GOLDEN ERA

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THE GOLDEN ERA

 

The period between 1890 and 1920 in East St. Louis has been designated as the "Golden Era" for manufacturing by Robert Harper in his study Metro East: Heavy Industry in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area (Koepke 1974:47).

This was the period in the history of East St. Louis when most of the industrial base was established and when population and employment growth was equal to that of St. Louis. During this time, employment in East St. Louis grew by 20,972 while the increase in St. Louis was 25,247 (Koepke 1974:48). For the entire period between 1870 and 1910, the population of East St. Louis doubled every decade: from 5,644 in 1870 to 9,185 in 1880, 15,169 in 1890, 29,655 in 1900, and 58,547 people in 1910 (Miscellaneous documents file 1915).

The beginning of this modern industrialization had its roots in the decade of the Civil War. During this period there was suddenly an increased demand for commodities in the home market accompanied by heavy war tariffs on imported goods, thereby giving the advantage to the domestic producers. The development of the West at this time, the migration and immigration augmenting the growing population, the increasing production of ,rain and cattle, railroad expansion, and the overall improvement of the material conditions and purchasing power of the population created a vast domestic market for manufactured goods (Bogart and Thompson 1922:382).

However, in the American Bottoms of Illinois, it was the extractive industry based on the utilization of natural resources that was the catalyst for growth of the towns opposite St. Louis. The beginning of the industrial base of East St. Louis was brought about by the concentration of railroads with their attendant engine houses, foundrys, blacksmith shops, and roundhouses. By the mid-1870s railroad-related industries and iron factories began locating in East St. Louis to be close to the buyers of their products, transportation, and to gain the advantages of being closer to the source of coal. In 1874 Elliott's Frog and Switchworks was established along Main Street between Market and Converse (Bateman & Selby 1907:7 772). Soon after, the St. Louis Bolt and Iron Company relocated to the east side, setting up shop along the old bed of Cahokia Creek just south of old Illinoistown near the Illinois Patent Coke Company. The location provided all three companies easy access to the Illinois and St. Louis Coal Railroad. In 1875, the Missouri Car and Foundry Company leased the abandoned yards of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, also to be nearer to the sources of coal (Reavis 1876:84). It was the advantages of cheap land and access to coal that kept the railroads from moving to St. Louis after the construction of Eads Bridge, and with the relocation of other heavy industries to the east side, the trend began that would skyrocket East St. Louis into the industrial age.

Yeakle's (1890) monthly progress report for the city lists the manufacturers established in East St. Louis. The list indicates that industry at this time was oriented toward iron manufacturers, agriculture, and city improvements. By 1890 manufacturing in East St. Louis reflected the domination of iron industries including a railway iron mill, a railway frog and switch shop, two wire mills, one metal mill, one nut and bolt mill, and one nail mill. The National Stockyards, now 17 years old, was probably the largest employer on the east side, and by 1890 three packing houses (Armour, Scott, and Morris) had also been established. Prior to the 1890s, the many railroads that terminated at East St. Louis had been bringing in grain from midwestern farms for reshipment, but by 1890-three flouring mills were well established as a sign of the new emphasis on agricultural manufacturing. Other industries at this time were two oilworks, three lumber yards and planing mills, and local industries including two electric light plants, one gas works, and one waterworks (Yeakle 1890:5).

Even on the eve of this phenomenal expansion and growth, the change was apparent. Yeakle described the new activity on the east side:

Leaving the bustle of St. Louis and crossing the Great Bridge by the electric railway (Eads Bridge), we were landed within six- minutes at Broadway, East St. Louis, and there too found great activity! Only a year since we would have met very few persons on the streets of the east side, but now,' how changed in a single short twelve months!

This fresh activity has been promoted in part by the funding of the moderate debt of this young municipality, and the easy raising of adequate revenue for interest, and the general public improvements ... Viaduct Bridge, of stone and steel across Cahokia Creek is approaching completion, and the reconstruction of Broadway to the high ground eastward is in active progress. The paving is of granite blocks... not a single dwelling is known to be vacant . . . that the 3000 workmen and employees of the factories, shops, warehouses, and of the 17 railways which terminate near the end of the Great Bridge, East St. Louis are compelled to return each evening to St. Louis to find lodging in rented dwellings and boarding houses, and that were boarding houses to be rented in East St. Louis, the most of these 3000 men would reside altogether there, bring their families and swell that number of residents to double or treble. . . The process of full residence by the army of employees in East St. Louis is going on rapidly as new houses are constructed for their accommodation" (1890:1-2).

