Throughout the country the rapid industrialization and population growth was transforming the internal spatial arrangements of people and commercial activities from the early mosaic arrangement of industry, manufacturing, retailing, and residential uses to a more differentiated distribution of activities. The new spatial ordering of land use was determined by the rising competition for central locations, and improvement of rail transportation and interurban commuter lines, which opened up areas on the periphery for industrial use and residential expansion (Ward 1971:85-90).

However, because industrial and population growth followed after the railroads had become established in East St. Louis, there was perhaps less rearranging of land uses than might have occurred in other cities. Instead there was a general expansion of heavy industry along the direction of the railroads north, south, and east of the city, with manufacturing and residential expansion filling the high area along the confines of the East St. Louis Rise, a Y-shaped alluvial fan affording a relatively well-drained land use area in the American Bottoms. Bloody Island, which had always been primarily a freight collection center and transfer facility and only secondarily a residential location, experienced even more dislocation of residents and expansion of railroad use. This transformation was probably aided by the severe floods and two devastating tornadoes in 1871 and 1896, which made it more economically feasible for private residents to sell out to the railroads and relocate to more desirable areas.

The dozen or so blocks along Missouri and Broadway Avenues just east of Bloody Island became important as early as the Civil War as the location of the local government complex, passenger depots, and hotels. By the turn of the century it could be called a true central business district with a large retail center, banks, hospitals, hotels, moviehouses, etc.

The original settlement of Illinoistown had undergone some vast changes from the time it was the major settlement on the east side of the river before the mid-19th century. Relegated to a housing and manufacturing support area by the growing domination of East St. Louis and Bloody Island in the late 19th century, it became further isolated from the heart of the city by the construction of railroad tracks on all four sides of this 25-block area. It was also isolated by railroad and industrial activity and squatter occupancy in the "no-mans land" that was St. John's disputed town of St. Clair. For the rest of the century up to the present, the site of Illinoistown served as a residential area with single, multifamily, and tenant housing facilities, and accompanying local stores, churches, and schools occupying this location.

The old town of St. Clair, founded by John St. John in 1837, had been the cause of much dispute since 1846 when St. John died, leaving no heirs. Though the Illinois and St. Louis Coal Railroad had been able to claim an easement through this section, the true ownership was uncertain and while the property was tied up in litigation, squatters took over the property. By the turn of the century, this area, consisting of perhaps twelve blocks, was part of the "red light" district of East St. Louis, with brothels and taverns intermixed with black-occupied shanties. As such, it marked the boundary of the proverbial "other side of the tracks" and faced the central business district of East St. Louis. Everything southeast of Broadway Avenue, including Illinoistown, was the black-occupied ghetto of East St. Louis (Rudwick 1964:7-17).

An examination of the 1935 East St. Louis city map depicts this delineation of the ghetto, based on the location of black churches and schools that were segregated and so designated on city maps and directories, as

were other ethnic schools and churches. The black ghetto, or black belt as it was called, was the southern section of the city south and east of Main and Broadway. This section of the city was so identified with blacks that the Free Bridge (MacArthur Bridge) to the south of the city was often called "the Black Bridge" (Fechte n.d.).

Additional information is available concerning the extent of black settlement from the records and studies of the 1917 race riot in East St. Louis. While most of the references to black settlement concern the black belt mentioned above, newspaper accounts of violence and property damage indicate that a black enclave existed just southeast of the National Stockyards and along Third and Fourth Streets between Broadway and Missouri Avenues (East St. Louis race riot papers). The Sanborn Insurance maps of 1910 also indicate black settlement west of Cahokia Creek between Broadway and Missouri Avenues (the Leap Year site).

The rest of the city appears to have been mixed native white and foreign immigrant, with churches, schools, and clubs identified with Jewish, Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Scottish, Yugoslavian, German, and Irish ethnic groups. Undoubtedly there were small enclaves of many of these foreign groups, though it would be necessary to delve deeper into the records to identify their locations in the city.

