By Betty Burnett
In this issue of St. Louis Commerce Magazine, we begin a
several part series examining the history of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association (RCGA). Dr. Betty Burnett, originally from Connecticut but, as she notes, a “St. Louisan by choice,” pens a fascinating series on the history of the organization. The article that follows originally appeared in a book called “St. Louis: Its Neighborhoods and Neighbors, Landmarks and Milestones” published by the RCGA in 1986.
A proliﬁc writer who has written for St. Louis Commerce Magazine in the past, Betty holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from Saint Louis University. As editorial director of the Patrice Press and as an editor with Corinthian Books, Betty developed more than two dozen books from rough manuscripts to ﬁnished editions. Her specialties are American culture and history (especially St. Louis and Missouri history) and biography, with a nod to theater and religion. She is the author of more than 20 published nonﬁction books. Her latest book, “St. Louis—Yesterday and Today,” published by Publications International, will be released this spring.
The RCGA traces its roots back to 1836, when the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce was established, just 15 years after Missouri became a state and just 18 years after Illinois was granted statehood. Prominent St. Louis merchant Edward Tracy was elected as the ﬁrst president of the chamber. As you will discover in the coming issues of
St. Louis Commerce Magazine, over its 173-year history, the chamber has been a key player in virtually every major issue impacting the region’s economic growth and prosperity.
By the late 1960s, there were three St. Louis area economic development organizations: the Chamber of Commerce of Greater St. Louis; the
St. Louis Regional Industrial Development Corp.; and the St. Louis Research Council. In 1973, these three groups merged and became the St. Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association. Since 1999, the RCGA has been known as the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association.
While the name of the organization has evolved over the past 173 years, its mission remains the same—to attract new jobs and help nurture and grow the businesses already here in St. Louis and enhance the region’s quality of life. We hope you enjoy this 4-part series over the next several months—looking at the history of the RCGA.
Founded in 1836, the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce and its successors have been, steadfastly dedicated to improving life in the community.
On August 2, 1817, Henry Von Phul stood in the midst of a crowd at the foot of Market Street and watched the steamboat Zebulon Pike approach the levee. Von Phul had traveled the Ohio and Mississippi rivers since 1800 in keel and flat boats. He knew the river trade. He also knew—unlike many in the crowd—that this first steamboat
to arrive in St. Louis would change the
Von Phul had the kind of vision that marks a successful man. Within a few years he was the owner of St. Louis’ first steamboats. Within a few more years, when steamers were dominating trade, he owned an interest in almost every one that docked in the city.
But Von Phul wanted to do more than just accumulate wealth. He wanted to see St. Louis become a center of commerce, manufacture, and capital. In 1836 he joined with 24 other like-minded men to form the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce, an organization with the goal of making St. Louis into a great city—just as Pierre Laclede had foreseen when he founded St. Louis in 1764.
In 1836 Missouri was only 15 years old as a state, and St. Louis was one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. In the next decade it would achieve a growth rate of 373 percent and would be dubbed ”the New York of the West.” The city was connected by water to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, Independence, St. Joseph, and—most importantly—to New Orleans, and thence to the Gulf of Mexico and the world.
The rugged fur trappers and traders bought supplies in St. Louis for their long sojourns in the Rocky Mountains. Santa Fe traders outfitted here. And so did thousands of emigrants who set out on the Oregon and California trails during the 1840s and ’50s. Harness and rope makers, wheelwrights, millers and dry goods wholesalers prospered.
One of the best-known wholesalers in the 1830s was the firm of Tracy & Wahrendorff. It was partner Edward Tracy who had the idea of creating an organization of men engaged in commerce to exchange information, coordinate business growth, and regulate trade. At the first meeting, held in the Missouri Insurance Company offices on July 9, 1836 Tracy made a strong plea for cooperation and an end to the chaos that seemed to prevail in the city’s commerce. At the second meeting a week later, a constitution and bylaws were adopted, officially establishing the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce. Tracy was elected president and Von Phul vice president.
The city’s leading newspaper, the Missouri Republican, offered a room for the use of the Chamber, where merchants could meet, exchange ideas and information, and read the latest periodicals. As they met and began to air grievances, it became obvious that there was great need for the arbitration of disputes. A standing committee of five was chosen alphabetically and rotated, to avoid charges of bias; it had power to settle disputed accounts over $100. A tariff of charges was established, and rates for receiving, storing, and forwarding goods were set.
By 1837, when the Chamber was formally incorporated by the Missouri General Assembly, St. Louis had become a major entrepôt. Most of the goods shipped to and from the city came from the nation’s farms and forests (lumber, tobacco, hides and hemp, for instance). A perceptive few could see that St. Louis would someday become a major manufacturing center. The Chamber wanted to prepare for that eventuality by providing rapid, safe, and efficient transportation—a goal that the organization kept at the top of its agenda throughout its history, whether that transportation was by water, rail, road or air.
