East St. Louis is a city in St. Clair County, Illinois, United States, directly across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, in the Metro-East region of Southern Illinois. As of the 2010 census, the city had a total population of 27,006, less than one-third of its peak of 82,366 in 1950. Like many larger industrial cities, it has been severely affected by loss of jobs in the restructuring of the railroad industry and de-industrialization of the Rust Belt in the second half of the 20th century. In 1950, East St. Louis was the 4th largest city in Illinois.
One of the highlights of the city's waterfront is the Gateway Geyser, the second-tallest fountain in the world. Designed to complement the Gateway Arch across the river in St. Louis, it shoots water to a height of , the same height as the Arch.
Native Americans had long inhabited both sides of the Mississippi River. The Mississippian culture rulers organized thousands of workers to construct villages and complex earthwork mounds at what later became St. Louis and East St. Louis, as well as the urban complex of Cahokia to the north of East St. Louis within present-day Collinsville, Illinois. Before the Civil War, settlers reported up to 50 mounds in the area that became East St. Louis, but most were lost to 19th-century development and later roadbuilding.
East St. Louis lies within the American Bottom area of the present day Metro-East area of St. Louis, Missouri. This name was given after the United States acquired the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and European Americans began to settle in the area. The village was first named "Illinoistown".
East St. Louis was founded in 1797 by Captain James Piggott, a Revolutionary War veteran. In that year Piggott began operating a ferry service across the Mississippi River, connecting Illinoistown with St. Louis. When Piggott died in 1799, his widow sold the ferry business, moved to St. Louis County and remarried. Famed actress Virginia Mayo (Virginia Clara Jones) was a great great granddaughter of Captain Piggott.
Great Railroad Strike of 1877
A period of extensive industrial growth followed the American Civil War. Industries located in East St. Louis to make use of the local availability of Illinois coal as fuel. Another early industry was meatpacking and stockyards, concentrated in one area to limit their nuisance to other jurisdictions.
In the expansion, many businessmen became overextended in credit, and a major economic collapse followed the Panic of 1873. This was due to railroad and other manufacturing expansion, land speculation and general business optimism caused by large profits from inflation. The economic recession began in the East and steadily moved west, severely crippling the railroads, the main system of transportation. In response to the difficulties, railroad companies began dramatically lowering workers' wages, forcing employees to work without pay, and cutting jobs and the amount of paid work hours. These wage cuts and additional money-saving tactics used by the industry prompted strikes and unrest on a massive scale.
While most of the strikes in the eastern cities during 1877 were accompanied by violence, the late July 1877 St. Louis strike was marked by a bloodless and quick take-over by dissatisfied workers. By July 22, the St. Louis Commune began to take shape, as representatives from almost all the railroad lines met in East St. Louis. They soon elected an executive committee to command the strike and issued General Order No. 1, halting all railroad traffic other than passenger and mail trains. John Bowman, the mayor of East St. Louis, was appointed arbitrator of the committee. He helped the committee select special police to guard the property of the railroads from damage. The strike and the new de facto workers' government, while given encouragement by the largely German-American Workingmen's Party and the Knights of Labor (two key players in the organization of the Missouri general strike), were run by no organized labor group.
The strike closed packing industry houses surrounding the National Stock Yards. At one plant, workers allowed processing of 125 cattle in return for 500 cans of beef for the workers. Though the East St. Louis strike continued in an orderly fashion, across the river there were isolated incidents of violence. Harry Eastman, the East St. Louis workers' representative, addressed the mass of employees:
"Go home to your different wards and organize your different unions, but don't keep coming up here in great bodies and stirring up excitement. Ask the Mayor, as we did, to close up all the saloons... keep sober and orderly, and when you are organized, apply to the United Workingmen for orders. Don't plunder ... don't interfere with the railroads here ... let us attend to that".The strikers held the railroads and city for about a week, without the violence that took place in Chicago and other cities. On July 28 US troops took over the Relay Depot, the Commune's command center, and the strike ended peacefully.
East St. Louis Riots of 1917
East St. Louis in 1917 had a strong industrial economy boosted by World War I, where late 19th and early 20th-century European immigrants worked. Many workers entered the military, and other workers went on strike. As the war prevented immigration from Europe, major companies recruited black workers from the South to work at the Aluminum Ore Company and the American Steel Company. They were available because the US Army initially rejected many black volunteers in the years before an integrated military. This was also the period of the first Great Migration of African Americans leaving poor rural areas of the South to go to the industrial cities and jobs of the North and the Midwest.
Resentment on both sides and the arrival of new workers created fears for job security at a time of union organizing and labor unrest, and raised social tensions. At a white labor meeting on May 28, men traded rumors of fraternizing between black men and white women. Three thousand ethnic white men left the meeting and headed as a mob for the downtown, where they randomly attacked black men on the street. They destroyed buildings and physically attacked people; they "killed a 14-year-old boy and scalped his mother. Before it was over 244 buildings were destroyed.". The governor called in National Guard to prevent further rioting, but rumors continued to circulate about an organized retaliation from the blacks.
