Independence – A Twisty Tower, Court 1880’s Style, The Trails Start Here and a Dangerous Depot


When we arrived to our campsite in Independence, the first landmark I noticed in the distance was this unusual tower.  I soon found out that the tower is a Temple and the International Headquarters of the Community of Christ, a faction of the Latter Day Saints.  It was fairly close to our RV site – across the park and down the street.   I learned that Independence is sacred to the Latter Day Saints as Joseph Smith had a revelation that it would be a gathering spot of the Saints during the Last Days.  Before he was killed, he picked out land to build the City of Zion.

The Community of Christ Temple was completed in 1994 at a cost of $35 million. It is an impressive building and I especially liked seeing it lit up at night, although I was concerned about the electric bill!  During nightly walks, Mark got tired of me wondering how the church paid the light bill.  Besides the Community of Christ, the headquarters of several other Latter Day Saint groups are also located here within a few blocks.   I found the number of large church buildings, auditoriums and visitor centers mind boggling and LOTS more lights.   The light bill mystery was never resolved!

Independence, a city with a lot of history is probably best known as the beginning point for the Santa Fe, California and Oregon trails.   It was here that people stocked up on supplies and organized their wagons.  Above is a large mural painted by Thomas Hart Benton for the Truman Museum.  It is titled “Independence and the Opening of the West” and depicts what the settlers faced on their journeys.   There are a number of signs around the historic town square and surrounding neighborhoods noting the route where the trails passed through.

A yearly festival called “Santacaligon” is held in September and celebrates the three trails.  The Frontier Trails Museum is down the street from our camp site.  There are also swales left over from the days when wagon trains made lasting indentations in the ground trying to get out of town.  Below is a picture of swales believed to be from those days although the grass might make it a little difficult to see them.

One of the highlights of our stay was attending an annual re-enactment of a trial called, “The Bandit Rides Again” put on by the Jackson County Historical Society.  The original trial was held in 1880 after a young man from the Jesse James gang known as Whiskeyhead was tried for participating in the famous Glendale train robbery near Independence.   The re-enactment featured the same cast of characters as the original trial.  Many of the actors were actually lawyers, judges and law enforcement in real life.  It was great fun to watch the process play out.

The best part was that it felt very authentic as it was held in the same court house and court room as the original trial and all the actors were dressed in period attire.   The attendees were the jury and at the end we were asked for our verdict.  The jury was split about 50/50 – Mark and I voted “not guilty” and were then told that Whiskeyhead had in fact been found guilty and sentenced to prison.

The outlaw Jesse James and his gang caused a great deal of mischief in Missouri robbing banks, trains and stagecoaches.  After Jesse was killed, his brother Frank turned himself in and was put in jail in Independence to await trial.  Above is a photo of the jail which is now a museum that includes the marshall’s home.

Frank James was treated more like a guest than a prisoner and his jail cell (above) was furnished with furniture, rugs and pictures by his friends.  He was even invited to have dinner with the Jailer’s family.

We drove to the small town of Liberty north of Independence and visited the Bank Museum.  The James gang was suspected of robbing the Clay County Savings Association of $60,000 in 1866.  This was the first daylight bank hold up in the United States.  Since there was not enough evidence as to the identity of the robbers, no one was arrested.  You can tour inside the former bank and see the vault where the loot was stolen.  In above picture, the green metal door leads into the vault.

After seeing the inside I went out to take a few pictures and promptly fell off the curb onto the street.  I ended up with two skinned knees and a hole in my jeans.   Years ago when I used to walk our dog around the neighborhood at night in the dark, I tripped and fell a few times.  One Christmas my kids took pity on me and as a gag gift got me a set of protective knee and elbow pads.  They would have come in handy on this trip!

We had to check out the cute 1879 Chicago and Alton train depot just down the track from where we were staying.  It might look harmless on the outside but inside lurked an unknown danger, an overly enthusiastic volunteer!  Although the tour of the depot was supposed to be short, it seemed to never end.  Mark and I laughed afterwards that although a small place, the rooms seemed to stretch on forever as the guide pointed out the memorabilia and the history behind them.

We were trapped but eventually got back downstairs to the waiting room (above) and made our escape.  It is pretty cool that this is the only restored wooden two story train depot left in Missouri.

Another find right down the street from our park is the Bingham-Waggoner Estate built in 1852.  This is one of the best historic home tours I have taken.  A friendly docent took me through the rooms where 95% of the furnishings and possessions are original to the home.   This three story mansion has 26 rooms and the Waggoner family lived here for 97 years.  One of my favorite things about the house were the painted floral decorations on the walls and ceilings in most of the rooms including the sitting room pictured below.

What sets this tour apart from most others is that you can touch anything in the house and even sit on the furniture.  I took advantage of this and played a song on the piano in the parlor.

I will close this post with a picture of perhaps the most beautiful historic home I have seen since traveling full time.  The Vaile Mansion, built in 1881 is stunning.  I ran out of time and couldn’t take the inside tour, but I got some pictures of the outside as I walked around the grounds late one afternoon.   Instead of seeing this home, I decided to venture out of town and see the bank museum.   I probably should have seen the Vaile since it is so beautiful and I also would have saved some wear and tear on my knees!

Thanks for reading!  In my next blog we move further south to another town in Missouri for further exploring!

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