The early history of East St. Louis is enmeshed with the history of Cahokia, the village three miles south of the present city, to where, on Dec. 7, 1698, came missionaries from the Seminary of Quebec, led by Vicar General, Francis Jolliet de Montigny. The Vicar General assigned Father Saint Cosme to prosletize the Indian inhabitants of the village and on the same day the remainder of the missionaries continued by canoe to Arkansas.
Although Cahokia was ordinarily the summer camp of the Tamoroa and Cahokia tribes, about 1/4 of the population had elected to remain there during the winter of 1698. Father Saint Cosme immediately set about to convert his savage neighbors and by May of 1699, he had constructed a crude church. With the spring of 1699 came three Jesuits to Cahokia who immediately began directing a building "as a sign of the rights of their order." On June 7, 1701, a committee of French bishops decided that "the priests of the Seminary of Foreign Missions shell the well alone in the establishments at the place called Tamaroa (Cahokia)." Accordingly, the Jesuits abandoned Cahokia and moved to Kaskaskia where they achieved notable success.
The colonization process which was eventually to oust the original inhabitants of Cahokia, was quietly signaled at the close of the 17th century by the arrival of several French traders who became permanent residents. By 1715, Cahokia was one of the chief trading posts south of Canada and the center of all missionary work among the Indians. The cost of progress was paid in blood and grueling labor. Although the French colonists lived in harmony with the local Indians, Cahokia did not escape the attacks of tribes from other regions. One Sunday, for example, while picking strawberries just outside the village, several inhabitants were surprised by four Sioux warriors who decapitated a slave, stabbed a girl, crushed another underfoot, and scalped two women. The alarm was sounded and a party of French and Indians leaped into canoes and pursued the murderers down the Mississippi. After an arduous chase, three of the Sioux were caught, cooked, and eaten.
When they Indians became aware that the white settlers at Cahokia Woody eventually usurp their domain, they grew increasingly hostile and in 1733 the French found it necessary to construct a fort which was garrisoned by 20 men under the command of Ensign Montchervaux. From that time on, Cahokia assumed a martial significance which made it an important pawn in the game of empire which was played between France and England throughout the 18th-century. When the British finally wrested the Northwest Territory from the French and 1764, the colonists were deeply resentful. Thus, some 24 years later when George Rogers Clark marched on Cahokia, the inhabitants eagerly gave allegiance to the cause of the Virginian.
Shortly after Cahokia became a British possession in 1765, Richard "English" McCarty arrived in the village from Canada. After five years of trading in the vicinity, he obtained title to 400 acres of land on both sides of Cahokia Creek and built a grist mill on the site that is now part of East St. Louis. The grist mill and the cabins of several laborers constituted a small outpost which McCarty named St. Ursele, in honor of his wife in Canada. St Ursele, so far as can be determined, was the first attempt at permanent settlement on the site of future East St. Louis.
Aside from the fact that it introduced settlers into the swamp lands opposite the Spanish post at St. Louis, St. Ursele did not contribute to the settlement of the present city. The banks of Cahokia Creek were constantly washed away and it soon became evident to McCarty that his mill site was badly chosen. After struggling against fever and flood or six years, he abandoned the mill and returned to Cahokia where he was later commissioned a Captain by George Rogers Clark and placed in command of the village troops.
Among the volunteers who came from Virginia with charge Rogers Clark in 1778 was James Piggot, said to have been a privateer in the Revolutionary War. Piggot settled at Grand Ruisseau, near what is now Columbia, Illinois, and soon became a leader among the American settlers. At that time, the sole sources of law and order on the Illinois frontier were the French courts at Cahokia and Kaskaskia. Piggot and a majority of the American pioneers were opposed to the authority of the French courts on the grounds that American territory should be governed by Americans. There is also a small sinister group composed of outcasts from the states, who saw in the courts the only impediments to their lawlessness.
Under the combined attacks of well-meaning Patriots and brigand-chauvinists the French court at Kaskaskia was eventually dissolved and anarchy became rife on the Illinois frontier. The social chaos which ensued at times verged on barbarism. Under the tyrannical rule of the infamous John Dodge, once-peaceful Kaskaskia was transformed into a bedlam ruled by the ready swords and pistols of swaggering rascals. Between the years 1783 and 1790, the French population at Kaskaskia decreased by 77 percent. In a petition to Major Hamtranck, the American commander at Vincennes, the few French inhabitants who remained at Kaskaskia declared that "our horses, horned cattle, and corn are stolen and destroyed without the power of making any effectual resistance; our houses are in ruin and decay, are lands are uncultivated, debtors absconded and absconding; our little commerce is destroyed. We are apprehensive of a dearth of corn. Our best prospects are misery and distress, or, what is more probable, and untimely death at the hands of savages."
Law and order was tardily restored by the arrival of Arthur St. Clair, governor of the territory northwest of the Ohio River, who came to Kaskaskia on March 5, 1790. A little more than a month later, April 27, Governor St. Clair issued a proclamation organizing a county of the Northwest Territory which he named St. Clair in honor of himself. Having outlined a sphere for government, St. Clair he immediately set up the legal machinery to govern the county and among his appointments was that of James Piggot as captain of the militia.
Piggot rapidly rose to importance in the newly organized county. He became Judge of the Common Pleas court at Cahokia on Sept. 28, 1795, and a year later, as justice of the quarter sessions, proclaimed the opening of the orphan’s court. Piggot was a man of great energy and his activities were not confined solely to jurisprudence. During the years 1792 to 1795, he began improving a tract of land located approximately at what is now be South End district of East St. Louis. He built to log cabins on in the riverfront to accommodate colonists traveling to the Louisiana Territory and applied to Zenon Frudeau, the Spanish commandant at St. Louis, for permission to operate a ferry across the Mississippi. Piggot’s request was granted in return for "products and timber at lowest rates". The ferry-- consisting of a wooden platform floated on log canoes-- was poled and rowed from the Illinois shore to a dock at the foot of what is now Market Street in St. Louis.
