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Cape Girardeau roots: Mississippi River

For centuries, the Mississippi River has been the lifeblood of this area – the center of commerce, culture and more. To dig into the river’s influence on Cape Girardeau, we spoke with Denise Lincoln, a local historian and Cape resident for nearly 40 years. She offered some fascinating insight on the subject.

The Mississippi’s impact cannot be overstated. It forms the core of Cape Girardeau. “We are a river community – our whole existence. The only reason that there is a settlement is because of the river,” said Denise. Cape’s location along a waterway made it an ideal spot for commerce, leading to a growing settlement as more and more people took advantage of the rich opportunities available.

Through most of the town’s history, Cape’s riverfront has been busy. It was – and still is – a major hub in the area, bringing all sorts of supplies, people and even new ideas. Denise explained, “Cape was a riverboat port, and steamboats were nosing up to our shoreline by the tens and twenties to offload passengers and products that you need for civilization.”

But commerce worked both ways, with “folks packing the stuff that they wanted to sell on boats going up and down the river.” Many citizens enjoyed wealth from their trade ventures, building beautiful homes that still populate the area near the river.

The Mississippi River played an important role in daily life, culture and even religion. Denise recalled seeing pictures where “churches baptized in the river.” She continued, “Can you imagine getting in the river to be baptized?” At one point, baptisms and even swimming were common Mississippi River activities, a part of Cape’s tradition, but they are also dangerous. We don’t recommend it under any circumstances.

Denise believes that “if you want to touch the different layers of our history and the significance of this area, you start from the river and you work west, because that’s how settlement developed.” The oldest structures are close to the Mississippi, with architecture becoming more modern as you head westward – allowing you to see the town’s growth through the years.

As for the present, Denise said, “The river’s much the same – but with light poles and electric lines.” In fact, she occasionally imagines what the downtown area must have been like in the 19th century. Her favorite place to do that is the Common Pleas Courthouse. She advises visitors, “Don’t miss the scene from the courthouse park. You go back to the 1850s, easily, with that same view. Look over the town and the river, and it kind of feels like the steamboats are coming.”

To discover other Cape Girardeau sites that transport you back in time, click here.

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