A Preservation Plan for St. Louis
Part I:  Historic Contexts

1 - St. Louis and the American West

The history of St. Louis is inextricably tied to the development of the trans-Mississippi West. From its inception it has been a hinge for goods and people crossing the country between east and west. The people, products, and developments in the city's past reflect this role of thoroughfare.

Fur Trade

Fur traders passed by the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers for more than a century before Maxent, Laclede & Company established a new village there in 1764. Marquette and Joliet passed through in 1673; it became the domain of King Louis XIV nine years later. French, Spanish, English, and American trappers passed through the region on their way to the Rockies for pelts and on the way back to sell them to Europe or the east.

First fortunes derived from dealing in pelts and outfitting the trappers selling them. Auguste Chouteau, Charles Gratiot, and Antoine Soulard began the nineteenth century among the wealthiest St. Louisans thanks to western trade. A generation later Robert Campbell, John Mullanphy, Henry Shaw and former explorer William Clark rose to the top of the local economic ladder selling supplies to trappers and travelers.


Changing modes of transportation enhanced St. Louis's location.1 The city was ideally located at the confluence of two of the great waterways in North America. It is also near the division between the upper and lower Mississippi and just north of the Ohio, providing connections from the northern Rockies to Pittsburgh, from Minnesota to New Orleans. After the first steamer Zebulon M Pike chugged up to the St. Louis wharf in 1817, the city held stronger and faster connections to farther markets. Furs and ores traveled east while people and manufactured goods came west. By 1840, St. Louis and New Orleans were the busiest river ports in the United States.

Railroads built farther on the location's advantages, especially after the Eads Bridge opened in 1874. With so few points for trains to cross the Father of Waters, bridges became an economic confluence of people and products. Manufacturing grew around products coming and going, as did a large wholesaling and warehousing industry. Cupples Station stood as the ultimate statement of the importance of the city in the nation's web of steel rails. The largest of its type in the world when it opened, Cupples Station set St. Louis as a major hinge between east and west at the turn of the century. It was among the busiest rail hubs in the country. Union Station was the largest passenger station on the globe when it opened in 1894.

Some goods passed through St. Louis the way they entered-as raw materials-while others became finished goods. Lead, timber, and foodstuffs came and went. Arriving lumber left as building materials or furniture, and cattle departed on refrigerated rail cars as sides of beef. Cotton arrived from the South via the Cotton Line, and left again after processing at cotton compress firms or as ready-made clothing. Raw tobacco left as plug chewing tobacco, while hops and grain merged to become lager.

Twentieth-century transportation played a similar role. Route 66, the road made legend in popular culture, passed through downtown St. Louis and by such present-day landmarks as Ted Drewes. Interstates 44, 55, 64, and 70 converge on the city, making it a popular pass-through point for travelers. Its central location has made the Gateway Arch the most-visited National Park Service site.

The same is true of contemporary air traffic. Central location is a key factor in TransWorld Airlines decision to locate its hub in St. Louis, centrally situated between its main destinations.

Gold Rush

St. Louis was one of the last points of "civilization" for explorers heading west before the Lewis & Clark expedition. One commented that goods for argonauts were so plentiful that he found "California around every corner" in the city. Travel guides published for fortune-seekers heading to California in the Gold Rush of 1849-53 almost universally advised argonauts to purchase certain goods in St. Louis rather than lug them from home. Since an estimated 50,000 people traveled the Oregon Trail each of those years, many potential customers passed through St. Louis, now truly a "gateway city."

The law of supply and demand took over. Gold rush diarists often commented on the results of taking the advice read in the popular guidebooks of Ware or Hastings: goods were expensive, scarce, and often poor quality. Horses and oxen, wagons, beef jerky, coffee, hard tack, dried apples, and even the requisite floppy hats worn by "real" gold-panners carried price tags several-fold of those back home in Ohio, New York, or Pennsylvania. The existing mercantile network in St. Louis became firmly established by outfitting fortune-seekers.

Political Crossroads

Differing political views merged in St. Louis just as had people, goods, and transportation. In the first half of the nineteenth century, southerners from the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky intertwined with Yankees from New England and Ohio. Views on slavery pitted rebels against abolitionists during the Civil War, making it one of the most divided cities in the Union.

St. Louis was also the political crossroads between east and west. Democrats met in St. Louis in 1876 in the first national partisan gathering west of the Mississippi. Even though they selected New Yorker Samuel Tilden to run for President, they hoped that coming to St. Louis ­­ a border city on both the east-west and north-south axes ­­ would bring votes. At the end of Reconstruction, the Democratic Party was enjoying a resurgence in the South. The party returned in 1888, to nominate incumbent Grover Cleveland.

Republicans met in St. Louis in 1896 for the first and only time, also to send a message of unity to wavering partisans. Populism was on the rise in the West and South by the 1890s. To Populists, the Grand Old Party represented big business, eastern capital, exploitation of farmers, and (worse yet, they said) a currency backed by gold rather than silver. The Party of Lincoln met here to nominate Ohio Governor William McKinley, whose elastic views on currency might placate silverites. A month later, the Populists met in the very same building at Clark and 12th to endorse Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan, a pro-silver Nebraskan who detested everything the Republicans stood for. Eastern capital and western radicalism met in St. Louis to mirror national political divisions.

Military Ties

The military used St. Louis for many of the same reasons as did entrepreneurs. On the edge of American settlement, St. Louis was the jumping off point for Lewis and Clark in 1804, as it was for subsequent explorers going to the Missouri and upper Mississippi rivers. Ethnographer/artist George Catlin started his travels in the 1830s in St. Louis. German Prince Maximillian, and his hired artist Karl Bodmer, gathered supplies and information in St. Louis before leaving for the upper Missouri in 1833-34.

Forts in the plains received supplies on steamboats which loaded in St. Louis, first from Fort Bellefontaine and later from Jefferson Barracks. By 1830, Jefferson Barracks served as a training center for troops headed west, and the main staging area for the Mexican War in 1846. Native American diplomats came to St. Louis to negotiate with William Clark to end Black Hawk's War; the United States government ran its Indian affairs for the west from St. Louis for decades after the Civil War.

More recently, military advantages have focused on St. Louis's location not as on the edge of the frontier, but in the center of the country. John S. McDonnell founded his aircraft company in St. Louis in 1939 because, he said, it seemed the farthest from attack in the impending World War II. Prisoner-of-war camps peppered the region during the war for some of the same reasons.

City boosters of 1945 saw location as a particular benefit when they read the request for proposals from the soon-to-be-created United Nations. The host city had to be safe from foreign attack, offering good communications systems, and convenient transportation connections. In its handsomely bound and illustrated proposal, the city boasted of being safely located, surrounded by much of the United States and, it said, about half-way between the two "trouble spots" of the world, Berlin and Tokyo. It was a major rail center, offering good telegraph and train facilities. And, best of all, the land at Weldon Springs was available for immediate occupancy by the new league of peace. Location made St. Louis an obvious choice. It was not to be, of course. The UN moved to New York, finally, on land provided by the Rockefellers, despite its case for safety and centrality.

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