The town of Belmont, in Mississippi County southeast of Charleston, is served by its own paved state highway. Too bad nobody lives there.
Belmont, once an important river landing and the home to a Civil War battle, isn't even shown on most modern maps. It's easy to find, though. Take I-55 south to Highway 80, turn east, and keep going until the pavement ends. You'll come to a dead-end sign, a rare sight for a major state highway.
A few miles later, I'd recommend stopping at the stop sign. It means business: The water's edge is only a few feet beyond the sign.
Throughout most of its history, Belmont has had a ferry boat connecting to Columbus, Kentucky. The ferry is long gone, but the highways on either side -- both numbered Highway 80 -- still remain.
Looking across the river to the old ferry landing at Columbus
If the ferry was still operating, it would be possible to enter Kentucky and follow the highway across the entire length of the state and into Virginia. Indeed, Highway 80 is the longest state highway in Kentucky, providing a continuous connection -- minus the ferry -- between Missouri and Virginia.
Belmont dates to 1853, when a river landing was established and named for August Belmont, a wealthy and powerful New York banker. It remained a sleepy hamlet said to contain "three shacks." That changed during the Civil War.
Across the river at Columbus, the Confederates built a fortification on top of the bluffs. Confederate Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk called his fort the "Gibraltar of the West." He knew that control of the Mississippi River was a vital part of the war for both sides. In order to stop the passage of Union supply ships, a giant chain was stretched across the water from Columbus to Belmont.
Attacking Columbus directly would have been foolish for the Union, especially since it was the home to 140 cannon. The biggest was the "Lady Polk", a cannon capable of shooting 128-pound projectiles and reported to be the largest operated by the Confederacy at the time.
Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant decided to attack the Confederates on the opposite side of the river, at a small camp they had erected at Belmont. This was the Battle of Belmont on Nov. 7, 1861. By Civil War standards, it was fairly small, but it was still deadly. Wikipedia gives these results:
Union casualties: 607 (120 dead, 383 wounded, and 104 captured or missing)
Confederate casualties: 641 (105 dead, 419 wounded, 106 captured, and 11 missing)
Official map of the Belmont battlefield
The battle was inconclusive. Grant took the Confederate camp, only to be forced to retreat as enemy reinforcements arrived. Indeed, Grant barely escaped to a departing riverboat ahead of a surge of Confederate soldiers.
Despite the battle's relative unimportance, it does have one claim to fame: it was U.S. Grant's first experience commanding a large force in combat. It helped pave the way for his rise through the ranks. History might have been very different if Grant was unable to escape from Belmont.
Historic marker at the end of the road in Belmont
Even after the war, Belmont and Columbus continued to occupy a strategic point along the river. Now it was the railroad tycoons who came calling. In 1869, the Iron Mountain Railroad constructed a branch line, the Belmont Branch, to the river landing. Several towns were platted along the line, including Allenville and Glenallen, named for the railroad's head tycoon, Thomas Allen of St. Louis.
On the other side of the river, the Mobile & Ohio Railroad provided connections to the Deep South. With the Belmont Branch in place, St. Louis had direct access to the Gulf.
Belmont enjoyed the railroad boom until bridges were built at Cairo and then Thebes, diverting rail traffic through Illinois instead of Missouri. The town declined until floods in the 1920s finished the job for good.
This grain elevator is the last remaining vestige of the railroad at Belmont
Today, Belmont offers little except a Civil War historic marker and access to the water. It's an interesting place to visit, but would hardly be considered a tourist attraction.