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St. Louis Post-Dispatch“A slender new book . . . that casts some shadoes on the gleaming monument.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The New York of the West
The nickname "Gateway to the West" invites one to think of early St. Louis as a remote frontier outpost, just as European explorers saw it. The term suggests a passage from the civilized world to a rugged, unexplored wilderness. One would think that before the settlers embarked on their western excursions the area was nothing but virgin forests and uninhabited lands. But considering it from an older perspective, or as the historian Daniel K. Richter terms it, "facing east," reveals a different view.
Around 1000 A.D., the continent's largest settlement north of Mexico rose in the fertile lands near modern-day East St. Louis, Illinois. The ancient Native American city of Cahokia, with more than 20,000 residents, included at its far western edge a fifty-acre rectangular riverside plaza near where the Gateway Arch now sits. This Grand Plaza was widely known for its earthen "Monks Mound," which, at 130 feet, was the third highest pyramid in the Americas. Around 1400, however, Cahokia entered a mysterious but steady decline, and by the time the Europeans arrived, many of its remnants had disappeared.
The first French and Spanish explorers, coming to the region in the seventeenth century, found various native tribes, including the Osages, Missouris, Iowas, and Omahas. Modern St. Louis traces its official birth to 1764, when Pierre Laclede Liguest, a French fur trader, founded a regional trading post along a wooded limestone bluff just eighteen miles south of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Laclede was drawn to the spot principally for its natural resources and geographic benefits. It offered a natural levee that kept back the Mississippi's periodic floods. A break in the bluffs allowed easy access to the river where boats could be docked and loaded. Fresh water rose from the limestone springs, and the nearby timber provided crucial building resources for the settlement. Months later another fur trader, Auguste Chouteau, arrived with nearly three dozen men and began to carve out the first vestiges of a town. Chouteau aspired to found "one of the finest cities in America," and named the new outpost "St. Louis" in honor of Louis IX, the patron saint of the reigning French King Louis XV.
St. Louis was only a river's width away from territory belonging to Britain, and later to the young United States. In 1762, France ceded Louisiana to the Spanish, and the town became Upper Louisiana's borderland capital. After finding the colony too expensive to maintain, the Spanish sold the territory back to France in 1800, but a slave revolt in Haiti and a costly war with England persuaded Napoleon to unload the faraway land. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson seized the opportunity to acquire the entire Louisiana Territory for $15 million. When Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark to explore the new American possession, they naturally began their journey in St. Louis. "Founded by the French, governed by the Spanish, and sold to the Americans," writes historian Adam Arenson, "St. Louis was always a borderland city on the edge of empires."
The city founded by Laclede and Chouteau sat perilously close to the largest fault line in North America, which extends from modern-day northeast Arkansas into southern Illinois. In the winter and early spring of 1811–12, the most powerful earthquake in American history struck in the bootheel region of southern Missouri. Over several months, the Mississippi valley was jolted by three powerful quakes estimated at over 8.0 on the Richter scale, and more than two thousand smaller tremors. Residents as far north as Boston and as far south as Mexico felt the tremors, and one of the quakes was said to have made the ground a veritable liquid in places. Eyewitnesses reported that parts of the countryside rolled for hours and even stretches of the Mississippi River flowed backward. The quakes destroyed the small town of New Madrid, Missouri, only 150 miles south of St. Louis. Residents in St. Louis, while literally shaken, were spared from major damage because their buildings were mostly one or two stories. Yet the enormous potential energy from seismic activity far beneath the surface posed a constant threat to the city, and still does.
By the 1820s, St. Louis boasted nearly 4,600 residents. When it was incorporated as a city in 1823, St. Louis was part of an extensive river traffic network that connected the Midwest territories with Philadelphia and New York. By 1840, it was home to 35,000 people and rivaled New Orleans in the volume of cargo delivered to its wharves.
