Top attractions in Saint Joseph, Missouri, include historic sites, hiking and biking trails, a casino, and the summer training camp for the Kansas City Chiefs.
St. Jo was founded in 1843 at the site of a fur-trading post. By the end of the century, it was one of the richest towns in America. Today, Saint Joseph’s Gilded Age of the 1880s and 1890s lives on with an admirable number of palatial homes for a town of just 75,000, some now serving as restaurants and accommodations.
Plus, the beautiful riverfront city is home to an astonishing 13 museums.
Those include the fascinating (if slightly disturbing) psychiatric museum housed in a former state asylum. A former three-story hotel is now a history museum, filled with one of the best collections of local, regional, and national artifacts I’ve ever seen. You can tour the Pony Express National Museum, which tells the dramatic story of how mail was carried clear to California, as well as the home where outlaw Jesse James met his end.
Fewer than 40 minutes from the new Kansas City International Airport, Saint Joseph makes for a perfect weekend getaway.
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Robidoux Row Museum
In 1843, fur trader Joseph Robidoux founded the town that was named after him on the banks of the Missouri River.
As luck would have it, gold was discovered in California just six years later. Hopeful prospectors, pioneers, and immigrants poured into St. Jo, where local businessmen became rich outfitting wagon trains.
To accommodate the huge influx of settlers and Western travelers, Robidoux constructed seven attached apartments. Four units survive as the Robidoux Row Museum, filled with artifacts and serving as a museum that tells the story of the town’s early years.
Patee House Museum
I could spend all day at the Patee House Museum. After the railroad reached St. Joseph in 1859 as the nation’s westernmost rail terminus for travelers heading west, the town became one of the most important wholesale distribution centers for the entire western half of the country.
The town grew by leaps and bounds. To accommodate visitors, the luxurious three-story Patee Hotel offered 140 guest rooms. It also served as the office headquarters for the Pony Express. When Jesse James was killed a block away, the sheriff interviewed his widow in the hotel the next morning.
Now a museum, the three-story Patee House Museum is a microcosm of local, regional, and American history. It is packed with old buggies and carriages, horse-drawn hearses, cars (including a Model A Ford and a 1927 Studebaker), telephones, radios, vacuum cleaners, and an amazing model railroad ensconced in its own room. It even has a working 1941 carousel.
You can wander through an 1877 home and original hotel rooms. You can explore a drug store, barbershop, a wagonmaker’s blacksmith shop, post office, bank, general store, a jail containing weapons used in 25 local murders, and the dentist office of Walter Cronkite’s father (you can also visit the Walter Cronkite Memorial at nearby Missouri Western State University).
Jesse James Home
Jesse James, a notorious outlaw, killed 17 people and robbed 11 banks, seven trains, three stages, one county fair and one payroll messenger.
Yet it was in his own home, which he shared with his wife and two kids, that he was shot and killed on April 3, 1882, at the age of 34. He was standing on a chair to straighten a picture when he was shot from behind by a member of his own gang eager to collect a $10,000 reward. The fatal bullet passed through Jesse’s head and entered the wall.
On a tour of the modest Jesse James Home museum, relocated beside the Patee House Museum, you can see that bullet hole, as well as a casting of his skull showing the bullet hole behind his right ear, a small tie pin he was wearing that fateful day, and original furnishings and artifacts from the period.
Pony Express National Museum
Ranging from 11 to their mid-40s, 200 Pony Express riders endured heat, cold, snow, thunderstorms, buffalo stampedes, hostile territory, mountains, and desert to deliver mail between Saint Joseph and Sacramento, California. It took just 10 days to cover the distance of almost 2,000 miles (the stagecoach, in comparison, took three weeks).
No wonder ads for the job stipulated: “Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
The Pony Express National Museum, located in the former Pony Express stables, begins with a 16-minute documentary, followed by exhibits highlighting the history of the Pony Express, the journey, and the riders. Each rider raced up to 100 miles, stopping just two minutes at relay stations placed 10 miles apart to exchange an exhausted horse for a fresh one. After finally passing off his mail and resting, he then galloped back carrying mail in the opposite direction.
It’s such a huge part of America’s Wild West history that you might be surprised to learn that the Pony Express lasted only 18 months, from April 1860 to October 1862. That’s when the transcontinental telegraph was completed, making the Pony Express obsolete.
Historic Districts and Their Mansions
Described by the Chicago Times in 1886 as a “modern wonder,” St. Joseph once boasted more miles of electric streetcar lines than New York City.
It had 170 factories and 70 passenger trains arriving each day. In fact, railroads from all over passed through the city. That allowed it to become the largest wholesale dry-goods market west of St. Louis and the fourth-largest meat-packing center in the world.
St. Joseph was such a happening place, its population doubled from about 52,000 residents in 1890 to 102,000 just 10 years later.
Such remarkable growth led to fabulous wealth, with many of the city’s landowners, merchants, bankers, and businessmen becoming bonafide millionaires. They built mansions befitting their status, mostly atop hills offering sweeping views of downtown and the Missouri River, in styles ranging from Italianate and Romanesque to Queen Ann.
Today, Saint Joseph is one of America’s best-kept secrets for grand, historic homes. More than 300 of these homes are in the Museum Hill Neighborhood historic district, located east of downtown and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Farther east is the Harris-Kemper Historic District, also with stately homes. It’s astonishing walking or driving past one palatial home after the other, some like medieval European castles.
It’s also astonishing to see how many homes stand sadly vacant, inviting fantasies of fixing one up and moving in.
