The earliest settlers in eastern Missouri were Frenchmen seeking gold and silver around 1720. At this time, the area was inhabited by the Illinois Indians. By the 1830s, all Native American tribes in the area were forcibly moved to present-day Oklahoma, and the area was opened to white settlement. Primarily, the area was settled by farmers who cleared the forests on their land to start growing crops. However, others came to work in the area lead and barite mines, including the Virginia Mines about five miles southwest of St. Clair, and the iron and lead mines of nearby Moselle and Anaconda in the 1840s.
One of the first settlers of St. Clair was B.J. Inge in 1843, who established a stagecoach way station on the road from St. Louis to Springfield where it met the road to Virginia Mines. The settlement was called “Traveler’s Repose” when a post office opened. The stagecoach station was comprised of 13 rooms, for lodging, a tavern, and the post office.
In 1859, the Missouri Pacific Railroad arrived and the town’s name was changed to St. Clair in honor of a civil engineer from the railroad. At that time, an official town was platted. With the arrival of the railroad, the town began to grow as it became a shipping center to move lead, iron ore, barite, lumber, livestock, poultry, and grain.
In June 1862, a local girl named Phoebe Elizabeth Apperson who was born in St. Clair in 1842 married millionaire George Hearst. Hearst, who was originally from nearby Sullivan, Missouri, had headed west during the California Gold Rush in 1849. Though he did very well, he returned to the area in 1860 to care for his dying mother, at which time he met Phoebe. When they married, she was just 19 and he was 40.
Afterward, they moved to San Francisco, California. The next year, she would give birth to their only child, William Randolph Hearst. Phoebe would go on to become an American philanthropist, feminist, and suffragist, while her husband George continued to amass his fortune, establishing and investing in mines across the west. Some of these included the Homestake Mine in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Comstock Lode and the Ophir Mine in Nevada, the Ontario silver mine in Utah, the Anaconda Copper Mine in Montana, and more. Their son, William, grew up to become internationally known as a newspaperman and publisher.
Mining and lumbering continued to be a mainstay of the economy in St. Clair but it began to play out in the early 1920s, at which time the town was called home to about 450 people. Saving the day for the community, in came the International Shoe Company in 1922, which soon employed one out of three working-age people. Further boosting the town was the arrival of Route 66 in 1926, which brought more people through and area citizens responded by building services along the highway. By 1930, the town boasted a population of 1145.
Over the years the town continued to grow even though Route 66 was rerouted to the west of town in the 1950s. Later, this alignment would become Interstate 44.
After International Shoe Company closed in 1982, many residents began commuting to St. Louis for employment. However, in the following years, more industries and businesses were established. Today, St. Claire’s population is about 4,700.
There are several historic sites in St. Clair including the old three-story International Shoe Company building located at 160 N. Main Street. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. The old Panhorst Feed Store, at 465 Saint Clair Street, which was established in 1918, was also listed on the National Register in 1990.
The St. Clair Historical Museum, at 560 S Main Street, includes Indian artifacts, mining items, and other St. Clair and Franklin County memorabilia. At 145 Main Street, the family-owned Lewis Cafe has been serving up home-cooked meals since 1938.
As travelers continue southwest, a photo opportunity arises when St. Clair’s quirky hot and cold water towers come in site.
Route 66 meanders along the North Service Road for about 8.5 miles to Stanton, home of the popular Meramec Caverns.