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Geography   Neighborhoods    Industry   Railroads    Education   Religion   Organizations     Government


East St. Louis (pop. 74,315) is the largest city in St. Clair County, the fourth largest in Illinois, and the center of an industrial area that extends for several miles along the Mississippi River. As implied by its name, the city is immediately east of St. Louis, Mo., and in many respects can be considered an economic adjunct of that city. Two bridges, the Eads and the Municipal, join East St. Louis to the larger city and hundreds of citizens commute daily between the two places. To go to St. Louis, a resident of East St. Louis either "goes over town" or goes "across the river."

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East St. Louis is situated in a fertile valley gouged out by the Mississippi River in the geologic past and named the American Bottoms by pioneers. Sprawling fanlike from the river, the city is almost superimposed on the vast village site of a prehistoric  people whose mounds dot the plain four miles northeast  (see   Tour 1); while a few miles to the southwest, almost obliterated by industrial expansion, are vestiges of old Cahokia, which was settled by French missionaries in 1695 (see Tour 2 and The Romantic Story of Cahokia).

Thus, rising between remnants of Colonial and pre-Indian culture, East St. Louis, city of the machine age, continues the historic cycle, its factory sites dwarfing the loftiest mound and its heterogeneous people thriving in the lowlands that were shunned by the Indians and coureurs de bois because of floods and fevers.

The soil of the area, due to deposition in past floods, is fertile. Farmlands, according to estimates of the Department of Agriculture, are valued at from $125 to $150 and acre. Corn, wheat, rye, oats, barley, tubers, grapes, berries, garden vegetables, and fruits are grown almost within the shadow of the city’s industries. The normal yearly rainfall, computed from Weather Bureau records for 60 years, is 37.44 inches; the normal yearly snowfall is 19.0 inches; the mean annual humidity is 70%. The normal monthly temperature averaged from Weather Bureau records for 58 years, varies from 31.1° F in January to 78.8° F in July. The mean annual temperature is 56.25° F. Average wind velocity is 11 miles per hour.

Natural resources of the East St. Louis area include seams of bituminous coal mined in the bluffs at the east, and a good grade of white lime quarried several miles south of the city. There are also abundant deposits of shale and gravel. The great coal fields of southern Illinois are but 50 miles from the city.

Easily dominating the combined agricultural and natural wealth, the city’s industries put forth more than threescore of various products ranging from aluminum, automobile parts, and barrels to railroad ties, soap, tallow, yeast, and zinc oxides.

The marks of machine production are everywhere apparent. A film of factory smoke hovers overhead and the clamor of industry is heard throughout the city. On "the island," directly west of the business section, is concentrated a part of the freight and railroad facilities that employ 14 percent of the city’s working population. The stockyards, just beyond the city limits at the northwest, 8.2 percent of the working population. Most of the remaining workers are employed in iron, steel, and aluminum production.

East St. Louis is walled on the east by sheer bluffs, to the north and south by factory stacks, and to the west by the Mississippi River. Within the walls lies an irregular arrangement of shops, plants, and dwellings, a melange of steel, stone, and wood broken at intervals by green plots and sycamore trees.

The oldest section of East St. Louis, the South End, lies south of downtown Broadway, bounded by Tenth Street to the southeast and the Mississippi River at the northwest. The older residents have long since fled the bedraggled, down-at-the-heel South End, and its present inhabitants are largely emigrants from the Southern states. Continuing to the southeast from South End, and bounded to the north by Broadway, is the section wherein are concentrated the Negro inhabitants, who make up 15.5 percent of the city’s total population. The southernmost portion of this area, known as Denverside, presents row on row of flimsy boxlike houses, stark and scabrous during the day. The remainder of the Negro population resides in the Bad Lands, the name commonly given to the neighborhood flanking Missouri Avenue from Twenty-First Street to the southeast city limits.

Within the Bad Lands lives a small portion of the foreign-born whites who compose 6.3 percent of the city’s total population, but the majority reside in the region known as Goose Hill, which borders the stockyards at the northwest city limits.

Missouri Avenue, running northwest and southeast, may be said to divide the city into propertied and unpropertied classes. South of Missouri Avenue are squalor and decay, while to the north are the neat substantial bungalows of the native-born white population, composing 78.2% of the city’s population. Among these northern streets and in the Lansdowne section are shaded avenues which reflect pride in home and city. The principal residential district is located north of State Street. The homes are of recent construction and hence instances of late Victorian architecture are rare. The Lansdowne section, north of Jones Park, presents a fresh and vernal appearance that is unique in East St. Louis and neighborhoods. The area contains more vegetation than any other district in the city.