Yeakle goes on to discuss the conditions and improvements that gave impetus to the growth of manufacturing:

a constantly swelling volume of freight and passenger traffic will soon give employment to the new Railway Bridge (Merchants Bridge) which will be opened for use at an early date between the two sides of the river. But the cheaper ground and fuel on the east side will continue to draw more and more manufacturing establishments which will locate and establish in East St. Louis. They will be enabled to secure an especially cheap rate of through transportation for their production . . . to all points. . . Vacant and improved property continues to be held at the most reasonable prices in East St. Louis, prices which are out of due proportion to the value of less favorable sites for manufacturing and general business purposes on the St. Louis side of the river" (Yeakle 1890:3-5).

Lewis Thomas gives some idea of what this difference in comparative land prices between St. Louis and the east side amounted to, even as late as 1927. Thomas reports that real estate in the industrial Mill Creek valley area of central St. Louis could be bought for one to five dollars per square foot, whereas in the metro-East area, the price ranged from five to thirty-five cents per square foot. The advantage to be realized on the east side in terms of better access to the coal deposits in the bluff area was also a strong asset. Robert Harper notes that in 1913 the cost of delivering one ton of coal to St. Louis was 52 cents compared to 32 cents for East St. Louis, the difference being that dictated by the Illinois Public Service Commission as opposed to the Interstate Commerce Commission, which had the rate-making authority for transportation between states (Koepke 1974:48).

The rapid growth of industry was taking place all over the Northeast, Great Lakes, and Midwest where the extensive system of railroads, water transportation, and access to coal, as well as a large labor population, provided the foundation for the emergence in this area of the American Manufacturing Belt. By 1910 the American Manufacturing Belt included 34 of the 50 cities with more than 100,000 people, and 14 of the 19 cities with more than a population of 250,000. Many of these emerging manufacturing cities had been major metropolises prior to 1870, and like St. Louis, helped to pull manufacturing into the medium-sized towns in their periphery (Ward 1971:39-41).

The evolution of a transportation center like East St. Louis into a commercial center was inevitable. As a general rule, when the availability of raw materials reaches a specific threshold level where finished goods shipment represents a cost savings, the location's potential for the establishment of manufacturing increases (Southwest Illinois Metropolitan and Regional Planning Commission 1976:11). However, the advantages in the American Bottoms in terms of land prices and proximity to coal drew some industries from St. Louis that might otherwise have not developed on the east side until much later. Of the medium-sized towns around St. Louis, the Illinois towns in the American Bottoms provided location for expansion of industry, much of it based or originating from the larger city across the river.

East St. Louis had acquired much of its industrial base by the first decade of the 20th century. By 1906 Franke reports on an extensive development in manufacturing including car trucks, car springs, steel cars, stoves, locomotives, spikes, nails, two machinery forges, a stamp mill forge, enamelled ironware, machinist tools, two rolling mills, frogs and switches, glassworks, aluminum, glucose, cottonseed oil, barrels, car roofs, fireworks, fertilizer, seven factories for structural iron, two breweries, white lead, yeast cakes, paint, two chemical plants, two baking powder factories, breakfast food, silica and the stockyard and packing plant industries (Franke 1906).

The rapid expansion of industry in East St. Louis was aided by a concerted program of tax breaks, water and utility discounts, and a system whereby city improvements were borne by the non-corporate sector of East St. Louis. Franke (1906) reports that the city had an excellent sewer and filtration system, a good health department, well-paved streets, gas and electric light systems, and in addition "the tax rate is low, and manufacturers locating at this point are exempted from city taxes and teaming license for a term of years commensurate with the magnitude of the enterprise." In demonstrating the advantages over St. Louis, Franke noted that East St. Louis had "cheaper locations, lower taxation, cheaper water, prompt shipping facilities, cheaper coal, and the ability to land their goods in the heart of St. Louis quicker than could be done from most of the factories in that city" (Franke 1906).

North of East St. Louis, Venice, with its ferry operation, was a recipient of the commercial prosperity brought about by its strategic location south of the terminus of the Chicago and Alton Railroad at Alton. Venice served as a collection point for transfer of passengers, freight, and livestock driven south from Alton. At the same time East St. Louis was expanding commercially, Venice was also experiencing a growth of manufacturers. Throughout the late 19th century, Venice established grain elevators, stockyards, a slaughter house, blacksmith shops, ice houses, cigar factories, a glucose works, a canning factory, glassworks, and other smaller local industries (Fechte n.d.:1-7). The completion of the Merchants Bridge near Venice in 1890 to alleviate the railroad traffic congestion on Eads Bridge helped make further railroad and commercial growth in the area north of East St. Louis feasible. This growth of industry took place by means of a planned company town created with the purpose of providing a pool of labor and a governmental system sympathetic toward the support and advancement of a particular sector of industry.

