FWP History

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Birth of ESL
Early History
Ernst, 1819
Steamboat Era




Cahokia   Capt. Piggot   Wiggin's Ferry   Illinoistown   Bloody Island   Immigration    Daily Life    Railroads    Town Charter    John Bowman (mayor)  Metro Police Bill   The Stockyards    Courts    Labor Disputes    Great Cyclone    Flooding    Race Riot of 1917     ESL Today (1936)  


The history of East St. Louis is interwoven with and dates from the declining years of Cahokia, three miles south of the city, where in 1698, came missionaries from Quebec, led by Father Jolliet de Montigny. Father St. Cosmè, assigned to proselytize among the Tamaroa and Cahokia Indians, erected a church the following year. French colonists settled in the village throughout the eighteenth century and Cahokia came to be one of the most important settlements in the Northwest (see Tour 2). Although a pawn in the vast game of empire played by France and England, Cahokia prospered and became a well-established community while St. Louis was little more than a rude trading post.

To Cahokia, in 1765, came Richard "English" McCarthy, an English trader from Canada. After five years of trading in this vicinity, McCarthy obtained title to 400 acres of land on both sides of Cahokia Creek, and built a gristmill on what is now the site of East St. Louis. In 1770, the gristmill and the cabins of McCarthy’s laborers constituted a settlement that McCarthy named St. Ursule, in honor of his wife who remained in Canada.

[note:  Most sources refer to McCarthy as "McCarty".]

The banks of Cahokia Creek were often washed away by floods and it soon became evident that the mill site had been badly chosen. Also, the area was malarial and, after six years, McCarthy abandoned the mill and took up residence in Cahokia. In 1778, he was commisioned by George Rogers Clark and placed in command of the troops stationed in the village.

Meanwhile, Captain James Piggott, a privateer in the early months of the Revolutionary War and said to have come to Illinois as a volunteer with George Rogers Clark, settled at Grand Ruisseau near what is now Columbia, Illinois. When Gen. Arthur St. Clair arrived in 1790 to govern this region, he appointed Piggott a militia captain and later justice of the peace at Cahokia. On September 28, 1795, Piggott became judge of the Court of Common Pleas and, the next year, as justice of the quarter sessions, proclaimed the opening of the Orphans’ Court.

Piggott’s activities were not confined to jurisprudence. From 1792 to 1795 he constructed a bridge across the River Abbe (Cahokia Creek), and built two log cabins on the present site of the East St. Louis waterfront to accommodate colonists traveling to Louisiana Territory. In 1792, Captain Piggott built a crude ferryboat – a wooden platform surrounded by a railing and floated on log canoes – and procured ferry rights from Leman Frudeau, Governor of the Louisiana Territory, by pledging in return "products" and "timber at the lowest rates."

From that date Piggott, generally considered the founder of East St. Louis, operated a ferry between the Illinois shore and the West Side Dock at the foot of what is now Market Street in St. Louis until his death in 1799.

For more information read The Birth of East St. Louis by Arthur W. Moore or The Early History of East St. Louis by the same author

At his death his widow, Frances James Piggott of Virginia, rented the ferry to John Campbell. Even at that early date the ferry had become a valuable property and Campbell did not hesitate to use unscrupulous methods to get full control. A few years after the agreement had been drawn, he procured a license to operate a ferry in his own name and ceased paying rent. Whereupon Mrs. Piggott sued for possession and, when the court upheld her claim, Campbell was ousted.

Mrs. Piggott 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, the latter two St. Louis land operators. Wiggins soon bought full control, and in the spring of 1818 the Illinois Legislature granted him permission to ply across the river.

Meanwhile, the ferry had prompted many settlers to locate in the vicinity. Etiene Pensoneau, having opened a tavern on the road leading to the ferry, purchased surrounding land and laid out a town called Jacksonville.

In January 1816, McKnight and Brady purchased Pensoneau’s holdings, laid out a town site and, using the methods by which modern subdivisions are started, conducted a sale of lots in St. Louis. On November 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 the recorder of St. Clair County.

Ferdinand Ernst, in Travels Through Illinois in 1819, while describing the rapid undermining of the Illinois shore at St. Louis observed that, "two small towns, Illinois Town and Jacksonville, which are located opposite St. Louis, run the risk of finding their graves in the Mississippi…" The river was curbed before this prophecy was fulfilled, but a smaller settlement named Washington, near Wiggins’ ferry landing, was soon undermined and abandoned to the encroaching river.

