Missouri National Recreational River

by Bob Hoelscher 4. December 2012 00:43

The Missouri, North America’s longest river, meanders from its headwaters in Montana and through the Dakotas, borders Nebraska and Kansas to the east, and Iowa and Missouri to the west, before crossing the “Show Me” State and joining the Mississippi just north of St. Louis.  Although it became an important commercial waterway as the U.S. expanded westward during the second half of the 19th century, the river remained treacherous going for steamboats of the era.

However, after a series of particularly devastating floods in the early 1940s, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1944, a provision of which eventually resulted in six dams being built, massive reservoirs being filled and the end of regular seasonal flood destruction. But there are still two historic, free-flowing stretches of the Missouri along the Nebraska/South Dakota border that were preserved by Congress in 1978 and 1991 as the Missouri National Recreational River. The 39-Mile-District, downstream from Fort Randall Dam as far as Running Water (SD), offers visitor centers at both the dam itself and Niobrara State Park (NE), while the 59-Mile District, downstream from the Gavins Point Dam to Ponca State Park (NE), has a visitor center in the state park, as well as the major Lewis and Clark Visitor Center at the dam. 

In addition to splendid views of the river and Gavins Point Dam, the latter facility has numerous exhibits, a video theatre and a bookstore. Both districts offer a wealth of opportunities for water sports, fishing, hiking and picnicking.

Park facilities along the Missouri River

Lewis and Clark Visitor Center

Missouri River model in the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center

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Three lesser-known Midwest parks

Silver Dollar City's Hidden Treasure

by Brian Jewell 19. April 2012 00:53

Silver Dollar City's greatest treasure may be lie 300 feet below its surface.

Branson's pre-eminent theme park is best known for its rides, entertainment and 100 artisans who demonstrate Ozark Mountain crafts for visitors. But the park got its start because of Marvel Cave, a limestone cave that was first discovered by Osage Indians around 1500 A.D. In 1894, a local man bought the property that the cave is located on and opened it as a tourist attraction; he and his daughters continued to operate tours of the cave for the next 50 years. In 1950, the Herschend family leased the land built a few buildings around the opening to the cave. Their small development has grown into Silver Dollar City, an attraction that vastly overwhelms the popularity of Marvel Cave itself.

The presence of a theme park doesn't make Marvel Cave any less marvelous, though. Silver Dollar City admission tickets entitle visitors to free tours of the cave, which take around 40 minutes. I joined a cave tour during my day visiting the park, and was amazed by what I saw.

We descended into Marvel Cave on foot, slowly making our way down the more than 450 steps that lead to the bottom. The descent was slow and easy, though, and we were treated with spectacular views along the way. One of the most memorable sights is the Cathedral Room, a 200-foot-high cavern that is the largest entry point of any cave in North America. This huge room is spectaclar is scope, large enough to house the Statue of Liberty, and makes a wonderful introduction to the sights to come.

After walking across the floor of the Cathedral Room, we continued along a half-mile path that took us past spectacular rock formations and waterfalls. Many of the rock formations were created by the slow drip of water over thousands of years. They have been lit in dramatic fashion to help highlight the stunning beauty of this secret underground world.

At the end of the tour, we ascended just a few stairs, and then boarded an incline railway that took us the rest of the way up to the surface. Though thousands of visitors were having a great time above ground, I think those of us that took the time to tour this fantastic cave got the best experience of all.


Descending into the Cathedral Room

Marvel Cave's spectacular waterfall

The cave tour highlights otherworldly rock formations.


Unique geological features

Branson Scenic Railway

by Brian Jewell 18. April 2012 23:18

One hundred years ago, Branson was a newly incorporated town growing around a stop in the White River Line railway that connected Arkansas and Missouri. Today, visitors can experience a taste of historic transportation — as well as the scenery of the unspoiled Ozark mountains — during a ride on the Branson Scenic Railway.

When I took an afternoon excursion on the railway, I couldn't help but notice how the "Ozark Zephyr" seemed to transport me and my fellow passengers across space and time. The train ride starts at Branson Landing, a modern retail and dining complex on the banks of Lake Taneycomo. But as soon as I boarded the train, I found myself surrounded by a mid-20th century environment. The train features a collection of classic train cars, some of which have been in service for decades, and a couple of special dome cars that offer great viewing opportunities.

Once the train began moving, the business of Branson faded away, and the beauty of the Ozark Mountains came into view. As we chugged our way through thick forest and along the hilltops, we enjoyed the same landscape that rail travelers saw as they rode through this area 100 years ago. Along the way, we passed over a number of high trestles that gave us gorgeous views onto valleys and canyons below, as well as some tunnels carved out of the local limestone hills.

About two hours later, we pulled back into busy Branson and back into the 21st century. I found myself so relaxed by the ride and so enchanted by the scenery that I almost didn't want the ride to end.



