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Gateway Of The Southwest St. Louis

( Originally Published 1913 )

THERE are three great cities, or rather three groups of great cities, along the course of the Mississippi. To the north are St. Paul and Minneapolis, while far to the south is New Orleans, to which we will come in the due order of things. Between these St. Louis stands, close to the business center of the land. For nearly twenty miles she sprawls herself along the west bank of the Mississippi. Throughout her central portion she extends for a dozen miles straight back from her once busy levee. She is a great city, a very great city, in wealth, in industry, in resource. And yet she is a rather unimpressive city to the eye, at first sight and at last.

It takes even a seasoned traveler some time to get used to that. If he dreams of St. Louis as a French city and preserving something of the French atmosphere, as do New Orleans and Quebec, he is doomed to utter disappointment. Save for a few tatterdemalion cottages down in Carondolet, at the south tip of the town, there is no trace of the builders of the city to which they gave the name of one of their kings. And if he has heard of the great German population and dreams of great summer-gardens, of winter-gardens, too, with huge bands and huge steins, he is doomed to no less disappointment. For that sort of thing you go to Milwaukee. St. Louis has as many Germans as that brisk Wisconsin city, and the largest brewery in the world, but she has never specialized in beer-gardens. She is old and yet you could hardly call her quaint. There are rows of small houses in her older streets, their green blinds tightly closed as if seemingly to escape the almost endless bath of soot and cinders that falls upon them, and the flat-bottomed steamboats still are fastened at the wharf-boats along the levee. But these make a pitiful showing nowadays when your mind compares them with the tales of ante-bellum days when there were so many of them that they could only put the noses of their bows against the levees. But tradition still rules the hearts of the rivermen, and the Mississippi steamboat has lost none of those fantastics of naval architecture that has endeared it to every writer from Mark Twain down to the present day.

The streets aroundabout the levee are mean and dirty, and nowadays as silent as the Sabbath. Those convivial resorts, the Widow's Vow and the Boatman's Thirst have long since ceased to exist. As this is being written the Southern Hotel has closed its doors. Cobwebs are growing through its wonderful office, and the glorious marble stair up which a regiment might have marched is silent, save for the occasional halting steps of a watch-man. The old Planters'— than which there was no more famous hostelry in the Mississippi valley, unless we choose to except the St. Charles down at New Orleans — is long since gone, torn away twenty years ago to make room for a new Planters', which has already be-gun to get grimy and aged. The Lindell went its way a dozen years ago. The St. Louis of the riverman is dead. They are tearing away the old warehouses from the levees, and no one looks at the Mississippi any more save when it gets upon one of its annual rampages and makes itself a yellow sea.

But do not for an instant think that St. Louis herself is dead. There are other hotels, and far finer than those of the war-times and the river-trade. And you have only to walk a few squares back from the levee to find industry flourishing once again, solid squares of solid buildings, grimy, commercial, uncompromising, but each representing commerce. St. Louis is still the very center of the world to the great Southwest and to her it pays its tribute, in demands for merchandise of every sort. That is why She builds shoe stores and dry goods stores and wholesale stores of almost every other conceivable sort, and builds them for eight or ten or twelve stories in height, closely huddled together, even through unimportant side streets. That is her reason for existence to-day — when the river-trade, her first reason for growth and expansion, is dead. But the railroad is a living, vital force, when the rivers are frozen and dead, and railroads slip out from St. Louis in every possible direction. Their rails are glistening from traffic, and there at the city from whence they radiate Commerce sits enthroned.

For you must look upon St. Louis, yesterday and to-day, as essentially a commercial city. She is not a cultured city, although she has an excellent press, including a weekly newspaper of more than ordinary distinction. Still you will find few real bookshops in all her many miles of streets, she has never leaned to fads or cults of any sort ; but she measures the percentage which a business dollar will earn with a delightful ac-curacy. She is a commercial city. That is why she is to the casual traveler an unimpressive city, although we think that her lack of a dignified main street in her business section is responsible for much of this impression. In other years Broadway — Fifth street upon her city plan and a fearfully long thoroughfare running parallel to the river — ranked almost as a main street and had some dignity, if little beauty. But today St. Louis, like so many other of our American towns, is restless and she has slipped back and away from Broadway, leaving that thoroughfare somewhat forlorn and deserted and herself without a single great business thoroughfare — such as Market street, San Francisco or State street, Chicago. Her downtown streets are narrow and as much alike as peas in a pod.