Outside the city limits of East St. Louis were other black strongholds. Rudwick (1964) states that the city of Brooklyn was in 1917 "a Negro village whose total population of men, women, and children was under two thousand" (Rudwick 1964:11). Venice and Granite City also had black residents and in 1917, a settlement began at the old town of Venice on Kerr Island that would grow over the years by the addition of black migrants from the south.

The rapid influx of laborers in response to the expansion of industry would seem to indicate that the city of East St. Louis was prospering at this time. However, this was not the case. The program of tax breaks that the city had implemented in the late 19th century to entice the industries into locating there had grown into an unhealthy marriage of politics and industry. Business was either allowed to incorporate into its own city boundaries to avoid taxes, or corporations were assessed at an extremely low property tax rate. The assessed property valuation in East St. Louis was less than half the valuation in Illinois cities of similar size such as Peoria and Rockford. The difference was made up in saloon license fees (Rudwick 1964:191-192).

The political machine was headed by Locke Tarlton, chairman of the St. Clair County Democratic Central Committee and president of the East Side Levee and Sanitary District, and Thomas Canavan, Commissioner of Public Works. As leaders of the machine they controlled the mayor, city council, city attorney, tax assessor, and other elected officials and political appointees. They profited from the many financial opportunities they were able to work out for themselves in business, real estate, and from robbing the city and county treasuries.

The East St. Louis system of misgovernment also profited the individuals who had commercial interests in the gambling, prostitution, and drinking establishments in the "valley", as this congested district in the shadow of city hall was called. The city bosses profited from bribes and kickbacks from business leaders who turned their backs on the organized vice and corruption in city politics, as long as they were favored with low taxes and cheap labor.

The East St. Louis machine profited both the political bosses and the industrial interests in the city. However, the unskilled labor class and the middle class businessmen profited neither from the corruption and manipulation of government, nor from the profits of the industrial giants, which were directed usually from corporate headquarters in St. Louis, Chicago, or the Northeast. That the wealth of the city was controlled by nonresidents is demonstrated by the fact that out of 20,000 industrial workers in East St. Louis, the largest locally owned concern employed only 85 people (Rudwick 1964:150). In East St. Louis it was the small businessmen who reacted first to the corporate feudalism, special interest control of city politics, and the drain of city wealth, and demanded reform.

This reform movement, or "progressivism" as it was called, was a broad-based reaction of the middle class to the industrialization all over the country in all sectors of life, and the changes brought about as a result of the unbalanced distribution of wealth and power. The Progressives pushed for regulation of monopolies, raising corporate taxes, improved city services, improvement of housing facilities, labor reform, better education facilities, government reform, and a host of other social, economic, and political changes. The Progressive movement was a function of class consciousness, and acquired its greatest visibility and momentum in East St. Louis and other cities following events such as strikes, riots, tenement fires, and other circumstances where the inequities of life in the new and rising urban-industrial city were brought to light. Perhaps the biggest battle fought between the Progressives and the status quo in East St. Louis was the struggle in the early 20th century to regain access to the river waterfront, which was being tightly controlled by the railroads and the Wiggin's Ferry Company.

In 1911 this fight was taken up by the Commercial Club, a body of 400 of the representative business and professional men in the city. The concern of the club was both the right of access to the river that was denied the city, and the manipulation of city and state government policy exercised by the Wiggin's Ferry to maintain the strong monopoly they had enjoyed since the early 19th century. In a petition to the Illinois General Assembly Shoreline Legislative Committee, the club outlined their grievances:

. . . East St. Louis, a city with a population of 60,000 (is) supposed to be on the Mississippi River, it is not on the river. . .(because) the Wiggins Ferry Company has usurped control of our entire waterfront, it has dominated and controlled our city officials; it has elected its servants to office; anyone daring to raise his voice in favor of the public has been destroyed. . . (and) the Wiggins Ferry did everything in its power to control the club, to throttle debate. .the Committee compels the Wiggins Ferry to show by what right it excludes the public from the riverfront--not only have we succeeded in having the Commercial Club make such a declaration, but public opinionhas been molded to the extent that at last municipal election, only one Wiggins Ferry adherent was elected, and instead of the Wiggins Ferry being in control of the City Council by a two-thirds majority as formerly, it now stands five aldermen and the mayor lined up with the Ferry, while elven aldermen stand for an open riverfront" (Illinois General Assembly 1911:128-130).


