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

2 - Transportation

A central theme to the past, and therefore present, in St. Louis is its ability to move goods and people in and out of the city. Transportation issues have both spurred and deterred growth, sometimes through people's own doing, other times not. Just as transportation is among the prevailing themes of American history, it is a key to understanding St. Louis's past and present-as well as its future.

River City

This area, where the Illinois and Missouri rivers converge with the Father of All Waters, was a main thoroughfare for goods and people traded throughout the middle of the continent. Native Americans lived here because of the mobility the location afforded them. Marquette and Joliet passed by here in their seventeenth-century trek, and it was the jumping-off point for Lewis and Clark in 1804. Maxent, Laclede & Company made the same discovery. A trading post - and a city at the intersection of the main water highways - was prime territory.

River travel was transformed by the steam-powered river boat. Past river travel relied on a combination of current, men's backs, and draft animals. When the steamer Zebulon M. Pike chugged up to the levee in 1817, it revolutionized the city and the way it did business. Now it was only a matter of days between St. Louis and trading partners in New Orleans, Louisville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, or Kansas City. This new ability to move raw materials to the east and finished goods back again and in such short time was the key.

The 1840s and 1850s have been called "The Golden Age of Steamboating". The boats were large, lavish, beautiful, and powerful. There were some 1,200 steamers on the Mississippi River by 1846; as many as fifty could dock on the wharf in St. Louis at one time. But steamboats suffered from two disadvantages. First, they were flammable. Sparks jumped through smokestacks from wood-burning boilers, and explosions in boiler rooms were not uncommon. The average life span of a steamboat was but a few years. The second problem was seasonal use. Once the river froze over in the winter, boats-and merchants relying upon them-were out of business till spring thaw. As supply and demand ebbed and flowed, so too did prices and profits.

Ironically, the golden age was shortened by steam technology itself. The novelty hadn't even worn off the steamers in St. Louis before talk of the new Iron Horse started. Investors hedged their bets by the 1850s, as did city government. In the early decade, the City of St. Louis spent $200,000 on wharf improvements, but it also purchased $250,000 in Pacific Railroad stock. On the eve of the Civil War, most local merchants had already divested themselves of their steamboat interests, leaving only the hard-core boatmen.

The Advent of the Railroad

Three events in 1849 affected the future of railroads in St. Louis. First, the state chartered the Pacific Railroad to cross Missouri from St. Louis and eventually connect with the transcontinental railroad that many dreamed of. The Hannibal & St. Joseph already existed, as the first railroad chartered by the state of Missouri in 1847. But this new line from the state's major metropolis was the key. That same year, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton proposed steel rails spanning the country. Never at a loss for enthusiasm for trains, Benton told the Senate that the day would come when locomotives could travel from St. Louis to San Francisco, with a branch up to the Columbia River, thundering "There is the East, there is India!"

Disease provided the third impetus to railroad growth in St. Louis. St. Louis suffered under a cholera epidemic in the spring of 1849. Prevailing medical thinking at the time erroneously blamed unsanitary bodies of water for emitting pollutants into the air. St. Louisans turned their attention to Chouteau's Pond as the culprit.

At one time, the Pond was filled with clear, cold water with fish and a flour mill. But by mid-century it was filled with waste, animal carcasses, and garbage that made it an open sewer. The city drained and filled Chouteau's Pond in 1851-52. The land mass it created sat empty only briefly. The first rail lines to cross Missouri would soon travel over the former pond as a prime connection between downtown and the route to Cheltenham. The Pond and the tracks that followed were as much a source of division as of connection. The area was a large, uncrossable zone that separated north and south St. Louis into two fairly distinct communities. That division remained with railroad lines filling the valley and, more recently, an expressway.

The Pacific broke ground on July 4, 1851, for its initial leg. The planned route went southwest out of town from 14th, along the Mill Creek Valley to Cheltenham (right around today's Manchester and Hampton), then on to Kirkwood Station, along the Meramec Valley on to Franklin (since renamed "Pacific").

The first train plod out of St. Louis in December, 1852, for Cheltenham. The route to Kirkwood opened the following May. It made Cheltenham a bit of a boom town, since it now had, or would soon have, ready access to ways to move its firebrick to eastern factories. When the train reached Kansas City in 1865, it had traveled on 283 miles of track. The state had 893 miles of track in operation two years later, but still ranked only fifteenth among the 37 states in track miles.

