Sixty-four years prior to the founding of the city of St. Louis, the River des Peres, then a “common country brook, clear and attractive,” became the site of a town that was never to be. As the story goes, a group of Kaskaskia Native Americans established a post at the mouth of the river near its confluence with the great Mississippi River. Two French priests later joined them, and the Kaskaskia named the river in their honor: La Riviere des Peres, or the River of the Fathers. Across the river from this settlement was the largest pre-European North American city–Cahokia, Illinois–the onetime home of a great Mississippian mound-building culture. The region remained sparsely populated after the mysterious downfall of Cahokia, and these few settlers made their way over to the west bank of the Mississippi River at the newly named River des Peres. The ramshackle town was slow to grow, but never really had a chance to take off anyway. Just three years after its founding, hostile Souix Native Americans claimed that the village was encroaching on their territory. The town willingly disbanded in the face of threatened violence [River des Peres Watershed Coalition – Timeline]. Another theory states that the mouth of the river, as one might expect, was simply an inhospitable environment for residences pre-engineered-levee days. The area was, quite simply, a floodplain, a “swamp” to many observers [Ecology of Absence’s “The Harnessed Channel”].

This was the last human activity that the mouth of the River des Peres would see for some time. Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau, native New Orleanians, would establish a small fur trading post upriver some six miles named St. Louis in 1764. Though this Creole town would remain small for quite a while itself, it nevertheless was intended for permanent settlement and thus attracted some early speculative development. One of the first satellites of the miniscule town of St. Louis was 1767’s Carondelet, a tiny Creole village just north of the site that once housed the Kaskaskia Native Americans [River des Peres Watershed Coalition – Timeline]. Human eyes once again spied the waters of the River des Peres.

Hereafter, the fate of the River des Peres grew tied to the fate of the expanding city of St. Louis. In 1766, a year before the founding of Carondelet, St. Louis could claim 300 residents. By 1840, this number reached 16,469. By 1850, 77,860 people thrust St. Louis into the top ten of large American cities, at number eight. At the break of the Civil War, St. Louis boasted 160,733 souls [St. Louis CIN – History of Physical Development]. The steamboat and railroad combined to create a verifiable boom town. Once a backwater in the unconscionably isolated territory west of the Mississippi, the city had ballooned haphazardly into an uneasy metropolis. In 1870, St. Louis annexed Carondelet, much to that city’s residents’ dismay. Just after that, city leaders thought it wise to break from the county that housed it, all over an argument with Missouri’s rural-dominated legislature’s taxation policies. St. Louis, which could scarcely maintain its own urban streets, was footing the bill for road maintenance and paving for rural St. Louis Countians who lived whole days’ travel from the built-up city. At this time in the city’s history, the extent of urban development rarely touched Grand Avenue–about two miles west of the original city (downtown). The streetcar arrived on the scene in the 1880s and authored a smorgasbord of suburban growths on the periphery of the city. The Divorce effectively annexed these “suburbs”–and eliminated any chance that the city would be able to stave off stigmatizing population decline by annexing further outgrowths than the established city limits.

This is an important point to make in the discussion of River des Peres, for the expansion of the city westward put the river in its path. Michael Allen of Ecology of Absence explains in his essay “The Harnessed Channel” that it was at about the time of the Great Divorce and the city’s seemingly endless swelling of population that city fathers began eyeing the banks of the River des Peres as a resource for the financially strapped city.

An 1865 view of Lucas Place. This scene is entirely unrecognizable today. Just one structure from this period remains.

An 1865 view of Lucas Place. This scene is entirely unrecognizable today. Just one structure from this period remains today. the Mississippi River is the blue body of water in the background.

The city crawled west from the start. Reliably, the “pioneers” that migrated were actually the only ones able to do so–the wealthy. First it was Lucas Place, a neighborhood of stately Greek Revival row houses west of–and considered far from–the city’s Central Business District. Lucas Place has been wholly leveled as of today, save for one building (the Campbell House) that is now a house museum and contains period furniture. Next, the nouveau riche hopped over Lucas Place to Midtown. This neighborhood, today’s Theater District, was one of the most bustling areas the city has ever known. Located on a strategic piece of high ground about three miles from the CBD, Midtown’s Grand and Olive intersection was at one time among the busiest (as measured by traffic counts) in the entire country. Midtown, though, became a mixed-use neighborhood of all types of denizens. St. Louis’s rich preferred exclusive enclaves, safe from the auspices of dirty industry and noisy commerce.

Grand and Olive intersection around 1960 -- the beginning of the decline. This street scene was once so thick with foot traffic that streetcars had difficulty navigating the streets.

Grand and Olive intersection around 1960 -- the beginning of the decline. This street scene was once so thick with foot traffic that streetcars had difficulty navigating the streets.