At Piggot’s death of "a fever" in 1799, his widow, Francis James of Virginia, granted that ferry to one John Campbell. Even at that early date, transport Asian across the River was a valuable concession and Campbell did not hesitate to use underhanded methods in an attempt to get full control of the property. If you years after his agreement with Mrs. Piggot, he obtained a license to operate ferry in his own name and immediately ceased paying rent. Whereupon Mrs. Piggott sued for possession, and, the court upholding her client, Campbell was ousted. She then placed management of the ferry in the hands of three men, Solomon, Blundy, and Porter, who conducted the business until she sold her rights to Samuel Wiggins and McKnight and Brady, two St Louis land operators. Wiggins soon bought full control and in this spring of 1818, but he Illinois Legislature granted hands sole permission to ply back and forth across the Mississippi at St. Louis.
The ferry had meanwhile prompted other settlers to locate in the lowlands near the river. Etienne Pensoneau, having opened a tavern on the ferry road, purchased surrounding land and laid out a town called Jacksonville in which, the records show, one Moses Scott bought a lot for $150 on March 17, 1815. The year later, Pensoneau sold his holdings to the land operators, McKnight and Brady, who, using methods reminiscent of contemporary realtors, conducted a sale of lots in the option room of Thomas J. Reddick at St. Louis. On Nov. 12, 1817, the transactions were recorded by a justice of the peace, and, on May 22, 1818, the plat of Illinois Town was officially recognized by John Hay, Recorder of St. Clair County. Illinois Town, the insignificant settlement in the lowlands by the river, was subsequently to revolve into the present-day East St. Louis.
Ferdinand Ernst, while describing the undermining of the Illinois shore at St. Louis in his Travels Through Illinois in 1819, observed that " two small towns, Illinois Town and Jacksonville, which are located opposite St. Louis run the risk of finding their grave in the Mississippi…" Fortunately, the river was curbed before this prediction was fulfilled, but is smaller settlements named Washington which housed the workers of the Wiggins Ferry, was undermined and abandoned to the encroaching river,
But while the river took away it also gave: In 1817, several residents of Cahokia, alarmed by the frequent floods that regularly inundated that village, withdrew to higher ground and established a settlement which they named Illinois City. 58 years later, Illinois City was absorbed by East St. Louis.
What is now the heart of the business district was platted for a town site in 1834 by John Messinger, county surveyor, and named St. Clair.
Citizens of present East St. Louis commonly referred to the industrial section between Cahokia Creek and the Mississippi River as "the island." This appellation originated not in the seeming fact that Cahokia Creek and the Mississippi River surround the area, for they do not, but in the historic fact that a portion of the present "island" was in time past really in island.
It would shortly after 1800 days small sandbar appeared in the river opposite St. Louis, north of Piggott’s ferry. Aided by the deposition of yearly floods, the sandbar drew to be a mile long, forming a wedge in the channel which reflected the current towards the Illinois shore, as previously noted in Ernst’s Travels Through Illinois in 1819. Cottonwood trees took root on the bar, affording a screen of foliage which shielded numerous illegal boxing bouts, cock-fights, and deadly duels. Among the famous duels fought on the island was the Benton-Lucas duel of 1817, in which Lucas was killed; the Barton-Rector duel of 1823, in which Joshua Barton was slain; and the Biddle Pettis duel of 1830, in which both participants were slain. So gory indeed were the "affairs of honor" fought on the bar, that it became popularly known as "Bloody Island".
Throughout the second quarter of the 19th-century, the current of the Mississippi, cutting down the Illinois side of the river and filling in at the Missouri side, rapidly increased the size of Bloody Island. By 1830 the harbor at St. Louis became so shallow that it seemed certain that the growth of Bloody Island, if left unchecked, would soon destroy that city’s lucrative river trade.
In 1836, Congress, in response to the pleas of St. Louisans, appropriated $15,000 "with which to give direction to the current of the river near St. Louis." An additional $50,000 was subsequently voted, and Captain Henry Shreve, superintendent of the government force which cleared snags from the river, was engaged to carry out the project. Captain Shreve declined the commission, however, in favor of a young army officer, Robert E. Lee, later commander of the Confederate army. Lee, disgusted with official life at Washington, volunteered his services and 1837 arrived at St. Louis.
Under Lee’s supervision, two dykes were constructed in 1838, one diverted the current from the Illinois shore past Bloody Island and the other directed the water against Duncan's Island and the shoals below St. Louis. Lee's plans worked perfectly and The end of the construction season, some 700 feet of shoals had been washed away, the harbor at St. Louis had deepened, and the Illinois side of the channel had become ten feet shallower. Lee was subsequently promoted to a Captaincy of the Engineers and recalled to Washington.
As time passed, the dykes shifted the river's current so that it eventually ran to the west of Bloody Island. Deposition of sediment on the east side of the island gradually welded the island to the shore. By 1859, Bloody Island had become sufficiently fused to the mainland, so that two railroads, the Alton & Terre Haute and the Ohio & Mississippi were able to construct their terminals on the west bank of the former island. Several ferry companies constructed docks on the reclaimed land and these combined transportational facilities provided the nucleus from which evolved the huge warehouse and railroad terminal section that today extends north and south along the East St. Louis riverfront. The northern tip of Bloody Island extended to what is now the western extremity of Spring Avenue, south to the western extremity of Trendley Avenue. The Illinois approach to the Eads Bridge marks the approximate width of the extinct island.
