Supply Depot for the City of St. Louis: 1817-1861
Richard McCarty, Etienne Pensoneau and Captain James
Piggott were all early pioneers who contributed to the founding of East St. Louis. Before
the establishment of the ferry, farmers, traders and trappers, who wanted to reach the St.
Louis market, left their wagons on the bank of the Father of Waters. They used flatboats
or canoes to transport their wares and for bringing back needed merchandise.
The construction of Piggott's first ferry, completed and put into
operation in 1797, was strictly a commercial venture - the essence of supply and demand -
the mantra of capitalism. The first ferry was probably a simple platform surrounded by a
railing, floated on Indian pirogues, and paddled with long sweeps handled by Creoles. Hand
power changed to horse power, and that in turn was succeeded by steam power.
Illinois achieved statehood in 1818, and Illinoistown stood ready to
play a major role in the history and development of the state. Unfortunately, the
political leaders of the state (especially in the 1840s) intentionally supported
legislation that favored the development of Alton as the leading city in the region.
Nevertheless, Illinoistown forged ahead. Bridges were built, roads constructed, and
Illinois went through a "canal boom" that lasted until roughly 1830. Commerce
was thriving and internal improvements provided the means to move commercial goods and
farm produce from one area to another.
It was Samuel Wiggins who eventually gained control of the ferry
business with a landing site at what is now Market Street. He secured a charter monopoly
from the state legislature and made a fortune in the growing traffic that flowed from
Illinoistown to St. Louis. The monopoly held by Wiggins and his successors was hardly
popular, and it became the target of much criticism and controversy. Yet the ferry played
an important role in the development of the town that would become East St. Louis.
From the earliest log cabins, it was unclear which town or village in
the area would come to dominate. Richard McCarty's first settlement near present St. Clair
Avenue was named St. Ursule, after his French-Canadian wife. Piggott's village was called
Washington. Etienne Pensoneau laid out a town in the area that he named Jacksonville.
Residents from Cahokia tried to establish a place they called Illinois City. A New Yorker
named John St. John bought a tract of land from Vital Jarrot and laid out a town called
St. Clair in 1837. But the name that was generally used from 1821 to 1859 was
Illinoistown. When the city decided to incorporate and secure a charter from the Illinois
legislature, there was a great debate over the name that would be chosen. Illinoistown had
a checkered past due to four major floods that devastated it, and from the unsavory
connection it had with the area known as Bloody Island. When all was said and done,
largely due to pressure from the railroad companies, the name East St. Louis was chosen
over Illinoistown as the official name.
Bloody Island started out as a sandbar in the Mississippi and gained
notoriety as a dueling site where "gentlemen" from St. Louis settled their
affairs of honor. At least four major duels were fought there, and the place came to be
the location of choice for all sorts of dubious activity, including cock fights, bare
knuckle brawls and gambling. The island grew in size, and by 1837 it created a significant
problem for the city of St. Louis. Now over a mile in length, the island caused the
current of the river to change and the harbor at St. Louis began to fill with silt. St.
Louis appealed to the federal government for help and Robert E. Lee and the Army Corps of
Engineers were sent to construct a series of dikes that would cause the island to attach
itself to the opposite shore at Illinoistown. Much of Lee's work was washed away by the
great flood of 1844, and the city of St. Louis had to come up with the men and resources
to finish the job. By 1861 the island area had become a permanent part of the Illinois
landscape. Today, a casual observer would never guess that the west part of town, from the
river to East Broadway, had once been an island.
Small businesses were springing up and commerce with the city of St. Louis was growing
by leaps and bounds. St. Louis developed so rapidly that it was unable to feed itself
Illinoistown was more than happy to fill the need. The two cities became intimately
associated and a mutual dependency evolved. Illinoistown churned out a multitude of
produce and other materials, selling them for a nice profit to merchants in St. Louis. A
small stock yards developed in the Papstown area on the St. Clair County Turnpike near
10th Street. Animals were slaughtered and processed meat found a ready market on the other
side of the river. When an eastern railroad came to town in 1857, the future was secure
and greatness loomed on the horizon.