Forest Park, which has played a major role in the history of the West End, began as a visionary dream of Hiram W. Leffingwell. He was a real estate man who had been instrumental in the founding of Kirkwood and the establishment of Grand Avenue. Leffingwell astutely assumed that the direction of the City's growth would be westward and that his proposed park would ultimately be surrounded by an urbanized area as it is today. In 1870, he had a plan prepared for a 2754 acre park more than a mile west of the City and secured 1890s aid from Nicholas M. Bell and other state legislators to back the idea in the legislature. In spite of intense opposition from owners of land in the proposed park site, Bell finally secured enactment of the bill in 1872.
The property owners resorted to legal action and succeeded in having the bill declared unconstitutional by the Missouri Supreme Court. After an unsuccessful attempt to obtain authorizing legislation in 1873, amid much criticism concerning the park's remoteness and size, Leffingwell finally gained support from two holders of major tracts in the site, William Forsyth and Thomas K. Skinker. By reducing the project's size to 1380 acres, with assurance to these owners that only part of their tracts would be acquired, with resultant increases in the value of their remaining land adjacent to the park, the bill was successfully steered through the legislature in 1874. It provided for an appraisal by impartial experts and determination of an appropriate fee and also for authorization by the County Court for a bond issue to finance the purchase. Opposition was still encountered from a group of land owners led by Charles P. Chouteau and William D. Griswold.
This time the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the bill and declared it to be definitely in the public interest. Later the park site was acquired by condemnation for $799,995 and was placed under the jurisdiction of a Board of Park Commissioners on April 27, 1875. An interesting facet of the acquisition of Forest Park was provision for the concurrent creation of Carondelet and O'Fallon Parks to placate criticism from citizens in those parts of the City. The dedication of Forest Park took place on June 25, 1876, at its main entrance, then at Chouteau Avenue and Kingshighway, with elaborate ceremonies. Plans were prepared for improvement of the well wooded tract with roads, lakes and bridges. Up to the turn of the century, only the eastern portion of the park was developed and its use by the public was aided by streetcar lines, which reached the park by 1885. In the 1890's, an elaborate Victorian bandstand was built and a race course was laid out in the park's northwestern corner, reached by the Lindell Railway at its station near DeBaliviere Avenue.
A popular park rendezvous of the period was the Cottage, a restaurant located on a hill east of the present location of the zoo. The biggest event in the park's history was the 1904 World's Fair which was located in the previously undeveloped western portion of the park and resulted in the landscaping of that park area. The eastern portion of the park, which is the part within the limits of the Central West End area, has seen several important installations since 1915. These include the Municipal Opera, which began in 1919 in the outdoor theater that was constructed two years previously for an opera presentation during the international convention of Advertising Clubs. Also in this part of the park is the Jewel Box, completed in 1936 as an outgrowth of the park's greenhouses and the more recent McDonnell Planetarium, opened in 1963.
Another recent facility is the Steinberg Memorial Skating Rink, completed in 1957 and used for both ice and roller skating in season. The 'Triple A' club was originally located in the park's western section in 1897, and was removed to its present site in 1902, to make way for the World's Fair. It has a nine hole golf course and courts for tennis and handball with clubhouse and locker facilities. Two unusual events which took place in the eastern portion of Forest Park were the Gordon Bennett Balloon Races in 1907 and the Greater St. Louis Exposition of 1926. The balloon races were held near the park's Chouteau Avenue entrance and were the first of a series which lasted until 1916. The exposition was held on the old flying field across from the Forest Park Highlands amusement park and was a well attended civic event of its time.
The southeastern corner of the park has been considerably altered in recent years by the construction of the Daniel Boone Expressway and the Kingshighway relocation. To a lesser extent, the park's northeastern section was also changed by the building of the Forest Park Parkway.