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A Look Back at Historic Lexington

(Pictured Above) The group, known as the Excelsior Band, is a successful touring band that probably could only appear in black venues or perhaps white nightclubs or saloons at that time. From left to right, they are (first row) Lincoln Jones, George Henry Robinson, Robert “Frog” Lindsey, and George “Bucky” Robinson; (second row) Charles Hagwood, Slaughter (first name unknown), Buster Miller, unidentified, Smith Mady, Denver Pyle, and William Hagwood. (Reprinted with permission from the book Images of America: Lexington)

The historic city of Lexington is located on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River in Lafayette County, Missouri. Lexington was platted in 1822 near William Jack's Ferry, which had been established just three years earlier on the south bank of the river. The city was named after Lexington, Kentucky. The earliest settlers were primarily from Kentucky and Virginia. Later came German, Irish and Italian immigrants. The seat of Lafayette County since 1823, Lexington grew rapidly during the following decades due to its strategic location on the Missouri River. John Aull opened a mercantile store in 1822. A short time later, he was joined by his brothers, James and Robert. The Aull Brothers soon had one of the first frontier retail chains, operating stores in Liberty, Independence and Richmond.

Their success drew other merchants, farmers and planters as the primary focus was on tobacco and hemp, used for making rope and burlap to wrap cotton bales. Steamboat trade became not only a means of transportation for people and goods, but also a hugely profitable investment. Those steamboats required fuel, and more industry was created when the coal mines, some of the state's first, were excavated to provide fuel for river steamers and a means of home heating.

As one of the most populous and prosperous cities west of St. Louis in the 1830s and '40s, Lexington became a primary center for merchants and outfitters as emigrants, traders and trappers prepared for their journey westward on the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails. In 1843, merchandise sent west from Lexington was estimated to value nearly a half million dollars. Lexington became a mecca for business and industry. Early commerce included furniture factories, slaughterhouses, foundries and rope making.

By the 1840s, the largest trading firm in the West, Russell, Majors & Waddell, had established its headquarters on Main Street. By the 1850s, they had as many as 3,500 covered wagons carrying goods from Lexington to Denver to all of California. While St. Joseph, Missouri, was the eastern terminus of the Pony Express, few people know that the Pony Express had its roots in the Main Street office of Russell, Majors & Waddell in Lexington.

In 1852, Lexington experienced one of the worst steamboat accidents in Missouri history. A side-wheeler steamship called the Saluda was carrying as many as 250 Mormon passengers en route to Salt Lake City, Utah, via Council Bluffs, Iowa. The trip had been hampered by a strong current and ice on the Missouri River, and for three days the ship was unable to negotiate the big bend in the river at Lexington. Frustrated, the captain apparently tied down the safety valve and ordered full speed ahead, while putting cold water in hot boilers. On the second turn of the paddle wheel, the boilers exploded, killing the captain and more than 75 others, including two people standing on the banks of the river. The people of Lexington provided aid to the survivors and adopted several orphans. The unidentified victims are buried in a mass grave in Lexington's Machpelah Cemetery. A memorial at 13th and Franklin Avenue has been erected honoring the memory of those who died and those who helped the survivors.

Civil War
Lexington was the site of one of the largest battles in the western theater of the Civil War. The Battle of Lexington is better known as the Battle of the Hemp Bales. On September 12, 1861, somewhere between 15 and 20 thousand Missouri State Guards were led to Lexington by Major General Sterling Price. On September 18, Price began a siege against the Federal military post stationed in the old Masonic College. The Federal troops were commanded by Colonel James A. Mulligan. Price's army mounted a final assault using hemp bales as moving breastworks while they moved up the river bluffs and closed in on Mulligan's headquarters. On the third day of the siege, Mulligan's troops surrendered. The combined casualties numbered 73 dead and 270 wounded. The battlefield remains today on the bluffs of the river in virtually pristine condition and is preserved as a state historic site.

In firing at Mulligan’s lines, one Southern battery overshot their mark and a cannonball hit and lodged in the leftmost pillar of the Lafayette County Courthouse. Although no one knows what happened to the original, the replacement cannonball seen there now has become an iconic symbol of Lexington.

Jesse James and New Prosperity
Shortly following his victory, Gen. Price was forced to leave Lexington, and the town was occupied by Federal troops for the rest of the war. With the end of slavery, a thriving African-American community sprang up centered on several churches and schools. However, the divisions of the war continued as shown by the local support for former guerilla fighters such as Jesse James. In 1866 the James Gang robbed the Alexander Mitchell Bank on Main Street, and little effort was made to catch them. The gang returned to the area in 1874 and robbed the omnibus, taking passengers from the train station across the river to the ferry.

In 1871 the first railroad reached Lexington as a spur coming from Sedalia to the southeast. As other railroads entered the area on both sides of the river, larger and larger coal mines opened to supply fuel. Coal was also used to heat most buildings and to make gas at a local plant. About 2,000 immigrants came to Lafayette County to work in those mines, bringing a major infusion of German, Irish, and Italian culture.

With its new prosperity, Lexington added a public high school, Wentworth Military Academy and Central (Methodist) College to its existing schools that included the Baptist Female Seminary and the Elizabeth Aull (Presbyterian) Seminary. Other signs of new wealth included an opera house, a brewery, a brick company, gaslights, electricity, streetcars, public water, and a large new city hall, now restored as Lafayette Hall.

The 1920s saw the next big changes in Lexington. In 1925 the Lafayette-Ray County Bridge (now replaced by the Congressman Ike Skelton Bridge) replaced a pontoon bridge across the Missouri. Highway 24 through Lexington had become the first east-west state road, and it was joined by Highway 13 going north-south across the bridge. In 1928 Jackson County Judge Harry Truman dedicated the Missouri DAR “Madonna of the Trail” statue at Lexington. Despite prohibition, with the coal mines at full production, Lexington was a rather wide-open town with many speakeasies. This brought big-time crime to the area, and in 1929 Federal agents raided a large brewery on Franklin Avenue just one block from the county courthouse and jail.

Depression and Rebirth
The Great Depression and the stresses of World War II ended the second period of great prosperity in Lexington’s history. The coal mines, which mined soft coal, were closed. All of the private schools except Wentworth Military Academy were gone. Most of the local factories and utilities were either closed or combined with larger companies. Lexington remained a regional center with a variety of local shops, small factories, a new hospital, and the headquarters of Mattingly’s, a chain of dime stores.

However, the beginning of a new role in the world began to emerge in 1959 when the local battlefield became the Battle of Lexington State Historic Site. In 1961 about 20,000 spectators came to see a reenactment commemorating the one hundred year anniversary of the Battle of Lexington. People in Lexington were beginning to realize that their rather unique heritage was of interest to many people. Fortunately, many of the buildings associated with that history had survived, and about 500 were put on the National Register. People began to restore houses and shops. Museums were started. Historical organizations became active. Regular heritage activities were held. People who were interested not only came to visit, but many of them came to buy homes and start businesses. By the 1980s Lexington became a tourist destination and was entering a third period of prosperity that continues to this day.