St. Louis and the 1880 Census

by Michael R. Allen

Today’s release of the 2010 United States Census figures brings the bad news that St. Louis now officially has 319,294 residents. St. Louis has lost nearly eight percent of its official 2000 population of 348,189 people. The bad news factor has been amplified, of course, by the last few years’ worth of estimated Census counts that suggested today would bring confirmation of city population growth. Pundits and politicians now are revving up the engine of forecast, with perfect hindsight vision.

This writer has not reviewed enough of the data to make any pronouncements about what this means, but still has an observation to offer. St. Louis now has its lowest population since 1870, when the Census showed 310,864 residents. This was a 93% increase since 1860, when the city had 190,524 residents and was the nation’s eighth largest city. (Only New York and Philadelphia then had populations of more than 500,000 people.) Despite the ravages of the Civil War, the next decade showed continued explosive growth albeit at a slower pace than the previous ten years. In 1850, St. Louis had 77,860 residents, so the 1860 Census count represented an increase of over 106.5% increase. The prior two decades registered increases of 230% and 372% respectively. But those increases were made before St. Louis could rightly be called a city.

What happened in the next decade showed a continuation of impressive and explosive development in St. Louis. The city dedicated one of the nation’s largest parks, Forest Park, as well as O’Fallon and Carondelet Parks. Established parks including Lafayette Square and St. Louis Place received their first extensive improvements, making them as beautiful as any in the United States. Great breweries, factories and grain elevators rose all over the riverfront and industrial districts. The city’s first bridge over the Mississippi was opened in 1874, connected within a year by a massive double-arched tunnel to the railyards south of downtown and the new Union Depot. In 1875 the Merchants’ Exchange completed a massive, elegant new building at Third and Chestnut streets designed by Lee & Annan and containing a magnificent trading hall. Construction began in 1872 on a massive new post office and federal building designed by Alfred B. Mullet at Eighth and Olive streets. Tall office buildings, including George I. Barnett’s St. Louis Life Insurance Building of 1874 at Sixth and Locust streets, rose around downtown. Major churches in the Gothic Revival style rose around the city. Vandeventer Place was developed. New houses large and small went up everywhere, and additions were made to the city with great rapidity. In 1876, the city of st. Louis extended its physical boundary to the present limits, and many subdivisions made outside of the 1855 boundary started developing.

St. Louis in the 1870s was alive with the magnetic aura of purpose and grandeur. When the Census of 1880 was released, the population was recorded at 350,518, an increase of only 12.8% over 1870. The city fell from fourth to sixth largest in the United States. Did that number rouse boosters to issue warnings of impending decline or loss of position? Not at all. City leaders and even national observers continued to praise the mercantile prowess and architectural beauty of St. Louis. In 1884, William Bishop wrote Harper’s New Monthly Magazine that St. Louis could envision a glorious future as the center of the Mississippi Valley. Of course the city’s highest achievements were still ahead, and by 1900 it was again the fourth largest city in the nation. Still the 1880 Census indicated that national migration was trending away from St. Louis and other cities of the northeast and Midwest. Yet the city leaders of St. Louis pushed forward, regaining position, building population, changing the city charter, and — most importantly — making the city a better place through physical improvement and economic development. Surely in 2011 these remain options for St. Louis.