During the second quarter of the 19th-century, hundreds of pioneers traveling from the east in the great exodus which historians have called the Westward Movement, boomed the ferry business at St. Louis and stimulated the growth of Illinois Town. In 1828, Samuel Wiggins bought a steam-powered boat, the St. Clair, to accommodate the increasing scores of travelers, and shortly after, added a second steamer to his small fleet. A bill posted throughout the region in 1842 declared:
"Mr. Samuel Wiggins is the proprietor of two elegant and substantial steam ferry boats that ply regularly and alternately from the bottom of North H Street to the opposite shore. The great public utility of this mode of conveying persons and property across the Mississippi needs no comment, but gives the enterprising owner a high claim to the patronage of his fellow citizens. The river at the ferry is one mile and one-eighth in width. Above the ferry is an island about one mile and a half in length, containing upwards of 1,000 acres. It belongs to Mr. Wiggins.
The ferry boat was not the only industry that contributed to the early growth of Illinois Town. In 1837, Governor John Reynolds formed a company composed of Samuel B. Chandler, George Walker, Vital Jarrot, and Daniel Pierce, to extract the coal from a property he held on the nearby bluffs. The company, known as the Illinois and St. Louis Line, proposed to freight coal from the bluffs to the market in St. Louis.
The sloughs and swamplands that lay between the bluffs and the river bank, made road construction impractical, and the company decided on rail transportation. The confidence displayed by this decision is staggering to conceive: The men knew nothing of rail engineering and not least among their problems was the spanning of Pittsburg Lake which at that time was 2,000 feet wide. Undaunted by technical considerations, one hundred laborers were hired and the project got underway early in 1837. The grade was built and at Pittsburg Lake piles were driven one on top of another to a depth of eighty feet for the foundation of a bridge. The cost of steel or iron rails from the east was prohibitive, so wooden rails were substituted. Time and again, the company verged on bankruptcy and the resources of the stockholders were gradually drained away.
In the spring of 1838, the Illinois and St. Louis Line was at last completed and a four-horse team drew a car of coal from the bluffs to the river. This rudimentary railroad, if it can be termed a railroad, was the first in the Mississippi Valley.
The Illinois and St. Louis Line did not prosper. Coal had not yet become a staple fuel and the St. Louis demand fell short of the expectations of Governor Reynolds and his associates. After three years of unprofitable operation, the line was sold to the St. Clair Coal Co. at a loss of $18,000. The coal line, through successive changes in ownership, was eventually extended to Belleville and by 1873 it had become an important link in the Illinois Central Railroad’s connection with Cairo and southern Illinois.
The year 1842 marked the advance stages of the tide of immigration which was to reach tremendous heights by 1850. Railroads had not yet penetrated the region, but the overland trails and the steamers on the Ohio opened the West to hundreds of settlers from the East. Illinois Town profited by this expansion and in 1842 the first fixtures indicating a permanent settlement appeared in the form of a newspaper, The American Bottom Gazette, published by Vidal Jarrot, and a public school, built by popular subscription.
On the whole, though, Illinois Town was still in the pioneering stage. There was no established government and the affairs of the settlement were dependent on the civic proclivities of the individual. Log cabins were common and indeed, smooth-planed wooden houses were unusual. The streets were merely widened trails and whenever a chuckhole became too deep for the strength of horses, the nearest citizen would obligingly dump ashes from his fireplace into the cavity. Even as late as 1875, the drinking water used by most of the inhabitants would, on evaporation, leave a crust of alkali within the cup.
Illinois Town of 1844 was a husky river village. The business of the community was concentrated along the waterfront where moved the colorful pageant of democracy’s march on the West. Here were roustabouts from the South, scouts from the Far West, city dwellers from the East, and the dignified pilots who steered the steamers down the uncharted Mississippi. Pilots, due to a shortage of trained men, were members of an enviable profession. It is related that when a pilot felt like working, he would don his high hat and saunter down to the dock where the officials of steamer lines would compete for his services. The pilot’s fee for a single trip to New Orleans sometimes amounted to $1000.
In June of 1844, the river rose to heights which exceeded any previous flood in the memory of pioneer or Indian. The bottle-like Americans Bottoms, extending from Alton to Chester, was completely filled so that steamers were able to take on cargoes at the bluffs east of the present city. Governor John Reynolds floated his herd of eighty cows to St. Louis on a raft. A steamer laden with crockery is said to have sunk near where the Curtis-Steinberg Airport is now located. The only dry land on the Illinois side between the bluffs and St. Louis were the Indian mounds several miles north of the inundated village.
The inhabitants of Illinois Town, warned beforehand of the threatening waters, had sufficient time to remove either to St. Louis or the bluffs. When the waters at last receded, they returned to the debris that remained of their village and set about to create another. Cahokia had been hopelessly devastated by the flood and its decline from that date became a certainty.
While it is idle to speculate about the retardation which the flood of 1844 exerted on the growth of Illinois Town, it has been estimated that it took more than thirty years for the village to regain its former stature. Obviously, settlers were reluctant to locate in an area menaced by each seasonal flood. Citizens of St. Louis were quick to declare that it was impossible to build a town "in the malarial ridden swamps of the east side," and, as late as 1890, newcomers who ventured to the present city were admonished to beware of fever.
Despite its swamps and fevers, Illinois Town managed to survive on the crumbs of the lucrative river trade, then nearing its peak at St. Louis. Although the decline of steamer commerce had been foreshadowed by the construction of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad which in 1857 terminated on Bloody Island, those were the days when more than a thousand steamers plied the Mississippi. In 1842, the tonnage of vessels at St. Louis amounted to 14,725, while at New York, center of steamboat and European shipping, the tonnage was 35,260. Shipyards were unable to meet the demand for more steamers. It is indeed ironic that the steam engine which resulted in the romantic and profitable river era, celebrated in the prose of Mark Twain, was in itself to give rise to a vehicle which would rapidly replace the steamer.
The development of rail transportation at Illinois Town rested purely on geographical factors. Eastern railroads, eager to tap the rich West and to create new markets for eastern factories, aimed at the key city of the middle-west, St. Louis. But the Mississippi presented structural problems which engineers had not yet solved, and, as the river had balked westbound travelers in Captain Piggott’s day, so, in 1857, were the railroads balked at Illinois Town. Within a decade after the first eastern railroad penetrated into this area, ten railroads had established a terminal at Illinois Town. The village rapidly became the western terminus of all eastern roads.
