I really hope I can remember something meaningful of my bike ride in St. Charles. It’s been nearly two weeks since I biked here. I haven’t driven this far to go bike riding in awhile. I remember Ben and I biked on the Katy Trail on a 100 degree day years ago. We went way too far and in the end we didn’t have too much fun. We were just trying to avoid a heat stroke. This ride was nothing like that. It certainly wasn’t 100 degree hot. It was more like a partly cloudy, comfortable evening. Honestly, it was almost perfect.
The St. Charles riverfront is quite different than the St. Louis riverfront. St. Charles doesn’t have the cobblestones that slope into the river – the remnants of riverboat and steamboat industry. St. Charles’ riverfront is more like a big park with grass, some pavilions, a pier that hooks out into the Missouri river, a stage, trails, some sculptures to mark the historic significance of the city. The edge of the river is more “natural” looking – mud, sand, wild grasses and plants. It’s a bit more scenic if you like trees and nature.
I don’t really go to St. Charles too often. It’s not exactly close to where I live. It takes about 45 minutes to get there and we don’t have much reason to go there. I typically think of it as suburban sprawl with cookie-cutter houses and McMansions. We may go to an art show at the Foundry Art Center, get food and hit an antique mall while we’re there.
I know the old town has much history and character. I also know it’s main street, while there are many historic old buildings it can seem a bit too touristy or just too “nice” for me. For some reason I’m attracted to grimy wear-and-tear and seem to naturally reject what many people naturally like. It is a very active street with stores and restaurants and would make most people safe, content and comfortable. I was riding around on a Saturday evening so it was busy with people enjoying dinner and drinks or just hanging out. There were also a lot of women in wedding/formal dresses too (mostly they were near the riverfront getting pictures) stumbling around in the gravel. I can’t imagine high-heels as being the ideal shoe but if you really want some wedding pictures by some railroad tracks and an old locomotive you may deal with it. Nothing says authenticity more than some railroad tracks. My cynicism shines.
That said, I really wanted to get into the old Frenchtown section and more into the business district and further in from the river where there are more victorian era homes and other buildings that are more grand. I wanted to get away from the fun hustle and bustle of nightlife and social gatherings. Who needs that kind of fun when you have a bike and a bunch of hills to climb?
Frenchtown is an area east of the main drag and business district. It is more of a modest residential area with some storefront commercial type buildings along 2nd Street. According to the Historic Frenchtown Association, Frenchtown has the largest concentration of French Colonial style architecture in the Midwest. Most were built between 1820-1850. The structures feature a front facing gable roof that extends over a galleried front porch. They typically have double front doors and are often mistaken as duplexes. They are typically brick on limestone foundations.
It is said Lewis and Clark dined at a house in Frenchtown before departing on their expedition to explore the Louisiana Territory. It is also said that the founder of Chicago and fur trader, Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, spent his last ten years in a stone house at the corner of Second and Decatur Streets. It is very hard to tell these things happened as it just seems like an older neighborhood and not much to mark the historic significance. I guess you just have to know but maybe it really isn’t that hard to figure out or maybe I’m not giving most people enough credit.
Later on the area took on many German immigrants and you can see some of their influence in the architecture of the area too. Like Belleville, IL, they have a lot of small German Street House cottages made of brick. This expanded the population and it became a bustling area with many businesses. In the 1870s the St. Charles Car Company was founded and later on was bought by the American Car Company. They made streetcar and railcars and later machinery for World War I. They became the largest employer of the people in the immediate area and it does have a presence. When you ride the Katy Trail along side the old factory the buildings seems to go on and on and on. Today, the buildings still exist but factory operations have ceased to exist. Part of it is an art center and there are various businesses such as an indoor tennis complex using the old factory buildings.
Many of the earlier houses are more “pure” in their European influenced design but by the late 1800s the styles were more mixed with American styles. Some were updated with popular Victorian styles. While there are many of the French Colonial and the German Street Houses – the neighborhood has a wide variety of styles from Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Saltbox, Italianate, to Romanesque. I will add there are newer houses and metal trailers peppered about too.
With the many styles of buildings it was interesting biking around looking at the different structures. I will note that some are raised on stone foundations. I wonder if the Missouri would flood this area back then. The land does slope up as you get further from the river.
I did meander the streets to find a great Queen Anne Victorian home with an ornate onion-shaped dome. It goes by the name of “The Meyerdorf”. It was built in 1892 and was designed and built by a local jeweler. Nearby were some other great victorian homes too. Next door to The Meyerdorf there is a house with an oval shaped tower with a red band around the second story and ornate woodwork trim that served as the first library in St. Charles. Those two places stood out to me.
Going into the main business district the incline becomes more steep as it seems to sit on a big hill. I can look out over the Missouri river in some spots. It is quite scenic. I took a break at the grounds of the domed Old St. Charles Courthouse. It sits up high and has plenty of grassy areas and I can see the river. It’s a good sitting area – perfect for my little break near the end of my zig-zagging through the streets. Before heading back near the river, I took a ride through the main street and admired many of the storefronts – most wonderfully restored. They do have charm and people seem to like going to the restaurants and shops. I got the feeling many just like to walk around and hang out. The only thing I didn’t like is that the streets are brick and there is a lot of car traffic. With my narrow wheels I don’t like roads with gaps in the surface. This means I am wary of railroad tracks and cobblestone streets.
Right before I ended my ride I biked back down to the river and just sat on the edge in the sandy dirt and watched some boats go by. Watching the river in itself can be relaxing and peaceful. I could feel the breeze on my face as the sun was setting and felt at peace and content. Tired but happy. I wonder how different the view is than from when those early french traders and explorers stepped here over 200 years ago. I look out and there isn’t much directly across so I imagine that it isn’t much different but the river isn’t as natural as it was. There certainly wasn’t airplanes or motor boats. Either way, I feel a connection to the past or just a realization that while times may be different, many things don’t change. I wonder what those early settlers thought when looking over the river? I’m not sure they’d see the landscape as I do today but I bet it would of filled them wonder. Could they have known this area would grow into what it is now – that they laid the seed, the foundation of these communities, of this metro area and ultimately the western United States?