “1803 Lewis and Clark” and the “1909 President Taft’s Visit.” On Nov. 23, 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark stopped at Cape Girardeau to deliver letters of introduction to Louis Lorimier, another Frenchman who was given a land grant to the area in 1793 and established a trading post. Lewis found Lorimier presiding at a horse race.
“Look at the long hair on Lorimier in the painting,” Linda said. Lewis wrote in his journal that Lorimier’s well-kept tresses were “long enough at one point that they touched the ground when he was standing erect.”
To learn more about the Lewis and Clark visit to Cape Girardeau, I stopped by the Red House. The French Colonial building commemorates when Lorimier welcomed Lewis to dine with his family at Lorimier’s home, known as the Red House. The building now has some exhibits and interpretive panels, as well as items that might have been sold at Lorimier’s Trading Post.
Strolling back to the boat, I passed the mural honoring William Howard Taft’s visit to Cape Girardeau on Oct. 26, 1909. The first sitting President to visit the city, Taft was part of a 16-boat flotilla carrying a large number of dignitaries who came down the river to publicize the developing effort to stabilize and deepen the river channel.
An estimated 25,000 turned out to hear Taft speak. It was such a great celebration that for years after that date was known as “Taft Day.”
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch