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The industrial growth of East St. Louis, dating from the adaptation of steam ferries in 1828 and the subsequent ascendancy of the locomotive, could be written largely in terms of transportation. Situated by the Mississippi, near regions rich with natural resources and at, so to speak, the very door of the opulent west, it was natural that Illinoistown early became a transportational center. And it followed that industries would locate where raw materials and transportation were readily accessible.

According to legend the first use of coal in this area is attributed to the Trappist Monks who once lived on Monks' Mound. In 1807, so the tale goes, their blacksmith complained for want of proper fuel in his forge. When later informed that the earth was burning at the foot of a tree struck by lightning, the Monks promptly investigated and found an outcrop of a hard black substance, coal, which thereafter satisfied the demands of their blacksmith.

Click here to read a more detailed description of these monks and their discovery


In 1837, a company headed by Gov. John Reynolds attempted commercial mining operations. A rudimentary line with rails of wood and horse-drawn cars was constructed to freight coal from the bluffs to the river. This crude railroad was probably the first west of the Allegheny Mountains and certainly the first in Illinois. The fuel was mined for limited domestic use. It remained for later generations to unite coal with large scale productive processes.

Click here to read Gov. Reynolds's own account of this project


Until the completion of the Ohio and Mississippi Ry. In June, 1857, the economy of East St. Louis was internal and agrarian in kind, bound together by a considerable amount of river trade. The Wiggins Ferry Company, evolving from a simple wooden platform that was poled and sculled across the river, had, in 1852, property valued at one million dollars. 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 once 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 in all directions. 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 town 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 one of the great transportational foci of the United States. Twenty-seven railroads had their center or terminal point here. Some fifty factories riding the crest of the fin de siecle prosperity were producing aluminium, baking powder, concrete blocks, chemicals, enameled iron-ware, fireworks, fertilizer, glass, Glucose, frogs and switches, structural iron, steel cars, and locomotives. In the decade 1900-10 the population increased 97.4 per cent and the city was the third largest in Illinois with real estate valued at twenty-four millions.

In the slumps that came in 1907, 1920, and 1929, the productive forces of the city each time revived to greater activity. Labor disputes flared at intervals and in the spring of 1917, racial hatreds were unloosed in riot and carnage. But on the whole, the wars that racked similar industrial towns had but slight local repurcussions. Strikes were seldom prolonged and in view of the city's prepondent working population, uncommonly few.

In the last decade, new industries have located in the area south of the city that was once the Cahokia Common Fields, and it is likely that 20th-Century industries will be concentrated along State Route 3. Twenty trunk lines 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 per cent of the city's total population are workers.

Specific information about products and manufacturers can be supplied by the East St. Louis Chamber of Commerce, Spivey Building.


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