Got to thinking about my last post on plank roads and how local officials in the early 1850s rejected railroads, figuring that paving roads with wooden planks was the best technological fix for the era’s terrible roads.
You shouldn’t get the impression that those folks here in Kendall County were the only ones who misread the likely future that railroads were going to create. Something very similar happened down in St. Louis, with an even bigger economic impact as rejecting railroads had up here on our small farm town.
From the early 1830s to the early 1850s, as the pioneer era matured, Illinois became a huge grain exporter. Early on, the trick was to actually export all that excess grain farmers were beginning to produce using better agricultural techniques and increasing mechanization. One way to get it to market was to let it walk all by itself by turning grain into cattle and hogs that could be driven to Chicago. But to get the grain itself to market meant hauling in wagons over the region’s primitive road system.
In that day and age, grain in excess of needed food for the farm family and livestock feed was bagged, loaded aboard the farm’s wagon, a four-horse team hitched, and the load hauled to market. That market might be in the rapidly growing city of Chicago or, depending on the farm’s location, might be the Illinois River.
No matter where it went, though, it was transported in bags, which were unloaded into a warehouse. They, in turn, were then reloaded onto a sailing ship along the docks along South Water Street in Chicago or aboard a steamboat or flatboat on the Illinois River for the trip downstream to St. Louis. From Chicago, the grain was taken to Buffalo, where it was unloaded once again into a warehouse, for later transshipment down the Erie Canal to the New York City market. After grain arrived via the Illinois-Mississippi route at St. Louis, slaves unloaded the sacks onto the Levee, a broad strip of land extending along the city’s entire riverfront, where it was stacked for later sale or to be reloaded by more slave labor aboard a steamer or flatboat to be shipped down to New Orleans.
All that loading and unloading took time, and time is money. With the introduction of rail transport, efficiency in loading and unloading became a pressing goal of those engaged in the grain trade. To that end, in 1842, Buffalo, N.Y. grain merchant and warehouse owner Joseph Dart invented the grain elevator. Dart’s elevator was a tall building that consisted of a series of vertical grain bins. Once grain had been removed from its sacks and moved to the elevated bins using steam power, it could be moved from bin to bin or loaded aboard canal boats, lakes ships, or rail cars by gravity alone. It was a great idea and quickly spread west to Chicago where the city’s grain merchants quickly perfected the concept.
In seemingly no time at all, grain elevators replaced the grain warehouses that lined the banks of the Chicago River along South Water Street. Grain brought in from hinterland farms in sacks was emptied out, graded by quality, and elevated to bins where it was mixed with other grain of the same grade that could then be loaded aboard the new rail cars or on Great Lakes ships for shipment east, or even loaded aboard boats on the new Illinois & Michigan Canal to be sent south to the New Orleans market.
With the old sack system, individual farmers’ grain could be identified from the time it left the farm until it reached its ultimate destination, with farmers known for shipping quality grain receiving a premium sales price. With the new system, fair grading and accurate records were an absolute must, and as you might surmise, there proved to be a lot of ways the new system could be manipulated. And manipulated it certainly was, although that’s a story for another day.
Because the Chicago River and Lake Michigan do not flood, the South Water Street elevator complex could be built right on the river bank, where it could be directly serviced by wagon, rail, canal, and lakes shipping.
Not so in St. Louis. There, the Levee was not only a transshipment point, but was a buffer for the city against the power of the Mississippi, which frequently flooded. As a result of the unpredictable river, grain elevators could not be built directly on the Mississippi’s riverbank, but had to be located some distance from the river. That meant no direct access to the city’s elevators by steamboats on the river.
In addition, St. Louis’s economic leaders decided, much like their counterparts in Oswego, that railroads were not the coming thing in transport. The decision was to stick with steamboats, since the city already had infrastructure in place for them. Not only that, but the city fought against the idea of a direct rail connection across the river, forbidding any rail bridges to be built. Indeed, when the first rail bridge spanned the Mississippi, it was not at St. Louis, but rather crossed the river from Rock Island, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa. And then St. Louis’s steamboat interests fought the bridge’s existence in court, the case decided in the railroad’s favor thanks to the legal acumen of their lawyer—himself a former flatboat crewman who transported bags of corn to New Orleans—Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, Illinois.
Chicago, meanwhile, was becoming the nation’s central railroad hub with commodities from the huge hinterland surrounding it flowing into the city, and finished goods flowing out. There was good reason that when circumstances, including rural free mail delivery, made mail order businesses possible, the nation’s two largest, Sears, Roebuck & Company and Montgomery Ward & Company, located in Chicago.
St. Louis didn’t get its direct railroad connection with the east bank of the Mississippi until 1874, when James B. Eads’ remarkable, innovative bridge opened to traffic. Eads built his bridge despite the opposition of steamboat interests who remained economic powers in St. Louis despite railroads having proven to provide economical, year round transportation.
By that time, however, Chicago was preparing to steal the crown of the Midwest’s economic leader from St. Louis, a disparity that has only gotten greater over the ensuing decades. In 1840, St. Louis and St. Louis County had a total population of nearly 36,000, dwarfing Chicago and Cook County’s population of just 10,201. But by 1870, while the population of St. Louis and county had grown to 351,000 people, Chicago was already crowding it with 349,000. In 1880, St. Louis’s city and county population had barely increased to 382,000 while Chicago and Cook’s population had continued its strong growth to 607,000 and by 1890, the population of St. Louis was 488,000 while Chicago’s population had nearly doubled to 1,192,000.
Would the fate of St. Louis have been any different had the city embraced railroads in the 1850s instead of grudgingly accepting its first rail link east of the Mississippi two decades later? Possibly. Even probably. But it’s also pretty clear that Chicago would have surpassed St. Louis no matter what given the Windy City’s location that let it take advantage of direct connections via the Great Lakes and railroads to the New York market and rail and canal connections south to New Orleans, not to mention rail connections west across the nation to the Pacific.
But the railroad phobia that was apparently so common in the early 1850s undoubtedly made things worse for St. Louis.
There’s probably a lesson for us there, but as I’ve noted before, the real trick is to figure out what that it might be and then make use of the lesson learned. Because if current events show us anything at all, it’s that humans not only stubbornly refuse to learn history’s lessons, but more often than not refuse to admit there are any lesson to be learned in the first place.