Vintage train cars

Wrapping around a high trestle

A view from the railway's highest bridge

A Canyon Sanctuary

by Brian Jewell 18. April 2012 00:36

Branson may be known as the Music Show Capital of the World, but it also enjoys a wonderful natural setting in the Ozark Mountains. Visitors see two mountain lakes as they make their way around town; further away from the famous Highway 76, Dogwood Canyon Nature Park is a welcome respite for nature lovers.

It takes a bit of a drive to get to Dogwood Canyon, which sits on the border of Missouri and Arkansas. Groups that make out are in for a treat, though. This 10,000-acre nature preserve highlights some of the most beautiful geological features of the Ozarks: deep limestone canyons, caves, ponds, waterfalls and other impressive formations. Paved sidewalks and rougher trails wind throughout the park, giving visitors a variety of ways to explore. Groups can come in to the welcome center together, and then split up to do different activities such as walking/hinking, bicycle tours, ATV rides and Segway tours.

I chose to explore the park on horseback. Though many of the other activity options take visitors through the wooded paths at the bottom of the canyon, horseback adventures begin at a corral at the top side of the park. I took a one-hour guided ride, along with a friend from the Branson Area CVB. During the ride, our guide took us up and down trails that cut across the top of Ozark hills overlooking Dogwood Canyon. We rode slowly, going by the pastures where the park staff is raising a herd of bison, and through fields where other "off-duty" horses roamed freely, enjoying the sunshine on a warm April morning.

The trail rides are easy, relaxed activities that almost anyone could do, and guides can accomodate groups of up to 12 people on each ride. Twice a week, the guides take more advanced riders out on half-day excursions. Bigger groups can have their own experiences on tram rides through the park, which last two hours and include visits to the bison and elk pastures. During the summer months, groups can have a chuckwagon dinner in the fields during the tram tour of the park.




Kauffman Center

by Bob Hoelscher 28. December 2011 01:32

September witnessed the opening of one of Missouri’s newest cultural and visitor attractions, the magnificent Kauffman Center of the Performing Arts in downtown Kansas City. Many years in the planning, the Kauffman Center not only replaces antiquated and inadequate venues for the city’s three major performing arts organizations, but also does so in truly spectacular fashion. 

From the north side, the facility approximates two giant oyster shells that some have compared to the famed Sydney Opera House in Australia. The Center was designed by Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, whose other recent, and similarly praiseworthy addition to the Midwest cultural scene is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, which opened its doors in November.

Inside are two splendid halls. From the main entrance on the south side of the complex, the 1,800-seat Muriel Kauffman Theatre, the new home of the Kansas City Opera and Kansas City Ballet, is on the visitor’s left. This facility will also be utilized for “Broadway” productions and traveling shows, such as the one-woman performance by comedienne Lily Tomlin that was scheduled for the evening of my visit in late November. On the right, and connected by a spacious and truly impressive “grand foyer” on two levels, is the Kansas City Symphony’s new 1,600-seat Helzberg Hall. Both the ceiling (roof) and the south side of the foyer itself are expansive walls of glass  To the south is a panoramic view of the city (but not the downtown area itself), looking towards the Crown Center, historic Union Station, the Liberty Memorial, which houses the National World War I Museum, and other sights.

My reason for coming to Kansas City was a Sunday matinee concert by the Symphony, an excellent orchestra that has come a very long way since it’s founding in 1982 from the “ashes” of the bankrupt Kansas City Philharmonic. Although based on the conversations I had, the word had likely circulated widely among the city’s residents, but I was immediately surprised how much the interior of Helzberg Hall resembles a slightly smaller version of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.  Needless to say, however, the somewhat controversial exterior of the Disney facility, designed by Frank Gehry, is much different.  But the real test of any concert hall is its acoustics, and I am happy to report that here they are superb. Furthermore, the sightlines are excellent from seating areas throughout the hall.

I think my friend Roger Oyster, the Kansas City Symphony’s Principal Trombone, said it best in an e-mail to me after the hall debuted in September  I am happy...ecstatic, actually...to report that Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center is spectacular in nearly every way. Stunningly beautiful, sound is flattering on stage, you can hear yourself and your colleagues always no matter what the context---it is literally among the best places I've ever played, which include Symphony Hall in Boston and pre-renovation Carnegie (Hall in New York). I've had some chance to hear the KCS in the house, and while I haven't been in nearly as many great halls as a listener as I have a performer, the sound is absolutely stunning. The best news we learned this last weekend: it sounds even better with a house full of people. We're all beside ourselves with joy here.” Don’t miss it on your group’s next visit to Kansas City!

Halzberg Hall

Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts

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Three snapshots of the Midwest

Art comes alive in St. Charles

by Brian Jewell 7. May 2010 06:57

Artwork takes on a whole new hue when you get to talk to the people who are creating it.

Today I visited St. Charles, a town in eastern Missouri known for it historic 1800s downtown and its association with Lewis and Clark's expedition. There's plenty of charm on the brick-lined streets, and many historic sites to visit. But the one that interested me the most was the Foundry Arts Centre.