The entrance of the railroads had much to do with the subsequent envelopment of Illinois Town. Warehouses were constructed, iron works were established, and the ferry business boomed overnight. The economic advantages brought by the new mode of transportation gave Illinois Town a secure grip on existence. Laborers flocked to the village, additional homes were built, new shops were established, and the threat of the voracious Mississippi was forgotten in the sudden prosperity.
On January 19, 1859, "A special act to incorporate the Town of Illinois Town, in St. Clair County," was approved by the state assembly. The charter, providing the town with its first government, called for the election of a Police Magistrate, Marshall, four Trustees, and a President. Joseph Griffith, William F. Lee, J. W. Taylor, and W. H. Enfield were appointed to serve as provisional Town Trustees until the act was approved by the citizens. On the first Monday of March, 1859, the act was passed by an almost unanimous vote. On April 4, 1859, the first election of town officers was held and, with 93 votes cast, William Hamilton was elected Police Magistrate, while W. J. Enfield, Samuel W. Toomer, Andrew Wettig, and Henry Jackiesch were elected Trustees. George Johnson was appointed Town Marshall; J. W. Kemp was the Assessor; and Daniel Sexton, having been defeated for Police Magistrate by seven votes, served as Treasurer. Two days after the election, the Trustees met at the Western Hotel.
According to Kennedy’s Sectional Map, Illinois Town of 1859 was smaller than Brooklyn. The town was composed of thirty-two blocks which extended to the south on an even line with Plum Street in St. Louis and to the north on an even line with Locust Street. In fewer words, the South End section of today was Illinois Town of yesterday. Four railroads entered the town, the Belleville R.R., the St. Louis & Alton R.R., the Ohio and Mississippi R.R., and the Alton & Terre Haute R.R., of which the last two named continued to Bloody Island. Although Kennedy’s map indicates that the sand deposits created by Lee’s dykes had almost reached the Illinois shore, Bloody Island had not yet been welded on to the mainland and railroads traveled over bridges to the island.
The boundaries of official Illinois Town were not clearly defined because of the ambiguity of the starting point which, according to the charter, was a "cottonwood tree, 30 inches in diameter, south of the St. Louis, Alton, and Terre Haute Bridge, across Cahokia Creek, thence running north 30 degrees…" The great number of cottonwood trees 30 inches in diameter which grew south of the railroad bridge plunged citizen-surveyors into confusion and gave rise to numerous disputes.
Ten months after Illinois Town had been incorporated, in November 1859, Messrs. Aspinwall, Comstock, & Chauncey of New York platted a town which was named East St. Louis, on a site formerly owned by John Jacob Astor of New York, Edward Hempstead of St. Louis, and the heirs of the Richard McCarthy estate. The new town was located just east of Cahokia Creek and Illinois Town, on slightly elevated table-land which offered prospective residents a measure of immunity from the seasonal floods of the Mississippi.
The state legislature granted Illinois Town a second charter in 1861 which extended the corporate limits and provided for an election to change the name of the community to East St. Louis. The last named proposition was warmly contested and, as described by a contemporary, "caused one of the most spirited elections ever held in this locality. Everyone capable of carrying a ballot to the polls, and allowed to do so, dropped his decision into the jealously guarded box."
The strategy behind the second charter issued to Illinois Town was doubtlessly beclouded by local issues of that day but at this distance it is apparent that in granting Illinois Town extended corporate limits, the charter thereby destroyed the identity of Illinois Town. At one fell stroke, the smaller town, East St. Louis, absorbed the larger, older town. The charter was approved and Illinois Town, in name, came to an abrupt end. An interesting sidelight on the election which resulted in the change of the town’s name was related in an address given by Mayor John B. Bowman on July 4, 1876. According to Mayor Bowman:
"Illinois City was the most popular among the better class of citizens and it was thought this name would carry beyond all question…But those advocating the name ‘East St. Louis’, seeing that by a fair election their chance was hopeless, resorted to a trick. The old C. & M. Railroad was doing some grading out near the bluffs and had in their employ about 80 men. These men were here today and gone tomorrow and cared nothing about the name of the town, but with the loose election laws of the time they would be allowed to vote. A few men from the ‘East St. Louis party went out to where the train was loading and with a little money and plenty of whiskey got a pledge from every man, and put a ticket in his hand to vote for ‘East St. Louis" , thus carrying the election by a few votes…"
As a matter of historical record, the name East St. Louis was approved by exactly seventy-nine votes.
Indicative of the trend toward city stature, the first sidewalk in East St. Louis was laid on August 27, 1862. The walk, consisting of two planks six-inches wide placed parallel to each other, was built along the southeast side of Collinsville from Broadway to Illinois Avenue. Collinsville Avenue, the principal business thoroughfare of the present city, takes its name from a toll road that was constructed between Collinsville and East St. Louis in 1852 by the Collinsville Plank Road Company.
At an undetermined date following the Civil War, the Wiggins Ferry Company subdivided a large portion of Bloody Island into lots for homes and shops. The Wiggins Ferry Company, having incorporated for one million dollars in 1852, had by this date become one of the wealthiest industries in Illinois. Among its holdings at East St. Louis was a rock wharf which extended for almost a mile along the river front.
On January 17, 1865, the city council appointed a committee of four—Oeblike, Bowman, Kase, and Millard—to draft a city charter. The charter was drawn, approved by the state legislature, and, on April 10, 1865, elections were held and John B. Bowman became the city’s first mayor. John O’Connell, Michael Murphy, Henry Schall, James Hazen, John Trendly, and John B. Lovingston were elected to serve as aldermen. During the same year, the city’s first fire-company was organized.
