Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas are home to some of the most iconic and historic attractions in the United States, touching on the country’s Wild West roots, western expansion and deep faith. Here are a few signature attractions in America’s Crossroads.
Boot Hill Museum
Dodge City, Kansas
Dodge City, Kansas, has a rich Western history, from gunfighters and buffalo hunters to railroad workers, soldiers and law men. The Boot Hill Museum tells the stories of the Wickedest Little City in the West through exhibitions, performances and gunfight reenactments.
The museum features a re-created street showing how Dodge City looked in its late-1800s beginning. Visitors walk into the storefronts to see more than 45 permanent exhibits featuring 28,000 artifacts and more than 50,000 photos. The museum is in the middle of an expansion. In May, it opens a new 13,000-square-foot building that will feature nine new permanent exhibits.
“Basically, we’ve run out of room with the space we had, so we had to build on,” said Laura Tawater, donor relations and marketing manager for the Boot Hill Museum. “Some of the artifacts we have in storage, we’ve been unable to show and tell. With this new expansion we’ll be able to do that.”
The new addition will also feature 3,000 square feet of exhibit and event space. In honor of Hollywood’s portrayal of Dodge City, the Boot Hill Museum also shows off an extensive “Gunsmoke” collection. Big names like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson feature prominently in the exhibits, as does George Hoover, the first person in Dodge City to open a business. He sold liquor to the town’s inhabitants. Groups are welcome year-round. They can tour the museum on their own or work with a staff historian who can give them a private tour. Meals and entertainment are also available.
Pony Express Museum
St. Joseph, Missouri
An icon of the American West, the Pony Express made its mark on history even though it was only operational for 18 months, from April 1860 to October 1861. Riders for the Pony Express traveled 2,000 miles by horse, carrying the nation’s letters in saddlebags between the Pony Express Stables in St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California.
The Pony Express was the only way to deliver messages west of St. Joseph until the expansion of the railroad.
Extensive records of the Pony Express riders’ missions weren’t kept, but historians have pieced the narrative together from the families of riders who passed that history down to their descendants through letters, artifacts and stories, said Cindy Daffron, executive director of the museum.
“They were the first ones to get communication across the country,” she said. “That was the first time information could be transmitted that way. Before that time, the military couldn’t talk back and forth with their forts.”
Visitors to the museum can tour the many exhibits, visit some of the original stables, tour a one-room schoolhouse and walk along a 60-foot diorama depicting the diverse terrain a rider would have ridden through. One of the exhibits examines what 22 Pony Express riders did after they left the service.
Groups can take a guided tour of the museum and schedule a box lunch or meal while there.
Gateway Arch National Park
Many people don’t realize that St. Louis’ famous Gateway Arch is part of a national park. Completed in 1965, the arch and surrounding area recently underwent a $380 million renovation.
As part of the renovation, 46,000 square feet of new space was added to the base of the arch, including a new entrance with improved security, additional museum space and an education center for meetings and workshops. Before the renovation, the Gateway Arch museum covered about 100 years of history. Now, it details 201 years of history from the perspective of settlers and the Native American and Mexican people who lived in the area. It touches on St. Louis as a fur trading post, the Louisiana Territory, the Lewis and Clark expedition, Manifest Destiny and how the Gateway Arch was conceived and built.
One goal of the renovation was to connect the national park to the city.
“Before, we were disconnected,” said Erin Hilligoss-Volkmann, director of education for Gateway Arch National Park. “Basically, there was a highway that ran between the city side of the park and the park.” Now, there is a lid over the highway, allowing people to walk to the arch from downtown.
Museum entrance is free, but groups can get a discount on tram tours to the top of the arch. They also can set up ranger-led tours of the arch or have a ranger speak to the group about any of the topics detailed in the Arch museum’s exhibitions.
National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum
The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum was initially intended as a tribute to the working American cowboy when it opened to the public in 1965. But it became one of the biggest depositories of rodeo history and artifacts, particularly the role of women in early rodeo, in the country, said Michael Grauer, curator of cowboy collections and Western art for the museum.
Oklahoma City was chosen as the location of the museum because of its prime location on the famous Route 66. Its collections tell the story of the American cowboy, the rodeo, Wild West shows and trick riders. It also touches on the frontier army, hunting in the West, Native American history and Hollywood’s love affair with the Wild West. Its extensive Western art collection includes pieces by famous Western artists Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell.
The museum’s signature sculpture, “End of the Trail,” is a 16-foot-tall plaster statue sculpted by James Earle Fraser that depicts a weary Native American man slumped over his tired horse. The sculpture was rescued from a park in San Francisco, where it sat deteriorating for 50 years.
Groups receive discounted admission to the museum and are offered guided tours upon request.
Great Passion Play
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Since 1968, 8 million visitors have traveled to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, to see the last days of Jesus Christ depicted “in epic fashion,” said Kent Butler, director of operations for the Great Passion Play. The drama is performed with live animals and more than 150 costumed actors. The nonprofit that runs the passion play has made many improvements to the performance over the years, including adding pyrotechnic effects when the angel appears and Christ is resurrected.
“People are able to get into the story and feel the impact of it,” Butler said. “We make it a miraculous experience.”
Church groups, mission trips, bus tours, youth and family groups love to come see the play and visit the area’s other attractions, including the Holy Land Tour that allows guests to immerse themselves in biblical times.
“You can see Jesus walk on water and 30 replicas of different biblical sites,” Butler said. These include a life-sized replica of the Eastern Gate in Jerusalem and Moses’ Tabernacle in the Wilderness. The Bible Museum on-site displays one of the rarest bibles in the world, a 1611 King James Bible, and 6,000 manuscripts ranging from a Masoretic text from the eighth century to the first Cherokee Bible.
Christ of the Ozarks, a seven-story-tall statue of Christ, is a huge draw for visitors and is free to visit. Groups can stay after the play and enjoy a dinner buffet. Guides are available to familiarize groups with the various attractions. Groups can even participate in the passion play as extras.
“Instead of sitting, they are part of the action,” Butler said. “Not many theaters offer that in-depth experience.”