Dry, Weary Years into a New St. Louis (1915 - 1930)



Dry, Weary Years

 “We want to direct (Pro-Prohibition advocates) to the pretzel.  Is there anything inherently vicious in the pretzel?  They may ask.  Possibly not.  But its traditions, environment, and associations are sinister.  One might say, bar sinister.  In the pure, delectable world which the prohibition philosophy conceives, there is no niche for the pretzel… the pretzel must go.”
            -A sarcastic editorial in the January 15, 1920, St. Louis Post Dispatch making fun of Prohibition advocates’ stance that alcohol was the source of all immoral behavior


A black fabric case containing the Lord's Prayer carried by St. Louisan Robert J. Walker

during World War I.  Missouri History Museum.

After the 1914 killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the tangled, tense web of alliances running across Europe escalated into a continent-wide war.  Germany’s unrestricted use of submarines to sink ships as well as their appeals to Mexico as an ally brought the United States into the conflict in April 1917.  In St. Louis, the large German population was now faced with the dilemma of defending their dignity against harsh anti-German sentiments or betraying their homeland and demanding its destruction. Anti-German frenzy set in fully, with the teaching of German prohibited in schools and all German books removed from the St. Louis Public Library.  Self appointed “watchers” listened for any pro-German remarks around the city, the Symphony Orchestra dropped all German works from its concerts, and German-named streets were renamed for American war heroes, with Berlin Avenue becoming Pershing and Van Verson Avenue becoming Enright.


Flames near the East St. Louis Library light up the night on July 2, 1917.  The 1917 East St. Louis Race Riot was one of the worst ever experienced in the country.  Missouri History Museum.

African American men line up to claim their lost belongings in the aftermath

of the 1917 East St. Louis Race Riot.  Missouri History Museum

Just a few months later, St. Louis would be shaken by its deadliest race riot in history.  Workers for the Aluminum Ore Company of East St. Louis had already been on strike for many weeks but the plant continued operations by bringing in black laborers.  The tension had initially been based in the company’s high-level corruption and the greed of the wealthy management, but these causes were soon masked by racial hatred.  On July 2, 1917, whites rioted in the black districts of East St. Louis.  Official reports placed 39 blacks dead, 8 whites dead, hundreds wounded, and over 300 houses burned, but this was surely lower on some counts as other estimates place the number of black civilians killed near 100.  The riot became nationally known and shed light on the plight of blacks trying to make even the most basic of lives for themselves in industrial cities.

Police have smashed a hole into the side of this building to drain the massive tanks of whiskey mash found inside.  Illegal alcohol production was widespread and often highly lucrative in the dry years of Prohibition. Missouri History Museum.


Two men walk down the sidewalk in early summer 1919. 

 The sign on the store behind them, reading "Bone dry forever," warns that after July 1st

Prohibition will take effect, so stock up while you can!  Missouri History Museum

As Prohibition was passed in 1919, it struck a great blow to St. Louis.  One of the largest industries in the city had been brewing, and the shuttering of breweries big and small meant the loss of thousands of jobs for St. Louisans.  Only the most tactful companies, like giant Anheuser Busch, were able to stay afloat by shifting their production to the sale of baking yeast, cereals, animal feeds, and “near beer” non-alcoholic beverages.  Employees of the Lemp Brewery, once the largest in the city, would come to work one morning to find giant chains across the doors, never to reopen. The organization transfer, and sale of bootleg alcohol operations bred organized crime in many portions of the city.  The area now known as Old North St. Louis particularly had much organized crime related to bootlegging from Irish gangs like the Egan’s Rats and the Hogan Gang.  On April 2, 1923, the Egan’s Rats made off with over $260,000 as they robbed an armored truck parked at 4th and Locust in Downtown St. Louis.  The turf war with their rival Hogan Gang would result in 23 murders in just two years.



The shuttered Klausmann Brewery, seen across River Des Peres during the 1920s.  Only the most savvy brewery owners, like Anheuser Busch, found ways to remain open, often transferring production to goods like cereals, baking yeast, and ice cream.  Missouri History Museum.


