The Vandalia Leader

Follow Us On:

Vandalia History

Posted on Thursday, May 23, 2024 at 8:35 pm

It is not a tale of dates, data and events. It is a tale of the human experience…


THE 1800S

The Vision…

Four rugged horsemen rode out of the east and drew rein in the midst of a vast, open, lonely prairie at a spot far removed from unfailing water sources. A place where rattlesnakes and biting green flies were prominent and prairie grasses were as tall as their horses, a barren place where pioneers would not settle. Other men had ridden across that same prairie with only a glance of contempt, including Ulysses S. Grant, who said this land was “uninhabitable.”

Others could have had it for a song—the mere pittance of 12 ½ cents per acre, but they looked upon it as a wilderness and a solitary place. But these four rugged horsemen came with the required spirit and insight to see beyond the obvious and would lay the foundation of what soon became the envy of many surrounding more

elderly communities.

The nearest houses were miles away, and farmsteads were rare indeed, but the men saw into the future and realized that a section so well favored by nature could not always remain so thinly settled, and they proceeded to shape their vision into a plan.

The Plan…

Aaron McPike started to make his dream become a reality when he purchased the land that was to become Vandalia in 1854. His purchase was a partnership between McPike and Harmon Caldwell and consisted of 160 acres, costing them $264. McPike later added to this purchase in 1868 and again in April 1869, an additional 316 acres for a total price of $245.

When in the mid-1860s the Louisiana and North Missouri Railroad first proposed to build the Missouri branch through the northeast section of this state, McPike took an active interest in declaring its location along the present route, mainly in Pike and Audrain counties. It was through McPike’s generosity and solid business sense, coupled with an offering of $900 of his own money, that McPike was given the right to locate a depot in the northeast part of Audrain County.

When considering the future location of this depot that became the town of Vandalia, McPike largely considered its geography in comparison with communities already established. Two lines were drawn, the first from Louisiana to Mexico and the second from Hannibal to Montgomery City. The cross point was about two miles

east of the current heart of Vandalia, but through the divine wisdom of McPike, he considered it too close to the newly laid-out town of Curryville. The cross point was also slightly further south of where the Louisiana and North Missouri Railroad had intended to build, but with McPike’s additional offer to give his own land to the railroad

to pass through this site, McPike single-handedly bent the railroad just west of Curryville.

The city founders’ insightful vision was being molded. Years of commitment and focus were starting to become a vision of reality.

Yet, their plan was only partly in play. In 1870 a single swing of a confident hammer produced the ring that still echoes today. This resounding strike made contact with the first stake that mapped out the original town that was to become Vandalia. This history-laden stake was driven into what was to become the southwest corner of the northwest Railroad Park.

This done, they undertook and staked out 45 other blocks in the same year (1870) and rested until the following year when 15 additional blocks were laid off around the outskirts of the original 45.

One of the city founders, Harmon Caldwell, from the recently laid out town of Curryville, was the surveyor.

These 60 blocks were to be forever known as the “Original Township.” The current names of the streets that encompass these 60 blocks are Taylor Street on the east, McPike Street on the north, Union Street on the south and Oak Street on the west.

The city founders also wisely took from their older neighboring towns’ experiences and designated a “Courthouse Square” for their future town, this being Block 48, or the current Vandalia YMCA block. Yet as the town began to grow, the reality of locating most of the town’s original buildings closer to the railroad area materialized.

Even to this day, when tempers flare between city and Audrain County officials, the old story is told of “Block 48” being labeled in 1874 as a “Court House Square.” As the story is told, the Courthouse label upset the county’s officials as, in their eyes, they saw it as a threat of the new town’s future intent of separating itself from the rest of Audrain County.

Back in 1871, the city founders’ vision was nothing more than many hours of lively discussion and stakes soundly driven in the rich virgin soil, hidden within the vast waving prairie grass. It was now time for the town to realize substance and breathe human life into its soul. It was a proud day when the first wagon came winding out of the east seeking a pole with a flag, placed by the city founders, marking the center of this newly staked-out town. The new town’s location was described as “on the rise of ground near a distant lone elm.” From these wagons men with embedded determination leaped into the tall grass, and the battle was on. Lumber banged upon the ground, saws began to sing, axes rang, hammers pounded out a rhythmic chorus, and the song of progress was being sung.