I present to you, the people of St. Louis, your own, this large and beautiful Forest Park for enjoyment of yourselves, your children and your children's children forever ... The rich and poor, the merchant and mechanic, the professional man and day laborer, each with his family and lunch basket, can come here and enjoy his own ... all without stint or hindrance ... and there will be no notice put up, Keep Off the Grass."
Chauncy F. Shultz
June 24, 1876
Opening Ceremony for Forest Park
When Forest Park officially opened to the public on Saturday afternoon, June 24, 1876, it was located in St. Louis County, almost two miles west of the St. Louis City limits and a 40 minute carriage ride from downtown.
The Globe-Democrat reported that the opening day ceremony attracted 50,000 people -- at a time when the population of the city was only 350,000.
It was on a railroad line, which had opened only a week before the park was dedicated. The train ride from downtown took 20 minutes.
At the same time as the dedication, the Democratic Party was holding its national convention in Downtown St. Louis. (The 1870 census called St. Louis the fourth largest city in the country behind New York, Philadelphia and Brooklyn.)
Around the park, the land was mostly farmland with clusters of houses along Clayton Road and some industry along the Missouri Pacific Railroad south of the park. Kingshighway, then known as King's Highway, ran east of the park and Skinker Road edged the park on the west. They were dirt roads, not even graveled. There were no roads dividing the park from the land on the north or south.
Early Efforts To Build Central Area Park Fail
The Missouri Legislature authorized in February 1864, an election for St. Louis voters to approve a centrally located park. It created a board of commissioners, who were instructed to pick a site for the park no larger than 350 acres.
On March 25, 1864, the commissioners announced that the park would be bordered by Laclede Avenue on the south and on the west by Kingshighway with the exact boundaries to be settled in negotiations with property owners.
Mayor F.W. Cronenbold set the election date as less than two weeks away on April 4, 1864. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal.
Forest Park Declared Unconstitutional
The park issue surfaced next in October 1870 when Hiram W. Leffingwell, a real estate developer who promoted the founding of Kirkwood and created Grand Boulevard, announced plans for a 3,000 acre park that would extend about three miles west of Kingshighway.
Under Missouri law at that time, only the state legislature could establish a park.
In March 1872, the legislature established Forest Park.
The ordinance to create the park said it did not have to be approved by the voters. It created a commission with 14 members, who were given the power to issue bonds to purchase the land. The park was scaled down to 1,370 acres.
The law created a special taxing district, located totally outside the city limits. A few days after the law was passed, the legislature extended the city limits to include all of the land in the Forest Park tax district.
The residents living near the park filed suit seeking to have the law declared unconstitutional.
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled on April 30, 1873 that the Forest Park act was unconstitutional because of the special tax district.
However, during the year the case was under litigation, the commissioners had used their powers to issue bonds and acquired more than half of the land for the park. The legislature ruled in February, 1874 that the park, bonds and the new boundaries of the city were illegal. In November, 1874 the Supreme Court upheld the decision and the 1872 Forest Park Act was dead.
Forest Park Finally Created
Along With Carondelet, O'Fallon Parks
The park was actually established in 1874 when the Missouri Legislature passed ordinances to establish three parks in St. Louis County: Carondelet Park in the south; Forest Park in the center and O'Fallon Park on the north.
The act allowed the county (which included the City of St. Louis) to purchase the same land for Forest Park as designated in the 1872 Forest Park Act. The county could issue 30 year revenue bonds to total $1.3 million, with interest at 6 percent, to purchase the land and make improvements. The law instructed the county to issue a one-half mill per $1 assessed valuation property tax to pay for the bonds.
The park was set at 1,326.009 acres worth $799,995 or about $600 an acre.
The land was placed under the jurisdiction of the Board of Park Commissioners in April, 1875.
Also in 1875 the "Municipal Divorce Bill" was included in the new Missouri Constitution, which spelled out the procedure to use for the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County to be separated.
Included in the separation was a constitutional stipulation that gave all the parks and the park tax to the City of St. Louis--but also the debts incurred. It also allowed the City of St. Louis to extend its boundaries past the three county parks--Carondelet, O'Fallon and Forest.
