The Great Divorce

22, August 2017

Throughout the 1860s the entire 588-square-mile area that now makes up St. Louis County and St. Louis City was ruled as one by the St. Louis County Court. Back then more than 300,000 people occupied the land east of Grand Avenue (the city’s boundary at the time), while the vast space beyond was home to barely 31,000 people. Older towns such as Florissant and small train stops such as Kirkwood and Ferguson sat in a sea of undeveloped land and farm fields.

Color drawing of St. Louis in 1876In 1876, St. Louis seemed an unstoppable powerhouse that would only continue to grow. Missouri History Museum.

City dwellers disapproved of county residents' influence on urban matters, an uneasy situation that rapidly deteriorated in 1867 when the Missouri legislature gave the St. Louis County Court the power to assess and collect city taxes. The city paid nearly half of Missouri’s total taxes already, and the interests of farmers and a dozen small towns strewn across St. Louis County seemed fundamentally at odds with the interests of city residents. When a convention was called to rewrite Missouri’s constitution in 1875, this issue was a top priority.

“Scheme and Charter”

The new Missouri Constitution authorized the creation of a “scheme and charter” to split the city and county into two governments with redefined boundaries. It took three months and 52 argumentative sessions to write the plan, in part because the city’s boundary line was a source of much disagreement. Many wanted the new large city parks (Carondelet, Forest, and O’Fallon) to fall within the city’s borders, which meant extending city roads and services to “sundry cornfields and melon patches,” as one dissenter put it. A line was eventually plotted along the River Des Peres and around the western edge of Forest Park up to O’Fallon Park, with an extension north to the Chain of Rocks, where the city planned to build a new waterworks. On August 22, 1876, the division went before area citizens for a vote.

Marked-up map showing St. Louis City's new borderThe city’s new edge (outlined in red) stretched far beyond the old at Grand Avenue (yellow). It included the new large city parks and Bellefontaine Cemetery (green), with a slender stretch along the riverfront to include the Chain of Rocks (blue). Missouri History Museum.

The “scheme” (creating separation) and “charter” (creating St. Louis City government) passed narrowly in the city but met overwhelming defeat in the county. Supporters of the split immediately cried fraud, and an investigative commission looked into the matter. It arbitrarily invalidated votes by the hundreds and then declared that both the separation scheme and city charter had passed.

Unforeseen Consequences

The Great Divorce proved calamitous long after the charter’s authors were gone. The city pushed the edge of its 66.2-square-mile footprint within 25 years, crushed between a physical barrier on the east (the Mississippi River) and a political barrier on the west (the city-county dividing line).

Population sizes shifted as well. From 1950 to 1960, the county's population grew 73% while the city's population fell by 12.5%, a pattern that continued for the next three decades. St. Louis would have faced a bleak outlook during this time regardless, as America's chain of older industrial cities picked up their Rust Belt monikers, but the Great Divorce exacerbated matters. The city’s inner core was given a blanket description of “blighted” while affordable automobiles and interstate highways carried those with the means outward to St. Louis County’s cheap and plentiful suburban tracts. Comprehensive planning fell away, and provincial loyalties took over.

By 2010, St. Louis’s population had fallen to less than 320,000, a harrowing loss of more than 60% from its peak. Meanwhile, St. Louis County experienced its first population loss, a change that may have had some connection to the abundance of tiny municipalities clustered around the city’s edge that survived solely on fees and traffic fines.

Color graphic showing St. Louis's physical size compared to other major U.S. citiesThis graphic, taken from MHM's now-closed A Walk in 1875 St. Louis exhibit, shows St. Louis’s miniscule official area compared to a handful of other American cities.

What made short-term sense in the 1870s turned into a long-term wall, separating entire generations of St. Louisans and creating barriers that the Great Divorce’s authors never could have foreseen. On the surface, St. Louis's lower population and tiny footprint—among the smallest of any major American city—make its issues with violent crime look even worse as it annually tops lists of the country’s most dangerous cities. More deeply, the city-county divide creates a duplication of services, the cost of which possibly runs into the billions, and pits the city and county against each other in attracting businesses.

Deepest and most divisive of all, the invisible city-county barrier allows both sides to exist under a slogan that nearly guarantees misunderstanding, anger, and slow-motion failure: “I’m not that.” 

—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian

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