In the last decade of the 19th century, this growth occurred north of Venice along the tracks of the Chicago and Alton, Big Four, Wabash, and Burlington Railroads. In 1895, two brothers, F.G. Niedringhaus and W.F. Niedringhaus, two of the largest industrial employers in St. Louis, laid out the town of Granite City and erected the National Enameling and Stamping Company and the Granite City Steel Works, which employed together over 3000 men. The Niedringhaus brothers were also instrumental in bringing in large steel casting plants of the American Steel Foundry Company and Commonwealth Steel Company. By 1907 this company town had grown to a population of 12,000, and a 'Large commercial and industrial complex based on this heavy industry had become established drawing for labor on the growing population in Granite City, Madison, and Venice (Bateman and Selby 1907:3,4).

This move to the establishment of planned sovereign company towns was partly a reaction against the deplorable living conditions existing for laborers after the Civil War and was a concerted effort by business to plan and construct a community that would improve and develop middle class values in its workers and citizens (Buder 1970:248). In another sense, the planned town was a means to afford industry the kind of paternal control in the business of government and taxes to enable the city leaders never to lose sight of the collective goal of the continued prosperity of industry that was the lifeblood of the town.

The trend that had been started by the National Stockyards and Granite City was soon followed by incorporation of Sauget by the Monsanto Chemical Company in 1926, and Alorton by the Aluminum Ore Company in 1932. Though perhaps Granite City fully intended to incorporate and provide housing for all of the laborers working in the industries, the other company towns had incorporated predominantly a small area that included only the business interests and company housing. The company housing, in many cases, numbered only enough residents to qualify as a town under their charter and constituted a small fraction of the total working population. The influx of thousands of immigrant laborers from the rural areas in the region, from the south, and from Europe, and the continued growth of industry meant that thousands of workers were living outside of the industrial enclaves and burdening the fiscally poor and overcrowded city of East St. Louis. While East St. Louis was deprived of a feasible tax base by the incorporation of many of the commercial enterprises, it was saddled with the task of policing, governing, and providing for a large multi-ethnic unskilled, and often unemployed, transient population.

Where were the newcomers to the east side coming from? Thousands were drifting off the farms toward the manufacturing belt in the Northeast and Midwest. Though the number of farms had grown and agricultural productivity was high, there was a surplus of farm products that drove down prices. The flight of the farmers served both to increase the relative size of these large urban areas, as well as boost the size of the secondary cities, the rural collection centers (Chudacoff 1981:101-103).

One of the most significant population movements during this period was the migration of blacks from the rural south to the American Manufacturing Belt. As of 1890, more than 90 percent of blacks lived in the rural south. However, by 1900, there were 32 cities with more than 10,000 black inhabitants, and 70 percent of all blacks in the North and Midwest were living in urban areas (Chudacoff 1981:110,111). In East St. Louis the number of blacks increased from 5,882 in 1910 to over 10,000 by 1917 (Rudwick 1964:165), representing roughly 15 to 20 percent of the total city population in that period.

An even more significant immigration movement was stemming from Europe. This second wave of foreign immigration began in the 1880s, peaked in the first decade of the 20th century, and declined after 1920. Unlike the first wave (1840-1880), which consisted of English, Irish, Germans, and Scandinavians, the second wave drew immigrants from eastern Europe including Italy, Russia, Greece, Syria, and other portions of North America, including Canada and Mexico (Chudacoff 1981:103-107).

Like the first immigration in the mid-19th century, the eastern European immigrants were unskilled, but unlike the first newcomers, these new immigrants came over at the peak of urbanization and industrialization and so were drawn to the low paying, unskilled jobs in the cities of the American Manufacturing Belt. By 1920, 48 percent of the country's urban population was foreign born with fully three-quarters of the immigrants living in the cities. Though a much higher proportion of the recent immigrants remained in the port cities of the Northeast where low paying manual labor was in demand and sources of employment were close at hand, the railroads shuttled labor from the eastern port cities to the manufacturing areas growing in the Midwest. In fact, railroads were often commissioned by the factory owners to run "specials" between the areas to siphon off the labor filling up the ghettos in the Northeast (Chudacoff 1981:109-111; Ward 1971:71-81).

 

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