Why Jefferson City is the key to understanding Missouri’s unique history and culture
Two hundred years ago, the young state of Missouri was looking for a new capital. The territorial legislature was holed up in a hotel in St. Charles, and eying an escape to an unspoiled slice of wilderness somewhere in the center of the state. They ended up on a bluff overlooking the mighty Missouri River, a spot previously known as Lohman’s Landing.
This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the founding of Jefferson City in 1821. As the state celebrates its bicentennial this August, anyone who wants to understand the unique blend of affinities, contrasts and conflicts that make Missouri a near-perfect distillation of the country, Jefferson City is the place to start.
Here’s how to start your exploration of the city they almost named Missouriopolis.
1. Governor’s Mansion and Carnahan Memorial Garden
Missouri is arguably the ultimate “border state,” and throughout its history has seen wild swings between political extremes—a situation reflected in the many interesting characters who’ve called this historic mansion home.
Built by a governor with a lifelong limp because of a shot to the leg in a duel he fought against a rival politician on a sandbar, this stately residence has been home to every governor since 1872.
Unlike the White House, very few states open their executive residences to the public—Alaska does just one day a year, while a half-dozen states don’t even have a home for their executive. Happily, you can reserve a free guided tour of this stately brick mansion with a mansard roof and pink granite columns year-round.
The building’s elegant interior gives way to the neighboring Carnahan Memorial Garden, where visitors can relax on a lush green lawn, filled with manicured flower beds, a sunken pool, brick terraces and a pergola.
2. Missouri State Capitol and Missouri State Museum
Missouri’s current state Capitol building just turned a hundred, having been finished in 1917. To mark the occasion, the building underwent an extensive restoration project, including the refurbishment and relighting of an opulent nine-thousand-pound chandelier that had been left dark for decades, at the cost of a cool half-million dollars.
Small group tours of the Capitol are available and must be reserved in advance.
Among the attractions on the grounds is the Missouri State Museum, where visitors can immerse themselves in the history of the Show-Me State. The museum houses an impressive collection of exhibits portraying the state’s natural and cultural history.
3. Missouri State Penitentiary and Missouri State Penitentiary Museum
Shortly after the founding of Jefferson City, some urban state lawmakers started agitating to return it to St. Louis or its suburbs. To keep the seat of government put, the state’s fourth governor suggested building the state prison there—and there that prison remained for nearly two hundred years.
The Missouri State Penitentiary was decommissioned in 2004 and now serves as one of the most interesting historic landmarks in the state—visitors regularly describe it as the best history tour anywhere in Missouri. The facility housed everyone from notorious killers to legendary boxer Sonny Liston and antihero bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd.
Visitors can choose to take a history, ghost, or photography tour, and will walk through housing units and the vast upper yard of the property. Visitors will also see the gas chamber, where forty men and women were executed.
In addition to the tours of the state penitentiary itself, visitors can drop by residing in the lower level of the Col. Darwin W. Marmaduke House where they’ll get deeper background on the prison’s long history, see memorabilia and view a replica cell that demonstrates the living conditions at the prison. Among the items on loan is a vast collection of contraband assembled by longtime former Deputy Warden Mark Schreiber.
4. Museum of Missouri Military History
The Museum of Missouri Military History preserves and exhibits the state’s military history, including artifacts from the Revolutionary War to the present era. Among the larger exhibits are some of the nation’s most effective weapons of war: an F-15 Eagle fighter, F-4 Phantom II fighter, Sherman tank, Sheridan Tank, and a hulking C-130 Hercules cargo plane.
5. Lohman Building Store and Warehouse
In its earliest years, Jefferson City was the state capital, but also very much a rugged frontier town. The center of life in Mid-Missouri was this stone building just thirty yards from the river’s edge, where steamboats deposited passengers and goods fresh from St. Louis. The old grocery store, tavern and hotel today houses a mini museum on its lower level, where visitors can window shop a blend of items that would’ve been stocked at the general store and handmade items from contemporary craftsmen.
Where To Stay
Ready to spend a weekend in Jefferson City? Check out these hotels.
Courtyard by Marriott Jefferson City
Located on the outskirts of downtown, just three blocks from the river and within walking distance of most of the spots featured here, Jefferson City’s newest hotel, the Courtyard by Marriott, offers great views from the back patio and fire pit, an indoor pool, and a bistro for guests.
DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Jefferson City
Located in the heart of downtown, this DoubleTree offers an indoor pool and a penthouse-level restaurant with panoramic views of the city.
Where To Eat
Picks for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert in Jefferson City.
Yanis Coffee Zone
Grab breakfast at this casual, cozy cafe that serves coffee drinks and classic Mediterranean dishes. Make sure to start your day with a cup of Rocket Fuel!
Sweet Smoke BBQ
Sample mouthwatering barbecue at Sweet Smoke, where everything is dry rubbed, smoked, and always served fresh. There are two locations, one downtown and one on the city’s west side.
You’ve probably noticed that a lot of things in Jefferson City are tributes to its namesake president, but Tom’s fellow Virginian James gets his name on one of the city’s iconic restaurants, which for nearly forty years has served American, Italian and eclectic cuisine in a casual, relaxed yet elegant setting.
Central Dairy Ice Cream Parlor
This institution has been serving ice cream in Jeff City more than eighty years. In addition to cones and sundaes, they serve traditional parlor fare like malts, freezes and floats.
Plan your trip today at VisitJeffersonCity.com!