Where the river took it also gave. In 1817, several residents of Cahokia, alarmed by the seasonal floods that surged through that village, withdrew to higher land and established a settlement which they named Illinois City. Fifty-eight years later, Illinois City was absorbed by East St. Louis.

What is now the heart of the East St. Louis business district was platted for a town site and named St. Clair in 1834 by John Wessinger, St. Clair County surveyor.

Shortly thereafter the future site of East St. Louis was considerably extended by the engineering genius of Robert E. Lee, later commander of the Confederate Army, who reclaimed a large tract of land from the Mississippi. The cause of Lee’s coming to this section in 1837 dates from the beginning of the nineteenth century when a small sandbar appeared in the river opposite St. Louis.

Aided by seasonal floods and river deposits, the sandbar grew to be a mile in length, forming a wedge in the channel that deflected the current toward the Illinois shore. Cottonwood trees took root on the bar and effected a gradual filling-in at the Missouri shore. Cottonwood trees took root on the bar and, behind the screen of foliage, illegal cockfights, boxing bouts, and duels were regular occurrences. Among the famous duels fought there were the Benton-Lucas duel in 1817, in which Lucas was killed; the Barton-Rector duel of 1823, in which Joshua Barton, United States District Attorney, was killed; and the Biddle-Pettis duel in 1830 in which both Maj. Thomas Biddle and Spencer Pettis, member of the Twenty-first Congress from Missouri, were killed. So gory were the events of the bar that it became known as Bloody Island.

During the second quarter of the nineteenth century Bloody Island grew rapidly, and by 1830 the harbor at St. Louis became so shallow that destruction of all river trade seemed imminent. In 1836, however, Congress made an appropriation of $15,000 "with which to give direction to the current of the river near St. Louis." An additional $50,000 was voted and Capt. Henry Shreve, in charge of the force clearing snags from the river, was engaged to carry out the project.

Prevented by numerous other duties, Captain Shreve declined the commission, whereupon Robert E. Lee, a young army officer, disgusted with official life at Washington, volunteered his service and came to St. Louis.

Under Lee’s supervision two dikes were constructed, one to divert the current from the Illinois shore past Bloody Island and the other to direct the water towards Duncan’s Island and the shoals below St. Louis. Lee’s plan worked perfectly and at the end of the construction period some 700 feet of shoals had been washed away, the harbor of St. Louis had been deepened, and the Illinois side of the channel had become 10 feet shallower. Lee was subsequently promoted to a captaincy in the Engineers and returned to Washington.

As time passed, the river’s channel shifted so that Bloody Island became part of the Illinois shore. Today East St. Louisans refer to all the land west of Cahokia Creek as "The Island", although properly the island embraces the industrial district one-half mile north and south of the east approach to the Eads Bridge.

Swarms of eastern emigrants, traveling westward during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, boomed the ferry business, and in 1828 Samuel Wiggins bought a steam-powered boat, the St. Clair, and later another, The Ibex. A bill posted throughout this region in 1842 declared that:

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 year 1842 brought the early stages of the great flood of immigration that was to reach tremendous heights by 1849. There were no railroads, but steamboats on the Ohio River and the overland trails brought hundreds to St. Louis on their way to the west. Illinois Town profited from this influx of new people and in 1842 indications of an established village appeared. Vital Jarrot began publishing the American Bottom Gazette and citizens of Illinois Town, under the leadership of John Carnes and Capt. John Trendly, subscribed $125 for the construction of a public school.

Illinois Town was still a crude river town, however, without an established government. The streets were merely widened trails, and, whenever a chuckhole became too large for a wagon to negotiate comfortably, the nearest citizen would fill it with ashes. Many of the houses were log cabins and smooth-planed wooden houses were in the nature of luxuries. Even as late as 1875 the drinking water used by the inhabitants would, upon evaporation, leave a sediment of alkali within the cup.

Prince Albert coats and top hats were worn by gentlemen, and ankle-tight trousers, held by straps that looped under the arch of one’s boots, were the fashion. Women wore hooped dresses that were usually decorated with lace collars. Knitted gloves and umbrellas were usual accessories even on the warmest days.

Charles Dickens visited the area in the early 1840s.  Click here to read excerpts from his travelogue American Notes

By 1844 Illinois Town was a thriving young river settlement. The wharves were bustling with activity and branches of nationally-known steamboat lines were established on the Illinois side of the river. Pilots on river steamers sometimes elected to live in Illinois Town and, since they often made as much as $1,000 for a single trip to New Orleans, the homes they erected were imposing for the period. River pilots, due to a shortage of trained men, were members of an enviable profession.

