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Video: The History of St. Louis


History of St. Louis: A short story

(by Chris Casey of www.StLouis.com)


St. Louis - Gateway to the West

 

St. Louis throughout its history has served (as its most common nickname implies) as the great "Gateway to the West." With a history spanning more than three centuries, St. Louis has gone from being the last major outpost on the American Frontier to the primary distribution and processing post for the vast agricultural resources stretching west from the Mississippi.

 

"This Settlement Will Become One of the Finest Cities in America"

 

In 1763, Pierre Laclède traveled up the Mississippi from New Orleans with the intention of establishing a small trading post. Landing at the junction of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, Laclède founded his post with the hope of taking advantage of trade making its way down the Missouri River. Laclède's petit post soon became much grander.

 

 Following the surrender of all territory east of the Mississippi to the British at conclusion of the Seven Years' War in 1763, the Frenchmen who had settled on the eastern banks of Old Blue began to migrate westward, many choosing to reside in or around Laclède's village which was soon dubbed St. Louis. By 1764, Laclède believed that his nascent settlement would become "one of the finest cities in America."

 

 

St. Louis and the Great Plains

 

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleonic France and with it came St. Louis. During the next several decades the city served as the final urban stop for those setting out on journeys into the west, and over the next century the waters of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers nursed the budding burg into maturity as it nestled comfortably at the junction of two of the most important aquatic arteries on the continent.

 

The cultivation of the rich soil of the Great Plains to the west, which produced those celebrated amber waves of grain, ensured that agricultural trade boomed during the 19th century. These two factors conspired to ensure that the burg bearing the beatified name of King Louis IX of France was at the heart of inland trade as long as shipping on the Mississippi remained the most convenient mode of transport to the Midwest.

 

 

The Age of the Steamboat: Economic Growth and Immigration

 

In 1817 the Zabulon M. Pike steamed its way up the mighty Mississippi, conquering its current, and berthed in St. Louis. Within a few years, great plumes of smoke filled the skies above St. Louis as an astounding armada of steamships chugged their way up the Mississippi in the Pike's wake. The era of the steamship had arrived and St. Louis was the one of the great beneficiaries—the ease of upstream transit elicited a veritable boom in trade and migration making St. Louis the second largest port in the nation by the 1850s.

 

In 1840, with war and famine galloping throughout Europe, St. Louis was inundated with immigrants as Germans, Italians and Irish made their way to the United States. The point of entry for many was St. Louis, the de facto start of the Oregon Trail and the true gateway to Great American West. The booming economy ensured many would choose to settle in the city itself instead of venturing further west, causing a population of roughly 20,000 in 1840 to quadruple in under a decade and to nearly octuple by 1860.

 

 

The Great Fire of St. Louis

 

In 1849 St. Louis was ravaged by both pestilence and flame. Early in the year an outbreak of cholera spread rapidly through the city, due in part to the underdeveloped sewer and waste system. By the end of the epidemic, ten percent of St. Louis' population had perished and the city, recognizing the source of the problem, had begun to plan for its own municipal renovation. The installation of a complex system of sewers was, perhaps, made simpler when, in the spring of 1849, the steamship White Cloud made its way up the muddy waters of the Mississippi (few suspecting the steamer would bring its own namesake's antithesis) and docked in St. Louis. While in port, a fire broke out on the Cloud and severed the unfortunate ship's moorings. As the blazing White Cloud drifted upon the Mississippi's current, it set 22 of its fellow craft aflame.

 

The fire soon spread ashore, setting the timbered town alight and sending clouds of black smoke hurtling into the night sky. The volunteer fire department tried its best, but eight hours into the heated battle it seemed the entire town was going to burn. A daring decision was made to detonate kegs of black-powder in several businesses, destroying them and creating a block-wide barrier against the seemingly insatiable inferno. The plan worked and the rest of St. Louis was saved. City ordinances passed after the fire required the riverside to be rebuilt in brick and stone to help prevent a similar disaster from occurring again. Many residents, fearful of a repeat of that disastrous year, began to relocate to the western outskirts of the city, establishing in the process many of the decentralized neighborhoods common to modern St. Louis.

 

 

The Civil War - St. Louis and Missouri

 

During the Civil War, Missouri never seceded from the Union despite being nominally a slave state and as a result St. Louis remained relatively untouched by the actual devastation of battle. The Union's blockade of the south, which included the Mississippi, ensured that St. Louis suffered economically during the conflict. The Union tried to alleviate the strain by building ironclad ships there, but the economic devastation of the South during the war permanently wounded trade along the Mississippi since it had been the South with whom St. Louisans had primarily done business. By the end of the war trade had declined to one-third its prewar average.

 

 

The Golden Age - Budweiser and Horse Feed

 

The Gateway to the West soon recovered, however, and went through a golden age in the second half of the 19th century. Rail lines, which were built in the middle of the century, ensured that even as water-traffic declined, St. Louis would remain one of the primary hubs for western commerce.

 

St. Louis' role as a hub for the produce of the great fields of grain to the west as they traveled to the great urbanized east enabled several different grain processing companies to establish themselves in the city. In 1860, Eberhard Anheuser purchased a beleaguered brewery in St. Louis. Anheuser's son-in-law, Adolphus Busch became his partner nine years later, and in 1876 the pair introduced Budweiser, the first beer distributed nationally by rail. By 1901, the company was turning tons of hops into over one million barrels of beer each year.

 

Similarly, William H. Danforth, fresh out of Washington University in 1893 formed the Purina Mills Company, turning the fruits of the amber fields to the west into safe and reliable horse-feed and eventually into quality food for various other pets.


 

The 1904 World's Fair & III Olympics - Gateway to the 20th Century

 

In 1904 St. Louis hosted both a World's Fair and the Olympic Games. The twin events seemed to signal that the United States had taken its place among the great industrialized powers of the world and St. Louis, again, seemed to serve as the symbolic gate through which it entered. 20 million people visited the city during the fair, turning St. Louis into a globally recognized metropolis.

 

 

The World Wars and Beyond - Gateway to the Future

 

By the outbreak of the First World War, St. Louis was the world's largest producer of beer, stoves, shoes and a host of other items. This economic diversification ensured that St. Louis was able to weather recessions and depressions with relative ease. Like its sisters, St. Louis also benefited from wartime production in both global conflagrations: its native son, McDonnell-Douglass is one of the primary beneficiaries of government airplane manufacturing contracts.

 

After the World Wars, St. Louis experienced the same pattern of suburbanization that stripped many cities of their residents. Those western suburbs that had become popular following the disasters of 1849 were some of the first to endure hoards of urbanites chasing their own suburban dreams. The city's population declined consistently over the next half-century, although that trend began to reverse following the turn of the millennium.

 

St. Louis has served as the great leaping off point for adventurers traveling from the urbanized east into the great unknowns of the west, its intrepid spirit accompanying explorers from Louis and Clark to Charles Lindbergh. It was an industrial city ferrying its own rural countryside into modernity. It embodies both exploration and the establishment. Thus, it is exceptionally fitting that St. Louis' most defining monument is the Gateway Arch, a symbol of everything St. Louis has been and will continue to be.


 

Authored by:


Chris Casey

www.StLouis.com