Through most of the 19th century, the land around today’s Madison was farm country. In the 1850s, TW Blackman laid out a village he called Newport, but it didn’t attract much interest. Everything changed near the end of the century as St. Louis business interests looked for ways around the Jay Gould-owned Eads Bridge monopoly and its high prices.
A group of St. Louis businessmen called the Merchants Exchange figured that the best solution to avoiding Gould was to build a new bridge. The Merchants Bridge, a railroad-only bridge, opened in 1890 three miles north of the Eads Bridge. The bridge created new economic opportunities in Illinois, so the Merchants Exchange formed the Madison Land Syndicate, then bought the farm of farm of William and Nancy Sippy for nearly $120,000.
Madison officially came into existence on October 12, 1891, when it was incorporated as a village on the land where the Sippy farm had been. That same year, Madison Car and Foundry Company opened a new factory (known to folks as the “car shops”) and more businesses soon followed: the Standard Oil barrel works, a round house for Terminal Railroad, Helmbacher Forge and Rolling Mill, Laclede Steel, Kettle River Tie and Lumber Company, and Tri-City Refrigeration.
All of those companies needed workers, and it needed them quickly; some 2,500 jobs were created nearly overnight. Men from the Missouri Ozarks were among the first to get hired, but the plants also attracted African Americans from the South. Most of the factory workers, though, were immigrants from eastern Europe. Poles were the most numerous, but Bulgarians, Macedonians, Romanians, Croatians, Russians, Lithuanians, Czechs, Yugoslavians, Hungarians, and Greeks also moved to Madison.
While the earliest workers commuted to Madison by train, the companies built some housing for workers in the new city. Not everyone was impressed with what they built. One person observed that the city was “two rows of flimsy, box-like houses erected near the foundry.”
Because the factories needed to hire thousands of workers quickly, Madison initially attracted mostly unmarried men, or men whose families hadn’t yet relocated with them. Many of those men lived in boarding houses where they had to share a room—and often a bed—with a man who worked a different shift. Janko got the bed from, say noon to midnight, while it was Feodor’s from midnight to noon.
The men didn’t work 24/7, so they needed some way to pass the time when they weren’t working. This created demand for activities that appealed to single men, like gambling, drinking, and having sex, so billiard halls, bars, and brothels sprang up along Grand and State Streets near the factories and boarding houses. In 1900, Madison had 68 taverns for its 2,000 residents and the hundreds of workers who lived elsewhere. Early Madison therefore had the feel of a frontier town and gained a reputation as a community where one could go to indulge in those activities. It kept that reputation for a long time.
The taverns were the focus of social life for almost everyone, not just the factory workers, but they could also be good places to get in trouble, for anyone. In 1905, police chief Patrick McCambridge got in a fight with his friend, Samuel Houston. The two were drinking at a local bar and got