For more on the role of river transportation in East St. Louis history, read Arthur W. Moore's The Steamboat Era

In 1844, while Illinois Town was emerging from a pioneer stage, a great flood inundated the community. Steamboats plied from bluff to bluff, and the steamer Little Bee was able to take on a cargo of coal near the bluffs east of the city and return to St. Louis.

The inhabitants of Illinois Town had sufficient time in which to escape the floodwaters, and when the waters subsided they returned to their holdings to repair the damage. Sporadic outbreaks of malaria followed but the progress of the town was unchecked. Cahokia, however, was unable to recover and its decline was hastened from this date. For the less hardy citizens who preferred higher ground, a settlement called Papstown, so named in honor of its founder, who was familiarly known as "Pap," was organized in the vicinity of what is now the section between Tenth and State Streets.

The next 15 years witnessed the steady growth of Illinois Town. The river trade reached its peak and thrived greatly at St. Louis, unaware that its dissolution was foreshadowed by the coming of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad which, in 1857, built its terminal near Bloody Island.

The foundations of a city had by this time been established at Illinois Town and its later development rested on what was purely a geographical position. Eastern railroads, in their anxiety to open the wealthy West and to create new markets for the East, aimed at the key city of the Middle West, St. Louis, where the commodities of East and West were concentrated for exchange. But the broad Mississippi presented a problem that engineers had not yet conquered and, as it had checked the early westward travelers in Captain Piggott’s day, so it checked the railroads at Illinois Town. Thus, within a decade after the first railroad was laid through the town, 10 other railroads had established termini at Illinois Town. All freight consigned to St. Louis and the Far West had to be unloaded on the east side and thence transported across the river by ferry, Even after the construction of the Eads Bridge in 1874 (see Points of Interest), railroads continued to terminate at the east shore.

On February 19, 1859, "A special act to incorporate the Town of Illinoistown, in St. Clair County" was approved by the State Assembly. The boundaries of the 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 growing south of the bridge plunged citizen-surveyors into confusion and gave rise to numerous disputes.

The charter, providing the town with its first government, called for the election of a town police magistrate, a town marshall, four trustees, and a president. Joseph Griffith, William F. Lee, J. W. Taylor, and W. H. Enfield were appointed from among the town’s citizens to serve as provisional town trustees until the act was approved by the voters. On the first Monday in March 1859, the act was passed by an almost unanimous vote.

The first city charter remained the local law for two years. In 1861, a second charter, establishing an exact and more extended corporate limits and changing the city’s name to East St. Louis, was submitted to the voters and approved in an exceedingly hot election. A sidelight on the election was given in a Fourth of July address in 1876 by John B. Bowman, who said:

Illinois City was the name 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 O. & M. Railroad was doing some grading out near the bluffs and had in their employ about eighty men. These men were here today and gone tomorrow, and cared nothing about the name of the town, but with the loose election laws at that time, they would be allowed to vote. A few men from the "East St. Louis" party got on an engine and went out to where the train was loading and with a little money and plenty of whiskey and got a pledge from every man and put a ticket in his hand to vote for "East St. Louis". The election had gone on smoothly, and there being only about 200 votes, nearly three fourths of these having been cast for the name "Illinois City". But to the surprise of everybody, when the gravel train came in, about eighty men unloaded and cast their votes for the name "East St. Louis", thus carrying the election by a few votes…


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 and approved by the Illinois Legislature. An election was held, and on April 10, 1865, John Bowman, the first mayor, was installed, with William G. Kase, city judge; John O’Connel and Michael Murphy, aldermen from the first ward; Henry Schall and James Hazen, aldermen from the second ward, and John Trendley and John B. Lovingston, aldermen from the third ward.

The first mayor was a man of the sort to furnish material for legends. Reviled by his enemies and lauded by his friends, he has been at times credited with both building and destroying East St. Louis. Born in Germany in 1832, Bowman was educated at the University of Heidelberg and, after taking part in the revolution of 1848, fled to America.