Trains & the River

Economic interchange grew as the railroads came to and prospered in St. Louis. At first, the river was a hindrance. Trains carrying goods west or materials east had to stop at the rail yards in St. Louis or East St. Louis. Wiggins Ferry Company, who owned a virtual monopoly in St. Louis, carried the rail cars across the river where they were again connected to locomotives for the rest of their journey. It consumed both time and money. James Eads headed the solution: a bridge over the river. With the help of engineers Henry Flad and Charles Pfeifer, Eads supervised the construction of the bridge by Andrew Carnegie's Keystone Bridge Company. The 1,627-foot Eads Bridge was completed in 1874. A 4,880-foot tunnel underneath downtown opened the following year, connecting the bridge to the Mill Creek Valley without disrupting traffic. Smoke from the locomotives made the platform under the new Post Office and Customs House (now the Old Post Office) unusable until Metrolink reopened the tunnel in 1993.

Rail companies didn't use the bridge at first. Railroad operators found they had no licenses to operate in Missouri, and didn't rush to get them. Wiggins Ferry continued to carry train cars across the river, leaving the bridge and tunnel standing idle with a huge debt and little revenue. By April of 1875, Eads Bridge was bankrupt. The St. Louis Bridge Company purchased it at public auction three years later for $2 million, about a third of its original cost, then transferred it in 1880 to interests under the watchful eye of Jay Gould.

The Terminal Railroad Association

St. Louis already had a Union Depot, but it could handle only fourteen trains daily, so Wiggins continued to prosper. Gould, still in control of the Wabash and Missouri Pacific roads, created a monopoly of trans-river movement so he could set the tariff for trains to cross. Responding to this "arbitrary," as it was called, the Merchants Exchange organized an effort in 1886 to build a Merchants Bridge at Bissell's Point to break the Eads monopoly and to operate competitive lines open to any operator.

Not to be outdone, Gould organized the Terminal Railroad Association in October of 1889. The TRRA consolidated freight terminals and Union Depot via Eads Bridge and the St. Louis tunnel. Wiggins Ferry had a strong competitor, as did the Merchants Bridge which opened the following year. The Merchants had problems connecting with freight lines, though, and offered no passenger service to Union Depot.2 After the Panic of 1893, Merchants was broke. The TRRA took over its debt and property August 13, regaining its monopoly over rail connections into St. Louis. The arbitrary continued into the twentieth century.

The TRRA used this "arbitrary" to set rates for freight entering or leaving the city by rail, so it had a direct impact on the cost of using St. Louis as a shipping terminal or warehousing center. It gave a certain impetus to businesses in Illinois, who chose to not pay extra overhead to bring goods into the city. It also provided a motive for businesses to relocate north or south of city, where it could ship goods without the heavy hand of the TRRA and its arbitrary.

Freight & Passenger Stations

Cupples Station attempted to remedy the problem for freight. After opening in 1891, Cupples handled most of the heavy wholesale trade in its warehouses (eighteen of them built over a thirteen-year period, ten of which remain) with its tunnel connections from the Eads Bridge via the TRRA. Some $200 million in freight passed through Cupples Station by the turn of the century. Some 93,000 trains entered and left St. Louis annually by the 1920s.

Cupples Station handled freight well enough, but travelers remained problematic. Union Depot opened in June, 1875, between 10th and 12th on Poplar, but was always restricted in capacity by a design that limited the number of trains it could handle. Its 52 daily scheduled arrivals and departures meant that it could not handle the volume from the day it opened.

The answer to the problem was a new rail station. When completed at 18th and Market in 1894, the new Union Station was the largest passenger station in the United States. It became a symbol of connection with the rest of the country for St. Louis travelers for eight decades. After World War II, train travel began declining. As air travel and expressways made trains seem old-fashioned and slow, rail travel and Union Station fell on hard times. Down to just six trains a day, Union Station closed on Halloween in 1978.

Street Railways

Streetcars did for cities in the nineteenth century what automobiles did in the twentieth: they made it easier for people to live farther from the core city and commute to work every day. Erastus Wells was the early initiator of street railway travel in St. Louis. His Missouri Railway Company ran its first horse-drawn streetcars, or "herdics," in 1859. His narrow-gauge streetcar line ran from near Grand and Olive to Normandy, then to Florissant in 1878, facilitated suburbanization northward as well as the expansion already evolving toward Kirkwood. Cable-powered cars came in 1886, but the switch to electric streetcars transformed the system.

Residential neighborhoods sprouted on the city's fringe with streetcar connections.3 These "streetcar communities," or "bedroom communities," relied on other parts of the city for employment and many services. It was a major step in moving population out from the core city which eventually led to a growing population in St. Louis County at the expense of the city. The Wellston Loop ranked among the largest streetcar transfer points in the United States at the turn of the century. Interurbans tied communities together from even farther afield. The Wabash Station on Delmar, completed in 1929, was once a transfer point for St. Louis passengers en route to Kansas City and Chicago.

Streetcars also transformed main streets into commercial zones. Streets such as Grand, Jefferson, and Gravois became rows of shops, eateries, and businesses hoping to increase business through convenience for so many potential customers. Signs became larger and more plentiful now they had to be read from a streetcar window. The auto expanded the issue once people saw their world as what architectural historian Chester Liebs calls "the panorama through the windshield."