East Lansdowne, beginning at Forty-Sixth Street, is the suburban village of Washington Park. Immediately north of Washington Park is the similar community of Fairmont City. These villages may be reached by driving to Fifty-Ninth and State Streets, turning left onto Kingshighway, which continues directly north to both suburbs.

Many of the wealthier families of East St. Louis reside in the rather exclusive Signal Hill section, atop the bluffs, beyond the city limits, south of State Street at Sixty-Ninth Street. Bordering the winding boulevards are pretentious homes and landscaped grounds. High above East St. Louis, Signal Hill is beyond the industrial atmosphere that permeates the valley below.

At this point atop the bluffs, if the borders were clearly distinct, the city would appear to be a giant blunted spear aimed at the west. The southeast flange of the spearhead is composed of South End and Denverside, and the northeast flange includes Goose Hill, Lansdowne, and Washington Park. The shank of the spear is formed by Ridge Avenue, State Street, and St. Clair Avenue. The tip includes the business district and rests on the network of tracks that cover "the island."

The dominating factor in East St. Louis is obviously its industries. The city can be viewed as a large production unit of which homes, shops, and municipal government are mere appendages of the machine. The industrial growth of the city, dating from the adoption of steam ferries in 1828 and the subsequent ascendancy of the steam engine, could be written largely in terms of transportation. Situated by the principal waterway of the Middle West, near regions rich in natural resources and at the very door, so to speak, of the untapped West, East St. Louis early became a national transportation center. And it followed that industries would locate where raw materials and transportation were readily accessible.

The first use of coal in this area is attributed to Trappist monks who once lived on Monk’s Mound. In 1807, so the tale goes, their blacksmith complained of lack of fuel for his forge. When later informed that the earth was burning at the foot of a tree that had been struck by lightning, the monks promptly investigated and found an outcropping of coal which thereafter satisfied the demands of their blacksmith. In 1837, a company headed by Governor John Reynolds attempted commercial mining operations. A crude railway with wooden rails and horse-drawn cars was constructed to freight coal from the bluffs to the river and thence to St. Louis. This railroad was probably the first west of the Allegheny Mountains and certainly the first in Illinois. Coal was mined for limited domestic use.

For Governor Reynolds's own description of this early railroad, click here to read an excerpt from his autobiography, My Own Times

It remained for later generations to introduce large-scale production processes. Until the completion of the Ohio & Mississippi Railway in June 1857, the economy of East St. Louis was internal and agrarian in type, bound together by considerable river trade. The Wiggins Ferry Co., evolving from a simple wooden platform that was poled and sculled across the river, had, in 1852, property valued at $1,000,000. At that time the larger crumbs of the St. Louis river trade fell to East St. Louis and the wharves on this side of the Mississippi were lined with ferry boats and packet steamers.

Once East St. Louis had been tapped by railroads its economic pattern was rapidly altered. The steamboat declined and the industrial horizon lifted. Expanding markets in the middle and far West changed the city from a local to a national production and distribution point. Factories were erected and machines went into gear.

Immigrants who came to the city no longer built homesteads. The city worker, hitherto confined to the industrial East, appeared in the American Bottoms and made his mark on the city’s social and political life. Weeds grew on the wharves while the hum of new factories gathered volume. In a generation East St. Louis became an industrial town.

By 1905 the city was a transportation center. Twenty-seven railroads had their terminal points here. Some 50 factories, riding the crest of prosperity, were producing aluminum, baking powder, concrete blocks, chemicals, enameled ironware, fireworks, fertilizer, glass, glucose, railroad frogs and switches, structural iron, steel cars, and locomotives. In the decade between 1900 and 1910, the population increased 97.4 percent and the city became the fourth largest in Illinois, with real estate valued at $24,000,000.

After the slumps that came in 1907, 1920, and 1929, the productive forces of the city revived to greater activity. Labor disputes flared at intervals and in the spring of 1917 racial hatreds were unloosened, resulting in riot and carnage. But on the whole, labor wars that racked similar industrial centers had but slight local repercussions. Strikes were seldom and brief in duration for a city with a preponderant working population.

In the last decade, new industries have located in the area south of the city and in the district once known as Cahokia Common Fields. The present trends indicate that industry will concentrate along State Route 3.