In 1854 he settled in Missouri, shortly moving to Illinois. He taught school north of Illinois Town during 1858, but soon gave it up and entered public life as a justice of the peace. A qualified civil engineer, he made the first reliable map of the city. In 1856 he began publishing The Gazette. He served on the committee that drafted the city charter and four times was elected mayor. According to old-timers, Mayor Bowman, promenading the streets of East St. Louis, astride his milk-white horse, made a figure not easily forgotten. On the evening of November 20, 1885, Bowman was slain by an assassin who fired point-blank as the ex-mayor entered the yard of his residence. The murderer was never captured and the $5,000 reward offered for his apprehension was used to purchase the bust of Bowman now in the city library. In accordance with his will, Bowman was buried with his face toward East St. Louis.

On May 15, 1865, the new city council passed an ordinance establishing and regulating a police force. Although the formation of a police department was obviously within the jurisdiction of the councilmen, the stage was thereby set for a situation that would have been farcical had it not set citizens against citizens and resulted in the death of two policemen.

The board of trade sponsored a metropolitan police bill that was passed by the State Legislature on February 22, 1867. The bill was similar to the ordinance previously passed by the councilmen, except that it provided that the three commissioners in charge of the police department would henceforth be appointed by the Governor of the State. The bill, which would have stripped the mayor and council of considerable patronage was indignantly refused.

Despite opposition by the municipal government and a majority of the citizens, the metropolitan police bill remained in force and three commissioners were appointed by the Governor. Thus the city had two separate police forces and two sets of commissioners who quarreled continuously and resorted to all sorts of tricks to discredit each other.

In 1867, a resolution was drawn up by the city which 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 services, 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 under the pretext of authority inconsistent with the principles of a government of free people and 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 draw their authority from the charter of this city or the ordinance made in pursuance thereof; (2) That the city clerk forthwith notify in writing the said several persons claiming to act as private policeman, lieutenants, and as captains of police, as police commissioners, so called, as clerks, as treasurer, as attorneys and as other agents or servants of said commissioners, etc., that their services are not, were not wanted by this city and that no payment for such services will be made by this or from the funds of the municipal government.


The repudiation of the metropolitan police by the city council made it seem certain that the superfluous department would be dissolved for lack of funds. The metropolitan police commissioners, however, retaliated by issuing scrip to pay for supplies and wages. Although the scrip bore 10 percent interest per year, it depreciated rapidly and soon passed from circulation.

Failing in their attempt to market the scrip legitimately, the metropolitan police commissioners united the saloonkeepers in the city and through them attempted to force it into circulation. The saloonkeepers were supplied with scrip at nominal prices, which in turn they tendered to the municipal government in payment for licenses, which soon created numerous suits and counter suits.

In the election of 1868, every candidate opposed to the metropolitan police was elected, but the war between the factions continued unabated. The new city council immediately passed an ordinance prohibiting all saloons from opening, an act expressly aimed at the saloonkeeper’s association, which tendered script for licenses.

Balked in using the saloons as an outlet for the worthless scrip, the metropolitan commissioners resorted to public sales. Failing to get a single bid in East St. Louis, the commissioners conducted another sale in Belleville where they succeeded in selling small quantities at 10 to 30 cents on the dollar.

In 1869, the Supreme Court of Illinois ruled that the metropolitan police commissioners were not corporate authorities of the city and therefore had no power to levy taxes. Despite this reverse, the metropolitan police refused to disband, stormed the police station, and entrenched themselves against the city’s forces.

An armed truce followed, during which the metropolitan police refused to jail prisoners captured by the city police. The battle for supremacy raged for a number of years despite local and state court orders. Finally, in July 1878, the Supreme Court of Illinois declared the metropolitan police bill to be unconstitutional and the police department was returned to the city’s authorities. Thus after a decade of turmoil and confusion, the city had a police department that cooperated with the municipal government.

In the decade following the Civil War, the industrial expansion that was later to grip all of East St. Louis began in a modest way with the construction of small factories on "The Island".

During the same period, Col. Tom Scott of the Pennsylvania Railway began negotiating with the city to establish a stockyards. An agreement was reached on July 17, 1871, whereby the corporation contracted to construct a hotel, costing not less than $100,000, and to build a stockyards that would be superior to all others in the country. In return the city agreed to allow the stockyards freedom from municipal restraint. Construction began on June 1, 1872, and finished November 20, 1873. Both contracting parties were true to the letter; the finished stockyards was the most elaborate of its time and even today the city does not infringe upon stockyards property.