The election to split the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County was held on August 22, 1876. But the results were not known for eight months due to charges of wide-spread vote fraud. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled on April 26, 1877 that the split with St. Louis County and new City Charter had been adopted by voters.
Work on improvements to the park were delayed due to negotiations over the railroad right-of-way through the northeast corner of the park. The first report of the parks commission stated that only a few neglected farms and abandoned huts of coal miners detracted from the vast expanse of natural forest in the park.
Because most of the tract was virgin forest land, the name Forest Park was chosen for the park.
Access to the park was one of the commission's first problems and a bill to provide suitable roads was approved by the legislature. Work began on the projects and many of the roads, lakes, bridges and landscaping were in place at the dedication June 25, 1876.
The dedication ceremony took place at what was then the park's main entrance at Chouteau and Kinshighway. The highlight of the ceremony was the unveiling of the statue of Edward Bates, who had been U.S. Attorney General in the cabinet of President Abraham Lincoln.
Forest Park was designed by Maximillian G. Kern, the park superintendent and landscape gardener. The park workers built all of the roads except the boulevard near Kingshighway.
For the first few years, the only access to the park was on the Wabash Railroad. In 1885, the first horse car line reached the park on Laclede Avenue. Only the eastern portion of the park was developed, becoming a sylvan setting of winding drives and waterways. Bandstands, pagodas and picnic grounds were scattered around the lakes.
A popular rural retreat, the Forsyth home, was convered into the Cottage Restaurant. The farmhouse was replaced by a new building in 1893 but it burned on May 14, 1884 and had to be rebuilt. The building, shown at right, was the third building to house The Cottage. The new, much larger restaurant was a popular spot in the 1890s. It was located at the top of a hill east of the present Zoo and, in addition to serving food, had a carousel, swings and band concerts. It even hosted conventions. It was razed after the World's Fair.
In response to unemployment in the 1893 depression, the Post-Dispatch began a campaign to build a lake bearing its name in the park. It was finished in 1894, giving jobs to several thousand workers and providing a boating facility to the public.
The lakes are all artificial. They were all five feet deep and filled through pipes with water from the River des Peres, from Cabanne Spring and with storm water runoff from the park, all propelled by a steam pump and controlled by a system of valves. The Rives des Peres posed a problem with flooding until it was put underground in the 1920s.
The park contained The Hippodrome, a horse racing track, and a wooden bandstand entirely surrounded by water and accessible by bridges. The ornate Moorish style bandstand was built on an island in Pagoda Lake. A half-mile race track was built near the DeBaliviere entrance.
The St. Louis Amateur Athletic Association (AAA or Triple A) was formed in 1897. The group built a clubhouse, tennis courts,baseball diamonds and a 9-hole golf course. The original site was a 125 acre tract south and west of DeBaliviere and Lindell. The property was required for the World's Fair and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition paid $4,000 for the Triple A clubhouse. The Parks Department gave them the present 70-acre layout in the southeastern portion of the park.
The 1885 plan for the park recommended building a zoo. By 1890, park department employees were caring for an animal collection that included deer, geese, prairie dogs and quail in an animal enclosure.
By 1891, the park had its own herd of buffalo, enclosed in their own house. Soon the park had a heard of elk, a dromedary, and a zebu, a sacred cow. The city built bear pits and animal houses in 1899 and 1901.
In 1881 the city's first art museum opened in downtown, operated by a department of Washington University. In early 1897, its board asked the city's permission to build an art museum in Forest Park.
It got the approval in 1900 but the city said the building would be city property. The site selected by the commission was on Art Hill but the museum was not built due to charges that the director had paid a bribe to a councilman to get the site.
The movement to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase began in 1898 and gathered momentum under the direction of David R. Francis, former governor. Forest Park was chosen for the fair but its use was made with the condition that after the close of the exposition, the area would revert to a park setting.
The City of St. Louis appropriated $5 million for the fair and that was matched by public subscription and another $5 million from the U. S. Congress.
Construction work began in 1901 and the fair was scheduled to open in 1903. But as the fair grew in size and scope, it was agreed that it would open in 1904.
Visit the World's Fair
History of Forest Park