Separate Identity

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The Search for a Separate Identity: 1862-1890


With the outbreak of the Civil War, a curious set of circumstances existed. Missouri, a slave state, generally favored the Confederacy, but the city of St. Louis was pro Union. In East St. Louis, the administration of John Bowman was opposed to Lincoln's Republicans, while the state of Illinois as a whole supported the Northern position. Relatively speaking, both cities played rather insignificant roles in the war, and goods flowing through the two cities reached both sides in the conflict.

East St. Louis had a population of slightly more than 5,000 people and was just coming into its own. Stimulated by the need for wartime industrial goods, the city began to blossom. More eastern railroads made East St. Louis the site of their western-most terminals. Businessmen began to realize that East St. Louis had a huge geographic advantage over other cities. Water transportation was vital and the city's location on the Mississippi near the Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee and Missouri Rivers was important. Coal was now the dominant fuel and the nearby bluffs had vast quantities of it. The Reynolds Company that built a set of tracks from the coal mining community of Pittsburg, across the lake at Grand Marais, and down to Wiggins Ferry, was already the richest dollar-per-mile railroad in the country.

The 1860 census did not have a separate listing for Illinoistown, but its growth was steadily increasing. When the city was re-chartered in 1865, five railroads already terminated there. From that point on, rail traffic became the lifeblood of the city. Six new railroads came to town between 1865 and 1875 - the Vandalia, Decatur & East St. Louis, Rockford & St. Louis, St. Louis & Southeastern, East St. Louis & Carondelet Line, and the Cairo & St. Louis.

The arrival of immigrant railroad labor and the establishment of a large class of railroad employees changed the character of the town. The classes and masses began to segregate. New problems arose related to sanitation, crime, lights, streets, sewage, housing and amusements. Frontier democracy was forever changed.

Reconstruction gave way to the Gilded Age - a cynical time in the country where rich industrialists used their power and influence to corrupt governments. Scandals and graft were the order of the day. There were those such as Karl Marx and Eugene Debs who surveyed the scene and grew angry over the plight of the working class who labored long and hard under inhumane conditions. East St. Louis did not escape the jaded atmosphere and political factions battled for control of City Hall and the patronage that went with it. Scandal after scandal rocked the place, culminating with the assassination of former mayor John Bowman near his home on College Avenue.

In 1871 a group of eastern investors bought a large tract of land northwest of Collinsville and St. Clair Avenues. It became known as National Stock Yards. Cattle were brought up from the Texas and Oklahoma Territory to be processed and shipped to eastern markets. This labor intensive industry stimulated the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe who settled in ethnic enclaves in an area that came to be known as Goose Hill. In addition to the Gem-tans, English, Dutch, Italians, French and Irish already in town, large numbers of Poles, Czechs, Croatians, Bohemians, Slavs, Greeks. Lithuanians, Armenians and Hungarian immigrants flocked here in an effort to escape oppression in their country and find a better life in America. East St. Louis became an amalgam of ethnicity.

The completion of the Eads Bridge in 1874 was another pivotal turning point for the city. The railroads, which previously unloaded their goods at the river front, could now cross the river and proceed to a multitude of western destinations. The bridge was something to behold - an engineering marvel of its day. Captain Eads had gained prominent reputation during the war by converting wood-hulled steamships into ironclads within a brief period of time. They were used as gun boats by Union forces on the Mississippi and helped turn the tide in favor of the North. The Civil War dramatized the need for such a bridge and Eads, a man who was familiar with the river, was equal to the task.

Despite the town's tough image and its reputation for corruption and violence, the place began to take on a more cosmopolitan tone as civic and religious leaders combined to make East St. Louis a decent place in which to raise families. While much drinking and gambling went on in taverns and saloons, churches of every denomination took hold and strove mightily to rid the town of unsavory characters and close down houses of ill repute. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that numerous key business leaders were absentee landlords. They chose to live above the soot and dust of an industrialized town and preferred instead to dwell in nearby Belleville or St. Louis.

Periodic flooding continued to plague the city. A tornado would wreak havoc in 1871 and a fire destroyed John Lovingston's mill. Undaunted, the citizens rolled up their sleeves and pressed onward. As the population of East St. Louis rose dramatically, other trappings of city life began to emerge. Churches, schools, banks, a library, a weekly newspaper, political factions, unions, fraternal lodges and civic organizations appeared on the scene. The city council authorized the formation of a fire department and a police department. East St. Louis was losing its rural ambience and was well on its way to becoming the second largest city in the state of Illinois.

 Click here to read about some events from this period


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