The Mississippi River gave birth to Cape Girardeau, starting in the 1730s when Jean Baptiste Giradot, for whom the city is named, established a trading post at a rock promontory jutting from the west bank of the Mississippi River. By the time that Lewis and Clark passed by on their expedition to the Pacific Ocean in 1803 the little town boasted a population of 1,111. It was here that General Grant assumed command of the Union Army in 1861 and that Mark Twain memorialized in his 1883 book Life on the Mississippi. Cape Girardeau has a rich, memorable history that is entwined with the river that runs at its front door.
Unfortunately, that river has a history of spilling out of its banks and ravaging downtowns like Cape Girardeau. Every few years, when the rains and snows in MN, WI and IA come flowing down by the Cape, businesses would be wiped out. In 1956 work began on a flood wall to protect downtown Cape Girardeau. Completed in 1964 at a cost of $4 million, the wall has saved the historic downtown many times, especially during the flood of 1993 when the river crested at 48.49 feet, almost 17 feet above flood stage.
However, that wall also cuts off the river from the downtown, so much so, that you hardly know that the river is there as you wonder the historic downtown streets. In fact, that wall would look more like a prison wall if it weren’t for some local citizens who decided to turn the lemons on that wall into lemonade. They’ve painted some wonderful murals along the length of the wall that both depict the history of the town and also famous people of MO.
The Mississippi River Tales Mural stretches for 1,100 feet with 24 separate panels that each tells a portion of the rich history of the town. The Missouri Wall of Fame lies adjacent and shows 46 famous people who either were born in MO or achieved fame while living in the state: from President Harry S. Truman to Mark Twain to the outlaws Frank & Jesse James. Local Cape Girardeau native borns include radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and NASA astronaut Linda Godwin, also on the wall.
When you’ve got a big old wall like that flood wall, you can either sit back and look at each day or you can turn it into a historical draw like Cape Girardeau.