A cyclone of savage force swept down upon the city on March 8, 1871, killing six persons and damaging property to the extent of $20,000. The full power of the storm concentrated upon the business district, which at that time was confined to the area between Main and Broadway to the river. The wind attained a velocity of 80 miles an hour. The Eads Bridge, then under construction, was badly damaged, 20 buildings were demolished, and wharves and boats were destroyed. In the feverish industrial expansion then sweeping the country, the city carried on past the momentary setback and all marks of the disaster were soon eradicated.

Until 1874, East St. Louis was without a city court and important law business was transacted at Belleville. In 1873, citizens inaugurated a movement for the establishment of a city court, and 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 throughout the State by conservative lawyers and county-seat politicians. After sharp preliminary struggles the resolution was passed and approved by Governor Beveridge on March 26, 1874. Four months later the city council met at the call of Mayor Bowman and it was agreed to submit the proposition to the voters. The bill was subsequently carried, 404 to 32.

Following the election Mayor Bowman and the council passed an ordinance providing for the election of a judge and clerk of the court. A election was held and Daniel McGowan was elected judge and Thomas Hanifan clerk.

The river traffic of East St. Louis rapidly disintegrated during this period before the onslaught of the railroads. Loss of river commerce, however, meant a substantial increase in railway traffic. The city prospered and more than a score of trunk lines from the East established freight houses and car shops on "The Island". Manufacturers, quick to capitalize on the nearness of raw materials and the number of transportational facilities at this point, established factories one after the other and introduced the production methods of the East.

The change from the steamer to the locomotive and from the plow to the factory was not accomplished, however, without a corresponding change in social relationships. Industrial war, a thing unknown in the American Bottoms, appeared in 1886. In April of that year the employees of the East St. Louis division of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad went out on strike. The railroad company, anticipating trouble, commissioned 20 men as deputy sheriffs, 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. & N. train came near, stoned the engineer and fireman so accurately that the train was forced to return to the yards. Company officials immediately ordered the 20 deputies to disperse the crowd so the train might pass. On arriving at the bridge the deputies called upon the crowd to disperse and received in reply a shower of stones. A deputy fired at a striker, who fell to the ground dead. At this the inexperienced guards became panic-stricken and volleyed into the crowd, killing six and wounding others. City policemen among the strikers returned the deputies’ fire.

The deputies thereupon fled to St. Louis, where they were placed in jail and held in custody of the court.

This tragedy was almost forgotted when, in some four years later, one more horrible fell upon the city. On May 27, 1896, in late afternoon, what has been called the Great Cyclone came bowling across the river and lashed into the shops and dwellings on the island. One hundred and eight persons were killed. Fires broke out and raged unchecked because fire engines could not pass through the debris-littered streets. Thieves picked the pockets of the dead. The industrial and residential district on the island was entirely demolished. Steamers were sunk and the east approach to the Eads Bridge torn away. Among the dead was Thomas Griffin, ex-city policeman, who was one of the survivors of the famous Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava during the Crimean War.

A relief fund of $90,000 was raised by neighboring communities and thousands of dollars’ worth of supplies were sent by Chicago. The decline of "The Island" as a residential district dates from this period. The inhabitants of the demolished area rebuilt their homes near the eastern limits of the city and the lowlands were gradually given over to industries and railways.

The tremendous surge of activity at the close of the century compensated the city for its material losses, and the damage wrought by the cyclone were soon offset by the stormy entrance of the machine age. By 1900, the population had reached 29,316.

Construction by the Aluminum Ore Co. began in 1901 and two years later the plant began producing 30,000 pounds of aluminum daily. Simultaneously, the Central Brewery was completed, hiring 500 men; the St. Louis Cotton Compress Co. relocated its warehouses in East St. Louis, and the Armour Packing Co. began operation at the stockyards with 2,500 employees. A minor boom followed. Within the year such a large number of workers came to the city that 2,600 new homes were insufficient to supply the demand.

In the midst of intensive business and industrial expansion the river overflowed its banks. One-fourth of the city was under water for 19 days and 7,500 citizens were homeless. Fortunately, no lives were lost. The lack of proper flood protection was sharply impressed upon the inhabitants, however, and demands for security from the river culminated in the formation of the East Side Levee and Sanitary District, which was set up by a special act of the general assembly in 1907. The levee board was authorized to construct a system of canals and levees throughout the northern part of the American Bottoms, a territory that covered more than 96 square miles. Funds were obtained by taxing property in the district.

