To continue the series “Things I wrote about St. Louis in College” is a primary source analysis of two streetcar maps (1903 and 1940) and some applied research beyond simply contrasting the two. Also in its unedited form. Feel free to comment with any corrections/new research or theories.
Like arteries supplying lifeblood to the body, the red lines on the 1903 and 1940 streetcar maps of St. Louis representing the trolley routes, supplied the city with its workforce and kept nearby communities strong. Upon the first glance, one will notice the density of these red lines and just how much they follow the blood analogy. Thickest in the downtown area, they spread out as they move from the city center, penetrating neighborhoods and undeveloped parcels far away from the heart. Possibly, upon closer examination, it may become apparent the role these streetcar lines played in the patterns of development in this city and county. It is also possible that there is a direct connection between the disappearance of streetcar lines and the decline of the urban core of the city.
Beginning with the 1903 map and starting along the river’s edge, the only lines to be found next to the river are black ones, delineating railroad. Based on this discovery, and possible previous knowledge of St. Louis’ steamboat history, it would be a fair assumption to say that the first several blocks from the river were probably reserved for commercial use. Furthermore, there are no streetcar lines in the first four blocks west of the river, suggesting a lack of pedestrian travel in that area. In fact, the first line west of the river is quite a long one, stretching the length of the city north to south along Broadway. It is reasonable, therefore, to arrive at the conclusion that St. Louisans would take their trolley down to the Broadway line and walk the remaining blocks to the factory or warehouse that employed them. Looking at the 1940 streetcar map, lends nearly the same observation, with the major difference being the large clearing for the Jefferson Expansion Memorial. For a city to clear such a large area of its downtown district there must have been a diminished need for the development seen in the area on the previous map. In fact, by 1930, the city recognized that the riverfront was in need of a facelift. In its report to the Aldermen, the Transportation Commission found that “the buildings in this section were erected many years ago and are largely obsolete. The streets are exceedingly narrow and unsuited to modern traffic needs” They attributed this to: “westward growth of the city and decline in early forms of river traffic” (IX). As St. Louis changed, its industry adapted. Trains and trucks began carrying goods that were once carried over the river, and the city spread from its riverbank origins.
Moving west, the next observation garnered from careful inspection of the first map is the several contiguous north to south lines parallel to the Broadway line. As far west as 12th street, there are streetcar lines on nearly every block and though with higher concentration in the North, many of them stretch a substantial distance in both directions. The other significant detail to note from this area of the map is the density of the trolley lines running through most of what is today the north side of downtown. Running north/south and east/west, there is nearly a trolley for every street in this area probably serving the densest population base in the city. Forty years later, it would seem that the densest population was no longer contained in this district of Downtown. While there are still streetcar lines here, only in the most central part of Downtown are they on every street. Outside of that, the lines spread out quickly and north/south lines appear only about every ten blocks instead of every other and the lines moving west are even fewer and far-between. In this case, one could argue that the disappearance of streetcar lines could reflect a decline in urban density and therefore make the assertion that streetcar behavior followed development (and blight) in the 1940’s.
Going back in time to 1903 again, we see that after a few more blocks, around Jefferson Avenue, the lines begin to move more east/west than north/south and it is apparent that the city’s development followed suit. Streets running west remain at close intervals yet north/south streets spread out considerably occurring at much less frequency west of Grand than they had closer in; “Growth took place to the greatest extent to the west…because the street system leading to the west offered the best channels of development” (Commission VII). Still, there is greater occurrence of trolley lines to the north as there is to the south and development is more consistent to the north as well. Further south, south of Forest Park especially, development seems to fall off sharply west of Grand and the trolley lines begin to look like fingers jutting out from a hand as they diverge from one another. This fact can also be observed on the 1940 map, where the space north of Forest Park to the Rock Road there exist multiple lines, but to the south there are almost none. In a few places on the 1903 map, such as along Manchester and Gravois, it even appears that the trolley preceded development, stretching far from its origin with little on either side of the road which it passes. There is also evidence of streetcar-related development at the terminus of the Kingshighway line, where the beginnings of a south-city neighborhood have formed. It would not be a stretch to surmise that St. Louis’ development after the invention of the streetcar was spurred by it and that the neighborhoods that exist in west St. Louis City today owe much to their streetcar origins. In, Building American Cities, authors Feagin and Parker support this observation, “Electric trolley routes, elevated railroads, and subways facilitated the first urban expansion and decentralization” (155). Indeed, by 1940, these southwest city neighborhoods had filled out. Interestingly, however, several of the trolley lines had been replaced by buses by that time.
