Visitors Guide to
Fort Belle Fontaine Park
13002 Bellefontaine Road
Spanish Lake, MO
314-544-5714

Parking Picnic Facilities Interpretive Exhibits Missouri Historical Site Hiking Trails Scenic Views Restrooms

   

Fort Belle Fontaine was built in 1805 on the south bank of the Missouri River near its confluence with the Mississippi River. The fort was the first U.S. military outpost west of the Mississippi River in the newly acquired Louisiana Territory and served as a starting point for many expeditions to the American West. Fort Bellefontaine Park offers sweeping views of the Missouri River and overlooks the location of the site of Lewis and Clark's first campsite after they left Camp River Dubois in 1804 and the site of the fort where they spent their last night on their return trip in 1806. The original sites of the Corps campsite and the first Fort Belle Fontaine have been destroyed by shifts in the Missouri River channel. The grounds below the bluff became a popular summer retreat during the late 1930s. In 1936 the Works Progress Administration (WPA) built a grand limestone staircase down from the bluff and a number of other structures. In 1986 the County acquired most of the property and turned it into a park. Interpretive markers along a hiking trail designate points of interest and help visitors learn about the important role the Fort played in American history.

The fort was originally called Cantonment Belle Fontaine and was located at the mouth of Coldwater Creek, then called La Petite Riviere or St. Ferdinand River. The site was selected by General James Wilkinson, first governor and military commander of the Louisiana Territory. Buildings were erected by three companies of the First Infantry under the supervision of Lt. Colonel Jacob Kingsbury. The Fort took its name from a nearby spring  named "Belle Fontaine" which means "beautiful fountain" in French. Besides being a military outpost, the fort served as an "Indian Factory" or trading post for the local Sac, Fox, and other Native American tribes of the region. The “Factory System” was established under provisions of the Trade and Intercourse Act that was passed by Congress in 1791. This act was one of four Trade and Intercourse Acts that Congress legislated between 1790 and 1799 to regulate relations with Native Americans. It was believed if trade goods were provided at a fair price the Native Americans would stay close to the factory posts and eventually assimilate into the European culture. In 1808, the factory at Fort Belle Fontaine was closed and its mission was relegated to Fort Osage near present day Kansas City and Fort Madison in Iowa.
 
The Lewis and Clark Connection
September 22, 1806 - John Ordway
"towards evening we arived at Bell fountain a Fort or cantonement on South Side which was built since we ascended the Missouri & a handsome place.    we moovd. a short distance below and Camped, the Company of Artillery who lay at this fort fired 17 Rounds with the field peaces    the most of our party was Quartered in the Canonment."

 

On the first night after leaving Camp River Dubois on May 14, 1804 the Corps of Discovery camped on an island near the site of the future Fort Belle Fontaine. On September 22, 1806 the Corps spent their last night of their journey at Fort Belle Fontaine before they completed the Voyage of Discovery with their arrival in St. Louis the next day. In addition to resting and celebrating their return to civilization the members of the expedition shopped at the post store. Clothes were purchased for Chief Sheheke (Big White) of the Mandans for his trip to visit President Jefferson in Washington.
 

 
Visit our special Lewis and Clark Section to learn more about the Corps of Discovery’s experience during their stay in the Middle Mississippi River Valley. greatriverroad.com’s special coverage includes information on all of the region’s sites and events as well as supplemental articles relating to the expedition’s experience during the winter of 1803-04.
 

In 1809, command was given to Daniel Bissell, a Revolutionary War participant from Connecticut. Bissell found Fort Belle Fontaine’s buildings in disrepair and the garrison in ill health. He also recognized the strategic danger of the site being located at the bottom of a high bluff. In 1810 he received permission to relocate the post to higher ground. The new fort was completed in 1811 and consisted of 30 buildings of hewn logs with stone foundations. Blockhouses and palisades set the fort off in a rectangle atop the Missouri River bluffs. Today, the original fort site would be located in the middle of the river. Visitors can tour Bissell's house, which was built after his service in the War of 1812 and features many Bissell family items. The General Daniel Bissell House is a couple of miles south of Fort Belle Fontaine on Bellefontaine Road.