And yet even a casual traveler can find much to interest him in St. Louis. Let him start his inspection of the levee, let romance and sentiment and memory work within his mind. Let his fancy see the riverboats and then he, himself, inspect one of them. Here is one of them, gay in her ginger-bready architecture. Her stacks rise high above her " Texas " but they are placed ahead of her wheel-house, a fancy peculiar to the old naval architects along the Mississippi. She is driven by sidewheels and if our casual traveler goes upon her he will find that each sidewheel is driven by a separate engine, a marvelous affair painted in reds and blues and yellows. With one engine going ahead and the other reversed a really capable Mississippi pilot — and who shall doubt that a Mississippi river pilot, even in these decadent days, is ever anything less than capable — could send the boat spinning like a top upon the yellow stream. That pretty trick would hardly be possible with one of the flat-bottomed stern wheel boats, and there still are hundreds of these upon the Father of Waters and his tributaries, moving slowly and serenely up and down and all with a mighty splashing of dirty water.

If you are a casual traveler and upon your first visit to the Mississippi valley, you will make a mental reservation to ride upon one of the old boats before you leave St. Louis. They may not be there so very many more years. The steel barges have begun to show themselves, and commerce is looking inquiringly at the idle stream to see if it cannot be brought into real efficiency as a transportation agent. And before you leave that levee, with the grass growing up between its ancient stones, you will find a very small and a very dirty sidewalk that leads from it up into and upon the great Eads bridge.

St. Louis does not think very much of the Eads bridge these days. Yet it was only a few years ago that it was bragging about that wonderful conception of the engineer — who had finally spanned the lordly Mississippi and right at his chief city. But other bridges have come, two huge ungainly railroad structures to the north and a public bridge to the south — that is, it will be a public bridge if the voters of St. Louis ever cease quarreling about it. At the present time it is hardly a bridge, only a great span over the water and for long months absolutely unprovided with approaches because the tax payers of St. Louis refuse to vote the funds for its completion. So it is that the Eads bridge is today but a single agency out of three or four for the spanning of the river; it, too, has grown grimy in forty years and the railroad travelers who come across through its lower deck only remember that from it there leads under the heart of the city of St. Louis one of the smokiest railroad tunnels in existence and that is saying much.

But the fact remains that it was the first structure to span the river, and to end the importunities of the unspeakable ferry. And today it is, with all of its grime, the one impressive feature of downtown St. Louis. It is the only wagonway that leads from the sovereign state of Illinois into the sovereign city of St. Louis. Across its upper deck passes at all hours of the day and far into the night a silent parade of trolley cars, mule teams, automobiles, farm trucks, folk of every sort and description, on foot. It is as interesting as London bridge and a far finer piece of architecture. But the modern St. Louis has all but forgotten it, save when it chooses to take a motor run across the Illinois prairies.

The casual traveler finally turns his back upon the river and its oldest bridge, although not without some regret if any real sentiment dwells within him. He threads his way through the narrow streets of downtown St. Louis and finally he enters the oldest residential part, the streets still narrow but the houses of rather a fine sort, many of them transformed into small shops or given these days to lodgers. They are of a type somewhat peculiar to the town. They were built high and rather narrow and as a rule set upon a terrace and detached. Builded of brick, the fancy of those old time architects seemed to turn almost invariably to a faηade of marble, an unblushing and unashamed veneer to the street, with the side walls humble and honest in dark red brick. Steps and lintels were of marble or what must have been marble in the beginning. A Philadelphia housewife would quail beneath the steady bath of smoke and cinders that falls upon St. Louis.

