Land Before the Town
Prior to its settlement, American Indians used the area we now call Rocheport. The closeness to the river, fertile soils, both salt and freshwater springs, and the protection given by the huge bluffs, rock overhangs and caves were a natural lure for early travelers. The Rocheport area is noted in the journals of Lewis and Clark during their 1804-1906 expedition.
Birth of a River Town
John Gray operated a horse ferry here after arriving in 1819. In 1825, Gray advertised his land for sale in the Missouri Intelligencer. The buyers platted Rocheport in 1832. Rocheport was first intended to be named Rockport. It was changed to Rocheport at the insistence, it is said, of a French missionary who was in the area in 1825 when the town was surveyed. The name means rocky port.
By 1835, there were eight stores in Rocheport. 1837 brought new ferry boats that could carry passengers across the river without delay as they traveled from eastern to western parts of the state. Rocheport became an important landing place and ferry crossing for the Boonslick region.
Whig Party Comes to Rocheport
In 1840, the Whig party held its state convention in Rocheport. They nominated William Henry Harrison for the next president of the United States. Delegates came from all over the state via steamboat, wagons, carriages, buggies and on horseback. The speakers at the convention included George Caleb Bingham of Arrow Rock, James S. Rollins of Columbia, Col. Alexander Doniphan of Liberty and Abiel Leonard of Fayette. Incumbent Democratic President Martin Van Buren won the election in Missouri, but Harrison became president. Harrison died after just a month in office.
River Traffic Helps Rocheport Grow
In 1849, 57 steamboats made 500 landings at Rocheport. Wheat, corn, tobacco and hemp were shipped from the area while manufactured goods were imported. Farmers came from 30 miles away to ship their crops from the Rocheport landing. Capt. John W. Keiser, one of the largest steamboat owners in the West, called Rocheport home in the 1840s.
By the 1850s, Rocheport had become the largest shipping point between St. Louis and St. Joseph and had a population of a little over 700 people, of which at least 200 were slaves. Selling ice also proved a lucrative business for Rocheport residents. During the winter months, ice was cut from the Missouri River and Moniteau Creek and stored in ice houses insulated with sawdust and straw.
Civil War Impact on Rocheport
In 1861, at a States Rights Association meeting, the citizens of Rocheport agreed to side with the Confederacy. Throughout the war, raiders from both sides attacked Rocheport, including Southern guerilla "Bloody Bill" Anderson. During the war, one of Rocheport's business blocks was burned along with the public school building.
Trials of a River Town
Due to its river traffic, Rocheport residents were exposed to contagious diseases of the times. Cholera hit Rocheport in 1833, 1849 and 1852. Close proximity to the Missouri River and Moniteau Creek also created the danger of floods. About a dozen major floods occurred in Rocheport between 1844 and 1995. During the flood of 1844, water reached the second floor of many downtown buildings. In the 1993 flood, water covered the Katy Trail. Fires also damaged Rocheport. Besides the Civil War fire, Rocheport also burned in 1892 and 1922, and again in 1940 after a train carrying ammunition exploded.
After the Civil War, Rocheport rebuilt slowly. In 1867, about 100 men began work on the Columbia-Rocheport turnpike, a gravel road. After the turnpike's completion, a stage ran this route daily. In 1868, the Rocheport academy was built.
Business thrived during this era. A bank was organized, and one of the first rural telephone lines in Missouri was built from Columbia to Rocheport in 1878. The first newspaper, The Times, was published from 1868-1869. The Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad (MKT or Katy) was built through town in 1892; a ferryboat operated until the early 1920s.
Katy Railroad Arrives
The Katy line continued its expansion past Sedalia to Franklin, Mo., with its eyes on a connection to Hannibal and Chicago. In the 1890s, St. Louis investors organized the Missouri, Kansas & Eastern Railway to build a line from Machens, near St. Louis, to the Katy's railhead in Franklin. Near Franklin, the track-building crews encountered huge bluffs in Rocheport, which they began blasting through in 1892. The one and only tunnel along the Katy line was completed in Rocheport in 1893. In 1896, the Missouri, Kansas & Eastern railway was bought by the Katy. The MKT line remained active until 1986.
Rocheport's population steadily declined through the 1900s as a result of changing modes of transportation. The population dropped from 593 in 1900 to 208 in 2000. First the river became less important with the coming of the railroad. Then highways drew traffic and commerce away from Rocheport.
Fortunately, Rocheport qualified as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Today, Rocheport is no longer a stop for boats, carriages or trains, but instead hosts visitors arriving by bicycle and car.