The most famous historic home in the Museum Hill Neighborhood is the Wyeth-Tootle Mansion, built in 1879. If it looks like a German castle, that’s because William and Eliza Wyeth enlisted architect E.J. Eckel to create a home similar to castles they had seen on travels in Germany. Eckel was quite the man in St. Joseph–his firm produced 75 percent of the buildings in town.
A three-story Gothic-style mansion with Italianate influences, the Wyeth-Tootle Mansion has 43 rooms, hand-painted ceilings, imported stained glass and impressive woodwork.
Some rooms have been restored to reflect their Victorian heritage. Others serve as exhibition space as part of its affiliation with the St. Joseph Museums, a handful of museums that includes the Glore Psychiatric Museum.
Glore Psychiatric Museum
The Glore Psychiatric Museum is one of the most unusual museums in the country, not the least because it’s located in what was once a “lunatic asylum.” It’s also the largest of its kind in the world.
The State Lunatic Asylum No. 2 opened in 1874 for 225 patients. By the 1930s there were 3,000 patients. By illustrating how mental illness has been portrayed and treated over the centuries, the museum shows just how far treatment for the mentally ill has come.
Early treatment of the mentally ill included imprisonment, starvation, tortuously cold baths, bloodletting, and worse. More “modern” treatments patients received at this facility included seclusion, hydrotherapy, electroshock, music therapy, and lobotomies.
In its early years, the hospital was almost self-sufficient. Patients farmed the fields, worked in the blacksmith and carpentry shops, produced soap for laundry and bathing, made their own clothes, and crafted rugs on hand looms.
Rooms for patients, the morgue, and the autopsy room are also on display. But the most fascinating exhibits are those related to actual patients, including their artwork and handicrafts.
Then there’s the female patient who had a compulsion for swallowing items other than food. Surgery revealed that she had ingested 1,440 objects, including nails, screws, jewelry, buttons, tacks and needles, many of which are on display.
The Other St. Joseph Museums
In the same building as the Glore Psychiatric Museum are three other museums. The Black Archives Museum explores the history of the African American experience in St. Joseph and achievements made by its Black citizens, including Coleman Hawkins, who played tenor sax with such greats as Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Other displays deal with the darker pages of race relations, including slavery, segregation, and redlining.
The Native American Galleries features baskets, beadwork, weavings, and pottery from its collection of 4,000 American Indian items collected by Harry George. A textile broker who lived in St. Jo at the turn of the 20th century, he boasted one of the largest collections of Native American objects in the Midwest.
The Society of Memories Doll Museum displays all kinds of dolls, including vintage dolls produced in Germany and France and more familiar ones like Barbie and Cabbage Patch dolls.
Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art
Housed in the former home of Mr. and Mrs. William Albrecht, the delightful Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art contains an impressive collection of American art from the 18th through 20th centuries. Works by Albert Bierstadt (known for his American West landscapes), Thomas Hart Benton (look for Custer’s Last Stand), Grant Wood, John Stewart Curry, and Mary Cassatt are on display.
More Things to Do in Saint Joseph Missouri
All of the museums in St. Jo should keep you busy for at least a couple of days, but if you have more time, there are lots more fun things to do in St. Joseph.
For example, you can take a restful spin through Mount Mora Cemetery. Established in 1852, it’s the final resting place of three governors and movers and shakers of St. Joseph society.
Lovers Lane was just a remote country road when Eugene Field courted his future wife here in a horse-drawn buggy and wrote a poem about it.
Visitors wishing to try their luck should check out the St. Jo Frontier Casino.
Families will want to visit Remington Nature Center, where kids can learn about creatures that used to roam this part of the earth, including the wooly mammoth, black bear, bison, and puma. They’ll also learn about the region’s history, including trappers who were here before St. Joseph was a city.
Active visitors can hike or bike their way 26 miles on the St. Joseph Parkway, which connects Krug Park to Hyde Park. Developed in 1918, it was one of the first such parks in the country and is even on the National Register of History Places. In 2022, the River Bluff Trails Park made its debut, offering 12 miles of primitive hiking and biking.
If you’re here from the end of July through most of August, head to Missouri Western State University, where you can watch the Kansas City Chiefs at their summer training camp. You might even get quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ autograph.
I also enjoyed perusing the many stalls at the St. Joseph Auction and Antique Market, where I found a Desigual vintage skirt and the Stetson Factory Outlet Store. There are also gift shops in downtown St. Joseph.
Where to Stay in Saint Joseph, Missouri
There are the usual chain hotels in St. Joseph, but why not stay in one of the historic mansions for which the city is famous?
I stayed at Vineyard Mansion & Carriage House, which has an enviable location across from the Wyeth-Tootle Mansion. It was built in 1890 in Romanesque Revival style for a prominent attorney. And yep, Eckel had a hand in the design of this home, too.
Other historic inns include the Shakespeare Chateaux Inn and Gardens, constructed in 1885 and with 47 original stained-glass windows and woodwork crafted from mahogany, cherry, oak, and walnut.
Whiskey Mansion Inn, also designed by Eckel for a German whiskey magnate, is an 1884 Italianate with Queen Ann features. The property was condemned in 1992 but is one of the lucky homes enjoying a new life.
Where to Eat in Saint Joseph Missouri
For that special dinner, dine at the unique J.C. Wyatt House, an 1891 Victorian mansion that serves reservation-only dinners in period rooms.
We also enjoyed lunch at the very down-home Cabbage Roll, serving bratwurst, schnitzel, cabbage rolls, and other German fare since 1989.
In downtown St. Joseph there’s the very popular Boudreaux’s Louisiana Seafood and Steaks, offering Cajun cuisine in a converted warehouse.
But you also can’t go wrong at River Bluff Brewing, located in a historic building that once housed two pre-prohibition breweries.