There are many thousands of these red-brick and white-marble houses, finally important cross streets, such as Jefferson and Grand, and then you come into the newer St. Louis — a residential district of which any city might well be proud. In the newer St. Louis the houses are more modern and more attractive perhaps, due partly to the fact that they are farther away from the river and the great factories and railroad yards that line it. You can trace the varying fads in American house architecture in layers as you go back street by street in the new St. Louis — Norman, Italian Renaissance, American Colonial, Elizabethan — all like the slices in a fat layer-cake. Some of the more pretentious of these houses are grouped in great parks or reservations which give to the public streets by entrance gates and are known as Westminster place, or Vandeventer place, or the like. They form a most charming feature of the planning of St. Louis, and one almost as distinctive as the tidy alleys which act as serviceways to all the houses. The houses themselves are almost invariably set in lawns, although there are many fine apartments and apartment hotels. The fearful monotony of the side street of New York or Philadelphia does not exist within the town.

At the rear of these fine streets of the newer St. Louis stands the chief park of the town, not very distinctive and famed chiefly as the site of the biggest World's Fair that was ever held, " considerably larger than that Chicago affair," your loyal resident will tell you. Our individual fancy rather turns to Tower Grove Park and the Botanical Gardens just adjoining it. Tower Grove is in no very attractive section of St. Louis, and as an example of landscape gardening it is rather lugubrious, little groups of stones from the old Southern Hotel, which was burned many years ago and was a fearful tragedy, being set here and there. But intangibly it breathes the spirit of St. Louis, and hard by is the Botanical Gardens that Henry Shaw gave ta the city in which he was for so many years a dominating figure. And for even a casual traveler to go to St. Louis and never see Shaw's Gardens is almost inconceivable.

In the first place, it is an excellent collection of plants and of trees and of exceeding interest to those folk who let their tastes carry them that way. And in the second place, Henry Shaw was so typical of the old St. Louis that you must stop for a moment and remember him. You must think of the steady purpose of the man visiting all the great gardens of Europe and then seeking to create one that should outrank all of them, in the mud-bog of St. Louis. For the St. Louis of war-times, the St. Louis to which Shaw gave his benefaction was little more than a bog. And Americans of those days laughed at parks. True there was Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, but the Fairmount Park of those days was a fantastic idea and hardly to be compared with the Fairmount Park of today. Henry Shaw went much farther than the banks of the Schuylkill, although he must have known and appreciated John Bartram's historic gardens there.

Shaw was only forty years of age when he retired from business. He had saved through his keen business acumen and a decent sense of thrift, a quarter of a million dollars - a tremendous fortune for those days. He was quite frank in saying that he thought that $250; 000 was all that a man could honestly earn or honestly possess, and he retired to enjoy his fortune as best it might please him to do. He traveled far and wide through Europe, and upon one of the earliest of those trips he visited the World's Fair of 1851, at the Crystal Palace, London ; one of the very first of these inter-national exhibitions. He was impressed not so much by the exhibits as by the fine park in which the Crystal Palace stood. A little later he was a guest at Chatsworth House, that splendid English home given by William the Conqueror to his natural son, William Peveril, and he became a frequent visitor at Kew Gardens. It was at that time he decided to make a botanical garden out of the place which he had just purchased outside of St. Louis.

Henry Shaw must have remembered his boyhood days in St. Louis and the wonderful garden of Madame Rosalie Saugrain. In those earlier days St. Louis was small enough in population but large enough in the material for social enjoyment. The French element was still dominant, although Madame Saugrain was comparatively a newcomer, an accomplished lady who had brought the manners and tastes of Paris into the wilds of western America. Her garden, which was then in open country beyond the struggling town, was close to what is today Seventh street, St. Louis. Great skyscrapers and solid warehouses have sprung up where formerly Madame's roses and hollyhocks bloomed, and one would have to go weary blocks to find a spear of grass, unless within some public park.