Twenty trunk line railroads and two terminal switch lines operate in the city, and slightly more than 200 industries are located here. According to the 1930 census report, 42 percent of the city’s total population are workers.

Click here for more on Industry in East St. Louis

East St. Louis has not made notable contributions to the arts. Except for high school bands, choral groups, and the seasonal concerts of the Shubert Club, music is confined to radio and dance bands. Much of the cultural life of the city centers in the East Side High School.

The educational system dates from 1842, when pioneer residents contributed $125 to build a schoolhouse. A frame building measuring 14 x 16 feet was erected on the village square. The furnishings of this tiny classroom consisted of a broom, two rows of benches, a water bucket and a small unplaned desk for the teacher.

In 1865 the original schoolhouse was supplanted by a larger structure and the semblance of an educational system gradually took form. A decade later six elementary schools, attended by 1,000 pupils, had been established and rudimentary high school classes were conducted in the small room of a private building on Sixth Street. The city was divided into three school districts each with different school boards, curricula, and methods of teaching.

In 1874, the Howe Literary Institute, offering courses in art, music, nursing, language, and penmanship, was formally dedicated on Bloody Island. Noteworthy in that it was the first attempt to found a junior college. The institute languished and ceased a few years after its inception. The building was demolished in 1896.

A building to be used for a high school was rented in 1874 and the first class of eight students was graduated in 1877. For the next 18 years the high school was shifted to various locations and it was not until 1906 that it became established in permanent quarters at the Horace Mann School. In 1901 the city’s educational facilities were united under one management and a uniform public school system put into operation. The present senior high school, at Tenth Street and Ohio Avenue, was opened in 1917. In recent years the educational system has been augmented by the construction of two junior high schools, the George Rogers Clark and the Landsdowne, which, with the Rock Junior High School, prepare students for entrance to the Senior High School. The Lincoln High School (Negro) is at Tenth and Broadway. There are 38 public grade schools, 13 parochial schools, St. Theresa’s Academy and the Central Catholic High School, in the corporate limits of East St. Louis.

The religious institutions of East St. Louis rest on foundations laid in the eighteenth century. The coming of Catholicism to the American Bottoms dates from December 7, 1698, when a small band of missionaries, led by Francis Jolliet de Montigny, arrived at the Indian village of Cahokia after a perilous journey from Quebec. Father St. Cosmè was left at the village while Montigny’s party pushed on to Arkansas. In the spring of 1699, Father St. Cosmè, aided by three Jesuits, began building a house and chapel that were completed in May of that year.

The hardships suffered by these pioneers of the wilderness may be gathered from a letter written by Father Gibault, who was instrumental in bringing George Rogers Clark’s campaign to a successful conclusion. The letter dated June 10, 1771, and now in the archepiscopal archives in Quebec, relates:

Sometimes in England, sometimes in Spain; a trip by canoe, one on foot, one or several on horseback; sometimes living well, sometimes fasting for days; sometimes passing several nights without sleeping, at other times not being able to sleep on account of gnats, and some other malignant creatures such as lice, fleas, bedbugs, etc., sometimes trembling with fear through a pitchblack night at the foot of a tree or in a dense thicket, at other times running away from the Indians at full speed of my horse – sometimes with the rain on my body, sometimes hiding in a trunk of a tree; in the morning freezing with cold, and at noon scorched by the heat of the sun; sometimes full of sorrow, and at other times filled with comfort – such is my life in Illinois. Pity me, or rather my soul; pray for it.


Monk’s Mound, largest of the Cahokia group and located three miles north of the city, is so called because a group of Trappist monks, led by Father Urbain Guillet, established a monastery there in 1805. For eight years the monks worked zealously but their efforts were dissipated by the plague of 1810 in which four of their members died. This disaster was aggravated by a crop failure and, in 1813, they return east and thence, after the overthrow of Napolean, to France.

Catholic pioneers who settled in early East St. Louis doubtless traveled to Cahokia, French Village, and St. Louis to observe their religious duties. However, in 1861, Father Brennan organized a Catholic Society and conducted services in what had formerly been the Methodist church. The congregation numbered about 1,000 persons. That same year, land for St. Patrick’s Church was purchased at Sixth Street and Illinois Avenue, now the site of the Central Catholic High School, and the cornerstone was laid by Father Ryan, Coadjutor Bishop of St. Louis, on March 17, 1862. Since that time 13 churches have been built in the city.

