In most of my writings, I always try to point out the emptiest or focus point of many of the haunted locations that I have researched. Some of those eerie beginnings tend to be certain events while others center on a particular person or item. In several cases, everything appears to start at a certain place. Enter Fort Belle Fontaine.
In delving into the haunted history of Jefferson Barracks and the St. Louis Arsenal, I found that their stories always started with Fort Belle Fontaine. This little fort’s prominence as the first U.S. military fortification west of the Mississippi and its overall role in the St. Louis region during a tumultuous time in the nation’s history was the key to the later establishment of Jefferson Barracks and the Arsenal. Oddly, it would not be until I was doing research into other military posts across the country that I would come across ghost stories attributed to Fort Belle Fontaine itself. The various paranormal events that have taken place at the fort over the years have raised many questions, but to find out the answers, you must first know the forts history.
After the signing of the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, the Mississippi Valley literally became the “Gateway to the West”. In 1805, the U.S. military established Fort Belle Fontaine at the mouth of Cold Water Creek near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in an effort to protect the City of St. Louis and the thriving river trade along the Mississippi River. Located on the south, low-lying bank of the Missouri River, just four miles down stream from the Spanish Fort Don Carlos which had been abandoned in 1780, this remote military fort and its small garrison greeted the first pioneers and settlers heading west into the new frontier.
The original site of the first fort, known as Cantonment Belle Fontaine was selected by General James Wilkinson, the first governor of the Louisiana Territory. A short time after a location for the fort had been established, three companies of the First Infantry, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Jacob Kingsbury, arrived and set about the construction of the fort.
From the start, Cantonment Belle Fontaine served as a trading post or “Indian Factory” for the local Indian tribes but by 1808, the “factory” was moved from the fort. Trade goods previous stored at the fort were transferred to Fort Osage at the fart western edge of Missouri and Fort Madison in Iowa.
Being the only established military presence in the new Louisiana Territory, Fort Belle Fontaine served as an instrumental starting and stopping point for several notable explorers and expeditions. The famous pioneering military officer Zebulon Pike started two expeditions at Fort Belle Fontaine. In 1805, Pike launched his expedition of the upper Mississippi River from the fort and in 1806, Pike used the fort as a starting point for his probe into the Spanish held lands of the Southwest. During both expeditions, Pike left his family at Fort Belle Fontaine for their safety.
By far, the most famous explorers to visit Fort Belle Fontaine were Lewis and Clark. Members of the famous “Corps of Discovery” camped at Fort Belle Fontaine prior to starting their historic voyage on May 14, 1804. The “Corps of Discovery” later returned to the fort at the conclusion of their historic journey and spent the night on September 22, 1806. The following is Excerpted from the Journals of Lewis and Clark upon their arrival at Fort Belle Fontaine:
Monday 22nd of Septr. 1806
“This morning being very wet and the rain still continueing hard, and our party being all sheltered in house of those hospitable people, we did not (think) proper to proceed on until after the rain was over, and continued at the house of Mr. Proulz. I took this opportunity of writing to my friends in Kentucky & c. At 10 a.m. it seased raining and we collected our party and Set out and proceeded on down to the Contonemt, at Coldwater Creek about 3 miles up the Missouri on it’s Southern banks, at this place we found Colo. Hunt and a Lieut. Peters & one Company of Artillerists we were kindly received by the Gentlemen of this place. …….. We were honored with a Salute of (blank space in MS.) and a harty welcome. At this place there is a publick store kept in which I am informed the U.S. have 60000$ worth of Indian Goods.”
In 1809, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Bissell Took command of Fort Belle Fontaine. Upon his arrival, he found the Cantonment to be in a terrible state of disrepair and the fort’s garrison plagued with illness. The shifting Missouri River was threatening Fort Belle Fontaine which was poorly situated on a flood plane. In addition, Bissell concluded that the fort was in a strategically poor position as it was overlooked by a high bluff. In 1810, Bissell ordered the fort moved to the top of the bluff. By 1811, work on the new fort which consisted of 30 buildings, several block houses and a rectangle palisade, was completed.
During the war of 1812, several military operations against the British and Sauk- Fox Indians were conducted from Fort Belle Fontaine and July 1815, soldiers from the fort provided security for the great Indian council at Portage Des Souix. In attendance at the peace negotiations were representative from 11 different Indian tribes. Governor William Clark and Auguste Chouteau were among the most notable U.S. representatives at this momentous event. In the following years, Fort Belle Fontaine was a prominent command and supply point for several new military posts that had been established farther to the west and the fort served as a starting point for Colonel Henry Atkinson’s Yellowstone Expedition in 1819.