In 1841 St. Louis was second only to New Orleans in river traffic. In that year, 186 steamboats discharged 163,681 tons of goods in 1,928 landings. It was up to the Chamber to keep records on all those cargoes and to ensure their safety. The greatest danger to river freight were the snags and sawyers in the Mississippi that sunk steamboats in alarming numbers.
With the determination that comes with the need to survive, the Chamber of Commerce began a campaign to alert the U.S. Congress to the situation and to get help. The loss of boats was a national problem, the Chamber argued. Six million people lived in the states along the Mississippi, and they needed the goods that came from St. Louis. In the late 1840s, Congress appropriated funds to clear the St. Louis harbor, which had filled with silt, and the Army sent a young lieutenant named Robert E. Lee to head the engineering project. Elsewhere, up and down the river, snag boats worked to keep the channel free of obstacles.
Throughout the 1840s, Wayman Crow was the Chamber’s president. Crow’s first enterprise in St. Louis after he arrived in 1835 was a dry goods company, Crow & Tevis. Later he turned to railroads, organizing the Hannibal & St. Joseph line and the Missouri Pacific. Crow was the foremost civic leader of his time and shared his considerable fortune with the city. He was an early supporter of the Mercantile Library, its art museum, and Washington University, where he endowed a chair of physics. He set the pattern for the marriage of commerce and culture, which came to characterize much of the Chamber’s activity.
Early in the Chamber’s history, there was talk of building a center expressly as a “merchants’ exchange,” a gathering place where businessmen could do business. In the spring of 1848 a Merchant’s Exchange was established with the support of the Chamber, and merchants began meeting regularly to transact business, as well as to exchange ideas. The room for the Exchange, in a building at Main (First) and Olive Streets, had a telegraphic system so that members could receive dispatches on market conditions in the East and South. Some 200 of the principal merchants of the city were members.
The establishment of the Merchants’ Exchange inspired the creation of several other similar groups—a Millers’ Exchange, Real Estate Exchange, Coal Exchange, Brewers’ Association, Associated Wholesale Grocers, Furniture Board of Trade, Cotton Exchange, Wool and Fur Association, and Livestock Exchange. All these organizations served to bring city businessmen together and to strengthen the parent group, the Chamber of Commerce.
At this time meetings also were being held on the possibility of building a railroad to the West. Short-line railroads had first appeared in the St. Louis area in 1836, and a few far-sighted Chamber members realized the potential of rail lines for transporting freight to areas where there were no waterways. However, before a satisfactory rail system could be developed from
St. Louis, the construction of a bridge across the Mississippi River would be an absolute necessity. This problem became a frequent topic of discussion at Chamber meetings.
By March 1856, the Chamber and its Merchants’ exchange were large enough to begin construction of their own building on Main (First) Street. The three-story building, Venetian in style, with fluted Corinthian columns outside and beautiful frescoes within, was opened on June 8, 1857.
As the 1850s ended, the bitter division in the country over the question of slavery was reflected in all phases of life in St. Louis. Many wealthy businessmen were sympathetic to the southern cause; on the other hand, the large population of Yankee merchants and German shopkeepers and tradesmen in St. Louis were strongly pro-Union.
When the Civil War began in the spring of 1861, the Chamber of Commerce was severely split. At the annual election of officers on January 8, 1862, Union supporters, fearing a sweep by “sashes” (secessionists), bolted the meeting and created their own organization, which they called the Union Merchants’ Exchange. The most influential men in the city gave their loyalty to the Union and to the new exchange. The “old” Chamber of Commerce went into eclipse.
For a decade after the end of the Civil War, St. Louisans were still divided by issues raised by the conflict. Not until 1875 was “Union” dropped from the title of the Merchants’ Exchange, and Confederate sympathizers were allowed to return to the fold. That same year an elegant new Exchange building was erected on Third Street, between Pine and Chestnut Streets. Wayman Crow, as the oldest living member, delivered a farewell address at the old Chamber exchange headquarters before a parade to the new location a few blocks away. In his address, Crow said: “In a little more than half a century St. Louis has passed from a border trading post, scarcely yet Americanized, to a metropolis which is already contending for a foremost rank among American cities.”
Indeed, the growth of St. Louis in the decades before and after the Civil War had been phenomenal. In 1840 the population of the city was 16,469; in 1860 it was 160,773; in 1880 it was 350,522 and
St. Louis was the nation’s fourth largest city, after New York, Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Gaslights, sewers, streetcars, and organized police and fire departments made St. Louis a cosmopolitan metropolis. The Chamber’s long-held dream of a Mississippi River bridge came true in 1874, when the marvelous span built by James B. Eads (and called the St. Louis Bridge) was opened.
