Blogger's note: Yes, this is the final entry in this saga. I started writing this series as background material for the Historic Bridge Conference this weekend in St. Louis, little realizing this story would turn into a five-part behemoth.
Something very important happened at 412 S. Theresa Ave. in St. Louis: the opening of the world's first gas station in 1905.
Until that time, early motorists usually had to get their fuel in cans at hardware stores or pharmacies, a real inconvenience. With the advent of gas stations, driving became more practical. In 1905, the United States only had 78,000 automobiles. Within ten years, thanks in part to Henry Ford's mass production techniques, that number had exploded to 2.33 million.
The explosion in popularity of automobiles presented good news and bad news for St. Louis. The good news is that the city streets were no longer choked with horses and their -- how do I put this delicately? -- bodily outputs. Horse droppings had represented a major sanitation problem for large cities, but that problem was neatly solved by the automobile.
For St. Louis, however, cars allowed workers to flee the city and move to the suburbs. This was a trend that affected all major cities, but St. Louis was particularly hard hit because the city couldn't expand: the city limits had been set in stone during the "Great Divorce" from St. Louis County. Clayton, Richmond Heights, Webster Groves, Chesterfield, and many other suburban cities grew at the expense of St. Louis proper.
This trend accelerated as the highways between the city and county improved. The first cloverleaf interchange west of the Mississippi River was built 1931 in St. Louis County. It connected Lindbergh Blvd. (a ring road around the city through various suburban communities) with Watson Road (a new highway running southwest from the city).
A cloverleaf interchange with decorative overpass as featured on the cover of 1954 official state road map
During the early 1930s, traffic between Clayton and St. Louis had grown so much that the state highway department proposed a radical idea for Missouri: building an expressway that would be separated from cross streets, with access only provided at certain interchanges. The idea wasn't brand new; the Germans had started building the Autobahn system in 1933. But it was a novel concept for the Midwest. Featuring a speed limit of 30 mph, the new "Oakland Expressway" could move commuter traffic much faster than the existing Oakland Street, which had a speed limit of only 20 mph and numerous stoplights.
The new highway, constructed between 1935 and 1938, served as a model for other cities. Scientific American published a story saying the project was "watched with interests by other cities." Indeed it was, as other cities wasted little time building their own expressways and freeways. Los Angeles, for example, started building its first freeway, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, in 1938.
During World War II, work proceeded on another St. Louis highway, the Daniel Boone Expressway (Highway 40). Most road construction was halted during the war due to labor and material shortages, but this project was considered so vital that construction was allowed to begin in 1944. By the late 1940s, the expressway was finished, and by the 1950s it was connected to the existing Oakland Expressway, providing a direct route between St. Charles County and downtown St. Louis.
The 1954 state roadmap shows the Oakland Expressway (labeled "Express Highway") at the southern edge of Forest Park. Notice how the expressway had a jog at the western end; this gap would soon be closed.
A report by the Historic American Engineering Record explains, "Unfortunately, U.S. Highway 40 became a victim of its own success. The highway spurred the flight of St. Louis-area residents away from the urban core, and the road now carries substantially more traffic than it was designed to accommodate."
Historically, cheaper forms of transportation had attracted people to St. Louis, but now the opposite was happening as people fled to the suburbs. St. Louis city's population started to stagnate in 1930, then sputtered to a peak of 856,796 in 1950 before making a very precipitous decline that continues to this day.
On the plus side, the early expressways of St. Louis and other cities paved the way, literally, for the creation of the Interstate Highway System. Missouri was the first state to take advantage when President Eisenhower approved the system in 1956, immediately letting the contract for a stretch of Interstate 70 at St. Charles. Within ten years, St. Louis was at the hub of three major interstates (44, 55, and 70). The city had already been the hub of four major U.S. highways (40, 50, 61, and, of course, the fabled Route 66).
As usual, St. Louis still had a missing piece: a decent bridge across the river that could carry the growing traffic. That finally arrived on Nov. 7, 1967, with the opening of the Poplar Street Bridge carrying eight lanes of freeway traffic. Until then, every highway bridge across the Mississippi River at St. Louis had been a toll bridge. The PSB, a free bridge, changed all that as drivers immediately gravitated to the new bridge while traffic and toll revenue declined on the other bridges.
The first victim was the city-owned MacArthur Bridge. This was originally a free bridge, but tolls had been imposed to raise money for relief efforts during the Depression. Located just south of the PSB, traffic soon dwindled to the point where the toll revenue couldn't even pay the salaries of the toll collectors. St. Louis eliminated the tolls in 1973 and then closed the bridge to auto traffic in 1981.
The Eads Bridge was next. Trains stopped using the bridge, but it was still owned by the Terminal Railroad Association (TRRA). Railroad officials weren't keen on maintaining a bridge solely for highway use, especially since it was only a few blocks away from the Poplar Street Bridge. The bridge deteriorated to the point where it could only support one lane of traffic with a strict weight limit. In 1991, it was closed to all traffic.
The final victim was the McKinley Bridge north of towntown. Acquired by Venice, Illinois, in 1958, it was a lucrative source of money at first. But then toll revenue started to decline, creating a vicious cycle: the bridge deteriorated to the point where drivers were reluctant to pay for the privilege of driving across the rickety, bone-rattling spans. With less money coming in, Venice couldn't maintain the toll-collection equipment, allowing drivers to sneak across without paying. To add insult to injury, the City of St. Louis tried to collect property taxes on the half of the bridge in Missouri. Finally, the bridge was condemned by state inspectors and closed in 2001.