The Commercial Club went on to describe the means by which the Wiggin's Company acquired Bloody Island and the old channel of the river (described earlier in this chapter). The petition continues:

. . . If ever there was a trust, the Wiggins Ferry, in our opinion is entitled to first place. It was bad enough when it operated separate and apart from the Terminal Association. Now it is a part of the Terminal. Fourteen railroads constitute the Terminal Railroad Association. . . The Wiggins Company has a belt line up and down the river on the east side and a belt line around East St. Louis (and the same in St. Louis) . . . The growth of East St. Louis and St. Louis is seriously handicapped by this octopus . . . and why does not the Government interfere? Gentlemen, the Wiggins Ferry Company is not alone powerful in our city, but its influence extends to Washington, for the president of the Wiggins Company, Mr. Cavanaugh, is the head of the Deep Waterway Movement. He is said to be a favorite at the White House (with the Congressmen and U.S. Senators) . . . he has said that he does not want any steamboats to land in East St. Louis and none do land; and we are of the opinion that the president of the Wiggins Ferry has a motive . . . either to kill the deep waterway movement or then to see that East St. Louis is kept off the river" (Illinois General Assembly 1911:130-135).

The Commercial Club went on to cite Chicago and Mobile as examples of successful waterfront developments and referenced laws and supreme court decisions that proved the constitutionality of their claim to the riverfront. However, shortly afterward, the efforts of the group died when follow-up court action failed to materialize (Judd and Mendelson 1973:74).

The accusations by the Commercial Club paint a picture of corporate feudalism and boss politics in East St. Louis. This iron rule of the east side by special interest groups by and for business was sending the city on a crash course with both the middle class progressives and the labor class. However, of the two, the latter group was the most oppressed by the system, and the most volatile.

The pattern of rapid economic and industrial development in East St. Louis had resulted in a large influx of unskilled laborers dependent on the East St. Louis political machine for their livelihood. While it was a common saying that "you could always find a job in East St. Louis," competition for good jobs was fierce and the system, which involved rapid turnover of jobs to keep down union organizers and to break strikes, maintained a level of antagonism between laborers that prevented the working class from building a united front. This rapid turnover was accomplished by maintaining cheap labor surplus through colonization or bringing in laborers, usually poor blacks, by railroad. By 1917 East St. Louis industries paid only 17 to 30 cents an hour while nearby Belleville paid 30 to 35 cents for employees, and East St. Louis workers were expected to include a kickback or fee, usually a percentage of their hourly wage, to their boss for the privilege of working (Kirschten 1965:371). As more and more blacks flocked to the industrial areas, where they were willing to work for even less than the low wages paid to whites, racial antagonism, inflamed by politicians, company leaders, and the press and combined with widespread corruption and lawlessness, erupted into one of the bloodiest race riots in history. The riot that occurred on July 2, 1917, took 46 lives, 39 of them blacks, and destroyed 25 blocks between Second and Tenth Streets and Pennsylvania and Piggott Avenues (Judd and Mendelson 1973:5,6).

In the ensuing trials and congressional hearing, the causes of the riot were closely examined and East St. Louis politics, business, and working conditions were finally exposed. In the report of the Congressional Committee, the July violence in East St. Louis was attributed equally to the activities of employers, labor organizers, and. politicians who created an environment that made the riot possible.

