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Pittsburgh Of The West/Queen City

The Golden Age: 1890-1920


With the onset of the "Gay Nineties" East St. Louis was ready to leave its turbulent past behind and look forward to the promise of greatness that lie ahead. The American melting pot works slowly. In their search to obtain die American ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the various nationalities had earlier divided into political and social warring factions. But this was a new era, led by reform-minded Melbern M. Stephens. Elections marked by violence in which weapons were pistols, sword, canes, rocks and fists were a thing of the past.

The railroads, Eads Bridge, Stock Yards and High Grade Ordinance acted as a catalyst that resulted in an economic boom that seemingly had no bounds. East St. Louis became the fastest growing city in America, doubling its size every ten years. There was a feeling of vitality and obtainable success that gave the community a sense of direction. This doesn't mean that progress was linear and free of obstacles. There was a devastating tornado in 1896 that destroyed dozens of boats on the river front and Douglas School on the Island. City Hall was obliterated. It tore the roof off St. Mary's Church, damaged businesses in the downtown, and ravaged the Howe Institute at Tenth and College.

The city had barely recovered when another of those periodic floods engulfed the city in 1903. Instead of giving up, citizens stubbornly rebuilt and formed a levee district which finally mastered the problem of flood control.

East St. Louis was making great strides in education. The public high school moved from its first location at 5th Street to the Howe Institute. After the cyclone erased the institute's existence, Rock High School was built at 9th and Summit. When that building began to burst at the seams with students, a new high school at 10th and Ohio was built. Catholic education made similar gains. Most parishes had schools of their own and secondary education took a step forward with the building of St. Teresa Academy for girls and Central High for boys.

Churches of many denominations were sprouting all over the city. Boundaries were extended with the annexation of Winstanley Park and Lansdowne areas. Civic groups began to deal in earnest with developing social problems, and the citizenry found entertainment with football and baseball. Swimming was popular at "Brady's Ocean," a slough of water west of Third Street on the far side of the B&O tracks. Other popular social spots included Lehman's Hall on Collinsville Avenue, and McCasland's Opera House offering the only theater program at the time. This all changed with the advent of silent films as movie houses began to dot the landscape.

At the beginning of this era, the city only had a few private parks, but it quickly began to build grass and tree islands of quietude amid the urban and residential landscape. It would eventually have one of the finest park systems in country and more recreational acreage than any city of comparable size.

Prior to 1890, immigration to East St. Louis came mostly from northern and western Europe. As the city grew industrial prowess, people from southern and eastern Europe began to flock to the city. Goose Hill became particularly famous for its population of first generation migrants from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Armenia, a, Greece and Lithuania, Demographic numbers began to swell since good-paying jobs were available to all.

Organized labor was still in its infancy. The working class strove mightily to improve their lot by forming craft unions that demanded better wages, shorter hours and improved working conditions. Unskilled workers would not find much success until the 1930s. East St. Louis eventually became one of the most unionized towns in America and it gave birth to several national organizations.

Negroes had long been a part of the city and its environs, first as a handful of slaves, then as struggling freedmen. For decades, they had lived in relative harmony with whites, although unfairly confined to the south end, one of the most industrialized parts of the city. The economic stimulus of World War I led to mass migration of blacks. For first time in history they left the rural South in droves, moving to the northern cities in a quest for a better life. Their motivation was essentially the same as the newly arrived foreign immigrants. This huge influx brought resentment from many whites. Racial tensions mounted. When several large employers decided to replace striking white workers with Negro labor, the stage was set for disaster. Racial hatred boiled over in the July riot of 1917. There were similar riots in Springfield, Chicago, and in other states, but none were as brutal or as vicious as the one in East St. Louis. Thirty-nine Negroes and nine whites lost their lives over an infamous two-day period.

Despite the awful image due to the killings, the city continued to progress. Local chapters of the Red Cross and Jaycees were established. Monsanto built a factory just north of Cahokia. The aldermanic form of government was discarded in favor of the more progressive City Commission plan. Then East St. Louis reached its pinnacle of success. The 1920 census revealed that it was the second largest city in the state, and the 86th largest in the nation. East St. Louis finally achieved its own identity. It was called the Pittsburgh of the West and Queen City. Post-war prosperity was about to begin and experts were predicting that the population would someday reach the quarter of a million mark.

 Click here to read about some events from this period


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