Rome, Fallen Again
(Contrary to some beliefs, the languished transition toward rail transportation, and the subsequent outpacing of Chicago over St. Louis in shipping, was not due to the city’s stubborn clench to outmoded steamboat technology.)
In 476, the western hemisphere of the Roman Empire fell`. Subsequently, centralized power dissolved for Rome, and so the once hot embers of one of human civilization’s mightiest kingdoms began to rapidly cool. At many times and for many reasons, St. Louis has been compared to Rome. Both cities shared an influential Catholic populace, and both cities achieved a considerable prominence, both at home and abroad. However, both cities also declined rapidly, almost inexplicably. While the fall of the Roman Empire is now widely understood, the reasons for the depreciation of St. Louis is less known. The story behind the exaltation and descension of the “Rome of the West” offers an interesting example of the potential effects of shifting markets, political uncertainty, and the introduction of new infrastructure, especially when adaptation is not in proportion to evolution. On a national level, St. Louis’ loss of scale gives insight to a rhetoric of urban decay and decline repeated over and again throughout the United States; if the sustainability of American cities is the question, then St. Louis could well be part of the answer.
“We live in extraordinary times, and are called upon to elevate ourselves to the grandeur of the occasion… God had placed the Father of Floods [to pass through St. Louis], so let it be with this great road… a band of Iron[sic], hooping and binding the States together east and west…a cement of union north and south.”“
Thomas Hart Benton delivered the portion of a speech above to a capacity audience compiled inside the Courthouse in October of 1849. Nearby, the ruins from the recent Great Fire likely still scented the air with burnt lumber, and the mood of the city was for rebirth. Benton’s decision to stage a railroad convention in St. Louis was precipitated by some of the traction he had gained in presenting the idea of a transcontinental railroad to Washington. New York interests, led by Asa Whitney, were already lobbying for such a route, and Benton saw no reason why Missouri should not capitalize on the venture.“` Certainly, the cooperation of a southern identified state (Missouri) to northern business interests on the east coast fit with the unifying theme spelled out in his Missouri Compromise of 1820. However, a series of unforeseen events followed in the wake of Old Bullion’s pontificating that would both reduce his influence in the District of Columbia, and pace St. Louis significantly behind another Midwestern city in constructing the railroad.
On May 30, 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed through legislation in Washington, D.C.. This Act, perpetuated by the nativist, Know-Nothing Party and National Democrats (Benton opposed), concerned the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska, and exacerbated the slavery debate in Missouri and elsewhere. The Know-Nothings wished to preserve “pure” American interests, and saw the recent influx of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany (who they also viewed as political agitators) as an affront to their way of life. For them, the Kansas-Nebraska Act offered the solace of majority rule, and the potential exclusion or limitation of new immigrants. Meanwhile, the National Democrats, led by Illinois Senator, Stephen Douglas, who had penned the 1854 legislation, felt that Congress lacked the constitutional right to limit the expansion of slavery. The Act overturned Benton’s 1820 legislation preventing the expansion of slavery north of 36.5° latitude, and instead proposed that all new territories should decide issues like slavery for themselves, a political belief known as popular sovereignty. Thomas Hart Benton’s vocal opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act culminated in his defeat at the polls of 1854. During the same election period, riots erupted from “Battle Row”, an Irish tenement enclave near the St. Louis levee, and spread throughout downtown as nativists sought to prevent immigrants from voting. Both locally and nationally, nativist politics won out, and many entered into prominent positions in governing bodies. Close to home, violence and turmoil began to erupt along the Missouri-Kansas border as opponents from both sides of the slavery issue fought a bloody battle for control of the future state. Those who had invested in the dream of a transcontinental railroad running through Missouri, saw much of the track they had recently built in the western part of the state destroyed, as the border fight raged also against infrastructure. In 1854, the Bentonite vision of a politically unified Missouri extending its transportation empire to new technologies was like two snakes arranged in a circle, eating each other by the tail first.
Despite the setbacks caused by ongoing skirmishes between the Border Ruffians and the Jayhawkers, St. Louis’ railroad effort seemed about to achieve a major success in 1855. On November 1, 1855, a train, departed from St. Louis, was meant to arrive in Jefferson City. This occasion was to be a testament to the forward march of the transcontinental railroad, which had been the reason for the newly completed route. Therefore, the jubilant spectators who had gathered to celebrate the arrival were horrified to learn that the train had suffered a bridge collapse over the Gasconade River. Thirteen of fourteen cars and the steam engine derailed when a temporary trestle gave way, plunging much of it into the cold river during a heavy rain*. Even more disconcerting was the amount of the city’s elite who were onboard among the between 600 to 800 passengers at the time. In the ensuing years, construction of new track was met with some resistance by those who felt hesitant because of the disaster. Many felt that, if a bridge could fail over the spindly Gasconade, how could a span across the mighty Mississippi River ever be safe? However, railroad interests in Missouri were much more focused on traversing the route west than on connections to the east, which was an investment later proved to be its own sort of train wreck.
As railroad construction continued across the state, the carnage along the border with Kansas reached epic proportions. “Bleeding Kansas”, as the conflict was called by the New York Tribune, had escalated in bloodshed and property destruction, proving to be an effective barrier to the Missouri-Pacific Railroad’s western route. John Greenleaf Whittier, a poet, wrote of Bleeding Kansas in his poem, “Le Marais Du Cygne”:
A BLUSH as of roses
Where rose never grew!
Great drops on the bunch-grass,
But not of the dew!
A taint in the sweet air
For wild bees to shun!
A stain that shall never
Bleach out in the sun!**
The violence would continue along the border and delay rail production until 1858. By this time, railroad interests in Chicago had successfully traversed the Mississippi at Rock Island, Illinois, and had vigorously begun their race through the west. Eastern economic interests controlled the Chicago-based ventures, which had already connected by rail and shared a waterway through the Great Lakes***. Missouri railroad backers began to realize that the cost of railroad construction was one mired by dept, and not likely to profit until fully complete. Many local companies went belly-up as a result. Those that remained were further delayed in their investment by the political and social disarray caused by the eruption of the Civil War in the state. The lack of a direct connection to eastern terminals, and the persistent disruption over slavery within Missouri placed local railroad magnates irrecoverably behind their Chicago peers. The magnificent Ead’s Bridge was finally built across the Mississippi River at St. Louis, almost twenty years after the Bridge at Rock Island. By this time, Ead’s was too little and too late to capitalize fully on the national fervor over the transcontinental railroad. Even so, the New York City robber baron, Jay Gould, quickly purchased Ead’s, thus ensuring that St. Louis would remain on the periphery of Chicago in terms of railroad freight^. Indeed, all roads would lead through Chicago, not as Benton had predicted. As time wore on, St. Louis would continue to fall further and further behind the “Jewel of the Great Lakes”; an empire fading amid the gleam of a distant glow.
The story of St. Louis’ fall from prominence allows for contemplation regarding the problems faced by cities in light of political instability and economic discontinuity. Certainly, St. Louis never achieved fully its promise, but its best could have been far worse. Now, with so much current investment (in technology and the arts^^) changing the face of the city yet again, perhaps the embers have not completely cooled, and who knows, maybe this Rome can rise anew.
` Gibbon, Edward; The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Third Edition; Modern Library; 2003.
“Excerpts of speech by Thomas Hart Benton; Missouri Republican; October 18, 1949.
“`Arenson, Adam; The Great Heart of the Republic; Harvard University Press; 2011.
***Arenson, Adam; The Great Heart of the Republic; Harvard University Press; 2011.