Just twenty miles east of Kansas City, Independence, Missouri, is a city with a mixed reputation. When I first moved to the KCMO metro, people warned me to avoid the city due to crime rates, industrialized neighborhoods, and “it’s boring.” I ventured into the city once in April to attend to a writer’s group at the city library. It was in the northwest part of town known for higher crime rates. I could kind of see what they were talking about. Yet, I was curious to see what else was in the area. I’m kind of stubborn that way.
So, never one to completely listen to what people say, I took a quick day trip to the “Queen City of the Trails.” The nickname derives from Independence operating as a major point of departure for the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon Trails. I was impressed by the historic and vibrant downtown area. The green space near the Truman home and presidential library were also impressive.
If you’re not religious but love reading about religious history (okay, any history), you can visit Joseph Smith’s 1831 Temple Lot. The headquarters of several factions related to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are also here. Watch the traffic near the main intersection near the temples. People tend to not stop at the diagonal intersections, regardless of the color of the light.
Here are some of the best places to visit in Independence, Missouri. They are in safe areas that make a great morning or afternoon trip if you live in the Kansas City metropolitan area.
Located in the center of town, Independence Square is filled with a variety of shopping, dining, and historic viewing opportunities. The Colonial Revival-style Truman Courthouse anchors the square. The courthouse, modeled after Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, was built in 1836. Future President Harry S. Truman served as the Jackson County’s senior administrator for a time. Take a tour on a horse-drawn carriage around the area. You can also visit historic buildings such as the 1859 jail and Clinton’s Soda Fountain, where President Truman had his first job as a youth. Parking is along the street and is easy to find. If you want to visit the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site (his home), you’ll need to buy tickets at the Visitor’s Center located on this square. Otherwise, you’ll go, park, and find yourself heading back downtown.
The 1827 Log Courthouse was Jackson County’s first government building built at the corner of Lexington and Lynn Streets. At the time, it was the only courthouse between St. Louis and the Pacific. It was continually used as a courtroom as late as 1932 under Judge Harry S. Truman. Besides operating as a courthouse, it was a Mormon mercantile store.
While the congregation dates from 1826, the First Presbyterian Church of Independence was designed in 1877. Harry S. Truman first met his future wife Bess Wallace here at the church in 1892. Liberty Street Cumberland Presbyterian Church, formed in 1826, merged with the First Presbyterian Church in 1913.
The beautiful home of President Harry S. Truman and his family is near the downtown historic square. Called their “Summer White House,” the museum is as it was when the Truman’s lived here. You can view books, records, dishes on the tables, and more as you tour the site. The entrance fee is $7 per person; you must pre-purchase the ticket at the visitor’s center at 1928 Independence Fire Station. You can always park and walk up to the gate to view the exterior, but you must have a ticket for a tour.
The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum is a museum, theater, and burial place of Harry S. Truman, his wife Bess, and their daughter Margaret and her husband. It was the first presidential library to be created under the 1955 Presidential Libraries Act and Harry Truman was directly involved in its development. President Truman believed that his papers were the property of the people and should be accessible to all. A reproduction of the Oval Office can be viewed in addition to interactive hands-on exhibits with a decision theater. A research room and library are also available; archives can be viewed online.
The original congregation was organized in 1844. After a tornado destroyed the old church, Trinity Episcopal Church was rebuilt in 1881 in the Victorian Gothic Style. This congregation was the earliest Episcopal parish in the Kansas City area. The church hosted Harry S. Truman and his wife Bess’s marriage in 1919.
The Vaile Mansion sits upon a little hill in Kansas City. Constructed in 1881 for businessman Harvey Vaile, it is a significant example of Second Empire Architecture. For a nominal fee, you’ll get a four of this 31-room mansion with a sad history. The estate boasted conveniences such as flushing toilets, painted woodwork and ceilings, nine different marble fireplaces, and a built-in 6,000-gallon water tank. The area was originally surrounded by a 630-acres, which included a grape vineyard and an apple orchard.
The National Frontier Trails Museum is a small museum and research dedicated to telling the history of the Overland Trails. As noted above, the three principal trails were the Santa Fe, Oregon, and California trail. Independence, founded in 1827, was the primary jumping off point for all three of the trails heading west. It was the first eastern terminal for the Santa Fe Trail and then later became a post for the other two trails. Thousands of immigrants blanked the town every Spring. The museum offers a short movie, a children’s activity room, artifacts, journal entries, maps, and covered wagons.
In the same parking lot as the National Frontier Trails Museum, you will see an old wooden depot. Built in 1879, the Chicago and Alton Depot is believed to be the oldest two-story frame wooden depot remaining in Missouri. It also served as the living quarters for the station master and his family on the upper level. You can find railroad and home artifacts that are period specific. It was removed from its original location to its current location in 1996.
Across the street from the Pioneer Museum and near Independence Square is the historic Bingham-Waggoner Estate. Established in 1852 along the Santa Fe Trail, this estate provides a look into the lifestyles of the rich and famous of the mid-1800s. Behind the estate along a little trail, you can view a field that still has the wagon ruts as evidence of the migration that happened between 1827 and 1878. Renovated in the 1890s, over 90% of the furnishings in the estate are original. Closed from November through March.
Additional Points of Interest
- 1859 Jail, Marshal’s Home and Museum at 217 N Main St, Independence, MO 64050
- Community of Christ International Headquarters, 1001 W Walnut St, Independence, MO 64050
- LDS Visitors Center and Museum, 937 W Walnut St, Independence, MO 64050
- Community of Christ Temple, 1001 W Walnut St, Independence, MO 64050
- United Nations Peace Plaza, S Bowen St, Independence, MO 64050
The city has been working on improving many of the problems that people associate with Independence. Here are some basic tips to help you navigate the city.
- Most of the tourist sites and rural areas are to the northeast parts of the city.
- Some rather affluent areas are in the southeast if you enjoy looking at architecture. Modest working-class areas are along I-70 to the West.
- Parts of the city that run along Noland Road and nearby have the 1970s feel to it, but they are full of businesses and a safe corridor.
- The western and northwestern areas are what people think about when you say Independence. They have the higher crime rates and are more run down. One of the areas with the highest crime rates is along Highway 24 and near Van Horn. Also, try to avoid anything west of Sterling Ave. The tourist spots are not in these sections anyway, so it should be easy to avoid.
- Don’t open the door or roll down the window to talk to anyone or donate to the people at the intersections (unless they’re, like, firefighters). There are plenty of people with signs beside the highway intersections. This is especially true if you are on I-24 heading towards the 435 loop. It’s also an area known for carjackings and other crime. Just always be aware. Don’t keep your head down but don’t make eye contact either.
- Finally, lock your car doors when you are driving. It doesn’t matter where you are in the metro or in any big city, lock.the.blasted.door when you are in it. It should become automatic. Wearing your seat belt and locking your door can slow down a potential carjacker. Locking the door prevents quick and easy access into the car and pulling you out of the car (if you’re lucky). Also, don’t park to close to the car in front of you as it will give you plenty of room to accelerate out of danger and cause a scene if need be. Also, you’re less likely to have a wreck if you are tailgating close enough to make someone slam on their breaks in frustration. (Or again, at that intersection near the Temple Lot. They won’t have a choice but to slam on the breaks.)
Traveling around Independence is like venturing into any big city. Try to stay out of the most dangerous zones, don’t talk to strangers on the side of the road, and visit it during the day. Otherwise, it is a great place to see some history of the area, the trails, and some great architecture.