St. Louis's "Billionaire" Businessman

17, November 2017
Portrait of John O'FallonThis steel engraving of John O'Fallon from 1883 depicts him in his later years, when many acquaintances referred to him as Colonel O'Fallon even though he never held that military rank. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

John O’Fallon barely knew his father, James, but the lingering tales of him as a “reckless, debt-ridden adventurer” undoubtedly contributed to John’s lifelong obsession with business success.

James O’Fallon had emigrated to America from the small town of Athlone, Ireland, and served as a surgeon in George Washington’s army during the American Revolution. After the war, James moved south, getting himself into dubious land-speculation dealings and meeting Fanny Clark. The two married, but by then, James was falling into deep poverty and making many enemies through his failed and shady business deals. His own brother-in-law, George Rogers Clark, called James a “rogue, rascal, and villain.”

Fanny ultimately suffered a nervous breakdown and fled from James, returning to her family home in Louisville, Kentucky. It was there in 1791 that John O’Fallon—the future wealthiest citizen of St. Louis—was born.

Early Achievements

O'Fallon was raised mostly by his mother and her soon-to-be-famous brother William Clark, who in 1804 co-led the Corps of Discovery up the Missouri River from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. When Clark returned, he settled in St. Louis and wrote letters encouraging his nephew to pursue a career in law. The young O’Fallon instead joined the Western Army, serving as a captain in the War of 1812. He was held in high regard by his fellow officers but felt that military life didn’t suit him. He resigned in 1818 and grew fearful that he would end up following his father’s tarnished legacy.

Scan of 1809 letter from William Clark to John O'FallonLetter sent from William Clark to his nephew John O'Fallon on May 27, 1809. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

After hearing from his uncle about the incredible amount of goods moving through St. Louis, O’Fallon headed there to try and make his fortune. He worked in town as a merchant and beyond it as a “sutler,” accompanying military expeditions up the Missouri River and selling them goods. Instead of gambling or drinking away his money, as so many did in frontier St. Louis, O’Fallon reinvested it. He focused first on real estate and later made investments in St. Louis banks and three different railroad companies.

Driven by Dollars

O’Fallon was obsessed with making money—and occasionally involved in unsavory lines of work as a result. After President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, O’Fallon helped his uncle William Clark relocate all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi River to lands out west. In her article “The Early Career of John O’Fallon,” biographer Mary Ellen Rowe didn’t hold back with her assessment of his goals, stating that “although a human being lived inside the calculating businessman, even at his most human, O’Fallon’s life centered around the quest for status.”

Nevertheless, the man whose every decision was controlled by money was also extremely generous. He donated the land for the annual St. Louis Exposition Fair (present-day Fairgrounds Park) and gave Washington University, Saint Louis University, and O’Fallon Polytechnic College huge endowments. He funded numerous churches and charities and built St. Louis Medical College, which eventually became Washington University’s medical school.

O’Fallon’s second wife, Caroline Sheets, had a fortune of her own, and the two built a mansion on a 600-acre piece of land along North Broadway. O’Fallon named the mansion Athlone in honor of his family’s Irish hometown. The residence boasted more than 40 rooms, but the surrounding grounds were equally impressive, with fruit orchards, a nine-acre lake, and a penned-in field full of deer that O’Fallon often spent hours sitting in.

Image of John O'Fallon's Athlone mansionDrawing of John and Caroline O'Fallon's Athlone mansion. Two statues of greyhounds flank the entry stairs, one sleeping and one keeping guard. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

O'Fallon's Legacy

When O’Fallon died in 1865, his estate was worth more than $8 million, and he had likely given away an equally large amount. Although such wealth can't be translated into a precise present-day value, a personal fortune of that size in the 1860s would be as rare as having $1 billion today.

St. Louis’s preeminent businessman is buried—along with about 70 of his descendants—in Bellefontaine Cemetery’s largest lot. The circular plot stretches nearly an acre, and in the middle stands a 50-foot-tall granite monument capped by a female figure holding an anchor, the symbol of hope.

After his death, O’Fallon’s heirs sold Athlone and the surrounding grounds to the City of St. Louis, which turned the land into O’Fallon Park in 1874. Athlone caught fire the next year, and rebuilding plans circulated for some time before the mansion’s crumbling remains were finally knocked down in the 1890s.

Image of Athlone and surrounding groundsAthlone and the surrounding grounds, which became O'Fallon Park, on Compton and Dry's 1875 panoramic map Pictorial St. Louis. Many of the outbuildings still remain, and an observation tower has been added on top of a nearby Native American mound. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Even though Athlone is long gone, references to John O’Fallon can still be seen all around St. Louis. O’Fallon Street sits at downtown’s northern edge, and Athlone Street runs near O’Fallon Park, as do Carrie, Clarence, and Algernon Streets, all named for O’Fallon’s children. Farther out, two regional towns—O’Fallon, Missouri, and O’Fallon, Illinois—bear the ambitious businessman’s name.

—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian

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