At that time, East St. Louis was about three miles square. Cahokia Creek, following its approximate present course, divided the city into east and west sections. "The part west contains the city harbor and the several railroad depots; the part east contains the older settled portion of the city, the several railroad shops, iron-rail mills, etc., and is a mart for the greatest portion of the trafficking done within the whole limits. Both parts are at present connected with but one thoroughfare, the dyke; another is being constructed 400 yards north of and parallel to it. It will be known as Christy Avenue, being an extension of a street by that name issuing opposite the middle of the Carr Street ferry landing."
John B. Bowman, first mayor of the city, was an original and forceful personality. Born in Germany in 1832, he was educated at the University of Heidelberg and, after taking part in a rebellion during 1848, fled to America. Ambitious and intelligent, Bowman lost no time finding his niche in the developing middle west. In succession he became private secretary, postmaster at Knob Noster, Mo., school teacher, justice of the peace, and agent for the Connecticut Land Company.
Shortly after 1858, Bowman located at Illinois Town and subsequently became the town’s most prominent citizen. A qualified civil engineer, he made the first reliable map of the city and in 1865, the year in which he drew up the city charter of East St. Louis, he started the East St. Louis Gazette. Besides a successful career in politics during which he was seven times elected mayor, Bowman conducted a large real estate business, and served as attorney for the Wiggins Ferry Co., the National Stock Yards, and the Vandalia Railroad.
In Bowman’s time, city politics were of primary interest to each and every citizen. As described by a contemporary historian, "there were many warm arguments and many heated elections. Railroad men, rolling mill men, English, Welsh, and Irish, some descendents of the early French pioneers, a few Americans, a sprinkling of Germans, detachments of the negro exodus from the South that followed the soldiers home from the Civil War, all these made up an incongruous mass, ready and eager for political strife, divided into warring factions as their self-interest dictated, managed for years to keep up so great a turmoil that the name of East St. Louis became synonymous throughout the country with misgovernment."
Time and again, Bowman strove to unite the "warring factions" for civic good. Thus, he incurred the enmity of ruthless groups who saw in him the sole impediment to their political designs. On the evening of November 20, 1885, John B. Bowman was slain by an assassin as he entered the yard of his residence on north Tenth Street. The murderer was never captured and the $5,000 reward posted for his apprehension was later used to purchase the bust of the ill-fated mayor now in the city library at 9th and State Streets. In accordance with his will, John Bowman was buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, Mo., with his face toward East St. Louis.
At this date it is apparent that a sinister group desired to control every movement of the young city. Their names and purposes may have been obscured by the passing years, but that they were sometimes successful is evident in the events that occurred during John B. Bowman’s life. An historian of that era noted: "Powerful and influential interests, who heretofore viewed with jealousy and extreme disfavor the growth of a city where East St. Louis now rears up, are tired of the contest and are arranging their course more in the parts of the general welfare." These conclusions were premature. If the historian had waited but another decade he would have written that the interests were not tired of the contest and that their conformance to a policy for the general welfare was merely a maneuver in their struggle for power.
The first city council of East St. Louis passed an ordinance on May 15, 1865, to establish and regulate a police force. In pursuance of this act, a small police force was set up under the jurisdiction of the councilmen. On February 22, 1867, a Metropolitan Police Bill applicable to East St. Louis was passed by the state legislature. The bill was similar to the ordinance previously adopted by the city council, except that it provided that the three commissioners in charge of the police force be appointed by the governor of the state. In short, the bill proposed to strip the city council of all control over the police department.
Despite repudiation by the council and a majority of citizens, the bill became law and three commissioners were subsequently appointed by the Governor. A resolution drawn up by the city council in 1867 read:
"Whereas, certain persons are claiming to render service to this city as private policemen, as lieutenants, as captains of police, and as police commissioners, etc., with a view to payment from this city for such service, but without being employed by authority of the law creating this city; and, whereas, such services of said persons are neither necessary or desired by the municipal authorities of this city, but are attempted to be foisted upon the people against their will and the pretext of authority inconsistent with the principals of a government of free people alike dangerous to life, liberty, and prosperity; therefore, be it resolved by the city council of the city of East St. Louis: (1) That the lawful authorities of the city of East St. Louis deny the right of any person or persons to exercise the powers of city police who do not derive their authority from the charter of this city or the ordinaces made in pursuance thereof; (2) that the city clerk forewith notify in writing the said several persons claiming to act as private policemen, lieutenants, and as captains of police, as police commisioners, so-called, as clerkers, as treasurer, as attorneys, and as other agents or servants of said commissioners, etc., that their services are not, were not, wanted by the city, and that no payment for such services will be made by this or from the funds of the municipal government."
For a time it seemed that the Metropolitan Police Board would be forced to dissolve for want of funds. The wily commissioners solved the problem of finances, however, by issuing scrip to pay for wages and supplies. Although the scrip bore ten per cent annual interest, it depreciated rapidly and soon passed from circulation. Public sales of the scrip were held in East St. Louis and Belleville, and a small quantity was sold at from ten to thirty cents on the dollar.
Failing to market the scrip legitimately, the commissioners attempted to force the paper into circulation through an association of saloonkeepers which they formed. The saloons were supplied with scrip at nominal prices which in turn was tendered to the municipal governments in payment for saloon licenses. The city of course refused to honor the discredited scrip, and the county court was soon burdened with the suits and countersuits of the city and the saloon-keepers.
In the election of 1868, every candidate opposed to the Metropolitan Police was elected. Under the leadership of Mayor Bowman, the council immediately passed an ordinance which prohibited the operation of all saloons within the corporate limits of East St. Louis. The act was expressly aimed at the saloon-keeper’s association.
And so the struggle for power waged back and forth. At times the Metropolitan Police won the day, and at times the city council would clear the field. In 1870, the Supreme Court of Illinois ruled that the Metropolitan Police Commissioners were not corporate authorities of the city and therefore had no taxing authority. Despite this reverse, the commissioners refused to disband.