Relations between the white settlers in St. Louis and the local native tribes remained relatively peaceful until 1828, when Missouri Governor John Miller announced the official eviction of Native Americans from the state, a process historian Stephen Aron has termed the "ethnic cleansing" of the region. Forced removal had been under way in the region less systematically since the Louisiana Purchase, and it accelerated after the War of 1812. Governor Miller's proclamation brought the process to St. Louis's doorstep and confirmed it as an American city; its native culture and history, Miller hoped, would be crushed in the march of manifest destiny.
St. Louis's increasing prosperity was apparent with its architecture, as the first major commercial and religious buildings erected along the river drew wide acclaim. Visitors to antebellum St. Louis could choose among nine hotels and stroll past their choice of 1,200 new brick homes in the city. Real estate prices soared, and by 1847, lots on Front Street sold for as much as $500 per square foot. Of all the buildings near the riverfront, the most visually breathtaking was the courthouse, which slowly emerged along Third Street. In 1847, it became the site of the first Dred Scott trial, in which Scott, a slave, sued his owner to gain his freedom. The case, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court ten years later, would reverberate to the fields of Gettysburg and Appomattox. The St. Louis riverfront was the center of the western fur trading business and was home to scores of burgeoning banks and businesses. Visitors encountered a town brimming with a cosmopolitan mixture of people, and poised to become one of America's great cities.
Yet St. Louis was no shining city on a hill. Since the 1820s, its robust economic growth had been fueled by cheap, local bituminous coal that enveloped the city in a sulfurous, sooty cloud. At times an eyesore and always an assault on sensitive lungs and noses, the ever-present smoke made St. Louis one of the first American cities to understand the environmental consequences of rapid industrial growth. Those working on Third Street near the courthouse sometimes could not see as far as the river. Moreover, the city's streets became open sewers. Horse-drawn carriages left manure everywhere, and the blistering summer sun only added to the squalor.
During the evening of May 17, 1849, a fire erupted on a docked steamer, White Cloud. After the flames ate away the dock lines securing it to the wharf, the White Cloud became a drifting fireball. The inferno spread rapidly. Within an hour, two dozen vessels along the wharf were ablaze. Gusty winds pushed the flames over the levee, and, suddenly, entire blocks were burning. The wind threatened to drive the fire across the entire city. Desperately attempting to deprive it of fuel, volunteer firefighters destroyed buildings along the south side of Market Street, from Main to Second Street. Their actions saved the Old Cathedral (now the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France) and the fire burned itself out before reaching the courthouse under construction and a cherished limestone warehouse on the corner of Main and Chestnut that had been established by Manuel Lisa in 1818. By daybreak, residents could assess the devastation: five riverfront blocks entirely destroyed, five more heavily damaged, and three people dead. More than four hundred houses had burned to the ground, along with more than three hundred businesses. Estimates of the property damage alone ranged between $3 million and $6 million. Amid the embers, however, was the birth of a newer, and even more prosperous, St. Louis.
The Great Fire came on the heels of another disaster that had besieged St. Louis in the late 1840s. The great cholera pandemic reached North America in the early 1830s and the Mississippi River system by the next decade, spreading from New Orleans north to Nashville, Memphis, and other towns. Cholera produces fever, vomiting, and intense abdominal pain, and victims can die within hours of onset if they do not consume enough water to fight the sudden dehydration. The disease does not spread from person to person, as was widely thought at the time, but from drinking infected water. As cholera ravaged St. Louis, the cure only made things worse, as those affected often drank the polluted water to counteract the dehydration. Doctors were helpless to stop the misery, and for weeks the bells of the Old Cathedral tolled relentlessly, announcing nearly three dozen funerals a day during the summer of 1849. By fall 1850, when the epidemic finally subsided, more than 4,300 people—nearly 6 percent of the total population—died of the disease in St. Louis, the highest mortality rate of any American city.
