People on the Missouri side of the river have always treated the Metro East as the black sheep of the family, despite its rich history and role as the home for at least 500,000 residents. Towns such as East St. Louis, Granite City or Belleville have long been bustling cities when most suburbs in Missouri did not exist or were only small farming towns. Industry dominates the Metro East in what is known as the American Bottoms, below the bluffs where there are now more affluent communities. Once the site of the largest stockyards in the world in National City, its demise perhaps best illustrates how the area’s industrial wealth may be past. But there is still plenty to explore.
East St. Louis
East St. Louis surely has seen better days; most of the city does not even consist of abandoned buildings but rather dense forest and undergrowth. It is hard to imagine in some places that a thriving city once existed here. But there are still surprises, beautiful architecture, and intact streets in portions of the city. Surely its rebirth will happen some day; it is far too close to downtown to be irrelevant forever.
The National Stockyards was once one of the busiest sites for the transfer of cattle, hogs and other livestock in the nation, if not world. As meat packing moved west in the Twentieth Century, the stockyards and their old packing houses were left behind. Swift, Morris, Armour and Hunter all once operated meat packing plants in the yards. Nowadays, very little is left, and the town of National City, incorporated to avoid the taxes of East St. Louis, was disbanded in the 1990’s. The whole area has recently been altered forever by the building of the new Mississippi River Bridge; vacant land that once held cattle pens now await redevelopment.
Armour Meatpacking Plant
One of the packing plants in the National Stockyards, Armour Meat Packing Plant employed 4,000 workers at its height. It was a massive building, even in a state of severe deterioration and demolition. Its twin smokestacks dominated the area, and its forgotten machinery in the interior was legendary. It was imploded and demolished in the spring and summer of 2016.
Hunter Meatpacking Plant
Hunter, the youngest of the meat packing plants in the stockyards, still exists as a company, and its plant was the last to close. The building has been demolished, and now only photographs can convey its huge scale.
Founded by St. Louisan Rufus Easton and named after his son, Alton was an important river town that featured prominently in the history of abolition when Elijah P. Lovejoy, exiled from St. Louis, died defending his printing press from a pro-slavery mob. The city also boasts a beautiful downtown and residential neighborhoods that stretch along steep hills and tall bluffs, making one wonder if this could have been another major metropolis near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
Belleville is the county seat of St. Clair County, and also the center of a Roman Catholic diocese. Its history stretches back into the early Nineteenth Century, and its robust and interesting housing stock reflects its proud heritage.
Collinsville sits high on the bluffs overlooking the ancient city of Cahokia, which is technically within the city limits of the town. A bustling downtown, anchored by the Miners’ Institute Building still preserves many history buildings.
Granite City Steel, founded by the Niedringhaus family (whose eponymous avenue defines the street gird), has always dominated the life of Granite City, named after its granitewear product. Now owned by US Steel, the company still sits right in the middle of town, and it can be seen from all parts of the city. The downtown, sadly, is decimated and largely vacant, the businesses moved out to the “suburban” portion of Granite City on Nameoki Road.