In the election of 1877, the Metropolitan Police entered the campaign with a ticket compoased of candidates who upheld the Metropolitan Police. In a stormy election, Bowman’s party was elected. The opposing party, declaring that the election was fraudulent, captured the police station and set up a second city government. On a Sunday afternoon in July, 1877, several members of Bowman’s party, thinking that the police station was not garrisoned, advanced to recapture the building. As they crossed the sunlit street, gun-fire spurted from a second-story window in the station and two of the Bowman City Marshalls, Connors and Neville, were killed.
A short time later, the state Supreme Court held that the election of 1877 had not been conducted properly and Bowman’s party was removed from office. Thus, after a decade of turmoil, it seemed that the Metropolitan Police had at last wrested control from the authorized representatives of the people. The victory was short-lived, however, for in April 1879, the Supreme Court of Illinois ruled that the Metropolitan Police Bill was unconstitutional. Mayor Bowman was returned to office and the body politic of East St. Louis was reduced to one legally constituted authority.
Meanwhile, a second and equally fierce struggle had been waged between the High Graders and the Low Graders. The causa bellum dated back to a council meeting in February, 1871, when Bowman, then a council member, introduced a resolution to elevate the city grade above the high water mark of 1844. The council considered the cost of the project to be prohibitive, and the resolution was rejected.
The rejected plan was subsequently publicized in Bowman’s newspaper, the East St. Louis Gazette, and hundreds of citizens rallied to the High Grade cause. It was seen that the elevated grade would give the city adequate protection against the floods of the Mississippi, besides providing an excellent drainage system.
In opposition to the High Grade, the Low Grade party composed of the same forces favoring the Metropolitan Police, decried the cost of the proposal ($900,000) and urged that the city streets remain at low grade.
The election of March 7, 1874, routed the High Graders. John Bowman remained as mayor, however, and redoubled his efforts to have the plan approved. At his direction, white belts were painted on the city hall, "showing the stage of water at that point during the floods of 1844, 1851, and 1858." The Gazette, meanwhile, printed melodramatic stories of floods that had occurred in other parts of the county, and public sentiment was skillfully won to the High Grade plan.
On December 3, 1874, the city council passed an ordinance to establish a permanent grade for highways of the city. In part, the ordinance read: "The grade of all streets, highways, and avenues shall be eight feet above the city directix…No part of the necessary filling of streets, to grade, shall at any time become the subject of any special assessment or extra taxation, but the filling up to grade shall be proceeded with only so fast as the ordinary revenue and the constitutionally limited credit of the city will permit."
When spring came and the weather became sufficiently temperate for construction of the high grade, the project was stopped by a last minute maneuver of the Low Graders who, on March 10, 1875, obtained an injunction which enjoined and restrained the city council "from proceeding to let any contract or prosecute any work under or in pursuance of Resolution No. 384, or ordinance No. 256 of said city council."
By judicious use of diplomacy, patronage, and compromise, the objections of the Low Graders were gradually removed and in September 1875, the injunction was withdrawn. Shortly after, Spring Avenue was graded up to its present height, and in succession, Front Street, Broadway, Collinsville Avenue, and Main Street were raised to eight feet above the city directix. At the present day, quarry-like vacant lots pit the down-town district, a reminder that the city’s streets are from eight to twelve feet above the level of the plain.
The tranquility of East St. Louis during the seventies was not shattered by political storms alone: At two o’clock on the afternoon of March 8, 1871, an eighty mile an hour wind ripped into the city and damaged shops, homes, wharves, ferries, and railroad depots. The Eads Bridge, then under construction, was damaged to the extent of $20,000. Witnesses declared that the wind lifted a locomotive from its tracks and hurled it down an embankment. The full strength of the storm was centered in the area bounded by First Street and Tenth Street on the south, and between the river-front and Broadway on the east. Sixteen buildings were demolished and six persons were killed.
East St. Louis took the cyclone in stride. The damage was rapidly repaired and forgotten in the ensuing hurly-burly of industrial expansion. Some four months after the storm, a group of eastern Capitalists headed by Allerton, Dutcher, and Moore, ex-proprietors of the National Stockyards of New York City, purchased a 400 acre tract north of the city and began negotiating for the construction of a stockyards. It was finally agreed that in return for freedom from municipal control, the directors of the proposed stockyards would erect a hotel costing not less than $100,000. Construction began on June 1, 1872, and the stockyards were completed on November 20, 1873. True to their agreement, the Allerton House, now the National Hotel, was built at a cost of $105,000, and to this day, East St. Louis has never extended its corporate limits to include the territory occupied by the stockyards.
To provide transportation from St. Louis to the stockyards, an ordinance passed on January 17, 1872, authorized the East St. Louis Railway Company to operate horse-cars from the Eads Bridge to the stockyards. The line, running along Broadway, Front Street, and Collinsville Avenue, was the first to locate in the city.
East St. Louis had by this date all but emerged from the post-pioneer stage. The foundations had been laid and the city was well on the way to its present stature. As Robert Tyson noted, in the florid rhetoric of that age, "Coal fields surrounded us and poured their treasures in long trainsof cars hourly into our laps. The equally grand and extensive iron mountains of Missouri are convenient distance and at no distant day their huge uncouth masses will meet at our workshops the civilizing influence of our own Black Diamonds, to issue forth again as articles of commerce, instruments of usefulness, and elements of wealth and prosperity."
Tyson’s observations, in the light of succeeding years, were quite accurate. East St. Louis because of its railroads and its proximity to rich coal fields, was to develop into the greatest manufacturing center in southern Illinois. A grain elevator with a capacity of 800,000 bushels was erected in 1873, and, in the following year, the Elliot Frog & Switch Company located its shops in the South End of the city. Vital Jarrot, son of Cahokia’s Major Jarrot, was a prominent business man of the times. He had interests in real estate, a newspaper, a bank, and a cooperative rail mill. He served as mayor in 1869, and is still remembered by older residents as a man of charming manners and aristocratic bearing.
