Long before there was a city called St. Louis, the region where the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers meet was an attractive place to live. One of the great cities in North America grew up just across the Mississippi about a thousand years ago; upwards of 20,000 people lived in and around a place we call Cahokia today. Even before Cahokia emerged, the site of today’s St. Louis once was home to thousands of years of settlements; some of those communities built earthen mounds near the river, which is why the city was once nicknamed Mound City (most have long since been destroyed).
In August 1763, Pierre Laclède left French New Orleans with 24 men to establish a treading post. By the time Laclède laid out the village, France had ceded the territory to Spain, so St. Louis ended up being a French cultural outpost under Spanish rule.
Laclède chose to build his post on a terraced piece of real estate on the west bank of the Mississippi River twelve miles south of the Missouri River. There had been interest in building a post at the confluence of the two rivers, but the area was too marshy. The early city got a quick boost when England took control of France’s Illinois Country in 1763; many French families moved to St. Louis from places like Cahokia and Kaskaskia. In 1772, St. Louis counted just over 600 residents, about a third of whom were enslaved (mostly enslaved Africans but a few enslaved American Indians, too). The city was also home to a few free blacks, and American Indians from various tribes came and went regularly during the early years.
Laclède laid out the early boundaries of the city but didn’t live long enough to see it prosper. He traveled to New Orleans in 1777 to straighten out his financial affairs but became ill and died during the return voyage. Leadership of the city passed to Auguste Chouteau, the son of Laclède’s lover, Madame Marie Thérèse Chouteau. Chouteau would go on to make a lot of money from the fur trade and other ventures and would be the city’s most influential early leader.
The city’s thousand residents, most of them French, became part of the United States in 1804 with the Louisiana Purchase. The newly American St. Louis was an exciting place to be. Situated on the edge of the frontier—the last outpost of civilization—the city’s residents gave the send-off to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s expedition west in 1804 and Zebulon Pike’s 1805 expedition north.
Several Irish immigrants were among the early settlers in American St. Louis. John Mullanphy left Ireland at a time when Catholics had few opportunities in the Emerald Isle—they couldn’t own land or send their children to school and were prohibited from many occupations. When he reached St. Louis, he took a long drink of water from the Mississippi River, which tasted like freedom and opportunity. He made a fortune selling cotton at the end of the War of 1812 and used his wealth to influence the development of St. Louis, funding start-ups, donating land and money for a hospital, an orphanage, and a seminary. His son, Bryan, served a term as mayor of St. Louis. John Mullanphy also raised and educated seven daughters who built their own legacies, even if it was their husband’s surnames that were memorialized around town (Chambers, Biddle, Clemens, etc.).
In 1817, the first steamboat reached St. Louis, the Zebulon Pike. Steamboats reduced the travel time between St. Louis and New Orleans from months to days. This watershed event heralded dramatic growth for St. Louis, setting the stage for the city to become one of the most important ports in US. Those boats connected St. Louis to markets in New Orleans and around the world. By the 1850s, hundreds of steamboats made three thousand annual landings; the mile-long levee was often packed with steamboats coming and going, cargo stacked high, and workers busily loading and unloading the boats.
Missouri was granted statehood in 1820 with legal slavery. As a result, Missouri’s population was bolstered by the migration of many slave owners from bordering southern states. They were joined by thousands of immigrants, like the 7,000 Germans who arrived in the 1830s and Irish emigrants who had arrived earlier. The city also counted among its residents thousands of enslaved blacks and a small community of free blacks. By 1836, there were enough Jews in St. Louis to hold the first known prayer meeting.
St. Louisans developed a reputation as a hostile place to live if you were black, whether you were free or enslaved. William Wells Brown, a man who had escaped slavery, wrote in his autobiography:
Though slavery is thought, by some, to be mild in Missouri, when compared with the cotton, sugar and rice growing states, yet no part of our slave-holding country, is more noted for the barbarity of its inhabitants, than St. Louis.
Brown may have been thinking about one incident in particular. On July 9, 1841, four black men were hanged on Duncan Island. They were accused of killing two men during a robbery. One of the hanged men was Charles Brown, a well-known abolitionist who may have been targeted for his political views. The hanging had been widely advertised, so it drew a crowd of 20,000 spectators, including a steamboat load of folks who traveled down from Alton to watch it. After the execution, the heads of the four men were displayed in the window of Corse’s Drug Store.
Still, free blacks did what they could to build a life. John Berry Meachum, who had bought his way out of freedom by mining and selling saltpeter, moved to St. Louis around 1815 and set up a business as a carpenter and cooper. He earned enough money to buy freedom for his wife and children and nearly two dozen other enslaved people. He was ordained as a Baptist minister and was one of the original founders of the First African Baptist Church. In the basement of that church, he established one of the few schools for free and enslaved blacks in St. Louis.
