Historians don’t agree on the date of the founding of Missouri’s Gateway to the West, but that’s not stopping this river city with a French past from celebrating all year long
St. Louis, Missouri, Gateway to the West, celebrates a major anniversary this year. The city, with its unmistakable skyline, thanks to a silver-hued wicket that stands at the riverfront and towers over the mocha waters of the Mississippi, is having its semiquincentenary, a fancy word for 250th birthday.
As part of the yearlong festivities, 250 4-foot-tall “cakes” have been set around town in places of significance as a “Cakeway to the West.” Although these birthday “cakes” look delicious, they’re made of fiberglass and de-corated by local artists.
The celebration officially kicked off last year on December 31 with a family-friendly evening of live music, theater and fireworks, and a special mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis (the city is a major center of Roman Catholicism). Throughout 2014 a host of events is scheduled, among them exhibits of old St. Louis documents, paintings and other items at various museums and galleries, musical programs, reenactments and a ball.
“St. Louis at 250” is the theme of America’s Biggest Birthday Party at the 34th annual Fair St. Louis, July 3 through 5 (www.fairsaintlouis.org), which commemorates the country’s
Independence Day and the city’s birthday in 1,371-acre Forest Park, site of the 1904 World’s Fair. A local nonprofit group, STL250 (www.stl250.org), is organizing many of the semiquincentennial events, both at the fair and at other locations throughout the year.
St. Louis began as a fur-trading post on Valentine’s Day, 1764 — although it may have been February 15; we’ll never know for sure — when 14-year-old Auguste Chouteau of New Orleans and a group of 30 laborers, paddling north from French colonial Fort de Chartres on the Mississippi River, came ashore 60 miles upstream at a 30-foot-high limestone bluff. The laborers cleared away trees from atop the bluff and, under Chouteau’s direction, constructed several buildings for the post. Chouteau wrote about the founding decades later, but since his 4’s and 5’s look so similar, no one can be sure of the exact date.
The site had been chosen several months earlier by Pierre Laclède, Chouteau’s stepfather, for whom he clerked. Laclède, originally from France, had become a partner in a New Orleans firm that had a fur monopoly with the Osage Indians in the Upper Louisiana Territory.
The post’s location — on the west side of the river, as France had lost what’s now Illinois to the British in the French and Indian War — was the first accessible high ground south of the confluence of two great rivers, the Mississippi and the Missouri. Laclède wanted his post as close as possible to the confluence but chose high ground because flooding is not unusual.
He named his new town for France’s patron saint, Louis IX. The reigning king in 1764 was Louis XV (who Laclède later learned had secretly ceded Louisiana to Spain; it would be returned to France in 1800, then sold to the United States in 1803). St. Louis, Laclède predicted, would become “one of the finest cities in America.”
Unfortunately, Laclède didn’t live to see it. Just 14 years after founding the city, he died returning from a trip
to New Orleans. At the time, 1778, fewer than a thousand people lived in St. Louis.
In the fall of 1764, Laclède’s common-law wife, Marie-Therese Chouteau of New Orleans, joined him in the new town. He had met her in New Orleans, where divorce was forbidden, after she’d been abandoned by her husband, René Auguste Chouteau, Auguste’s father. The “founding family,” which included the couple’s four children and Auguste, who Laclède raised as his own, lived in a fine stone house where the north leg of the Gateway Arch stands today.
With the advent of the steamboat — when dozens of the “gingerbread”- adorned boats began lining the levee, sometimes three-deep — St. Louis grew quickly. By the mid-19th century, the population soared to nearly 80,000. Some residents were free African-Americans, but nearly half were immigrants from Ireland or Germany.
Shortly before the Civil War, as Southern states began seceding, St. Louis’ German population kept Missouri in the Union. When war broke out, Union soldiers and German militiamen shot it out with pro-Southern mobs on city streets.