The Fort's location near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers made it a launching point for a number of discovery expeditions to the American West. U.S. Army officer Zebulon Pike’s explorations of the upper Mississippi in 1805 and of the Spanish southwest in 1806 began at Fort Belle Fontaine. Stephen Long's 1818 scientific expedition and Colonel Henry Atkinson's Yellowstone Expedition in 1819 also left from Fort Belle Fontaine. The fort also became a command and supply center for a number of new frontier posts including Forts Snelling, Atkinson, Crawford, Armstrong, Smith, and Clark that helped pioneers settle the western territories. Fort Belle Fontaine also played a role in the War of 1812 against the British. In 1814 an invasion force that assembled at the fort and led by Gov. William Clark temporarily occupied Prairie du Chien (present day Wisconsin) and erected Ft. Shelby. In 1815 soldiers from Fort Belle Fontaine helped provide security for the Indian council at Portage Des Sioux where representatives of many Midwest tribes took part in peace negotiations with an American contingent led by territory Governor William Clark. When Meriwether Lewis was Governor of Louisiana Territory he would make frequent trips from St. Louis over the Bellefontaine Road to socialize with old Army friends at the fort. By 1825, the Fort's wooden buildings were crumbling, and it was decided to abandon Fort Belle Fontaine. In 1826, the troops stationed at Fort Bellefontaine were relocated to Jefferson Barracks, the new military post south of St. Louis. A contingent of soldiers remained at the fort to protect the aging arsenal facility. Fort Belle Fontaine continued to supply munitions for the troops at Jefferson Barracks until a new arsenal in St. Louis was completed in 1828 after which Fort Belle Fontaine was permanently abandoned.

In 1913 part of the Fort site became "Bellefontaine Farms," later known as the Missouri Hills Home for Boys, a detention home and training school for boys operated by the city of St. Louis. The facility is now a residence for boys and girls under the care of the Missouri Division of Youth Services and still occupies part of the Fort Belle Fontaine site. Visitors must cross through the Missouri Hills Home grounds to access the park. During the Great Depression the Works Progress Administration (WPA) constructed a number of limestone structures to enhance the Missouri Hills Home estate and attract visitors to the picturesque landscape. The centerpiece is the “Grand Staircase,” a series of limestone stairs set into 5 tiers that is still intact and usable. Other structures include “Comfort Stations” and picnic facilities along the riverbank. These improvements helped make the area a popular summer retreat during the late 1930s.

During the late 1980's, land developers became interested in the land overlooking the river. To prevent the site from becoming a subdivision the Fort Belle Fontaine Historical Society convinced St. Louis County to purchase the land and preserve it so future generations would know the Fort Belle Fontaine story. In 1986, the County acquired most of the property and turned it into a park. The park features picnic facilities and a hiking trail with interpretive markers that designate points of interest about the important role the Fort played in American history. Fort Belle Fontaine is the site of several annual events including the Fort Belle Fontaine Historic Encampment and Black Powder Shoot in September.
 
The Missouri Audubon Society maintains a checklist for birds that can be seen at the park.

Visiting Fort Belle Fontaine Park
     Visiting Hours
         
8 am to one half hour past official sunset
There is no charge to visit to visit Fort Belle Fontaine Park.


Location: Fort Bellefontaine Park is located along the Missouri River in north St. Louis County.
From I-270 take the Bellefontaine Road exit (second exit in Missouri after crossing the Chain of Rocks Bridge from Illinois. Take Bellefontaine Road north until it ends at the guard gate at the Missouri Hills Home where visitors must sign in before proceeding to the park.

Learn more about the St. Louis area.


Fort Belle Fontaine Park - Use the official site of Fort Belle Fontaine Park.

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