The unhealthy situation for the working class was created by a surplus of labor and cutthroat competition for jobs. Job security was nonexistent and a constant turnover was maintained by industry to prevent unionization. All attempts at organizing against employers was met with failure, since blacks were not incorporated into unions because of a mutual prejudice between blacks and unionizers. As a result, blacks were used as strikebreakers, and in a few cases were colonized or brought in by the railroads to be used as scabs.

On top of the antagonism between laborers over jobs was an apathetic attitude by the company leaders over the corruption and graft in city politics, poor living conditions, the housing squeeze, and the indebtedness of the city. This overriding concern with protection of profits and corporate property at the expense of the welfare of the residents of the city, most of whom lived outside of the tax shelter enclaves, had been fostered by a history of tax breaks, business incentives, and a general laissez-faire approach to any locally-based commercial interests in the city. The typical view of the factory managers was one of complete unconcern about the goings on outside the company boundary. Representative Raker at the Congressional hearing characterized this approach to labor relations: "The main thing was to get the men in the plant to work and get the work, and then out again. . you have never gone out in and about town to see the conditions of the laboring people, where they live. . . Now do you. . .know of any more certain way to bring about civic degeneration such as has been seen in this city, then for influential men, men easy in financial circumstances, employers of thousands of laboring men to be absolutely indifferent to conditions under which labor lives?" (Rudwick 1964:142-149). The legislators replied scathingly: "The greed that made crooks of the politicians made money grabbers of the manufacturers" (Rudwick 1964:153).

Little concrete change came about as a result of the investigations. The political system was challenged by The Committee of One Hundred, a large group of reformers representing the welfare of the citizens, and the Board of Police Commissioners was replaced by one that was independent of Mayor Mollman. The board began an immediate reform of the police system and began cleaning up the town's gambling and prostitution racket. However, through strong political ties, Mollman was able to. have the police board recalled and replaced with one dominated again by the political bosses.

The mayoralty system of government was also closely scrutinized and in the election of 1919, a commission system was proposed and supported by the corporate interests of the city. The commission form of government won, but it proved to encourage centralization of power in the hands of a few people and merely added an official sanction to the feudal system already strongly entrenched in East St. Louis. As a result, vice and corruption flourished and the tax system favoring large corporations was not changed (Rudwick 1964:93, 195-196; Judd and Mendelson 1973:11,12).

The change to official centralization of government was followed by increased concentration of power in the hands of a few people. The political machine prospered and vice operations reached an apex during prohibition (1919-1933), and continued strong until 1940. The "valley," with its prostitution and taverns, was closed during World War II under pressure by Scott Air Force Base. However, as the locally-based prostitution and tavern trade was closing, organized crime from Chicago moved into the city and surrounding communities on the east side, and established a widespread casino and gambling operation. In the next decade organized crime gained undisputed control of the basis of operation for gambling through violence, payoffs, and other methods. By 1950 organized crime was curbed somewhat and the blatant gambling was driven underground. Also in the 1950s, the construction of an interstate highway was placed through the "valley," thus eliminating finally the red-light district of East St. Louis (Judd & Mendelson 1973:5-15).

By the 1970s the increasing economic problems in East St. Louis finally spawned some serious evaluation of the political machine running the city. The problems that forced this change from the status quo were the worsening economic conditions in the city, the increasing visibility of local conditions as urban problems in general were made a national concern, civil rights pressures, and the rise of new constituencies in the city, including professionals, federal officials, and black leaders. Mayoral and council elections in 1971 were unique in the history of the city in that the white political machine was effectively challenged by the black submachine. Even more uncommon was the fact that both machines were closely challenged by black and white reformer candidates. The mayoral victory by James E. Williams, an acknowledged reformer, was an unprecedented break in the status quo (Mendelson 1970:3,73). The break with the white political machine has resulted in increasing control by the growing black majority, and a reorientation away from the special interest focus of previous administrations, although observers note that the deeply entrenched tradition of machine-style politics certainly cannot be changed overnight (Mendelson 1970:3-20).


Previous                                                                                    Next


top.gif (906 bytes)