Created as a railroad car manufacturing facility in the 1940s, the foundry later closed and sat dormant for years. In the 1990s and early 2000s, a community effort helped to turn the facility into an arts center with gallery space for artwork exhibition and studio space where local artists can work.

Today the Foundry Arts Centre is the cultural headquarters of St. Charles, hosting concerts, art shows, lectures luncheons and other events. The permanent galleries on the bottom floor host a series of changing exhibitions of work by local and regional artists. In the upstairs section, some 25 working artists have studios, where they can be found creating paintings, sculptures, fabric art, pottery and other art forms.

My favorite part of the visit was walking through the studios and meeting the artists who work there.  Two of them are retired art teachers who are pursuing their life passions now after decades in education. They explained the inspiration behind their work, and shared some of the processes and techniques they use to create painting and pottery that they love and that appeal to art buyers.

Meeting these guys helped me to put a human face on the artwork, and allowed to see the items in front of me through the perspective of their experience, creativity and passions. If you're only a casual art liker, a visit to the foundry just might turn you in to a bona fide art lover.


Will the real Jesse James please stand up?

by Brian Jewell 6. May 2010 06:42

The story of Jesse James, which I knew little of before this trip through Missouri, just keeps getting weirder and weirder.

Today I visited the Jesse James Wax Museum in Stanton, a small Missouri town not far from St. Louis. Official history indicates that Jesse James was killed in 1882 in a rented house in St. Joseph, Missouri (the home is now a St. Joseph museum). But the owners of Jesse James Wax Museum hold that James faked his own death and left Missouri, and resurfaced in 1948 as a 100-year-old man under the name J. Frank Dalton. According to this version of the story, the real James returned to Missouri and lived for three years before dying in 1951.

The wax museum is dedicated to making the case that J. Frank Dalton was Jesse James. Displays use grainy black-and-white photos of the two men, along with the testimonies of several of James' contemporaries, to try to convince visitors of this alternate version of history. During a tour of the museum, guests see a number of wax figures depicting scenes from James' life, as well as a figure of the elderly Dalton after making his debut in public. Also on display are a number of antique firearms, as well as a computer-generated aging photos used to demonstrate how Jesse James would have aged into a old man resembling Dalton.

"The evidence they found was amazing," said Tammy Franklin, my guide to the museum who was a true believer in the story. "It really does make sense."

The story is certainly compelling -- if Jesse James succeeded in faking his own death in 1882 to ultimately escape pursuit, it would be the greatest criminal exploit in American history. I've been so taken in by the tale that I've spent much of tonight reading historical accounts online, looking at the evidence presented by both sides. Most academics and scientists who comment on the issue point to a 1996 DNA test that confirms that the man buried on the farm in Kearney shares DNA with James' sister. But to the true believers, the DNA test had several underlying innacuracies and, thus, proves nothing.

For me, the deciding factor is this: J. Frank Dalton was introduced to the public by Rudy Tirelli, one of the proprietors of Meramec Caverns in Stanton. The owners have long marketed the caverns as a hideout of the James gang in the 1800s, and drew no small ammount of media attention with their claims to have found the real, un-dead outlaw.

Sounds to me like Tirelli and company had a financial motivation to promote the tale of J. Frank Dalton. And if you make a trip to the Jesse James Wax Museum, they'll make few bucks off of you, too. But for those who are fascinated with the legend and lore of Jesse James, or who can't pass up a good conspiracy theory, this museum makes an interesting half-hour visit.

Hero or villain? The Jesse James Farm

by Brian Jewell 5. May 2010 08:17

To many students of history, Jesse James is one of the most notorious villains ever to live in the United States, robbing banks and killing enemies all over the country for decades during the mid-1800s. But for a fair number of his contemporaries in western Missouri, James was a freedom fighter and folk hero.

I learned a fascinating story about James life and motivation for his violent actions at the James Farm, a historic site in the small town of Kearney, Missouri, where James was born and lived much of his early life. During a tour of the museum, I learned about the violent Civil War-era events that motivated Jesse and his brother Frank James to begin their life of violent crimes. The James boys and their family, who supported the South in the Civil War, saw significant abuse at the hands of Union sympathizers. After the war, when a new Missouri constintution disenfranchised and marginalized those who had supported the rebel cause, the James brothers began robbing pro-Union banks as a form of vigilante justice.

After seeing an introductory video and touring the small museum, I took a guided tour of the James house, which was built in the early 1800s. During the tour, I heard stories of the family's life there, including some of the attacks that the boys' mother and siblings endured by federal marshals pursuing the outlaws. The boys' mother lived there until the day she died; after that, Frank James came back and lived in the home as well, giving tours of the farm to curious passers by who came to see the birthplace of the already-infamous Jesse James.

After he was killed in St. Joseph, Jesse James was brought back to the farm and buried there, where a gravestone and memorial still stands. Reading the inscription on the headstone, you would think that Jesse James was a first-rate hero. It's a good reminder that history is never quite as simple as it seems. And after visiting the home and hearing its stories, I have a new appreciation for the difficult time in our history that this family's struggle represents.


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Missouri: Jesse James and More

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