"Despite the steady growth of her population and the development of a flourishing economy, St. Louis suffered from an inferiority complex at the turn of the century."
-- Duane Meyer, "The Heritage of Missouri: A History"
St. Louis Union Station, completed in 1894, served as a giant middle finger directed at Chicago.
Above the station's front entrance, a stained-glass window symbolized three great rail centers of the country: San Francisco, St. Louis, and New York. Chicago, of course, was conveniently left out. St. Louis may have been bypassed by the original transcontinental railroad, but now the city believed it was in the very center of the nation's railroad network.
True to its name, Union Station united the tracks of many different railroad companies into one spectacular 42-acre project, the largest single-level train station in the world at the time. It was the envy of other cities.
Union Station as seen in 1942 (photo from the Historic American Buildings Survey)
According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination for Union Station, "On opening night, the station was described as so large that it would not be used to capacity in a century. Ten years later it was expanded."
That expansion came as St. Louis prepared for the greatest spectacle in its history, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Ever since the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, St. Louisans had been trying to find a suitable counterattack against their northern rivals.
The centennial of the Louisiana Purchase was the perfect excuse to hold a lavish World's Fair that would far surpass the party that Chicago had thrown. The St. Louis fair covered over 1,200 acres and included more than 1,500 buildings, obliterating the size of Chicago's event.
St. Louis also hosted the Olympics at the same time, a minor footnote compared to the World's Fair. Boosters in St. Louis had always wanted their town to achieve the status of a "world-class city" and now they had their big chance.
During the preparations for the fair, the city made several improvements: better sewers, paved streets, and regular trash collection. The most notable achievement was a new water filtration plant that produced clear -- instead of muddy -- tap water. Mark Twain had once joked that St. Louis water was "too thin to plow, too thick to drink," but those days were over.
Following the success of the fair, a series of comprehensive city plans were drafted, each more elaborate than the last. City leaders had big ideas: tree-lined boulevards, impressive public buildings, and additional parks and monuments. The first major plan, produced in 1907, called for building a scenic riverfront drive, turning Jefferson Barracks into a national park, and constructing a "suburban thoroughfare" (vaguely similar in concept to today's Interstate 270).
The intersection of Lindell Blvd. and McPherson Ave. was an early beautification project touted as an example in the 1907 city plan)
The 1907 report argued that Chicago and other cities were already pursuing ambitious city plans. "Competition between cities is becoming keener all the time as transportation facilities increase," the report stated. "If one city makes itself more inviting than its neighbor it is bound to attract more people."
St. Louis, then the fourth largest city in the country, was still hoping to "attract more people" as part of the race against Chicago. The Windy City had over three times the population, but St. Louisans -- full of pride following the World's Fair -- were eager to claim that their city was superior.
Despite the optimism, only a few of the recommendations by the early city planners were adopted. The city continued to grow, but in a piecemeal fashion with irregularly placed neighborhoods and a street grid that didn't always make sense. Beautification projects remained on the back burner.
Meanwhile, even after decades of trying, St. Louis still suffered from the same problem that had always haunted it: a lack of cheap transportation across the Mississippi River. The Terminal Railroad Association had finally found a solution to the Wiggins Ferry Company, but their merger was clearly an example of "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
City residents were particularly annoyed with the extra 20 cents per ton that the TRRA charged for coal shipments across the river. This toll was so onerous that some industries on the Missouri side of the river had relocated to Illinois. St. Louisans faced steep prices for everyday goods thanks to the extra tolls placed on freight arriving from Illinois.
Fed up with the tolls, voters approved a $3.5 million bond issue in 1906 to build a new bridge that would be owned by the city. The mayor, Rolla Wells, was a railroad stockholder who attempted to thwart the project by vetoing a bill in 1907 authorizing construction. The Municipal Assembly overrode the veto; one assemblyman reportedly announced, "I take pleasure in voting to pass this bill over the little rat's head."
The TRRA wasn't going to give up its monopoly without a fight. The association offered to lease the highway deck of the Eads Bridge to the city and build another railroad bridge at its own expense, saving the city from the trouble. But that compromise wouldn't eliminate the "arbitrary" tolls that the TRRA charged for railroad shipments.