On July 1, 1917, a black man attacked a white man. Whites drove by black homes near 17th and Market and fired shots into several of them, shooting in retaliation. When police came to investigate the gathering of a large group of local residents, several in the crowd at 10th and Bond fired on the police, killing two detectives. The next morning, thousands of whites mobbed the black section of town. The rioters burned entire sections of the city and shot blacks as they escaped the flames. They also lynched several blacks.
Although the governor had called in the National Guard to try to control the situation, several accounts reported that they joined in the rioting. The mob included "ten or 15 white women, [who] chased a negro woman at the Relay Depot in broad daylight. The girls were brandishing clubs and calling upon the men to kill the woman."2 The woman was a known prostitute who had white customers.
Though official reports suggested that the East St. Louis race riot resulted in the deaths of 39 African Americans and 9 whites, other estimates put the figure much higher.
20th and 21st centuries
East St. Louis was named an All-America City in 1959, having retained prosperity through the decade as its population reached a peak of 82,366 residents in the 1950 census. In 1950, it was the fourth largest city in Illinois. Through the 1950s and later, the city's musicians were an integral creative force in blues, rock and roll and jazz. Some left and achieved national recognition, such as Ike & Tina Turner and the jazz great Miles Davis, who was born in nearby Alton and grew up in East St. Louis. The 1999 PBS series River of Song featured these musicians in its coverage of music of cities along the Mississippi River.
The construction of freeways also contributed to East St. Louis' decline. They were constructed through and broke up functioning neighborhoods and community networks, adding to the social disruption of the period. The freeways made it easier for residents to commute back and forth from suburban homes, so the wealthier people moved out to newer housing. East St. Louis adopted a number of programs to try to reverse decline: the Model Cities program, the Concentrated Employment Program, and Operation Breakthrough. The programs were not enough to offset the loss of industrial jobs due to national restructuring.
In 1971, James Williams was elected as the city's first black mayor. Faced with the overwhelming economic problems, he was unable to make much of a difference. In 1979, when Carl Officer was elected as mayor (the youngest in the country at that time at age 25), many said the city had nowhere to go but up, yet things grew worse. Middle-class whites and blacks continued to leave the city. People who could get jobs simply left for places with work and a decent quality of life. Lacking sufficient tax revenues, the city cut back on maintenance, sewers failed and garbage pickup ceased. Police cars and radios stopped working. The East St. Louis Fire Department went on strike in the 1970s.
Fire had destroyed a sufficient number of consecutive blocks that the director of the post-Armageddon film Escape from New York was able to shoot much of the film there.
In the 1980s, the state imposed a financial advisory board to manage the city in exchange for a financial bailout. State legislative approval in 1990 of riverboat gambling and the installation of the Casino Queen riverboat casino provided the first new source of income for the city in nearly 30 years. In 1991 Gordon Bush was elected mayor.
The city, now small in terms of population, has drastic urban blight. Sections of "urban prairie" can be found where vacant buildings have been torn down and whole blocks have become overgrown with vegetation. Much of the territory surrounding the city remains undeveloped, bypassed by developers who chose more affluent suburban areas. Many old, "inner city" neighborhoods abut large swaths of corn and soybean fields or otherwise vacant land. In addition to agricultural uses, a number of truck stops, strip clubs, and semi-rural businesses surround blighted areas in the city.
In 2010, the East St. Louis community gardening movement began to develop plots for "urban farming", as has been done in North St. Louis. Inspired by Detroit's planned use of vacant land for green development, community associations, nonprofits and universities have collaborated to spark green development in East St. Louis.
In the early 1990s, archeological surveys and excavations prior to construction of Interstate 55/70 revealed evidence of important prehistoric structures in the East St. Louis area. Both sides of the river were reported to have had numerous mounds when Europeans first settled in the area, but most in St. Louis and on the east side were lost to development.
Illinois researchers discovered the remains of several earthwork mounds; in the East St. Louis area, 50 mounds were mapped before the Civil War, and seven remain today. The largest is estimated to have been originally 40 feet high and would have almost covered a football field. Around the remains of this mound, researchers have discovered burial mounds, a large plaza, a wooden defensive palisade and several other Mississippian structures. These indicate that it was a ritual center. The 500-acre prehistoric site is now called the East St. Louis Mound Center. The state and University of Illinois are trying to develop coordinated projects with East St. Louis and businesses to use the mounds and artifacts as attractions for heritage tourism.
It was built by the Mississippian culture, which reached its peak in the region about AD 1100–1200 at the nearby major center of Cahokia, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site within the present-day boundaries of Collinsville.