Ice obtained from the frozen Mississippi was a thriving industry in the East St. Louis of 1870. Of the James A. Smith ice-house at Cahokia and St. John Streets, Robert Tyson wrote: "These monster houses hold nineteen thousand tons of ice. The same kind of plows, elevators, and other tools used on the Hudson river in obtaining supplies, are here employed on the Mississippi for the same purpose. These houses were filled last year (1874) in exactly eleven days." According to Tyson, ice from the Mississippi, besides supplying the demand of local pork-packers, was shipped to Belleville, Mobile, Shreveport, and Texarkana.
In 1873, Luke H. Hite, member of the state legislature from St. Clair County, introduced a bill to establish courts of record in and for cities containing more than 5,000 inhabitants. The bill was actively opposed by conservative lawyers and county-seat politicians but on March 26th, 1874, a majority prevailed and the act was signed by Governor Beveredge. Four months later, the bill was approved by the citizens of East St. Louis and the city council passed an ordinance providing for the election of a judge and clerk "on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of September, 1874, and every four years thereafter." In the first election, Daniel McGowan became judge and Thomas Hanifan, clerk. The court was formally opened on November 9, 1874.
In the remaining decades of the 19th-Century, the rise of industrial East St. Louis paralleled the decline of East St. Louis the river town. The steamer as a freight and passenger carrier was rapidly displaced during those years by the locomotive. The ferry business, despite the completion of the Eads Bridge in 1874, managed to hold its own, largely because there is truth in the popular belief that a controlling interest in the bridge was owned by one of the large ferry companies. The change from the steamer to the locomotive effected corresponding changes in East St. Louis society. New factories continued to locate locally and the river front ceased to be the focal point of the city’s existence. The entrepreneur replaced the pilot; the laborer replaced the roustabout.
Industrial war, an event unknown in the American Bottoms, flared first in 1886, when in April of that year the employees of the East St. Louis division of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad went out on strike. The railroad company, anticipating trouble, commissioned twenty men as deputy sherifs, armed them, and sent them out to guard the railroad property. On the morning of April 9th, the strikers gathered on the Cahokia Creek Bridge, and, when an L and N train came near, stoned the engineer and fireman so accurately that the train was forced to return to the roundhouse. Company officials immediately ordered the twenty deputies to disperse the crowd so that the train might pass.
On arriving at the bridge the deputies called on the crowd to disband and received in reply a shower of stones. Unfortunately a deputy lost control of himself and fired at a striker, who, bending to pick up a stone, fell to the ground dead. At this, the inexperienced guards became panic-stricken and volleyed into the crowd, killing six and wounding a number of others. The infuriated mob rushed down to the demoralized deputies, who fled across the Eads Bridge to St. Louis where they were placed in jail and held for the court.
By 1890 the number of inhabitants exceeded 16,000. The outlying villages of New Brighton, Dutch Hill, and Papstown were absorbed in succession as the city expanded from the river towards the eastern bluffs. The streets in the business section were lighted by electricity in 1890 and, during the same year, the East St. Louis Daily Journal began publishing a daily newspaper. Significant of its coming of age, a race-horse track was constructed in 1892 at the intersection of the Southern Railroad and the Illinois Central Railroad south of 8th and Piggot Avenue. So successful were the races, that the meet continued through the winter months. The grandstand and betting ring were enclosed in glass and heated by coal stoves.
As the flood of 1844 had all but demolished Illinois Town, so too the cyclone which on May 27, 1896, drove into the city like battery fire and demolished the area bordering Broadway from the river to the Cahokia Creek viaduct. The present business section was severely damaged. Fire broke out and raged unchecked. Steamers foundered in the Mississippi and the entire east approach of the Eads Bridge was torn away. The residential district on "the island" was demolished. One hundred and eight persons were killed and over two-hundred were wounded. Among the dead was Thomas Griffin, a survivor of the celebrated charge made by the Light Brigade at Balaklava during the Crimean War.
A relief fund of $90,000, contributed by neighboring communities, enabled rescue workers to restore order to the shattered city. The principal residential district had fortunately been outside the cyclone’s path, but the "island" district, hopelessly damaged, was henceforth to be rebuilt solely as an industrial area.
It is doubtful that East St. Louis would have recovered from the cyclone within a decade, had not the city shared in the feverish industrial expansion which began in the midle-west during the years that bridged the last and the present century. Despite the deleterious effects of the cyclone, the population of East St. Louis numbered 29,316 at the opening of the Twetieth Century.
The years that followed were prosperous: The Armour plant was completed in 1903, employing 2,500 workers; the Central Brewery began production, employing 500 workers; and the large St. Louis Cotton Compress Company moved its warehouses to this city. In the year 1903, 170 business places and 2,600 homes were built. An acute housing shortage existed and some 1,000 workers, unable to find dwellings locally, commuted between this city and St. Louis.
Land for the Aluminum Ore Company, now the largest industry in the city, was purchased in 1902, and production of aluminum oxide began on May 2, 1903. As related by a company official, "employees could step out of the front door of the office and within a few feet pick apples from the trees...at the point now occupied by the cooking utensil company, stood a wharf where an excursion steamer landed to take on passengers in summer…at what is now the yard switching office, flowed a spring where farmers took their livestock for water. Shortly after the beginning of operations, flood waters covered the area about the property to such an extent that seepage filled the ash tunnels in the power-house..."
The flood which impaired operations at the Aluminum Ore Company, had first threatened on June 6, 1903, when circulars were broadcast calling on each resident to report for work at the dykes. Over a thousand volunteers responded and in forty-eight hours the dykes had been raised several feet above the churning waters. On Monday, June 8th, it was announced that the crest of the flood had been reached. The elated flood workers returned home and life in the city resumed its ordinary pace.
On June 10th, the dykes north of East St. Louis dissolved before the flood and the Mississippi roared into the city streets. One-fourth of East St. Louis was submerged. Hundreds of cattle, caught in pens at the stockyards, perished. Of the nineteen persons drowned, fifteen men were trapped while at work in a steel foundry. Over 8,000 refugees fled to St. Louis where they were housed until the flood receded.