Pressing ahead, the main river spans of the new bridge were completed by 1912, but the city ran out of money to build the approaches. A walkway was opened to the public, but this was no help against the freight tolls. It was the proverbial Bridge to Nowhere. Following a series of unsuccessful bond issues, the city finally cobbled together enough financing to build approaches to the bridge.
Dedicated with much fanfare on Jan. 20, 1917, trucks and wagons carrying coal and other freight could now cross the river free from the burdensome tolls. While officially known as the "Municipal Bridge", most people called it the "Free Bridge". It was later renamed the MacArthur Bridge, after World War II hero Douglas MacArthur.
An early postcard of the "Municipal Bridge" with its zigzagging road deck
In spite of the happy celebration, something was missing from the new bridge: trains. The major railroads, under the auspices of the TRRA, refused to take advantage of the bridge even though it had a lower deck reserved for trains. The TRRA didn't want to admit defeat at the hands of the city, so the members of the railroad association carried out a de facto boycott of the bridge.
However, the TRRA's existing bridges -- the Eads and Merchants -- were inadequate for handling the growing train traffic. One engineer in 1916 said that the Eads Bridge "has practically outlived its usefulness as a railroad bridge."
It was clear that the boycott couldn't last forever; the TRRA needed access to the Municipal Bridge. The first trains finally rolled across the bridge in the late 1920s, although it took several more years before the bridge was fully integreated into the rail network. St. Louis now had an efficient -- and cheap -- railroad bridge across the Mississippi River, a dream that the city had been chasing for many decades.
A Union Pacific train crosses the MacArthur Bridge toward Illinois
It's too bad that the railroad industry was reaching its peak. City leaders were actually concerned about the future of rail travel, although for the wrong reason. They believed river traffic would rise again in prominence, stealing the thunder from trains.
In 1915, at a presentation in front of the Engineers' Club of St. Louis, engineer F.G. Jonah argued, "It is a fact that the condition of our rivers for navigation purposes has been constantly improving, and at the same time the river traffic has been constantly declining. There never was a time in our history when there was as great a minimum depth in the channel of the Mississippi river from St. Louis to the Gulf as at present, and at no time since the settlement of the country so few boats upon it."
Following World War I, the City Plan Commission published a report called "St. Louis after the war" (1918) echoing the same point. The report stated that the war "emphasized the absurdity of our previous faith in railroads to handle economically all forms of traffic." Inland waterways were the answer, something that St. Louis was well positioned to offer. The report concludes, "Probably no city has greater opportunities than St. Louis, particularly if the opportunity is seized in time."
Congress soon debated proposals for improving navigation along the Upper Mississippi and other rivers, but these initiatives went nowhere. Railroad companies opposed the plans, arguing that the government shouldn't subsidize a competing form of transportation. Of course, the railroads were conveniently ignoring the fact that the government had subsidized early rail construction in the 1800s. Now the shoe was on the other foot.
The stalement was broken during the Great Depression. In an effort to create jobs, Congress started authorizing massive public works projects -- the more massive the better. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was given the green light to begin work on the Upper Mississippi River Nine-Foot Channel Project, described as "one of the largest and most ambitious river improvement projects ever constructed in the United States." The goal was to build a series of locks and dams that would allow the river to have a depth of at least nine feet year round.
Most of the work was completed by World War II, but the river still had a major bottleneck: the Chain of Rocks, a notorious navigational hazard north of downtown St. Louis. This stretch of the river was finally bypassed by a canal and lock on the Illinois side, but not until 1953.
River traffic blossomed as a result of the Nine-Foot Project. In 1938, after Lock and Dam No. 26 was completed at Alton, Illinois, 1.8 million tons of freight passed through the lock. This number jumped to 55 million tons in 1975. In fact, the system proved so successful that the Alton locks had to be replaced by a much larger complex in 1991.
This looks like a bridge to nowhere, but it's actually the last remaining vestige of the original Lock and Dam No. 26 at Alton
These developments helped St. Louis, but they also helped Chicago. The improvements to the Mississippi River provided better access to the Illinois River, which, since 1848, had been connected to Chicago via canals. So, despite the predictions by the City Plan Commission, the long-awaited improvements for river transportation offered little ammunition to St. Louis in its epic battle against a certain city on Lake Michigan.
It turned out that railroads were under attack, but not from river traffic. Two other forms of transportation would represent far more serious threats: aviation and automobiles. St. Louis was an early pioneer in both fields, but would this be enough to turn the tables against Chicago?