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Back in Time: Cape Girardeau’s Early Days

Born on the Mississippi River more than 200 years ago, Cape Girardeau, Missouri, has evolved from a tiny trading post to a thriving community of 38,000 on the world’s only inland cape.  Step back to a time when Cape Girardeau was a young frontier town at these sites that chronicle the early days of our river city.

It all started at Cape Rock.  A French soldier named Jean D. Girardot established a trading post on a promontory rock overlooking the Mississippi River in 1733.  The spot came to be known as Cape Girardot by river travelers, and the name stuck when Girardot moved on to wilder regions.  Though part of the actual cape was destroyed in the late 1800s to construct the Frisco Railroad tracks, Cape Rock Park on the site of Girardot’s trading post is a testament to our community’s very beginning.  Picnic tables and benches give you a spot to relax and overlook the Mississippi River, providing panoramic views as barges head up and down river, and a historic marker notes the significance of the spot.  Fountain Park is just steps away, and features a water fountain with goldfish, a picnic table and a 1 mile trail that winds through the woods.       

Louis Lorimier was commissioned by the Spanish to set up a military post in Cape Girardot; he is credited with founding Cape Girardeau, though he didn’t give the community its name.  Visit an historically accurate recreation of his home and trading post at the Red House Interpretive Center, where Lorimier and his family welcomed Lewis and Clark as they embarked upon their westward journey.  A tour of the Red House illustrates the lives of the early settlers of Cape Girardeau and a rendering of Lorimier’s trading post, displaying authentic items that would have been for sale at the turn of the 19th century.

Lorimier donated 5 acres to establish the city’s first public cemetery upon the death of his wife Charlotte, now known as Old Lorimier Cemetery.  Originally sectioned by religion and race, over 6,500 burials are believed to have taken place at Old Lorimier Cemetery, although with no discernible order assigned to the burials, it’s impossible to tell.  Unique funerary iconography on many of the 1,250 gravestones as well as a stone pagoda over the graves of Charlotte and Louis Lorimier make for an interesting stroll and opportunities for stone rubbing in this peaceful spot.  

The majestic Old St. Vincent’s Church in downtown Cape Girardeau has humble beginnings.  A newly ordained Vincentian priest, Father John Timon, traveled on horseback ministering to Catholics and Protestants in this area in the mid 1820s.  He often celebrated mass in a warehouse belonging to Louis Lorimier, close by his Red House.  The first iteration of Old St. Vincent’s Church as well as the original Red House were destroyed by a tornado in 1850, paving the way for the current Old St. Vincent’s Church.  Designed by a 24-year-old Irishman named Thomas Walsh, Old St. Vincent is one of only five or six English Gothic churches still standing in the United States.  Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and completed in 1853, this grand Chapel of Ease has been beautifully restored and features the original pews, distinctive wrought iron designs and meticulous carved wood.  Take a tour where you’ll learn about the relics housed within the altar and find out why this consecrated holy place is so exceptional.

The life, culture and heritage of Cape Girardeau and Southeast Missouri through the years come to life at the Cape River Heritage Museum.  Located in the old Fire Station # 1, a tour of their ever-changing line up of exhibits cover steamboats, commerce, the Missouri mule, the Missouri state flag designed right here in Cape Girardeau, the Show-Me slogan, Native American culture as well as police and fire memorabilia.

Plan Your Visit

Stay in Cape Girardeau, at a B&B, a vacation rental, hotel or campground.

Cape Rock Park is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.; map it.  Fountain Park is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.  
The Red House Interpretive Center at 128 South Main Street is open for tours on Saturdays, May – October, from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Old Lorimier Cemetery at 500 North Fountain Street is open Monday – Friday from 7 a.m. – 3 p.m., or by request.
Old St. Vincent’s Church at 131 South Main Street is open for tours Saturdays from noon – 4 p.m., May – September.  Mass is celebrated Sundays at 10 a.m.
The Cape River Heritage Museum at 538 Independence Street is open Thursday – Saturday from Noon – 4 p.m., March – December.

Step back in time in Cape Girardeau, where the foundation of the community stands strong.  Additional historic attractions in Cape Girardeau include a restored Victorian mansion, the largest collection of unbroken Native American pottery in North America and one of the only four covered bridges left in the state; learn more here.  

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