St. Louis history is laced with important events, such as the founding of the first university west of the Mississippi in 1818. Pierre-Jean De Smet, a young Jesuit priest from Belgium, came to St. Louis in 1823 to establish a Native American school and was soon asked to take over direction of a small college, which in 1832 would be chartered by the state as St. Louis University, locally called SLU, and now one of the top research institutions in the country.
In addition to his administrative work at the university, De Smet established Native American missions in the Northwest and brought peace to warring tribes. A committed friend to Native Americans, who called him Blackrobe, De Smet traveled some 200,000 miles, including 16 crossings to Europe, helping to support them. It was only after his death in 1873 that the Indian wars began in earnest.
Another momentous event in St. Louis history was the Dred Scott case. Among the catalysts of the Civil War, the first two trials, in 1847 and 1850, were held at Old St. Louis County Courthouse, now part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial run by the National Park Service. One of Scott’s pro bono attorneys was Roswell Field, father of renowned St. Louis writer Eugene Field, best known for his children’s poetry, including “Little Boy Blue.” His boyhood home is open to the public today as the Eugene Field House and St. Louis Toy Museum.
Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, were slaves who sought their freedom on the grounds that both had lived in free territory. Although they prevailed at trial in St. Louis, they would later lose in the U.S. Supreme Court in a decision that triggered a chain of events that led to war. St. Louis would be the center of military activity in the war’s Western campaigns (building gunboats and providing supplies) and emerged from the conflict with its economy booming.
The first rail line from the East had reached East St. Louis four years before the war started, and in 1874, with the completion of engineering marvel Eads Bridge (the first arched steel-truss bridge in the world), it crossed the Mississippi into St. Louis. Union Station, a castlelike limestone structure built in 1894, now a National Historic Landmark, was once the largest and busiest passenger rail terminal in the world.
In the 1940s the station, with 42 tracks inside its shed, handled 100,000 passengers daily. The famous photo of a grinning Harry Truman holding aloft a copy of the Chicago Tribune with the erroneous front-page headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” was shot here. Today, the former terminal is home to a 539-room luxury hotel, shopping center and entertainment complex.
Through the 19th century, St. Louis continued to grow and by 1900 was the fourth largest city in the country (today, the metro-area population of 2.8 million ranks 18th).
Of all of St. Louis’ many fine years — as an industrial giant, center of arts and culture, host to five national political conventions and home of winning sports teams — none is finer than 1904. That was the year the city celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition with the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the St. Louis World’s Fair. The event, which also included the 1904 Summer Olympics, the first Olympics held in America, ran from April 30 to December 1 and drew nearly two million visitors.
Sprawling across Forest Park and the Washington University campus, the fair included exhibits from 43 of the then-45 states and 62 countries. The fair had many grand buildings, but all were temporary except the Palace of Fine Arts, which is now home to the St. Louis Art Museum. A few other structures remain, among them the huge walk-through bird cage at the St. Louis Zoo.
The city’s Jefferson Memorial, built in 1913 with proceeds from the fair, commemorated Thomas Jefferson, who had initiated the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country and included St. Louis. Today, the memorial houses the Missouri History Museum and exhibits that tell the story of St. Louis from its founding to the present day.
Visitors to the fair enjoyed such “new” foods as waffle ice cream cones, hot dogs, hamburgers, peanut butter, iced tea and cotton candy. Dr. Pepper and puffed wheat made their national debuts at the fair.
Music also played a major role. Ragtime composer Scott Joplin’s “The Cascades” was inspired by the waterfalls at Forest Park’s Grand Basin, and the song “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis” was also fair-inspired, though no self-respecting St. Louisan would ever call his or her town “St. Looey.”
Notable visitors to the lavish event included President Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison and John Philip Sousa, whose band played on opening day. Even former Apache Chief Geronimo attended.
St. Louisans may consider 1904 their town’s banner year, but there have been many other significant events over the 25 decades. Soulard Farmers Market, one of the oldest in the country, opened back in 1779 and still operates today. In 1804, Lewis and Clark set out from St. Louis to explore the Louisiana Territory. In 1821, Missouri entered the Union as the 24th state. In 1852 the brewery that became Anheuser-Busch was founded. And 1859 saw the opening of the Missouri Botanical Garden, now considered among the best in the world.