In 1876 the new Merchants’ Exchange building was the site of the Democratic Party convention that nominated Samuel J. Tilden for President of the United States. In 1878 a “Veiled Prophet” celebration was inaugurated in St. Louis and helped express the optimism and energy of the city. It was the brainchild of Exchange member (later its president) Charles E. Slayback. For many years, the annual Veiled Prophet Ball was held in the Exchange’s spacious trading room.
In the 1880s, the issue that absorbed Exchange members was railroads, especially the unfair competition used by New York financier Jay Gould, who not only controlled many railroads but also the vital Eads Bridge. Charges levied on non-Gould railroads for using the bridge were exorbitant. The Merchants’ Exchange, under the leadership of David R. Francis, raised funds to build a new span, the Merchants Bridge, which offered an alternative to Gould’s Eads Bridge. (Francis went on to a brilliant career as president of the 1904 World’s Fair, governor of Missouri, and ambassador to Russia.)
By the 1890s, business life in St. Louis had become so complex that need was felt for an organization with broader aims than the Merchants’ Exchange; many wanted a Chamber of Commerce-type body. On April 11, 1895, the Business Men’s League was incorporated with S. M. Kennard as president. Kennard had been a Confederate soldier who returned to St. Louis after the Civil War and joined his father’s carpet business. He brought with him the conviction that “the perfect fraternization of those who bore arms against each other” was necessary for the growth of the city. He had also been an early advocate of street illumination, was a primary investor in the new Planter’s Hotel, and he presided over the Autumnal Festivities Association.
Kennard well exemplified the goal of the new Business Men’s League—to promote the interests of the city of St. Louis in every avenue of industry, transportation and commerce. While the Merchants’ Exchange devoted itself to trade, the Business Men’s League focused on making the city prosperous, noticeable, and an enjoyable place to live. As its preamble read, it wanted “to keep the city’s greatness constantly before the people of this and other countries, and to secure by all legitimate means the greatest good for the greatest number of our people.” In 1896 it proudly offered its facilities to the Republican Party for its convention, in which William McKinley was nominated for the presidency.
The Business Men’s League was a progressive organization that vigorously opposed the rampant corruption in local government of that day. It supported the City Beautiful movement and the establishment of parks, indoor plumbing, and public baths. After 1900 it was totally committed to the success of the thrilling venture that brought worldwide attention to St. Louis—the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, better known as the 1904 World’s Fair. The great success of the Fair must be attributed in large part to the unflagging hard work of the Business Men’s League.
The enthusiasm generated by the World’s Fair continued in other activities in the decade following. In 1909 the Business Men’s League began a strong push for straightening and dredging the entire Mississippi River and installing a unified flood control system. President William Howard Taft, his cabinet, 22 governors, and more than 100 U.S. Senators and Representatives were invited to tour the river from St. Louis to New Orleans. A fleet of steamboats was chartered.
Because the trip had been well publicized, throngs of people fringed the river along the way. School children waved flags, veterans groups gave military salutes, and lights were kept blazing all night in homes and shops in river towns. On board their boat, the Alton, League members wore silk hats and Prince Albert cutaways. They ate elegant meals at tables decorated with American Beauty roses. During the five-day trip, they entertained with vaudeville routines, dancing, singing, magic acts, and tales of the Spanish-American War by a Rough Rider.
When the flotilla reached New Orleans, welcoming crowds thronged the harbor and covered roofs of buildings and cheered continuously. The trip won a commitment from President Taft and House Speaker Joe Cannon to make control of the Mississippi a high-priority item, and it showed national leaders that not only were St. Louisans serious about improving their city, they knew how to put on a good show, too.
During the financial panic of 1893, the Merchants Bridge, which was always a money loser, had been sold to the Terminal Railroad Association, which had become owner of the Eads Bridge. Thus there was no “free” bridge in St. Louis. The Business Men’s League and the Merchants’ Exchange began a move for a municipally-owned, rail and vehicular bridge. A bond issue was passed for its construction in 1909, but politics intervened and the bridge was not completed until 1917. It was called the Municipal Bridge, and later renamed MacArthur Bridge.
By 1913 the Business Men’s League, under the leadership of A. L. Shapleigh, was deep into the statewide “good roads movement.” Suddenly automobiles were everywhere, and protection of pedestrians and prevention of accidents were pressing problems. The League cooperated with the Automobile Club of Missouri in drawing up regulations for automobile traffic and in supporting the annual auto show held at Forest Park Highlands, where demonstrations of electric and gasoline-powered autos, trucks, and delivery wagons delighted thousands.