East St. Louis is included in the Diocese of Belleville, which comprises the territory south of the north line of St. Clair, Clinton, Clay, Richland, and Lawrence counties. The episcopal residence and the Cathedral of St. Peter are located at 222 South Third Street and Third and Harrison Streets, respectively, in Belleville, Illinois.

The establishment of Protestantism in the American Bottoms dates from the years immediately following the Revolutionary War. Foremost among the early Protestant ministers was James Lemen, a soldier who, in 1786, settled at New Design, near the present site of Waterloo, Monroe County. Said to be the first person admitted to the Baptist Church by immersion, Lemen subsequently became a minister, as did four of his sons: James Jr., Moses, Joseph, and Josiah. The religious endeavors of the Lemen family were supplemented by the labors of four other ministers: John Clark, Joseph Chance, John Baught, and David Badgley.

The first Baptist organization in St. Clair County was the Richland Arm of the New Design Church, which held its first meetings in the home of William L. Whiteside in June 1806. From that date, the number of Baptist churches in this region increased steadily. The Bethel Church, two and one-half miles southeast of Collinsville, was organized on December 19, 1809, and the Silver Creek Baptist Church was instituted on March 2, 1811.

In the van of the ministers who brought Methodism to the backwoods of St. Clair County was the Rev. Joseph Lilliard who, in 1793, organized a class and appointed Captain Ogle, the famous Methodist pioneer, as leader. The class was subsequently reorganized by Hosea Riggs, who settled near Turkey Hill in 1796. It was largely through the efforts of the Reverend Riggs that the first Protestant missionary to Illinois, the Reverend Benjamin West, came from Kentucky in 1803 and began to ride the circuit.

In the northeast section of St. Clair County the efforts of the Methodist pioneers resulted in permanent institutions. The history of the present Shiloh Methodist Episcopal Church dates back to 1795 when a class, which later became Shiloh Church, was organized. The Lebanon Seminary, established in February 1825, later became known as McKendree College, its present name. Connected with the seminary at one time was Peter Cartwright, the pioneer preacher whose exalting eloquence and unflagging zeal have become traditional.

The Turkey Hill Presbyterian Church was organized April 20, 1820. The church had no regular minister, but was visited occasionally by travelling missionaries. Death and removals so diminished the congregation that when it was dissolved in 1828 there were but four members.

Meanwhile pioneer Protestants held meetings under spreading trees and in their homes, at which a traveling minister would often officiate. The Reverend T. A. Eaton, after visiting Illinois Town in 1840, recorded that "It seemed a neat lively little town with a heavy body of timber at its north edge." By 1849, the settlement had assumed an air of permanency, and on April 20 of that year, Thomas Burnett, Henry Walls, Martin Stiles, Abraham B. Pope, John Thornton, and William Oglesby organized St. John’s Methodist Episcopal Church of Illinois Town. The small frame church built between Third and Fourth Streets was, so far as is known, the first to be erected in East St. Louis. In succession came the construction of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in 1864, a Presbyterian Church on Bloody Island in 1868, and in October 1872 a Baptist Church on Fifth Street between Missouri and St. Louis Avenues.

There are at present 26 Protestant churches within the corporate limits of the city of East St. Louis.

The social and cultural life of East St. Louis originates from and revolves around its civic, social, cultural, fraternal, and patriotic organizations. The various civic organizations that have to do with the city’s business and progress are coordinated by the East St. Louis Civic Federation, which also directs the Lansdowne Garden Club and the Winstanley Garden Club. Local branches of the Lions, Optimists, Kiwanis, and Rotarians are well established.

While there are many cultural and social clubs in the city, none of them direct city-wide social affairs.

There are 13 patriotic and fraternal organizations in the city. Labor unions, coordinated in the East St. Louis Central Trades and Labor Bureau, comprise 73 groups ranging from aluminum workers to a branch of the International Longshoreman.

There are 29 social agencies which function throughout the city and are partly financed by a Community Fund Drive conducted each autumn.

East St. Louis has an excellent park and playground system to provide for recreation and amateur sports events.

The stage, save for desultory stock companies, has never flourished in the city. Two motion picture houses are located in the business district and there are many neighborhood houses.

The city has one radio station, WTMV, having studios in the Broadview hotel which may be visited throughout the day.

East St. Louis has the commission form of municipal government. A mayor, a commissioner of health, a commissioner of police, a commissioner of accounts and finance, and a commissioner of streets and public improvements form the governing body.





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