Thus, just north of Midtown rose Vandeventer Place. This neighborhood of opulent mansions saw a short but brilliant heyday. Its homes soon touched the industry it sought to insulate itself from, and the wealthy left the buildings first to boarders, then to bulldozers. By the end of World War II, there would be no trace of the neighborhood.

A luxurious home in the now-gone Vandeventer Place.

A luxurious home in the now-gone Vandeventer Place.

Next, monied St. Louisans established the Central West End. Streetcar technology made this enclave possible. Scores of spacious manses lined Lindell Boulevard until nearly mid-20th century, when civic leaders of the time deemed the Victorian era outmoded. Beyond Lindell, homes and apartments of all sizes and shapes arose. The neighborhood boomed until World War II, when it began to deteriorate due to aging of its housing stock and the availability of land and new homes in burgeoning suburbs. Unlike the other neighborhoods mentioned so far, not only does the Central West End remain in a respectable degree of intactness; it was the center of a rehab boom in the 1970s. The Central West End, or “CWE” to locals, remains an incredibly desirable neighborhood with an impressive architectural acumen. From the CWE, though, residents moved even farther west, establishing the city’s “West End” neighborhoods. The game of hopscotch never quite ended. St. Louisans with the means to do so continued to empty out of onetime popular and prestigious neighborhoods like the West End. Of course, due to locked boundaries, most of the upper middle class and the wealthy that contribute heavily to urban tax bases everywhere abandoned the City of St. Louis rather early on in its history.

(Here are some modern views of the Central West End) :

Lindell Boulevard. Gone are the turn-of-the-century mansions. They have been replaced with both classicist and modern mid-rises.

Lindell Boulevard. Gone are the turn-of-the-century mansions. They have been replaced with both classicist and modern mid-rises.

There are, however, plenty of Central West End mansions left. These, on Maryland Plaza, have been recently renovated afer an ill-fated attempt to rezone them into commercial buildings in the 1970s.

There are, however, plenty of Central West End mansions left. These, on Maryland Plaza, have been recently renovated after an ill-fated attempt to rezone them into commercial buildings in the 1970s.

A CWE apartment building from the Worlds Fair era.

A CWE apartment building from the World's Fair era.

For more CWE photography, click here

Why the long-winded history of St. Louis development in a post about the River des Peres?

Two reasons.

1) The fleeing of the middle class had major ramifications on the City of St. Louis. Since it developed in an east-to-west pattern, and since the middle class and upper class continued to move west, the relatively small and skinny city quickly lost its tax base. This meant deferred maintenance on roads, bridges, vacant lots, schools, hospitals, parks, and all other infrastructure. These things’ decline only furthered the spiraling motion downward, placing restoration of the natural environment among the last things on the city’s agenda, if ever considered.

2) It was the Central West End, which had spawned in the 1880s, that began to pollute the River des Peres. The residents of the tony section of the city found it more expedient to dump chamberpots into the RDP than to rely on a more localized sewer system that was wont to fail.

St. Louis Circa 1880 was an unstoppable urban force. Its population had exploded to 350,000 and the borders it had set for itself just four years prior now seemed claustrophobia-inducing. The old city had previously used another natural stream as a sewer–the Mill Creek Valley, located just southwest of downtown. Due to population growth, this aging sewer system had hit capacity, and the River des Peres seemed the next logical sewage depository to many. Still, a massive cholera epidemic in 1848, which was blamed on the placid waters of the Mill Creek, remained burnt into the minds of city leaders, and the city had already earned the reputation of being a shabby, unhealthful city for one of its size.

And so, the city developed a plan. The Upper River des Peres would collect sewage and channel into the Mill Creek sewer, which would undergo expensive upgrading. But the plans fell awry. Quoting Allen:

Yet developers in the western part of the city did not wait for the city to implement its costly plans and instead continued to use the River Des Peres to drain their new, affluent subdivisions. As historian Katherine Corbett writes, “in 1887, [Sewer Commissioner] Robert McMath realized that until he extended the main public sewers into the fashionable West End, developers would continue to pipe sewage into the natural water courses, particularly the River Des Peres.

The city did develop another plan. They constructed the “Pine Street Sewer” specifically for Central West End residents. But since the Mill Creek sewer never saw its necessary expansion, the 12-year Pine Street Sewer project was a waste of money; it caused the Mill Creek to overflow, which sent waste water back into the River des Peres watershed.

On the southwest side of the city, the River remained mostly free-flowing, even if it was extensively polluted by the chamberpots of the West End. This section of the city would be the last to develop. The middle class and then-considered-suburban St. Louis Hills subdivision was finally built out in the 1930s and 1940s, absorbing the last available chunk of land in the city open for development. Therefore, prior to the 1930s, most of Southwest St. Louis–some of which was within River des Peres’s natural flood plain–was rural and sparsely populated.

The news that the city would host the 1904 World’s Fair, intended to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase even though it was a year late (the LP was in 1803), changed the course of the RDP forever–literally.

More on that in the next installment of River des Peres history.

Advertisements