I have long been interested in the investigation of how Chicago passed St. Louis by in terms of economic power. I have also long felt that the discussion in St. Louis has existed at a very low intellectual level, usually focusing on the person’s own confirmation biases and background. In reality, if one tries to strip away as much bias as possible, it comes down to the most simple reason: transportation routes. I have looked at the Rock Island Railroad Bridge over a decade ago, which was completed 1856 opened up the American West to Chicago (and Eastern) markets , essentially two decades before the Eads Bridge was completed in St. Louis.
But recently, I was able to visit Lock 14 of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which was completed in 1848, capturing trade from Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. As I began to read up on the Canal, which brought thousands of Irish immigrants to American before the famous (and inflated) immigration of Germans to St. Louis in 1848, it became apparent that just under a decade before the Chicago railroad bridge over the Mississippi River, the Windy City was already making great strides over St. Louis in building important trade and transportation networks to the west.
This well-restored lock on the Canal is a perfect illustration of how Illinois business interests were already lapping St. Louis and thinking about the future. Remember, Chicago was only founded in 1837! Adam Lemp founded his brewery the next year in St. Louis in 1838.
Guess what Chicago was? It was the eastern terminus of the Canal, and it began to grow rapidly as immigrants, including those Irish canal diggers, settling down in neighborhoods we now call Bridgeport.
So leave out the discussions that show more about the person discussing why St. Louis fell behind, and realize that St. Louis and Chicago were founded for the purpose of trade and commerce, and Chicago and its businessmen were more adept at expanding and building their trade and commercial ties, first with canals and then with railroads. Think about it: they built their railroad bridge over the Mississippi River twenty years before St. Louis!
And before the steam engine was perfected, they invested in the next best thing: canals, which served their purpose until railroads could step up and replace them in efficiency.