Will 2014 be the Next 1849?

In 2014, St. Louis faced a cataclysm. On August 9, a white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed a young black man named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Protests started the next day and continued for over two weeks, only to break out again the night of November 24 when a grand jury announced its decision not to indict Wilson. As a result, St. Louis has earned the reputation of the most segregated city in the United States. People are scared to visit St. Louis because they think it is too dangerous.

In 1849, between destruction and disease, St. Louis had it even worse. The city of St. Louis almost perished between the Great Fire and the Cholera epidemic. And yet the city emerged from that year stronger and better.

On May 17, 1849, fire broke out on the White Cloud, a steamboat moored on the city’s riverfront. When the rope tying it to the dock burned, the ship turned into a floating torch that set 31 other steamships aflame. Soon flames leapt to the wooden warehouses on shore and threatened to take down the entire city.

Only the courage, daring and self sacrifice of a volunteer fire captain named Tom Targee saved St. Louis from complete destruction. Targee came up with the idea of creating a firebreak by blowing up buildings to stop the conflagration from spreading. A barrel of gunpowder exploded as he was carrying it into the Phillips Music Store on Market Street, killing Targee.

Only two other St. Louisans lost their lives during the Great Fire, but fifteen blocks were leveled at a time when St. Louis stretched just three-quarters of a mile back from the Mississippi. Damages totaled $5,000,000 to $6,000,000, worth close to $190,000,000 today.

Simultaneously, St. Louis was in the throes of a cholera epidemic that carried away 4,547 lives. With a total population of 105,000 according to the 1850 census, St. Louis was harder hit in proportion to its population than any other city in the United States.

With property lost on one hand and lives on the other, St. Louisans came together as they never had before, and a modern city was born out of the ashes of a quaint, French town. With insurance money pouring in, merchants replaced charred warehouses with state-of-the-art commercial buildings. The city government appropriated funds for the first sewer system to prevent future outbreaks of cholera, putting St. Louis in the vanguard of urban environmental planning. The city also convened a Board of Health, and citizens voted for a tax for public education that gave the city some of the best public schools in the nation.

Can we the citizens use this tragedy to inspire us to create a better city, a model of racial tolerance for the nation? The Ferguson Commission Report challenges us to do so. In an 198-page document, the Commission calls for specific measures to create: Justice for All, Youth at the Center, Opportunity to Thrive and Racial Equity. These proposals are not Band-Aids to solve small, local problems, but thoughtful measures to change attitudes and ways of life, changes that will make St. Louis a great place.

Let us hope the tragic occurrences of Ferguson 2014 may provide the inspiration for St. Louis to come together.Great Fire of 1849


St. Louis and the Book

Laclede            St. Louis is the home of T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams and Howard Nemerov. It is not surprising that St. Louis has nurtured so many great literary figures because the city had had a commitment to literacy and literature since its founding.

Although the father of St. Louis, Pierre Laclède, intended the new city purely as a headquarters for trade – it wouldn’t even have a church for eleven years – reading, books and literature were important to him. Not only Laclede but also his common law wife, Marie Therese Chouteau, was able to read. This was remarkable at a time when the literacy was calculated upon the ability to write one’s name. Moreover, the literacy rate in 18th century France, their native land, was only 29 to 48 percent for men and a mere 14 to 27 percent for women (depending upon whether you lived in the countryside or Paris).

Perhaps because they took their fate into their own hands, the people of the New World placed great value on the power of the written word. Literacy rates were higher here in the 18th century than in the Old World: 60 to 70 percent in the British Colonies versus 48 to 60 percent in England.

The founder of St. Louis took great pride in his library, and it marked him as a gentleman. The inventory of Laclède’s estate included some 200 volumes. At a time when a book cost nearly as much as a common laborer earned in a week, such a library denoted great wealth as well as a lifestyle that placed value on reading.

Mme. Marie Thérèse Chouteau was a liberated woman before such a concept existed. She called herself widow although her husband was not dead. Even though she bore Laclède four children, she chose not to marry him when her husband did die because Laclède was in debt at the time. A business and social leader in St. Louis, she was aided in her success by the nuns in New Orleans who had educated her.   Being able to read was a noteworthy achievement for a woman of the time.

Laclède must have had a great deal of faith in his 14-year-old stepson for he entrusted Auguste Chouteau with the task of clearing the site and building the first cabins for the fur trading post that would become the city of St. Louis. Because Chouteau could read and write, he was able to commit the very founding of the city to literature. In a treasured document now enshrined in the Mercantile Library, Chouteau wrote: “I arrived at the place designated on the 14th of February and, on the morning of the next day, I put the men to work.” He went on to say: “that he had found a situation where he was going to form a settlement, which might become, hereafter, one of the finest cities of America – so many advantages were embraced in this site, by its locality and its central position….”

Auguste must have admired his step-father in turn for he followed him in loving books. Indeed, Chouteau bought the first eight books in his library from Laclede’s estate. When he died, Chouteau’s library numbered 600 volumes.