When Missouri outlawed education for blacks in 1847, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet were forced to close the school where they taught black girls. Meachum, however, is reputed to have moved his school to the steamboat he built, so he could continue teaching kids on the river and out of the jurisdictional reach of Missouri law.
Two major disasters in 1849 reshaped the city: a cholera epidemic that killed 7,000 people (10% of the city’s population!) and a major fire that wiped out much of the core of the city. As a result, the city greatly improved its sanitation systems and required masonry construction for new buildings. Still, these were boom times for St. Louis thanks to the river. Every day, hundreds of steamboats loaded and unloaded their cargo on the city’s levee.
In 1861, with civil war under way, Union Captain National Lyon moved to secure the weapons at the St. Louis Arsenal and to impound weapons from pro-Confederate state militias. The aggressive move secured St. Louis for the Union and spooked St. Louis residents with pro-Southern views. Upwards of 17,000 people fled the city; many ended up joining the Confederate Army. St. Louisan James B. Eads, a self-taught engineer, built five iron clad boats for the Union’s combat efforts on the Mississippi and adjoining rivers that were instrumental in Union victories.
From 1860 to 1900, the population of St. Louis exploded from 160,000 residents to 575,000. At the same time, railroads expanded, diminishing the importance of the Mississippi River to the city’s economy. Among the folks who made St. Louis home during that time were Chinese immigrants, who arrived beginning in 1869 and built a community where Busch Stadium is today.
By 1870, manufacturing was expanding rapidly. St. Louis had nearly 90 brickyards producing the vibrant red bricks that still define the city today. Flour mills and iron foundries employed thousands of people.
Beer was one of the major industries, too, thanks to plenty of clean water and a natural cave system to keep the finished product cool. Forty breweries were active after the Civil War. Most of them were small operations that served just their immediate neighborhoods, but beer grew big business as two companies moved toward mass production. Adam Lemp was one of the first to brew lager beer in the US. By the 1870s, the Lemp Brewery was the largest in St. Louis and later became the first beer company to develop a national distribution network, introducing their flagship brand, Falstaff, to Americans from coast to coast.
In the 1870s, Adolphus Busch rolled out the first cans of Budweiser and began an aggressive marketing campaign to challenge the Lemp dominance. Adolphus married into a beer family, when he wedded Lily Anheuser in 1861. Anheuser-Busch pioneered the refrigerated railroad car as a way to distribute their beer around the US; they were also the first brewer to pasteurize beer to improve its shelf life. The company also built taverns around town like the Stork Inn, Feasting Fox, and Bevo Mill, to help dominate the St. Louis market.
The Lemp Brewery was in decline by the early 1900s and killed off by Prohibition. Anheuser-Busch survived by selling products like brewer’s yeast and an alcohol-free beer called Bevo. After Prohibition, Anheuser-Busch grew phenomenally; the company became the largest US brewer in the 1950s. In 2008, they were bought out by an international company, InBev, but kept its North American headquarters in St. Louis. The conglomerate is now the largest brewery in the world.
Goodness, there are a lot of stories about these two companies and the people who ran them, far more than I can cover in this book. If you’d like to read more, check out St. Louis Brews: The History of Brewing in the Gateway City by Henry Herbst, Don Roussin, Kevin Kious, and Cameron Collins.
At the end of the 19th century, St. Louis grew into one of the world’s largest manufacturers of shoes. In 1905 alone, the city’s factories churned out 48 million pairs of shoes, which was one-sixth of all the shoes produced in the country. The St. Louis shoe business grew because cheap labor was easy to find thanks to the large immigrant population (women and children, mostly) and railroads made it easy to ship the shoes around all over the US.
The industry was concentrated along Washington Avenue in a row of solid brick and stone buildings. Twenty companies had plants in St. Louis at one time, including big names like Brown Shoes and the International Shoe Company. Those companies eventually moved much of the production to rural areas where the factories became more specialized and the work force was less likely to be unionized. Following a few lucrative years of government contracts during the war years, production dropped and factories began to close. Most of the production moved out of the US where it was was cheaper to operate. Those buildings today have been converted into trendy lofts and restaurants.
St. Louis may have reached its cultural zenith in 1904. Basking in its status as the fourth largest city in the US, St. Louis hosted three prominent events: a World’s Fair to celebrate the Centennial of the Louisiana Purchase, the summer Olympic Games, and the Democratic Party convention.
St. Louisans today are still nostalgic about that World’s Fair, and rightly so. Some twenty million people visited the fair in just seven months, quite a crowd for a city of 600,000 residents. Visitors were treated to exhibits highlighting the best in early 20th-century science, culture, and the arts. A guy named Thomas Edison helped with the electrical exhibits.