The City Soars

“What do you think of naming it the Spirit of St. Louis?” Bixby’s question strikes vaguely through my ears.  I’m staring at the shredded and color-stained figures on a slip of paper in my hand – FIFTEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS.  This slip can be traded for the Wright-Bellanca (Lindbergh’s plane) and this slip is mine – “Pay to the order of Charles A. Lindbergh” it says on the back.”
            - Charles Lindbergh, writing in his 1953 autobiography The Spirit of St. Louis about convincing a group of St. Louis businessmen to fund his attempted solo nonstop crossing of the Atlantic Ocean

The St. Louis riverfront, seen in the late 1920s.  The city had become quite polluted, with factories and homes belching out plumes of soft coal smoke.  Missouri History Museum.


After suffering this string of troubles, as well as years of pollution and smoke associated with a heavy manufacturing town, St. Louis was determined to reinvent itself with a new, beautiful image.  The efforts of St. Louis Mayor Henry Kiel’s public works movement hit the city full-swing in 1923, with the passing of 20 out of 21 beautification bond proposals totaling $87.4 million.  St. Louis politicians on both sides of the fence applied political pressure to the campaign, and the issues were presented as a crusade to find the hidden beauty under the slums and often half-functioning municipal works.  Among the projects were a $12 million waterworks extension, $11 million for the enclosing of River Des Peres underground, $14 million in street paving, and $8 million for new public parks and playgrounds.  The issue funded a new courthouse (The Civil Courts Building), a war memorial (Soldier’s Memorial), and a municipal auditorium (The Kiel Opera House), interspersed with a series of open green spaces that were the exact opposite of the crowded, dirty tenements that stood there before.  This type of heavy-handed land clearance would become a staple of Downtown St. Louis through the coming decades, for better or for worse.

One of the projects covered in the 1923 public works improvement campaign was the channeling of River Des Peres into huge underground pipes.  It often flooded, leaving a swampy mess nearby.  Missouri History Museum


KMOX radio commenced operations on Christmas Eve of 1925 as “the voice of St. Louis.”  “K” became the first call letter of all new radio stations assigned west of the Mississippi River.  It was one of the original stations affiliated with the United Independent Broadcasters, forerunner of CBS.  By 1932, CBS had 100% ownership of the station and began the process of getting approval to build a 50,000-watt transmitter tower.  The tower gave KMOX clear-channel station status, and a signal that could be heard as far away as New Zealand and the Arctic Circle, making it one of the first international radio stations.

Lambert Flying Field in northwest St. Louis County in 1920.  Missouri History Museum


St. Louis was becoming rapidly associated with the emerging technology of flight.  Albert Bond Lambert purchased Kinloch Field, which had been used for hot air balloon ascensions, and at his own expense developed runways and hangars for use by airplanes.  In 1926 Charles Lindbergh, a young pilot working as a St. Louis to Chicago mail carrier, decided to compete for a $25,000 prize that had been offered to the first person able to complete a trans-Atlantic flight from the New York to France.  He looked to Albert Bond Lambert for financial aid, and with Lambert’s help Lindbergh was able to raise over $12,000 from prominent St. Louis businessmen.  Lindbergh was up against other pilots with much more expensive planes than his $10,000, 28-foot long craft.  Lindbergh took off in his Spirit of St. Louis from San Diego (where his plane was made) for an overnight stop in St. Louis before heading to New York the next day.  On May 20, 1927, Lindbergh took off from Long Island and 33 ½ hours and 3,610 miles later, he touched down at Le Bourget Field to a crowd of 100,000 Parisians.  Amazingly, Lindbergh had flown the entire trip by chart navigation.  The plane had no front window, only a small opening under the wings.  The following year, Albert Bond Lambert sold his air field to St. Louis for $68,000, making Lambert Field (now Lambert-St. Louis International Airport) the first municipally owned airport in the United States.

The parade for returned national hero Charles Lindbergh after his non-stop solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927.  Missouri History Museum


 On to 1930 - 1950: Depression, War, and Industry



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