Despite these calamities, the 1850 census reported more than 78,000 St. Louis residents, twice the previous count. Following the fire, the city experienced a building boom. Architect Thomas W. Walsh led this renascence and, in an attempt to avoid another catastrophic fire, began using primarily cast iron and stone in many of the new structures. The St. Louis riverfront area eventually boasted one of the greatest collections of cast-iron buildings in the nation. Many notables called the city home for a time, including Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. It was also the proud host to such international luminaries as Charles Dickens. In 1855 a local editor enthused that "our noble city is destined to be at least the second city of the Union." Two local reporters raised the boosterism stakes by predicting that by 1900, "St. Louis will be the greatest city on either continent." At the very least it would become "the New York of the West."
The second half of the nineteenth century proved more difficult. Abraham Lincoln's inauguration in 1861 sparked a secession crisis and took the nation to war. One of the first skirmishes following the battle of Fort Sumter occurred in St. Louis in May 1861, when Confederate and Union militia fought over an arsenal in the city. The brief but bloody firefight killed twenty-eight people. Among the locals who watched the fighting were future Generals Grant and William T. Sherman.
To command the western front, Lincoln chose John C. Frémont, the former Republican presidential candidate, who made St. Louis his headquarters. When violence erupted on August 14, 1861, General Frémont declared martial law in the city. Embedded within this declaration was a statement as profoundly revolutionary as Jefferson's words had been nearly a century before. Frémont ordered that the property of any Confederate would be confiscated in Missouri, and that any slaves included in this "property" would be "declared free men." Lincoln soon reversed Frémont's order, but in the interim the first American slave recorded to have been freed by federal authority was a St. Louis man named Hiram Reed.
The war's economic impact was devastating to St. Louis. With Southern markets and ocean access both closed, trade along the Mississippi River evaporated, and stores and businesses along the riverfront suffered accordingly. The city's only major construction during the Civil War was William Rumbold's magnificent iron dome on the court house. On July 4, 1862, the dome was officially dedicated and became a permanent fixture of the St. Louis skyline. By war's end, St. Louis's "second city" ambitions were lost to Chicago. River traffic, facing new competition from railroads, never returned to prewar levels. Consequently, the drive to bridge the Mississippi took on a new urgency. In early 1867, city leaders organized the St. Louis and Illinois Bridge Company, and ordered its chief engineer, James B. Eads, to build a bridge across the waterway at a narrow point around the northern arm of Third Street. His design called for three arched spans of more than five hundred feet each. As a public works project, the scale and importance of what became known as the Eads Bridge would be outdone in the nineteenth century only by the Brooklyn Bridge.
As workers dug deep caissons to support the Eads Bridge, several experienced intense internal pains that would not subside. Unknown to local physicians, the compressed air the workers inhaled at the bottom of the caissons was potentially deadly. If one reached the surface too quickly, nitrogen bubbles formed in the blood and one could be literally doubled over in pain. The condition came to be known as "the bends." During the seven years that the Eads Bridge was under construction, 119 workers suffered from the bends, and fourteen died.
On July 4, 1874, jubilant St. Louisans paraded across their elegant new bridge to East St. Louis underneath a "great, triumphal arch" built just for the occasion. William Taussig, a member of the bridge's board of directors, noted that the bridge was "the noblest monument on the continent" and that nowhere else on the planet did something exist "so beautiful and attractive." The Eads Bridge was a sensation, and marked the beginning of a new era. By 1900, St. Louis was the second largest railroad hub in the United States.
Just as the bridge expanded the city's horizons, a political development arose that would have profound consequences. In 1876, in a moment of short-sightedness, city leaders decided they did not want the responsibility for the rapidly growing rural sections of St. Louis County, and voted to separate from it in what would be called "the great divorce." The county would have to raise its own taxes to meet its needs. While this seemed a fine idea at the time for those near downtown St. Louis, it later proved disastrous as affluent citizens moved out of the city. By the middle of the twentieth century, the full effects of the division would be sorely felt.
