St. Louis, Missouri – Gateway to the West


St. Louis, Missouri Skyline by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

St. Louis, Missouri Skyline by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

This settlement will become one of the finest cities in America.
— Pierre Laclede Liguest, founder of St. Louis, in 1764

St. Louis, one of the oldest cities in Missouri, began when a man named Pierre Laclede Liguest discovered the perfect place for a trading post on a high bluff of the Mississippi River in 1763. Early the next year, Laclede sent his stepson, along with thirty men, to begin clearing the heavily forested land for a new town, of which Laclede declared, “This settlement will become one of the finest cities in America.”

Laclede's Landing later became St. Louis, Missouri.

Laclede’s Landing later became St. Louis, Missouri.

The first structures included a large house for the fur company’s headquarters, along with cabins and storage sheds. A post house was completed in September 1764, becoming the focal point of the new village. From here, streets and buildings soon expanded, as trappers and traders populated the settlement. Referred to as Laclede’s Village by its new residents, Laclede himself pronounced the settlement “St. Louis” in honor of King Louis IX of France.

By 1766, the burgeoning village had about 75 buildings built of stone, quarried along the river bluff, or timber posts, and was called home to about 300 residents. Maintaining a steady growth through the end of the century, St. Louis boasted almost 1000 citizens by 1800, mostly French, Spanish, Indians, and both black slaves and free men.

In 1804, when the Louisiana Purchase was officially transferred to the United States, the settlement included a bakery, two taverns, three blacksmiths, two mills, and a doctor. Several grocers also operated from their homes, selling merchandise at outrageous prices due to high transportation costs.

Lewis and Clark

Lewis and Clark

From St. Louis, President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis & Clark to explore the new Louisiana Territory in May 1804. Two years later, when the explorers returned in September 1806, the city became the “Gateway to the West” for the many mountain men, adventurers, and setters that followed the path of Lewis and Clark into the new frontier.

The first steamboat arrived on July 27, 1817, beginning the boomtown days of St. Louis as an important river city. Before long, it was common to see more than 100 steamboats lining the cobblestone levee during any given day.

The 1830s were a decade of growth and prosperity along the burgeoning river city. Many new churches were built at this time, a public school system was started, and the city implemented a new water system. By 1840, St. Louis was called home to almost 17,000 residents.

The next decade saw a large number of immigrants populating the city, especially those from Germany and Ireland, driven by the Old World potato famine.

Mississippi River steamboat

Mississippi River steamboat

In 1849, St. Louis suffered two major setbacks. The first was a raging fire that destroyed 15 city blocks and 23 steamboats along the riverfront. Later in the same year, St. Louis was to suffer from a serious epidemic of cholera, which took thousands of lives.

By 1850, river traffic had increased to such an extent that St. Louis had become the second largest port in the country, with commercial tonnage exceeded only by New York. It had also grown to be the largest city west of Pittsburgh. On some days, as many as 170 steamboats could be counted on the levee, some of which were literally “floating palaces,” complete with chandeliers, lush carpets, and fine furnishings.

It was also during this time that travel to the vast west began in earnest after gold had been discovered in California the prior year. St. Louis saw additional prosperity as the gateway to the west, outfitting many a wagon train, trapper, miner, and trader.

By the time the construction of the railroads began in the early 1850s, St. Louis had a population of almost 80,000 people. The first westbound train left St. Louis in 1855, which eventually lead to the death of the riverboat traffic.

St Louis Arsenal

St Louis Arsenal

When the Civil War began, St. Louis, which had grown to more than 160,000 people, became a divided city, where abolitionists shared the streets with slaveholders. While Missouri was primarily in favor of slavery, the state pledged itself to the Union, creating much conflict among its citizens. Moreover, the war caused the cessation of river traffic from the south, having a devastating effect on local businesses and slowed the development of the city.

However, after the war, the city saw another period of major expansion as more and more people fled from the devastated south. St. Louis soon became a major industrial center with numerous clothing and shoe manufacturers and more than 100 breweries operating in the city. The largest Brewer, Anheuser-Busch continues to maintain its world headquarters in St. Louis to this day.

By 1890, the U.S. Census declared that the frontier had closed and America held no more unexplored and undiscovered lands. After this declaration, St. Louis grew at a more leisurely pace, having some 575,000 residents by the turn of the century.

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