Other important milestone years include 1873, when Susan Blow founded the first kindergarten in the United States in St. Louis; 1876, when the Great Divorce took place, separating St. Louis from St. Louis County (a movement to reunite them is gaining traction today); 1882, when the St. Louis Cardinals begin playing in the National League (they won their 11th World Series in 2011); 1914, when W.C. Handy wrote “St. Louis Blues,” the most recorded blues song ever; 1927, when Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic; 1931, when St. Louisan Erma Rombauer published The Joy of Cooking, the most successful cookbook in American history; and 1965, when the 630-foot-tall Gateway Arch was completed. Vice President Hubert Humphrey came to dedicate the monument, noting that it “links the rich heritage of yesterday with the richer future of tomorrow.”
St. Louis offers dozens of major attractions, and more are free than anywhere in the country, with the exception of Washington, D.C. Highlights include the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog, Anheuser-Busch Brewery tours, Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis (with the world’s largest collection of mosaic art — 41 million tiles), City Museum (which includes the World Aquarium), the Endangered Wolf Center, Forest Park (home to the Art Museum, Science Center, Zoo, Jewel Box, History Museum, Muny Theatre and a 7.5-mile biking, jogging and skating path), Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site (Grant’s Farm), the Holocaust Museum, Jefferson Barracks Historic Park, Laumeier Sculpture Park, Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum, the Museum of Transportation, the World Bird Sanctuary and the 1834
St. Louis is also home to the country’s first interstate highway, the world’s first skyscraper, the first ironclad boat and the first library west of the Mississippi. The first lung transplant was performed here, and on a more whimsical note, the first successful parachute jump from a moving plane took place here in 1912.
At the Reenactment of the Founding in February, Mayor Francis Slay said, “Two hundred and fifty years ago, Laclède believed his settlement could someday be one of the finest cities in America. His vision has become reality.”
For information about St. Louis events, attractions, restaurants and RV parks, as well as suggested itineraries, contact the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission.
800-916-0092 | www.explorestlouis.com
St. Louis Campgrounds and RV Parks
370 Lakeside Park RV Campground | St. Peters, Missouri
636-387-5253 | www.stpetersmo.net/rvpark
Thirty miles west of St. Louis, this ADA-compliant campground offers a laundry, a store and 50 RV campsites with full hookups, a patio and fire ring. A trail surrounds the stocked 140-acre lake.
Cahokia RV Parque | Cahokia, Illinois
618-332-7700 | www.cahokiarvparque.com
Just across the river from St. Louis, this Good Sam 8/9.5H/9-rated park provides 119 full-hookup RV campsites (some handicap accessible), plus a lounge, shower facilities, a laundry room, pavilions, a store and an outdoor pool.
Casino Queen RV Park | East St. Louis, Illinois
Across from the Gateway Arch on the other side of the Mississippi, this 9.5/9.5H/8.5-rated Good Sam Park has 130 full-hookup sites, an indoor pool, a store and handicap accessibility.
KOA Granite City Campground | Granite City, Illinois
800-562-5861 or 618-931-5160 | www.koa.com
This 9/9.5H/9-rated KOA park across the river in Illinois has 100 full-hookup sites, rental cabins, an outdoor pool, a store,
a playground and limited handicap accessibility.
St. Louis RV Park | St. Louis, Missouri
800-878-3330 or 314-241-3330 | www.stlouisrvpark.com
The only RV park in downtown St. Louis, this 8.5/9.5H/4.5-rated campground has 100 full-hookup sites, an outdoor pool, a store and some handicap accessibility.
Sundermeier RV Park | St. Charles, Missouri
800-929-0832 or 636-940-0111 | www.sundermeierrvpark.com
Rated 8.5/10H/9, this handicap-accessible Good Sam Park has 106 full-hookup sites (including some pull-throughs) with patios, 30- and 50-amp electric service, cable TV and free Wi-Fi, about 20 miles west of St. Louis.