Besides the everyday streetcar lines that appear to have connected residential neighborhoods to employment in commercial districts, there also seem to be a few destination lines, mainly running west from the city to Forest Park. The Laclede Avenue trolley terminates at Forest Park, while the Chouteau and Delmar cars encircle it. Given the year of this map’s publication (1903), it is fair to say that these lines may have been built in anticipation of the World’s Fair of 1904, as they seemingly do not connect with much else. The only other line on the map that seems to be a destination trolley is the Gravois line, which runs the length of Gravois despite a lack of development along the road aside from several cemeteries toward the end of the line. Originally, when the large Bellefontaine and Cavalry cemeteries were built to the north of the city, they were away from the city’s edges too but development caught up with that streetcar line. The location of these Gravois cemeteries is no accident; city planners most likely placed them there as it was nearly the furthest point within the city limits from any development, giving them the most time to expand the cemeteries before becoming landlocked. By 1940, most of the area within the city limits had been developed, certainly all along Gravois and Manchester, suggesting that streetcars preceded development at least in some areas of the city, though again, many trolley lines had been replaced by buses.
The increasing presence of buses in the American public transit industry during the early 1900s was common to all cities. There is real evidence that this was perpetrated by the auto industry, specifically General Motors. Feagin and Parker quote news analyst, Harry Reasoner discussing the issue:
The way it worked was that General Motors, Firestone Tire and Standard Oil of California and some other companies, depending on the location of the target, would arrange financing for an outfit called National City Lines, which cozied up to city councils and county commissioners and bought up transit systems like L.A.’s. Then they would junk or sell the electric cars and pry up the rails for scrap and beautiful, modern buses would be substituted, buses made by General Motors and running on Firestone Tires and burning Standard’s gas (156).
The authors go on to explain that, through the holding company, GM and other members of the auto-industry bought electric transit systems in 45 U.S. cities during the 1930s (157). By 1940, the majority of the St. Louis Public Service Company, St. Louis’ largest streetcar provider, had been bought up by National City Lines (Young, 6). This can help explain urban decline in St. Louis, as well as elsewhere. As the automobile industry rose, and bus lines eradicated trolley lines, people became less and less in tune with public transportation while, at the same time, the trend to move away, out to the suburbs, was becoming more and more popular.
In his analysis of the issues surrounding metropolitan transportation, Wilfred Owen of the Brookings Institute explains, “between 1917 and 1928, surface street car companies were carrying 12 to 13 billion passengers annually. In 1963 only 300,000 passengers were transported by streetcar” (75). This fact stands in stark opposition to the opinions of transportation experts who almost unanimously argue that more transit ridership is good in many ways. In the 2009 report entitled, “Economic Impact of Public Transportation Investment”, the hypothetical scenario of doubled transit ridership by the year 2020 was studied. The report’s conclusions are staggering; an increase of 15 billion per year in household disposable income and over 20 billion added to the value of GDP (Weissbrod, Reno 58). From the early development of cities, through the present-day economic struggles, transportation has been vital to every urban area and its importance will only grow.
The streetcars that ran along the city’s streets in the early part of the 20th Century laid the groundwork for expansion. It was the trolley that first allowed people to exist in two places; one where they lived and one where they worked. This therefore gave the city a chance to grow now that its citizenry were not confined to the commercial districts, giving them the opportunity to move westward. These same vehicles of expansion also became the strands of community, holding people to their city no matter where on the map they resided. This observation is made stronger when looking through the lens of urban decline in St. Louis. By 1940, there had been a significant reduction in the number of streetcar lines as the automobile became more popular. The role of the existing streetcars outside the city center shifted as well, serving the commuter more so than the neighborhood and by the 1950’s when highways began to appear, the once-bustling streetcars had lost their utility. Once people stopped thinking of themselves as residents of a neighborhood in St. Louis and began identifying with a suburban community instead, the fate of the city was quickly sealed. As more highways were built, and more streetcars dismantled, the city began looking more and more like a ghost town. Its once busy streets were made empty and the population once boasted quickly vanished outward into suburbia. By the year 2000, St. Louis city had a mere 41% of its peak population in 1950 (Gordon 223). With no arteries left, neighborhoods in the city withered and, in some parts, mostly died by the later part of the century. As we are faced with the possibilities of urban renewal in this century, it must be applied with diligence and regard for the patterns of growth in the past and an emphasis must once again be put on how people view themselves as members of a larger community.
Feagin, Joe R., and Robert Parker 1957-. Building American Cities : The Urban Real Estate Game. 2nd ed ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990. Print.
Gordon, Colin. Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2008.
Hammond’s 8X11 Map of St. Louis. 1903. USGWARCHIVES. 15 March 2010.
Owen, Wilfred. The Metropolitan Transportation Problem. Rev. ed. Washington: Brookings Institution, 1966. Print.
Saint Louis (Mo) Transportation Survey Commission. Report of the Transportation Survey Commission of the City of St. Louis. St. Louis, Mo.: The Commission, 1930. Print.
Weisbrod, Glen, and Arlee Reno. “Economic Impact of Public Transportation Investment.” TCRP, J-11. Print.
Young, Andrew D. The St. Louis Streetcar Story. no. 108 Vol. Glendale, Calif.: Interurban Press, 1988.