History of St. Louis

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Prior to the arrival of French explorers in 1763, the area that would become St. Louis was a major center of the Mississippian Mound Builders. The presence of numerous mounds, now almost all destroyed but for the few remaining in Cahokia, earned the later city the nickname of "Mound City."

City Founding and Early History

European exploration of the area had begun nearly a century before the city was founded. Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette, both French, traveled through the Mississippi River valley in 1673, and five years later, La Salle claimed the entire valley for France. He called it "Louisiana" after King Louis XIV of France; the French also called their region "Illinois Country." In 1699, a settlement was established across the river from what is now St. Louis, at Cahokia. In 1703, Catholic priests established a small mission at what is now St. Louis. The mission was later moved across the Mississippi, but the small river at the site still bears the name "River Des Peres" (River of the Fathers).

In 1764, Pierre Laclède, his 13-year-old "stepson" René Auguste Chouteau, and a small band of men traveled up the Mississippi from New Orleans. In November, they landed a few miles downstream of the river's confluence with the Missouri River at a site where wooded limestone bluffs rose 40 feet above the river. The men returned to Fort de Chartres for the winter, but in February, Laclede sent Chouteau and 30 men to begin construction. The settlement of Saint Louis was established on February 15, 1765.

The settlement began to grow quickly after word arrived that the 1763 Treaty of Paris had given England all the land east of the Mississippi. Frenchmen who had settled to the river's east moved across the water to "Laclede's Village." Other early settlements were established nearby at St. Charles, Carondelet (now a part of the city of St. Louis), Fleurissant (renamed Saint Ferdinand under the Spaniards and now Florissant), and Portage des Sioux. In 1765, St. Louis was made the capital of Upper Louisiana.

Apotheosis of Saint Louis, a bronze statue of the city's namesake on horseback, was widely used as a symbol of the city before construction of the Arch.

From 1766 to 1768, St. Louis was governed by the French lieutenant governor, Louis Saint Ange de Bellerive. After 1768, St. Louis was governed by a series of Spanish governors, whose administration continued even after Louisiana was secretly returned to France in 1800 by the Treaty of San Ildefonso. The town's population was then about a thousand.

St. Louis was acquired from France by the United States under President Thomas Jefferson in 1803, as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The transfer of power from Spain was made official in a ceremony called "Three Flags Day." On March 8 1804, the Spanish flag was lowered and the French one raised. On March 10, the French flag was replaced by the United States flag.

19th Century Expansion and Growth

The Lewis and Clark Expedition left the St. Louis area in May 1804, reached the Pacific Ocean in the summer of 1805, and returned on September 23, 1806. Many other explorers, settlers, and trappers would later take a similar route to the West. Missouri became a state in 1820. St. Louis was incorporated as a city on December 9, 1822. The St. Louis Arsenal, a US Military arsenal, was constructed at St. Louis in 1827.

The steamboat era began in St. Louis on July 27, 1817, with the arrival of the "Zebulon M. Pike." Rapids north of the city made St. Louis the northernmost navigable port for many large boats, and "Pike" and her sisters soon transformed St. Louis into a bustling boomtown, commercial center, and inland port. By the 1850s, St. Louis had become the largest U.S. city west of Pittsburgh, and the second-largest port in the country, with a commercial tonnage exceeded only by New York.

Immigrants flooded into St. Louis after 1840, particularly from Germany, Bohemia, Italy, and Ireland, the latter driven by an Old World potato famine. The population of St. Louis grew from fewer than 20,000 in 1840, to 77,860 in 1850, to just over 160,000 by 1860.

Two disasters occurred in 1849: a cholera epidemic killed nearly one-tenth of the population, and a fire destroyed numerous steamboats and a large portion of the city. These disasters led to political action: old cemeteries were removed to the outskirts of the town; sinkholes were filled and swamps drained; water and sewer public utilities started; and a new building code required structures to be built of stone or brick. These actions led to turning the old City Cemetery into Benton Park, and the drainage of Chouteau's Pond.

In the first half of the 19th century, a second channel developed in the Mississippi River at St. Louis. An island called "Bloody Island" formed between the two channels, and a smaller island called "Duncan's Island" developed below St. Louis. It was feared that the levee at St. Louis might be left high and dry, and federal assistance was sought and obtained. Under the supervision of Robert E. Lee, levees were constructed on the Illinois side to direct water toward the Missouri side and eliminate the second channel. Bloody Island was joined to the land on the Illinois side, and Duncan's Island was washed away.

Militarily, the Civil War (1861-1865) barely touched St. Louis; the area saw only a few skirmishes in which Union forces prevailed. But the war shut down trade with the South, devastating the city's economy. Missouri was nominally a slave state, but its economy did not depend on slavery, and it never seceded from the Union. St. Louis itself was very strongly on the Union side, and the city became a refuge for pro-Union people from all over Missouri. The St. Louis Arsenal was used during the war to construct ironclad ships for the Union. (See St. Louis in the Civil War).