The flood served to remind each resident that East St. Louis would time and again be inundated unless the Mississippi were securely shackled. The ensuing clamor for adequate protection resulted in the formation of the East Side Levee and Sanitary District which, in 1907, was organized by a special act of the General Assembly. The Levee Board, as the body was and is popularly called, was empowered to construct a system of canals and levees throughout the northern part of the American Bottoms, with funds obtained by taxing property within the area.
After the district had been mapped and surveyed, a canal was dug north of East St. Louis to relieve small Cahokia Creek of draining some 259 square miles. The dirt removed in excavating the canal was used to construct the first link of a huge levee which extends from the bluffs below Alton to the river and thence south along the Mississippi to within three and a half miles north of East St. Louis. Another levee, built south of the city, parallels the river to Prarie du Pont and thence continues vertically to the bluffs.
In the years that followed, the seasonal floods which had regularly found East St. Louis easy prey, were turned aside by the levees and sent swirling harmlessly past the city. Thus, the source of an ever present danger which had disturbed the security of American Bottom inhabitants for centuries, was removed and forgotten in a single decade.
By 1905, East St. Louis had become the third largest city in the state. Ranged along the lines of the twenty-seven railroads which entered the city, were some fifty factories which produced spikes, stoves, aluminum chemicals, glucose, baking-powder, glass, pneumatic tools, cotton-oil, frogs and switches, concrete blocks, and locomotives. The incoming laborers swelled the population and the city expanded to the north, east, and south. The subdivisions of Lansdowne, East Lansdowne, and Harding Heights were annexed in 1908. The census of two years later numbered 64,540 inhabitants.
It was natural that social irregularities appeared following the period of rapid municipal growth. Large blocks of inexperienced voters allowed unscrupulous politicians to accomplish sinister designs which would have been perceived in a smaller or more homogenous community. A section comparable to San Francisco’s Barbary Coast or New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, sprang up along St. Clair Avenue from the Black Bridge to First Street, where gross moral and legal abuses existed because of the apparent apathy of responsible officials. Commonly called the Whiskey Chute because of the many gallons of liquor consumed therein, the section contained saloons known by such enlightening names as the Monkey Cage, The Bucket of Blood, Uncle John's Pleasure Palace, and Aunt Kate’s Honky Tonk.
On October 19, 1916, according to the East St. Louis Daily Journal, "…fifteen hundred negroes arrived in East St. Louis on special trains from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and other southern parts, who were too late to register at the various polling places, are looking for work…" This incident was indicative of the unholy alliance which industry and politics had by this time formed for respective gain. Advertisements placed in southern newspapers, extolling the industrial opportunities which existed locally, prompted hundreds of negroes to come to East St. Louis. The unsuspecting immigrants were then used to swell the labor market and thus depress wages; to ambitious politicians, the newcomers represented blocks of votes which swayed municipal and county elections.
Essentially an outgrowth of competitive production, racial hatred smoldered in the city and was rapidly fanned to white heat by a series of events which occurred during 1917. The intense rivalry that existed between white worker and negro worker, spread from the factory into the streets and into the very homes of the city. Minor altercations between white and black were swelled by rumor into veritable causa bella. In the spring of 1917, the mob spirit, like a mad man straining at his bonds, seethed under the day-to-day countenance of the city.
On the night of July 1, 1917, an unidentified car sped thorugh the Negro district, shooting sporadically into the open doors of several houses. A mob of Negroes formed and a car containing several policemen was sent to preserve order. The police were met by shots. As their automobile turned to avoid further trouble, a ragged volley tore into the tonneau, killing two passengers.
The bullet-riddled car, parked at the curb before the police station, was viewed by hundreds of persons the following day. Soon after the evening edition of the paper appeared, in which the murder of the policemen was reported, small groups of armed men began to range the down-town streets. By night-fall, several negroes had been beaten. As the night progressed, open warfare raged between the races and the city became beset by bitter guerilla operations.
Intermittent rioting occurred on the two following days, and on the evening of July 4, 1917, the struggle reached its climax. The torch was applied to scores of houses, and gun-fire sounded throughout the night. Hundreds of negroes fled to St. Louis and Brooklyn.
Order was tardily restored by the state militia, but it was several months before the city regained its normal way of life.
The riot and its subsequent congressional investigation served to focus attention on the city’s discredited aldermanic system of government. Sentiment for political reform rapidly crystallized and the commission form of government was approved at a special election. In April, 1919, elections were held and M. M. Stephens became the first mayor under the new government. Arthur O’Leary, Wm. J. Veach, Fred Leber, and M. J. Whalen were elected commissioners.
Throughout the second quarter of the 20th-Century, the affairs of East St. Louis fell into well ordered grooves, as the era of expansion was succeeded by an era of stability. Having passed throguh a stormy adolescense, the city now entered maturity. Gradual improvements were sought, won, and incorporated into the municipal structure. The school system was ameliorated by the construction of several junior high schools, and the park system began preliminary work on a vast project that was to convert a stagnant lake and dumping ground into the most elaborate park in southern Illinois (Lake Park).
By 1930 the population had risen to 74,347.
Acutely sensitive to the pace of national industry, the city was greatly distressed by the slump that followed the stock market crash of 1929. The fires in factory furnaces burned out and hundreds of idle workers walked the streets. But the people of parents who had weathered flood and cyclone, came through the dark depression years undamaged in essence. With the revival of production in 1936, the city returned to its normal economic level. The commodities issuing yearly from East St. Louis industries are today valued at eighty million dollars.
East St. Louis of 1937 is a monument to builders who, despite veritable hell and high water, erected a solid middle-western city where once were dank marshes. The history of East St. Louis might well have been written in terms of the pirogue, ferry steamer, and, more recently, the locomotive. The location of two airports near the present day municipality may indicate that the future history of East St. Louis will be written in terms of the airplane.
FWP field worker Arthur Moore