But Shaw's Gardens still exist, although their founder lived to a ripe old age and has now been dead a quarter of a century. Older folk of St. Louis remember him distinctly, a vigorous and seemingly lonely man, unmarried, but who seemed to be content to live alone in his great house in the Gardens, giving a loving and a personal care to his flowers and then, as dusk came on, invariably sitting in his room and reading far into the night. They will show you his will when you go to the museum in the Gardens, a curious old document, keenly prepared and devising to the remaining members of his family, servants and intimates, everything from immensely valuable real estate in the very heart of St. Louis down to the port and sherry from his cellars. But the part that interested St. Louis most was that part which gave the Gardens to the town, although not with-out restrictions. And the old Missouri town made Shaw's Gardens quite as much a part of its existence as its County Fair.

The St. Louis Fair was a real institution. There have been far greater shows of the kind in our land, but perhaps none that ever entered more thoroughly into the hearts of the folk to whom it catered. Every one in St. Louis used to go to the Fair. It had a social status quite its own. When, after the hot and gruelling summer which causes all St. Louis folk who possibly can to flee to the ocean or to the mountains, they came home again in the joys of Indian summer there was the Fair — up under the trees of Grand avenue in the north part of the town — to serve for a getting together once again. It had served that way since long before wartime. And with it ran that mighty social bulwark of St. Louis, the Procession of the Veiled Prophet. One night in " Fair Week "— locally known as " Big Thursday "— was annually given to this pageant, frankly modeled upon the Mardi Gras festivities at New Orleans. Through the streets of the town the pageant rolled its triumphal course, all St. Louis came out to see it, and afterwards there was a ball. To be bidden to that ball was the social recognition that the city gave you.

But in 1904 there came that greater fair — the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, to which the world was bidden. It was a really great fair and it has left a permanent impress upon the town in the form of a fine Art Gallery and the splendid group of buildings at the west edge of the city which are being devoted to the uses of Washington University. But the big fair spelled the doom of the smaller. The town had grown out around its grounds and they were no longer in the country. So the career of the old St. Louis Fair ended brilliantly in that not-to-be-forgotten exposition. Although some attempts have recently been made to reestablish it in another part of the town, the older folk of St. Louis shake their heads. They very well know that you can-not bring the old days back by the mere waving of a wand.

Upon a crisp October evening, the Veiled Prophet still makes his way through the narrow streets of the town. The preparations for his coming are hedged about with greatest secrecy, and the young girls of St. Louis grow expectant just as their mothers and their grandmothers before them used to grow expectant when October came close at hand. At last, expectancy rewarded out of the unknown an engraved summons to attend the court of a single night — with the engraved summons some souvenir of no slight worth ; the prophet's favor is a generous one.

Absurd, you say? Not a bit of it. It is a pity that we do not have more of it in our land. We have been rather busy grubbing; given ourselves rather too much to utility and efficiency, to the sordid business of merely making money. A Veiled Prophet is a good thing for a town, a Mardi Gras a tonic. It is an idea that is spreading across America, and America is profiting by it.

This is a personality sketch of St. Louis and not a guide-book. If it were the latter, it would recount the superb commercial position of the city, each of the bulwarks of its financial fortresses. The river-trade is dead indeed ; even the most optimistic of those who are most anxious to see it revived doubt, in their heart of hearts, if ever it can be revived. But commerce is not dead at St. Louis. As St. Paul and Minneapolis are gateways to the Northwest remember that she is one of the great gateways to the Southwest. To the man in Arkansas or Oklahoma or Texas she is another New York ; she stands to him as London stands to the folk of the English counties. And this relation she capitalizes and so grows rich. She is solid and substantial — the old French town of the yesterdays has taken her permanent place among the leading cities of America.

Personality Of American Cities:
Steel's Great Capital Pittsburgh

Cleveland The Sixth City

Chicago And The Chicagoans

Twin Cities St. Paul Minneapolis

Gateway Of The Southwest St. Louis

New Orleans The Old French Lady Of The Riverbank

San Antonio The City Of The Little Squares

Denver The American Paris

Portland - Seattle - Tacoma

San Francisco — The Newest Phoenix

Read More Articles About: Personality Of American Cities

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