Decades after most of the buildings were dismantled, newspaper articles raved about the beautiful vistas from a hilltop in Clay County: “One of the finest views of Missouri River countryside in all directions that may be found,” the Kansas City Journal wrote in 1941.
Today, those views are blocked by trees and undergrowth. A crumbling wall is the only visible remnant where officers’ quarters, barracks, stables, a carpenter’s workshop and a gunpowder store once stood. The United States Army built the outpost just outside of Liberty, Missouri, in the 1830s. Though its structures are long gone, the site is still commonly known as the Liberty Arsenal.
But enthusiasm for this site crosses the ages. Historians in the Clay County Archives wax lyrical about the Arsenal’s importance to the area’s early settlers and the Missouri River's steamboat industry, and point to its role in sparking Missouri's entry into the Civil War.
Over the years, advocates have pushed to open the land to the public, but for more than a century the site has been privately owned and largely inaccessible.
Now those conversations have been revived. By the end of this year, the new South Liberty Parkway will connect I-35 and 291 Highway just south of town, and some people hope a major development project nearby is another opportunity to turn the site into a public park.
“No doubt this area will see some development,” says Tony Meyers, who volunteers at the Clay County Archives and has a special interest in the site and would like to see it become publicly accessible.
“During the settlement years, this was a happening place,” he says.
The Arsenal was built to protect early settlers, their tobacco and hemp farms, and steamboat traffic on the river landing below, from potential attacks by Native Americans. The first rock road in the county (and some reports say the whole state) connected the fort with a steamboat landing on the river below.
From down on the water, the Arsenal must have looked like a castle on a hilltop. About 100 soldiers were originally stationed here. Historians say Native Americans never attacked, but the Arsenal was raided twice by pro-slavery, Confederate sympathizers. The second time, in April 1861, around 200 men overpowered what was by then a small garrison of three Army soldiers.
“While I am writing the depot yard and grounds are filled with men, who are rapidly removing the ordnance,” wrote the Arsenal’s officer in charge, Nathaniel Grant, in a report to his superiors back east in Washington City.
In fact, it took a week to cart out the weapons, including more than a thousand muskets and nearly 13,000 pounds of gunpowder.
“And they were dispersed to the Missouri State Guard, which was the Southern Confederacy,” says Meyers.
Historians say this raid helped push Missouri into the Civil War.
“It was certainly one of the first armed actions in Missouri, right after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter,” says Jeremy Neely, a professor of history at Missouri State University.
Booker Rucker, former head of historic sites for Missouri State Parks, described the Arsenal as the most important unacquired site in the state.
In addition to Tony Meyers, advocates from a local museum, the local newspaper and the Clay County Parks Advisory Board have all made efforts to help turn the Arsenal into a public park.
Jay Jackson, owner of the Frank James Bank Museum in Missouri City, says his interest in the Arsenal dates back four decades. During that time he was involved in conversations with the property’s owners about donating the site.
“The desire on the part of many people to see this property become open to the public is longstanding,” he says.
The Arsenal site and more than 100 acres around it belong to the family of Connie Boggess Carder. About fifteen years ago, one of Carder’s relatives was in negotiations with the Clay County Commission and said he’d donate the land if he could build a hotel and a convenience store on his adjacent property. He’s since sold his share.
Carder herself favors donating the site.
“We’d like to clean it up and see if they restore it like they’ve done with Fort Osage,” she says of the national historic landmark in Sibley, Missouri.
But no less than three Boggess family trusts own different parts of the property. Carder says not all of her relatives agree on what to do with the Arsenal site. At the moment, her son keeps it mowed and cleared.
The self-described matriarch of the family showed this reporter around the property, but other visitors haven’t had such access. A few years ago, the Boggess family denied access to a group of history enthusiasts, including the chair of the Clay County Millennium Historical Board and a Liberty City Council member, who wanted to mark the 150th anniversary of the Arsenal raid.
Two years ago, family members were able to agree on leasing areas surrounding the Arsenal for limestone mining. The family also explored mining directly below the historic site, though Carder and Meyers say that doesn't threaten the integrity of the Arsenal site. However, the sounds of beeping mine trucks and even the rumblings of underground explosions can now be heard across the hilltop.
“People start getting greedy and I think that’s sort of been the whole problem,” Carder says.
The Clay County Commission would likely be involved in any new bid to donate it. The county's Historic Sites Manager, Beth Beckett, says it’s not her role to initiate moves to acquire one of the more important historic sites in her county. First, Beckett says, the family has to decide what they want to do with the property.
“If something were to happen, it could be a really interesting archaeological site maybe with some walking trails and some kiosks that explain each of the buildings and what happened and the history behind it,” says Beckett.
History might be repeating itself. Back in the early 19th century, the federal government took many years to respond to early settlers’ requests before it actually built the Liberty Arsenal. So perhaps it’s fitting that any attempt to convert it into a public park is taking even longer.
Connie Carder says she hopes that happens sooner rather than later.
“My son promises me that my granddaughter will not be grown before it’s settled,” she says. “She’s 17, so he’s going to have to hurry and get busy!”
Danny Wood is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.