The first Olympic games on American soil drew 651 athletes from twelve countries. Those games featured what was perhaps the most memorable marathon in Olympic history. Frederick Lorz crossed the finish line first, but somehow none of the officials noticed that he had dropped out after running just nine miles. (He hitched a ride in a car the rest of the way.) When the truth surfaced shortly after he was awarded the first-place medal, he was banned from competition for one year. In his defense, he must have been a pretty good runner, as he went on to win the Boston Marathon in 1905.
The real winner of the marathon was Thomas Hicks, a British native who was competing under the US flag. He won because of, or maybe in spite of, trainers who gave him a neurotoxin called strychnine sulfate. It was supposed to act as a stimulant to keep him going, but they also fed him a little brandy, probably to numb the pain he felt from the strychnine. He was too weak to cross the finish line on his own, so his trainers had to carry him across. At least they helped him once. Still, in spite of the strychnine, brandy, and 26 miles, he survived.
In 1916, St. Louis voters approved a referendum that codified housing segregation. It banned anyone from buying a house in a neighborhood where 75% of the residents were of a different race. The US Supreme Court tossed out the law the next year, but determined St. Louisans turned instead to using racial covenants, contracts in which individual homeowners agreed they would not sell their property to someone of a different race. (This was always white property owners agreeing they wouldn’t sell to African Americans.) In 1948, the US Supreme Court ruled these agreements were unconstitutional in a case that originated in St. Louis (Shelley v. Kraemer). Homeowners found ways around the ban for decades; as neighborhoods finally became more integrated, white families moved out of the city en masse. From 1950 to 1970, the white population fell from 700,000 to 365,000 while the African American population rose from 153,000 to 250,000.
A few entrepreneurs and artists managed to find success in the Jim Crow era. Annie Turnbo Malone, whose parents had been enslaved before the Civil War, developed a line of cosmetics and hair products for African American women. She began by selling the products door-to-door (and demonstrated them at the 1904 World’s Fair) but eventually sold them across the country. She got pretty rich in the process—probably the first black woman in the US to be worth a million dollars—but she lived modestly and donated a lot of money. One of her favored causes was an orphanage that is now called the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center; they now sponsor an annual parade to celebrate African American history and to raise money for their operations.
Scott Joplin moved to St. Louis from Sedalia in 1901. Joplin’s early music training had been heavily influenced by European classical music, but he would gain fame as a composer of ragtime. His first big hit, Maple Leaf Rag, generated enough in royalties so he could focus on teaching and composing music full-time. Some of his other famous works include The Entertainer and an opera called Treemonisha. Joplin did pretty well financially, but he never accumulated much wealth, as he usually re-invested his earnings in new music he was working on.
Electric lights began to systematically replace gas lamps in 1923. Their light was sometimes needed during the day when dense smoke blanketed the city, a product of the furnaces that burned the soft bituminous coal mined from neighboring Illinois. Pollution was so bad at that time, that the Missouri Botanical Garden considered moving out of the city. They bought land far out of the city in Gray Summit, Missouri, but ultimately stayed put; the land they purchased is now the Shaw Nature Reserve. It wasn’t until the late 1930s that the city began to address the air pollution.
St. Louis got hit harder than many other places during the Great Depression. In 1931, the national unemployment rate was around 16%, but in St. Louis it was 24%. Some of the city’s shoe factories had moved out of the city to small towns, while the breweries had been devastated by Prohibition. Most trade unions at the time didn’t allow African Americans to join, which contributd to the elevated unemployment rate for black workers (43% vs. 22%).
As legal barriers to segregation started to break down, some institutions moved faster than others to integrate. Cardinal Joseph Ritter ordered integration of Catholic schools of St. Louis in 1947, seven years earlier than the city’s public schools. In addition, Saint Louis University was the first university in a former slave state to integrate; it did so in 1944.
The city’s population peaked in 1950 at a whopping 856,796 but rapidly declined in the next several decades. The end of legal segregation was an important factor, as white families fled to the suburbs in large numbers, aided by the construction of interstate highways and federal policies that gave generous incentives to new home construction over fixing up older buildings.
Through much of the 20th century, St. Louis attracted few immigrants. That began to change in the 1970s, as resettlement programs steered refugees to St. Louis for of its low cost of living and the availability of jobs. Vietnamese were among the first to resettle, followed by tens of thousands of Bosnians in the 1990s. Most Bosnian families settled in the neighborhoods around Bevo Mill and nearby south St. Louis County.
The city’s population decline has slowed considerably; St. Louis City today counts about 320,000 residents, while the metropolitan region overall is home to nearly three million people. About 130,000 of those residents were born outside of the US, primarily in southeast Asia, Latin America, and Haiti and the Caribbean.
St. Louis seems to have weathered the worst of the decline and is a city on the rise, with many neighborhoods bouncing back after decades of decline. Sure, there’s still plenty to fix, but there are many hopeful signs, like a booming craft beer scene, new chefs gaining national acclaim, and renewed interest in that big river that started it all.