The Auto Era

Auto travel killed streetcars, really. Cars went even faster and farther, and offered flexibility unknown to public transportation. Busses picked up some of the slack, but cities such as St. Louis remained auto-oriented. The last streetcar in St. Louis ran on the Hodiamont line in 1966. Electric rail travel experienced a resurgence in the 1990s. The new Metrolink system, connecting East St. Louis and Lambert Airport, carries people through old TRRA tunnels, over the old Mill Creek Valley, and on track lines first laid more than a century ago.

The automobile fundamentally transformed society in this century much as did trains in the previous one. Paved streets, traffic lights, expressways, parking lots, residential driveways and garages, and gas stations are all ubiquitous reminders of the horseless carriage.

As with anything new, the auto started a bit slowly in St. Louis. The St. Louis Gasoline Engine Company at 11th and Clark built the first gas engines locally starting in 1897, followed the next year by the St. Louis Motor Carriage Company at 1230 North Vandeventer. Others making cars and car parts followed. Semple and Scott built the first busses in town on Olive. H. F. Borbein and Company made axles, wheels, chassis, and bodies on Cass Avenue starting in 1899. George Dorris started his Dorris Motor Car Company on South Sarah (which later moved to 4100 Laclede) in 1905 when the St. Louis Car Company relocated to Peoria, and Joseph Moon made his large luxury cars here between 1907 and 1930. Charles Marien opened the city's first auto repair shop in 1902, and C. H. Laessig opened its first gas station on Theresa Avenue three years later.

As the field of auto manufacturers narrowed in the 1920s, the survivors began making cars in locations outside Detroit. Future Cardinals president Sam Breadon opened the first Ford dealership at 4701 Washington in St. Louis in 1903. Ford opened a sales office and stock department here in 1907 at 3667 Olive Street, and started making Model T's in St. Louis seven years later. At its peak in 1924, the factory made 325 tin lizzies every day. Local manufacturing stopped in 1933, but started again two years later. A five-year hiatus ended in 1948 when Ford opened its Hazelwood plant.

Chevrolet offered a similar history. Russell Gardner received a Chevy franchise and opened at 9 Rutger in 1915. Within three years he manufactured Chevies, too, making the model 490 (so named because it cost $490). Chevrolet bought the plant in 1918 when the auto maker became part of newly formed General Motors. The first cars rolled off the assembly line in 1920 at its new plant at Union and Natural Bridge Road. Two years later, GM's Fischer Body Division merged with the St. Louis plant to make Chevrolet bodies.

Interstate Highways

The greatest impact of the car was not so much in manufacturing, though, as in its impact on the growth of the city. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 provided dollars for additions to the new interstate highway system. Developed as part of a Cold War national defense scheme, the interstate system connected cities and people through limited-access, high-speed roads as never before. Local bond issues starting in 1955 provided additional local funds to complete I-70 in 1961, followed by US 40/I-64, I-55, and I-44. The idea of high-speed roads connecting downtown and west county had been around since the 1930s. Once completed, they linked the central business district with the suburbs.

At the same time, though, they hastened the decline of neighborhoods around the fringe of downtown, and contributed to the urban sprawl to even more distant points. Just as the Grand Avenue viaduct facilitated the growth of parts of south St. Louis when it opened in 1889, so too did the interstates do the same thing for south county, Chesterfield, and north county. They also contributed to the decentralization of retail business. Shopping centers and malls, islands in a sea of acres of parking places, developed in the 1950s as a direct product of the automobile. Northland opened in 1953 and Crestwood Plaza four years later, starting the trend of decentralized shopping in the city.


Aviation has a long history in St. Louis. Thomas Benoist started manufacturing new-fangled flying machines in 1911 at a factory on Delmar. Those riding the crest of this new technology also contributed to a daring flight by a young aviator Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1927; his plane was "The Spirit of St. Louis." Airplane manufacturing grew during World War II, especially McDonnell Aircraft after 1939. McDonnell Douglas went on to be a leading manufacturer of air and space craft, primarily for military and government use.

St. Louis seemed to see the future of air flight. It opened Lambert Municipal Airport in the 1920s as one of the first municipally owned airports in the United States. The current terminal opened in 1956 with its innovative design by Minoru Yamasaki. When the hub system of organizing airlines developed in the 1980s, St. Louis became a "hub city" for Trans World Airlines, one of the nation's largest carriers, which operates some seventy gates at Lambert International Airport.

The airport hearkens to the Zebulon M. Pike too. When that first futuristic steamship chugged into St. Louis, it altered people's sense of time and place. Distances were shorter, now, because people could reach them faster. Railroads shrunk the nation further, and the automobile even more. Ironically, transportation has expanded the metropolitan area's geographic span and at the same time shrunk its world.

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