After the district had been mapped and surveyed, a canal was constructed across the north portion which diverted water from Cahokia Creek and relieved that small stream of draining an area of some 259 square miles. The dirt excavated for the canal was used to form the north levee of the district. The next move to check the Mississippi was the erection of a 20-mile levee extending along the river from the north levee to 3½ miles south of East St. Louis. A third levee was built from the river at Prairie du Pont to the eastern bluffs, completely enclosing the district and shutting out floodwaters. Thus the city finally conquered the enemy at its gates.

By 1910, the population had increased to 64,540. The expanding city had absorbed Illinois City, New Brighton, Dutch Hill, and Papstown, and in 1908 the subdivisions of Lansdowne, East Lansdowne, and Harding Heights were annexed. It was natural that such rapid growth should have social reverberations. "Floaters" were attracted by the new industries and arrived by scores. Negroes flocked from the South and, although manufacturers were provided with an abundant supply of labor, this increment had a pronounced effect on wages and the standard of living. Large blocks of new and inexperienced voters were material for unscrupulous politicians. A district 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 and was appropriately named "Whiskey Chute". Taverns were known by such pithy names as the "Bucket of Blood", "The Monkey Cage", "Uncle John’s Pleasure Palace", and "Aunt Kate’s Honky Tonk".

On October 19, 1916, according to the East St. Louis 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 and similar incidents fanned racial hatreds already fired by clashes between white and Negro workers. Feelings drawn taut were strained further by a crime wave; of the more than 800 crimes in the city during 1915, 80 percent were committed by Negroes. Violent emotions were engendered and the summer of 1917 was marked by forebodings of tragedy. Rumors of crimes committed by either race swept through the city and the mob spirit swelled and seethed.

On the night of July 1, 1917, one or two automobiles went through the Negro section, their occupants firing at random into several houses. A mob of Negroes formed and a car containing several policemen was sent to the scene. It was met by a shot. As the car turned and drove away, a volley from the mob killed two of the policemen.

The bullet-riddled car, at the curb before the police station, was viewed by thousands of white citizens the following day. Newspapers carried stories of the shooting and the attacks suffered by other white people, and the streets were soon crowded by white people who vented their anger on each Negro they met. As the mobs increased in size and fury, open warfare developed. The militia was called in but too late to check the carnage of race riot. On July 4th, the trouble reached its peak. Streams of Negroes fled to St. Louis and Brooklyn.

Order was at last restored, but it was several months before the city regained its normal way of life.

The riot served to direct citizens’ attention toward their outmoded aldermanic system of government. Sentiment for change rapidly crystallized, and four months after the riot the commission form of municipal government was approved at a special election. In April 191, elections were held and M.M. Stephens, four times aldermanic mayor, was selected to head the new government. Arthur O’Leary, Wm. J. Veach, Fred Leber, and M.J. Whalen were elected commissioners.

The organized corruption that had existed under the aldermanic government was displaced by an efficient governing machine that has operated without a hitch to the present day.

Throughout the second quarter of the twentieth century the affairs of the city fell into well-ordered grooves and the era of "growing pains" gave way to an era of stability. East St. Louis had passed through a stormy adolescence and had entered maturity. Gradually, improvements were sought and won and incorporated into the fiber of the city.

What had been wastelands at the eastern limits of the city were reclaimed and made into the most elaborate park in Southern Illinois (see Points of Interest).

By 1930, the population had risen to 74,347, of which 6.3 percent were foreign born, 15.5 percent were Negroes, and 78.2 percent were native whites.

Although the stock market crash of 1929 had been felt in the city, building records for 1930 show that work began on a million-dollar approach to the Municipal Bridge; that the Illinois Central Railway completed an $80,000 freight house on Front Street, and the Pennsylvania Railway completed a viaduct on the Edgemont-Collinsville road at a cost of $150,000. In the same year St. Patrick’s church was converted into the Central Catholic High School and work was begun on a new St. Patrick’s church. The St. Paul Community Center was also completed at a cost of $80,000. Building permits for the year totaled $1,424,498 which, although considerable, represented a million-dollar decline from those of 1929.

Acutely sensitive to the tempo of national industry, East St. Louis was staggered by the slump of 1929. But the city that had weathered floods and cyclones battled the dark depression years valiantly. With the revival of trade in 1935, the majority of idle workers were reemployed and the clamor of industry again sounded throughout the city.

Today East St. Louis stands a monument to builders who have gone into dust. Despite veritable "hell and high water," there has been raised above what was once dank marshes the fourth largest city in Illinois.




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