St. Louis During the Gilded Age

On July 4, 1876 the City of St. Louis voted to secede from St. Louis County and become an independent city. At that time the County was primarily rural and sparsely populated, and the fast-growing City did not want to spend their tax dollars on infrastructure and services for the inefficient county. The move also allowed some in the St. Louis government to increase their political power.

"The City of St. Louis has affected me more deeply than any other environment has ever done, I consider myself fortunate to have been born here, rather than in Boston, or New York, or London."
T.S. Eliot on St. Louis

As St. Louis grew and prospered during the late 19th and early 20th Century, the city produced a number of notable people in the fields of business and literature. The Ralston Purina company (headed by John Danforth) was headquartered in the city, and Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest brewery, remains a fixture of the city's economy. The City was home to both International Shoe and the Brown Shoe Company. Notable residents in the field of literature included poets Sara Teasdale, and T.S. Eliot as well as playwright Tennessee Williams. Eliot always spoke fondly of his hometown, while Williams despised the city.

St. Louis is one of several cities that claims to have the world's first skyscraper. The Wainwright Building, a 10-story structure designed by Louis Sullivan and built in 1892, still stands at Chestnut and Seventh Streets and is today used by the State of Missouri as a government office building.

Nikola Tesla made the first public demonstration of radio communication here in 1893. Addressing the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the National Electric Light Association, he described and demonstrated in detail the principles of radio communication. The apparatus that he used contained all the elements that were incorporated into radio systems before the development of the vacuum tube.

In 1896, one of the deadliest and most destructive tornadoes in U.S. history struck St. Louis and East St. Louis. The confirmed death toll is 255, with some estimates above 400, and injuries over 1,000. It left a mile wide continuous swath of destroyed homes, factories, mills, saloons, hospitals, schools, parks, churches, and railroad yards. Damages adjusted for inflation (1997 USD) make it the costliest tornado in U.S. history at an estimated $2.9 billion. Several other tornadoes have hit the city making it the worst tornado afflicted large city in the U.S.; with the most deadly and destructive occurring in 1871 (9 killed), 1890 (4 killed), 1904 (3 killed, 100 injured), 1927 (79 killed, 550 injured), and 1959 (21 killed, 345 injured).

By the time of the 1900 census, St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the country [1]. In 1904, the city hosted a World's Fair and the Olympic Games, making the United States the first English-speaking country to host the Olympics. Citizens of St. Louis still look back fondly on the events of 1904; there were several events held in 2004 to commemorate the centennial.

Early 20th Century

St. Louis was developed primarily as an industrial city. The uranium used in the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb was refined in St. Louis by Mallinckrodt Chemical Co., starting in 1942. The industrial development that had fueled the city's growth in the 19th Century became a liability in the 20th Century. Through the 1950's, St. Louis struggled with a severe air pollution problem that was caused in part by the many coal-fired furnaced used to heat older homes. Many of the city's older neighborhoods were densely developed around the factories that formed the base of the city's economy. As the importance of manufacturing in the local and national economy declines, many of these neighborhoods declined as well.

The rise of the automobile allowed residents to migrate more easily to suburbs outside the city limits, which began to develop in the early 20th Century. The city's decision to leave St. Louis County proved to be short-sighted, as white flight with suburban development and population migration outside the city limits would cost the city millions of lost tax dollars and contribute to the city's deterioration.

The city first lost population between the 1930 and 1940 census, and efforts to expand the city's boundaries to include some of the newly developing suburbs failed. The city reached its peak population at the 1950 census, reflecting a national housing shortage after World War II. The continued trend of suburban development and highway construction would lead to a steep decline in the city's population over the next several decades. The city lost more than half of its population between the 1950 census and the year 2000. National trends of population migration away from Rust Belt cities in the Midwest and Northeast to the developing Sunbelt cities in the south and west exacerbated this trend.

The Pruitt-Igoe housing project, built in 1955 and demolished in 1972, is one of the most infamous failures of urban planning; many consider its destruction to be the symbolic end of Modern architecture. (The buildings were the first major work by Minoru Yamasaki, who later designed the World Trade Center.)

Washington Ave. Loft District

Recent Developments

Recently, there has been an upturn in construction in downtown St. Louis. The Bottle District, an entertainment district named after a large Vess soda bottle that stands near Interstate 70, is currently being planned, and will be located in an area just north of the Edward Jones Dome. The St. Louis Cardinals' new Busch Stadium opened in 2006. Ballpark Village might someday be built where the former Busch Stadium stood. For several years, the Washington Avenue Loft District has been gentrifying with an expanding corridor along Washington Avenue from the Edwards Jones Dome westward almost two dozen blocks. Rehabilitation of other downtown areas is planned, such as around the Old Post Office and Cupples Warehouses. The Forest Park Southeast neighborhood near the Missouri Botanical Garden and the old Gaslight Square district are also going through extensive renovations.

St. Louis' population is growing once more following a half-century of decline. The 2003, 2004, and 2005 Census estimates were successfully contested by the mayor's office and revised after it was revealed that earlier figures had estimated the city's population as too low. As of 2005, St. Louis' population is estimated to be slightly higher than it was at the time of the 2000 Census.

See Also


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