By 1880, St. Louis was the nation's sixth largest city with more than 350,000 residents. Railroad traffic facilitated by the Eads Bridge sparked yet another building boom on the riverfront. Some new buildings rose to six stories, which approached the limit that their massive stone foundations could support. One of the most famous buildings in the city was the Merchants' Exchange, completed in 1875 and located near the courthouse. Its large second-floor trading room hosted the Democratic National Convention in 1876, where Samuel Tilden accepted the nomination to run against Rutherford B. Hayes. Twelve years later, Democrats used the nearby Exposition and Music Hall to renominate President Grover Cleveland. In 1896, the Republicans nominated William McKinley in a temporary pavilion located near City Hall.
The Gilded Age political conventions signified the city's national importance. Some exuberant St. Louisans saw their hometown as the nation's true capital, and tried unsuccessfully throughout the 1870s to relocate the national government to the St. Louis riverfront. St. Louis also touted one of the nation's first "skyscrapers," the magnificent ten-story Wainwright Building on Chestnut Street, designed by the Chicago architect Louis B. Sullivan and completed in 1891.
Despite its apparent prosperity, the city's growth had an unsettling effect on its riverfront. The small group of families that controlled much of the property kept rental prices too high for many businesses to bear. New businesses and families moved west to the outer parts of the city and into St. Louis County. For the riverfront, mostly composed of fur traders and dry goods businesses that relied on river traffic, the Gilded Age marked a slow decline.
All along, there were grand dreams about how the riverfront might be restored to its earlier glory. The defeated Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine suggested a memorial to Thomas Jefferson, honoring the Louisiana Purchase. Pierre Chouteau, a descendant of the founding families, proposed celebrating the centennial of the purchase with a riverfront replica of the original French village. He tried to organize the city's financial and political leaders to support the project, but to his disappointment, the city's elite showed little enthusiasm for his plan. They had something else in mind.
Nothing on the global stage was as big in the 1890s as the World's Fair. People everywhere were fascinated by the lavish displays of the latest technological and engineering marvels. To attend a fair was to peek into the future, and to host one was a cherished prize. More than political conventions or sporting events, the World's Fair was unrivaled as a sign of a city's international stature. The attention Chicago had received from hosting the World's Fair in 1893 was on the minds of the city leaders of St. Louis, who desperately wanted to keep pace. By 1900, with more than 575,000 residents, St. Louis trailed only New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago in population, and was hopeful of better things to come. With news that St. Louis would host the 1904 exposition to commemorate the Louisiana Purchase, the city prepared for its chance to shine.
Rather than locate the fair near downtown or the riverfront, city leaders chose a site ten miles west in Forest Park, away from the smoke and grime. In the spring of 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt proudly opened the extravaganza, and although not as big a hit as the Chicago Fair, the St. Louis expo attracted more than 20 million people over the next few months. The song "Meet Me in St. Louis" was heard throughout the nation. Attendees could visit recreations of the Alps complete with snow-peaked mountains, try new creations such as the ice cream cone and Dr. Pepper, and see in person Will Rogers or an aging Geronimo. The St. Louis Fair was, by all accounts, a rousing success and proved to be the highlight of the city's history. Helen Keller remarked that the St. Louis exposition was "a great manifestation of all the forces of enlightenment and all of man's thousand torches burning together."
Excerpted from The Gateway Arch by Tracy Campbell. Copyright © 2013 by Tracy Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Introduction: Saarinen's Cathedral.................... 1
ONE The New York of the West.................... 8
TWO Getting Things Done.................... 25
THREE The St. Louis Municipal Parking Lot.................... 44
FOUR A Peculiarly Happy Form.................... 61
FIVE The Architect.................... 87
SIX The Laughingstock of the World.................... 109
SEVEN "Got It Made".................... 125
EIGHT Expendable Culture.................... 146
NINE Symbol and Symptom.................... 161