THE SANTA FE TRAIL — 1821 – 1880
ARROW ROCK, MISSOURI
Located in central Missouri west of Franklin and Boonville
As the trail attracted more people headed west, Arrow Rock grew and was a desirable stopping point for it’s fresh water spring, tavern, lodging, gun shop, mercantile and other services provided for wagon trains to load up and head out. Located on high, picturesque bluffs above the Missouri River, there was no danger of flooding in this hub for gathering and trading due to the SFT and that it was also a river port.
Today it feels unchanged since the early 1800s, like walking back in time, and is one of our Top Must See Places on the SFT.
WHY IT’S A MUST-SEE PLACE
If ever you have taken a history course of the Old West and wished you could dive into the pages of your book to walk in the footsteps of the people of this era, step into the doorways of their houses and businesses, stroll the original streets, dine in an authentic tavern, breathe in the air as you survey the land, this is your chance. One of the most beautifully preserved villages of the old west, the entire town is now a part of the National Historic Landmark Arrow Rock Historic District with most buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And the Visitor’s Center is outstanding.
Of note: The 1973 movie Tom Sawyer starring Jodie Foster as Becky Thatcher and Johnny Whitaker as Tom, was primarily filmed in Arrow Rock. Here is a link to the original movie trailer.
We spent one day there and wished we’d planned time for two to three days to take our time and fully explore.
WHAT WE FOUND THERE
The Visitor’s Center
With 9,000 square feet of exhibition space and an introductory video covering the history of the area, this is a well maintained and informative educational center. Displays are filled with artifacts, all in chronological order. Here is the link outlining their timeline and themes covered.
The first section tells the story of the native people who inhabited the area 11 -12 thousand years before the first Europeans arrived. The Native American Presence states a focus on the Osage and Missouria tribes from prehistory to 1790, the arrival of the French and Spanish and into the War of 1812 , clashes with white settlers and the Sac, Fox and Ioway tribes from 1808 to 1815, and the devastation as native communities were ruined as the way was cleared for westward expansion.
The artist George Caleb Bingham lived and painted in Arrow Rock during trail days and there are original artworks on display. One is of Dr. Sappington, the local physician whose quinine pills saved countless travelers from malaria. The trail naturally follows rivers and swampy water sources. Water attracts mosquitos that pass this infectious disease to humans. Original pills made by the doctor are on display.
Amongst exhibits featuring local people and their housewares is a setting of silverware made from silver that was brought back from Santa Fe traders. You will also find an authentic wagon wheel hub from a SFT freight wagon, wagon jacks and some very fine replicas of trail artifacts and goods.
The Visitor’s Center is located just before you reach the town, about 1/4 mile south. Check the website for more information and hours, as winter months are limited.
Arrow Rock Tram Tour
This 1.5 hour tour through the town is a must. All of the tour guides have a connection to the village. Some were born there, and others are 8th generation residents with personal family history and stories to share. This is your opportunity to hear notable facts and personal tales from people who know what they’re talking about.
Starting at the J. Huston Tavern, (below) our guide referred to it as the “Super-Mart of it’s day.” Built in 1834 to lodge and feed travelers of the SFT, it is now the oldest continually operating restaurant west of the Mississippi, serving legendary fried chicken and other dishes people of the era would have found on the menu.
We continued on the tram through the tree-lined streets. Back in the trail days, the trees would have all been cut down and used for building structures, wagons, and burned for firewood. Hard to imagine from the lush green village it is today.
Also on the tour: Dr. Hall’s House and Office, the small jail, Dr. Sappington’s house …
… the cool fresh Big Spring, the bluff overlook towards Boone’s Lick and Franklin …
… artist George Caleb Bingham’s home …
… J.P. Sites gun shop and Victorian home …
… with music box in the parlor, have a listen …
… and a drive past the old Baptist church that now houses live performances of the Lyceum Professional Theatre, plus more significant spots with interesting tidbits such as how Arrow Rock’s strict building codes ensure the authentic look and feel of the original town. The tram stops now and then to tour the interior of some homes and museums.
Here is the link to Notable Homes and Properties.
Be sure to drive over to the Arrow Rock Landing where the very first six-man party led by Becknell took the ferry from Franklin on that first journey in 1821.
Dining at J. Huston Tavern
Their tagline is “Serving Meals To Travelers Along The Santa Fe Trail Since 1834” and we would like to confirm that the legendary fried chicken is indeed unforgettable and one of the best we’ve had. The menu offers foods that were served during trail days, with mashed potatoes and gravy, raspberry glazed ham, and cobblers on the Dinner & Sunday Lunch menu. (Menus vary so be sure to check online).
The building is open to tour with a mercantile and ice cream parlor, upstairs bedrooms and ballroom, Sappington parlor, and kitchen display. It really was the one-stop shop of it’s day. We recommend taking time to roam throughout and think about, as we did, how many people through history walked these creaky wooden-floored hallways and slept in the boarding rooms to wake up the next morning and set out on the trail. This is a place rich in history and well preserved.
Note: the tavern fills up quickly and reservations are a good idea. Hours are seasonal so be sure to check their website or call ahead to inquire.
All along the original main street are gift and specialty shops offering antiques, hand dyed artisan yarns, a trading company, mercantile and more. See this link for the current list of shops.
Be sure to stop by Friends of Arrow Rock (where you catch the tram ride). They have a wonderful selection of gifts and books, and an early American rare firearms collection on display.
Note: The 2018 Arrow Rock Annual Heritage Festival will be held on Oct. 13 & 14. This year is a big one, as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Friends of Arrow Rock who are committed to the education and preservation of the village. There will be live music, costumed artisans, terrific food — all in this remarkable setting. Here is a link to their events page.
HOW TO GET TO THERE
From the trailhead in Franklin, head south back through the town of Boonville to Interstate 70. Head west. Look for the Arrow Rock exit and drive 25 – 30 minutes north through the countryside, it is easily spotted with signage. Also look for bald eagles, deer, turkey vultures and other wildlife sightings along your drive.
NEARBY POINTS OF INTEREST
There are numerous historic sites and cemeteries in this area. We always suggest that you check the Official Santa Fe Trail Association and the Santa Fe Trail Research Site for nearby places, museums, visitor centers and historical societies that may interest you.
Picnicking spots are situated near the campground, by the George Caleb Bingham home and overlook, and you are welcome to spread out a blanket with your picnic goodies in the cool shade of Big Spring.
Next stop — Traveling the SFT westward to Independence and Kansas City along the country roads above Interstate 70.