As a result, St. Louis found itself with the same problem that had haunted it from the beginning: a lack of bridges across the Mississippi. Only two bridges remained open to traffic near downtown: the Poplar Street Bridge, overburdened with over 100,000 vehicles per day; and the M.L. King Bridge, built 1951, with inadequate connections to the freeway system.
Heavy traffic crosses into St. Louis on the Poplar Street Bridge
Part of the solution, as it turns out, was right in front of everybody. As early as 1915, during construction of the Free (MacArthur) Bridge, engineer F. G. Jonah said, "A swap should be made of the use, if not the ownership, of the Free Bridge for the Eads Bridge. The latter is properly located for vehicular and pedestrian traffic, while the former is not." Another engineer, Charles E. Smith, echoed the same idea in 1924, although he predicted that the Eads Bridge would be used to carry a rapid transit system.
That swap finally happened on Aug. 31, 1989, when St. Louis traded the MacArthur Bridge to the TRRA in exchange for the Eads Bridge. In 1993, trains started crossing the Eads Bridge again as part of the Metrolink rapid transit line, just as Smith had suggested. Eventually, the city was able to refurbish the upper deck for cars and pedestrians, reopening the bridge in 2003. Meanwhile, the TRRA's MacArthur Bridge continues to carry heavy train traffic. It was a win-win outcome for both sides of the trade.
Horse trading also allowed the McKinley Bridge to reopen. Following a complicated series of lawsuits and transactions, the bridge's outstanding debts and delinquent taxes were wiped out, allowing the Illinois Department of Transportation to take over control and rehabilitate the bridge for highway and pedestrian use. It reopened in 2007 -- with no tolls.
The revamped McKinley Bridge with its spacious pedestrian/bicycle lane
Even with the reopened bridges, the Poplar Street Bridge is still a major bottleneck, prompting Missouri and Illinois to break ground on a new cable-stayed bridge to carry Interstate 70. Time will tell whether this latest bridge will finally solve the problem of crossing the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Based on the city's history, I'm skeptical.
The new bridge isn't the only ambitious project that St. Louis is pursuing. Civic leaders have set their sights on the latest buzzword to hit Missouri: "aerotropolis."
At first I thought the word was a joke, the kind of thing that might come from a 1950s-era science fiction story.
And yet the "aerotropolis" is the subject of serious academic study. As laid out in the book Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next, an aerotropolis is a city centered around a gigantic airport that serves as the primary engine of the city's economy (as opposed to the traditional model of an airport sitting at the outskirts of a city.)
Politicians are hoping St. Louis can evolve into an aerotropolis -- with the help of Missouri taxpayers, of course. Other Midwestern cities, including Memphis and Dallas, are already ahead of the curve. The arch nemesis of Chicago is also well positioned, which probably explains why St. Louisans are so keen to jump on the bandwagon.
During the earliest days of air travel, St. Louis and Chicago were neck-and-neck. Both cities established municipal airports in 1927 (what is now Lambert Field in St. Louis and Midway Airport in Chicago). Lambert is technically considered the first municipally-owned airport in the world, but only because Chicago leased, instead of bought, their airport's property. Lambert was the first airport with an air traffic controller (a very primitive setup in which the first controller, Archie League, would sit under a beach umbrella for shade and signal pilots with flags). Chicago's airport soon had its own flagmen controllers to handle the growing volume of airplane landings and takeoffs.
The census numbers for 1920 and 1930 showed that Chicago had roughly four times the population of St. Louis. It was natural, then, that the early commercial air services (for mail and later passengers) would gravitate to the larger city. Chicago's airport grabbed the title of "World's Busiest Airport" in 1932. Just prior to World War II, one-fourth of all airline passengers came through Chicago. During the 1950s, with the introduction of jet airplanes, Midway Airport became obsolete and was replaced by Chicago O'Hare International Airport, which soon claimed the mantle of the busiest airport.
St. Louis wasn't going to take this lying down, however. A shiny new terminal building was constructed at Lambert Field featuring a vaulted design reminiscent of Union Station. The old railroad station, once the envy of other cities, had experienced a precipitous decline in passengers thanks to the popularity of air travel, but now St. Louis had a suitable replacement for the Jet Age. The new terminal was briefly the envy of other cities; New York City and Washington, D.C., soon built terminals with similar sweeping designs.
Nevertheless, O'Hare stayed far ahead of Lambert, continuing to hold the title of busiest airport (by total passengers) until it was trumped by Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in 1998. Lambert did receive a boost when Trans World Airlines relocated its hub to St. Louis in 1982. At its peak, Lambert was the 8th busiest airport (by total takeoffs and landings). This ranking plummeted when TWA was absorbed into American Airlines in 2001 and the airport's hub status was lost.
Just prior to the drop in traffic, Lambert started construction on a new runway to ease congestion. Finished in 2006 at a cost of $1.1 billion -- said to be the largest public-works project in St. Louis history -- the runway remains underutilized.
That's where the whole Aerotropolis idea comes into play. Lambert has plenty of extra capacity. The big question is whether "Build it and they will come" (or more precisely, "Subsidize it and they will come") will turn out to be a winning strategy for St. Louis and a way to snatch some of the traffic and prestige from Chicago.
Based on the city's history, I'm skeptical.