By 1825, Fort Belle Fontaine and its small arsenal had fallen into a sorry state of disrepair. At the time conditions at the fort were considered to be unhealthy due to the side effects of frequent flooding. When not fighting Indians or keeping the peace, soldiers drank and fought with each other. On at least one occasion The monotonous duty contributed to the death of at least one officer when a fellow officer killed a lieutenant during a duel. In 1826, military commanders decided that a new military post and separate arsenal facility was needed.
On July 8, 1826, troops from Fort Belle Fontaine helped establish a new military base of operations south of St. Louis near the village of Carondelet. This new military post was named Jefferson Barracks in honor of President Thomas Jefferson who had died on July, 4, 1826. A small contingent of troops remained at Fort Belle Fontaine to protect the arsenal until a new one could be built on a 40 acre tract of land located three miles south of St. Louis near modern day Second and Arsenal Streets in south St. Louis.
In 1827, the first building on the new arsenal grounds was completed but the small facility at Fort Belle Fontaine continued to provide munitions and military supplies for troops operating in the Louisiana Territory until June 1828. Over the next few years, Fort Belle Fontaine was abandoned and officially replaced by the new St. Louis Arsenal and Jefferson Barracks.
Between 1828 and 1904, Fort Belle Fontaine remained unoccupied silently standing guard along the Missouri River, a scant 15 miles north of St. Louis. In that time, most of the wooden buildings of the fort on the bluff had rotted away leaving only their limestone foundations. In a historical photograph taken in 1909, a single log cabin, believed to be the remnants of a soldier’s quarters, was the only evidence that a military post had existed on the site. The site of the first cantonment at the rivers edge had all but been obliterated by the currents of the Missouri River. Little or no evidence of the first fort could be found along the shoreline of the river by this time.
On April 5, 1904, the remains of those (33) officers, soldiers and family members who had been buried at Fort Belle Fontaine between 1806 and 1826, were moved to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in south St. Louis County. These “unknown’s” including the body of Zebulon Pike’s, two year old daughter were reburied on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in the “Old Post Section #1” of the National Cemetery. The St. Louis Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a large memorial, consisting of a granite boulder and commemorative plaque, at the site.
In 1913, the City of St. Louis acquired the property were the second fort had once stood. The city built a detention home and training school for boys on the site. Life at the Missouri Home for Boys was rigorous. It consisted of school instruction in the morning and physical farm labor for the remainder of the day.
In 1986, the County of St. Louis assumed control of most of the property that made up the boys home. Just two years later, in 1986, the City of St. Louis ended it’s affiliation with the home. Today, the Missouri Hills Home estate is a residence for both boys and girls and is managed by the Missouri Division of Youth Services.
The presence of the home on the bluff has been a mixed blessing for the preservation of the old fort site. When the city of St. Louis and later the State of Missouri acquired the land, it prevented the site from being carved up by land developers but construction on the site doomed many of the historical treasures located just beneath the top soil.
Another critical event in the fort’s history occurred in the 1930’s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Work Progress Administration (WPA) as a means to jumps start the labor market during the Great Depression. Locally, members of the WPA worked at the Missouri Hills Home to enhance the property and in doing so, making the land along the Missouri River into a picturesque landscape that would attract visitors from miles around. In 1936, the WPA’s crown jewel of the project, the “Grand Staircase” was completed. This twisting expanse of limestone stairs set into approximately 5 tiers, is still intact and usable even today. In addition to the staircase, members from the WPA also constructed “Comfort Stations” and picnic facilities along the riverbank below the bluff in and effort to increase public usage of the area.
Over the years, many different visitors to the site have claimed to constantly see, hear, and feel things that they just could not explain. Oddly enough, the most eerie ghost stories center around the “Grand Staircase”. It is said that most of the pictures taken of the first or second tier of the staircase reveal the presence of what appears to be dark red smoke on the stairs. It has been said that people have experimented by taking photographs of the stairs using different kinds of cameras and film and in each instance, the anomalous red light always appears on the stairs.
I guess it is possible that the red mist is a naturally occurring event. I have visited the site several times with my family and I have yet to find a “natural” source that could account for the frequency of the anomalous photographs taken at the site. On the other hand, light could actually be a supernatural manifestation from beyond the grave. Perhaps the spirit a young officer killed in a duel still walks the site searching for peace or one of the previous “unknown” occupants of the old fort’s cemetery decided that he or she did not want to be moved to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. No matter what or who is responsible for these mysterious incidents, one thing remains unquestioned, they still continue even to this day.
||Today, the St. Louis County
Parks maintains a picturesque overlook with historical markers on the
bluff were the second fort once stood. In addition, visitors to the site
are enthralled by the “Grand Staircase” and they are encouraged to walk
along Missouri River to explore various different WPA construction
projects that still exist today. Unfortunately nothing remains of the old
fort except a small limestone building which is believed to have been
built in later years from the limestone foundations of the fort. A visit
to Fort Belle Fontaine is a short day trip that you will definitely not
(C) Copyright 2003 by Dave Goodwin. All Rights Reserved.
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