In 1916 St. Louis was again in the national spotlight when the Democratic National Convention was held at the Coliseum, largely through the urging of the League. The convention, which renominated President Woodrow Wilson by acclamation, was attended by hundreds of suffragists. Attired in white dresses with golden sashes, they formed a silent line of protest around the Coliseum and influenced the Democrats to accept a plank endorsing women’s suffrage.
Also in 1916 the name “St. Louis Chamber of Commerce” came back into being. The Business Men’s League petitioned the Merchants’ Exchange for its use, which was granted. In January 1917, J. Lionberger Davis was elected Chamber president. He outlined a plan for organizing the Chamber “along lines of the best modern commercial bodies.” Modern was the best word for the times. It implied the scientific management of resources and labor and the use of new technology. In fact, as early as 1913, the organization, then still the Business Men’s League, determined to make a film about the city—long before the advantages of audio-visual presentations had been proved.
During World War I, the Chamber gave its full cooperation to the war effort, invested heavily in Liberty bonds, and made General John J. Pershing, a native Missourian, an honorary member. In the decade following the war St. Louis enjoyed the benefits of the nationwide economic boom and took note of a new form of transportation that quickly earned the support of the Chamber: commercial aviation.
Back in 1903, soon after the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, members of the St. Louis Business Men’s League began to take an interest in the possibilities of air travel. They supported the local Aero Club and its air meets and urged the city to develop an airfield. In 1923 the Chamber formed its own Air Board. One of the leading proponents of the airplane was Harold M. Bixby; in 1927, when he was president of the Chamber of Commerce, Bixby contributed generously to a young man who had an idea he could fly from New York to Paris nonstop. Charles Lindbergh was so grateful to his St. Louis supporters that he adopted Bixby’s name for his Ryan monoplane—“The Spirit of St. Louis.” In return, Lindbergh, a St. Louis-based airmail pilot, was made an honorary member of the Chamber.
In the 1920s St. Louis prospered along with the rest of the nation. Millions of dollars were spent in construction of homes, office buildings, industrial plants. Over 150 new factories located in the city between 1920 and 1925. The Chamber’s motto in promoting the city as the ideal industrial site was: “Ship from the Center—Not the Rim.” With 600 miles of rail terminal facilities, 26 rail lines, four bridges, and 19 miles of river frontage, St. Louis was, indeed, a transportation center. The Chamber moved into fine new quarters at 511 Locust Street.
During the 1920s, groups of Chamber members, from 50 to more than 100, made numerous “good will” tours to promote
St. Louis and garner business for its merchants and manufacturers. There were four tours to Latin America, one to Europe and others to Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Illinois and to 41 outstate Missouri cities.
In March 1928, the Chamber underwent a complete reorganization, with an enlarged service bureau structure, an elected chairman of the board, and its first fulltime, paid president. Walter B. Weisenberger served as president until 1933, when he was succeeded by Thomas N. Dysart.
In these prosperous years, Chamber members congratulated each other on the great diversity of industry in the area. Even the stock market crash on October 29, 1929, only dimmed their optimism a bit. But that optimism soon vanished, and St. Louis felt the depression like every other major city.
During the crisis the Chamber tightened its belt, held meetings on financial management, and counseled its members to fight off discouragement. It also began to concentrate on a new source of income for the city—tourism. In a clever and relatively inexpensive promotion, the Chamber began sending out postcard-size “newspapers” titled “Little Journeys to St. Louis.” Each issue contained a short, lively feature on one of the city’s attractions—the Zoo, art museum, Shaw’s Garden, symphony, Old Cathedral, etc.—which were either free or of nominal cost.
In 1936, the Chamber’s weekly newsletter was changed into a monthly magazine,
St. Louis Commerce, a name that still endures although the publication has undergone considerable changes in scope and format over the years.
By 1937, business was beginning to pick up. Several public works projects, such as the construction of Municipal (Kiel) Auditorium, the Soldiers’ Memorial, and a portion of an east-west express highway, brought back some life to the city. The Chamber had initiated a “Clean-up, Paint-up, Fix-up” campaign in 1931, enlisting the help of school children, but by the end of the 1930s it was advocating much more than cosmetic changes.
Chamber President Dysart called smoke pollution the city’s number one problem. Residue from burning soft coal filled the air and coated buildings, giving the entire city a grimy look. The Chamber named a committee of executives and engineers to study the problem, collect data, and recommend possible solutions. The fight for clean air continued into the 1940s; enactment of smoke abatement legislation, ably enforced by Smoke Commissioner (later Mayor) Raymond R. Tucker, was one of the Chamber’s most important achievements.
To be continued in the May/June issue of St. Louis Commerce Magazine.