The Tragedy That Changed St. Louis's Fortunes Forever
In 1855, an avoidable disaster diverted America's post-Civil War future from St. Louis to Chicago
I hate being wrong, especially about history. But, it seems I was. Very wrong. And in my ignorance, I missed an opportunity to learn the fascinating story of an ill-fated train trip from St. Louis to Jefferson City.
Happily, I heard a recent episode of Explore Church History with Monsignor Michael Witt on Covenant Radio. The episode is not yet available online, but it should be available soon on Msgr. Witt’s website. (Links below.)
When St. Louis Was the Gem of the Country and Chicago a Muddy Outpost
In 1850, St. Louis, Missouri, was the 8th largest city in the United States with a population of 77,000. Chicago was not in the top 10. Ten years later, the two cities were ranked 8th and 9th. St. Louis had grown to 160,000 while Chicago’s population jumped to 112,000. The rivalry continued into the Reconstruction era, and by 1870 St. Louis was the 4th largest city and Chicago 5th. Only New York, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn were larger.
But that’s where the rivalry ended. In the next decade, Boston surpassed St. Louis, while Chicago continued to grow. The 1880 census ranked Chicago 4th and St. Louis 6th. In 1890, Chicago was second only to New York with over 1 million people, while St. Louis’s population was less than half at 451,000 (which is 150,000 more than today).
Simply, the growth of the railroad industry displaced the steamboat business upon which St. Louis’s meteoric rise was based.
The Beginning of the End for St. Louis’s Railroad Dreams
But that fact raises the question: why was St. Louis not the nation’s railroad hub? When the great railroad expansion began, St. Louis was a booming city and Chicago a muddy settlement.
Eight years ago, I speculated on the divergence of these two Midwestern cities, prompted by Don Pepper. But I have learned Don and I were mistaken. Or, at least, we failed to consider other factors that prevented St. Louis from accepting its natural title as Train City, USA.
Pepper’s conclusion (which I adopted) was that St. Louis politicians scuttled attempts to turn St. Louis into a railroad hub under pressure from steamboat industry lobbyists. But that was only a small part of the situation. While some St. Louis politicians tried so slow the growth of railroads, the city, in the 1850s, was lobbying the railroads to make St. Louis the nation’s hub.
In particular, St. Louis’s business and civic leaders fell in love with the Pacific Railroad to the exclusion of all others. This was probably a mistake, as it suppressed competition and its benefits. And healthy competition, which leads to corporate spying, might have spared St. Louis its eventual doom as railroad king.
The Race to Jefferson City
In 1851, the Pacific Railroad began construction of a line to link St. Louis with Jefferson City. Civic leaders and the railroad, under president Hudson Bridge, intended to continue to the line all the way to California. But, first, it must cross the hilly and river-veined state of Missouri.
By 1853, the line extended as far as Kirkwood, but Pacific lobbyists were schmoozing Jefferson City lawmakers for funding to accelerate construction. With remarkable speed, the line was extended to Washington, Missouri, by 1854, and planning began for the celebratory first trip from St. Louis to the state capital.
Construction of the railroad progressed slowly at first, due to the time required to make tunnels and build bridges. Irish workers, poorly fed and often on strike, were employed to construct the railroad. In two years time, the line was open to the area, now the city of Pacific. However, in less than 4 1/2 years time, by late 1855, the line was completed 125 miles west to Jefferson City. Plans were made to celebrate the construction and promote further development of the line, by a special train of invited guests and dignitaries who would travel the new route to the state capital and convene with the Governor. Included in the guest list were the Mayor and City Council of St. Louis, the National Guard and band, Company A of the St. Louis Grays, many high ranking professional and businessmen, a number of state and county officers, and representatives from other railroads. Little did the passengers know, all aboard had been invited to the single worst railroad disaster in Missouri’s history.
Contrary to Don Pepper’s (and my) assertion that the steamboat industry opposed railroads, one of the invited guests was the president of a steamboat line, Captain O’Flaherty. Additional dignitaries onboard the train, according to Mr. Aubuchon, included:
E. Church Blackburn (president of the city council), Henry Chouteau, Calvin Case (Industrialist), and Mann Butler (attorney and Kentuckian historian). Two of the best known clergyman of the city, Rev. Dr. Artemas Bullard of the First Presbyterian Church, and Rev. John Teasdale of the Third Baptist Church were among the dead.
(There were no Catholic clergy on the train, says Msgr. Witt, because November 1 is a Holy Day of Obligation—they had to offer extra Masses.)
November 1, 1855
The train departed St. Louis’s 7th Street station at 9:30 a.m. It stopped at 14th Street and made several other stops to pick up dignitaries, including Franklin County’s State Representative, E.B. Jeffrees. In Washington, Missouri, the train added a 15th car filled with Missouri Guardsmen and a band.
October and November are months of heavy rain in Missouri, and a deluge poured on November 1, 1855. Chief Engineer of the Pacific Railroad, Thomas O’Sullivan, was concerned about the effects of the storm on the newly laid tracks. He planned to stop the train before it crossed the Gasconade River outside Hermann, Missouri. But delays at several stops and assurances that a train hauling gravel had traversed the bridge the day before led O’Sullivan to push ahead.
What O’Sullivan and Pacific Railroad president Hudson Bridge might not have know was that the Gasconade River Bridge was incomplete. Stone, Boomer & Co., of Chicago subcontracted to build the 760-foot span, failed to tell the railroad that the bridge was behind schedule. Hoping to avoid a penalty, Stone-Boomer hurriedly built a temporary infrastructure between the tracks and the piers sunk deep into bedrock. (Stone Boomer, coincidentally, was, at the same time, building a bridge across the Mississippi in the Quad Cities area of Illinois and Iowa. Chicago pols were in a race to beat St. Louis’s railroad lines to the west.)