Fort Smith

While most river bluff vistas in this area look toward Kansas, the view from Fort Smith, near the south end of Prospect Avenue, looks back toward St. Joseph.

Let’s say you’re a student and you’ve been assigned to write a paper on St. Joseph’s role in the Civil War. You’re thinking you might like to look up old News-Press microfilm (or in this case, the Gazette) from that era to get a sense of what the city was like.

Good luck.

Turns out, the Gazette, which had been started by William Ridenbaugh in 1845, was a Democratic Party journal, meaning it championed states’ rights, slavery and other causes of the South. Ridenbaugh sold the paper in 1854, and it was sold again in 1862, but it retained its political posture.

That did not bode well when the Union began taking control of the city and state.

“Any paper that held those positions would be shut down,” says Joe Houts, a Civil War aficionado who has written two books on the subject. The new owner of the Gazette, George Rees, found that out, as that paper quit publishing in November 1862. (It would resume publication after the war, in 1868.)

So instead you might want to send your student to the Patee House Museum, which boasts a number of impressive displays on the war’s impact on St. Joseph and the area, including the Battle of St. Catherine, the Platte River disaster and a chilling account of the public executions that were held within a stone’s throw of the Patee House.

Gary Chilcote, the museum’s director, notes that the building was the Union’s provost marshal’s office during the war, and some officers stayed there. A cannon, sitting proudly in the lobby, has drawn attention. “Some visitors have wondered why it’s there,” Chilcote said. “But wouldn’t you expect one in a museum that features the Civil War?”

You’d also expect some good stories to come out of the war. One of Houts’ favorites is of Union troops holding cannon practice from Fort Smith, high above the city.

“One day, a shot was bound for King Hill,” he said. “But it was off track, hitting a house, bouncing around and eventually blowing up a privy.”

Another story involved Mayor Jeff Thompson climbing the flagpole in front of the post office and ripping down the Union flag.

“You have to remember, most people came here from the South, and they retained those beliefs,” Houts said.

The North needed to control the river, which made Fort Smith all the more important. What a fine spot to establish a lasting legacy to the war, right?

Houts, Bob Ford and Sarah Elder thought so, as they led a drive a decade ago to help the city obtain the fort’s land near the south end of Prospect Avenue, develop the property and set up a park, complete with replica cannons.

“The view is unlike any other in St. Joseph,” the News-Press said in an editorial in July 2012. While most vistas from this area look toward Kansas, “the long-abandoned Fort Smith looks back toward the Downtown area, Midtown and the South Side.”

The editorial noted that close to $200,000 was being raised in private funds for the project. “This public-private partnership is one of those collaborations we like to see.”

The park opened in August 2013 and has been successful. Elder, currently the manager of the Remington Nature Center, says a Civil War-themed wedding was even held at Fort Smith.

“In the fall, especially, you can see over to Kansas, you can see up and down the river, and you can appreciate why it made sense to put the fort there,” she said. “Even if you’re not interested in the Civil War, you can enjoy the park. Sit back on a bench, relax and enjoy the view. Along with the Patee House, Fort Smith stands as a legacy to the Civil War of which we should all be proud.”