The bridge which springs so lightly and so gracefully over the Mississippi at St. Louis is a truly wonderful structure. It often happens in this world that the work which is done best conceals the merit of the worker. All is finished so thoroughly and smoothly, and fulfills its purpose with so little jar and friction, that the difficulties overcome by the engineer become almost incredible. No one would suppose, while looking down upon the three steel arches of this exquisite bridge, that its foundations are one hundred and twenty feet below the surface of the water, and that its construction cost nine millions of dollars and six years of time. Its great height above the river is also completely concealed by the breadth of its span. The largest steamboat on the river passes under it at the highest stage of water, and yet the curve of the arches appears to have been selected merely for its pictorial effect.
It is indeed a noble and admirable work, an honor to the city and country, and, above all, to Captain James B. Eads, who designed and constructed it. The spectator who sees for the first time St. Louis, now covering as far as the eye can reach the great bend of the river on which it is built, the shore fringed with steamboats puffing black smoke, and the city glittering in the morning sun, beholds one of the most striking and animating spectacles which this continent affords.
Go back one hundred and twenty years. That bend was then covered with the primeval forest, and the only object upon it which betrayed the hand of man was a huge green mound, a hundred feet high, that had been thrown up ages before by some tribe which inhabited the spot before our Indians had appeared. All that region swarmed with fur-bearing animals, deer, bear, buffalo, and beaver. It is difficult to see how this continent ever could have been settled but for the fur trade. It was beaver skin which enabled the Pilgrim Fathers of New England to hold their own during the first fifty years of their settlement. It was in quest of furs that the pioneers pushed westward, and it was by the sale of furs that the frontier settlers were at first supplied with arms, ammunition, tools, and salt.
The fur trade also led to the founding of St. Louis. In the year 1763 a great fleet of heavy batteaux, loaded with the rude merchandise needed by trappers and Indians, approached the spot on which St. Louis stands. This fleet had made its way up the Mississippi with enormous difficulty and toil from New Orleans, and only reached the mouth of the Missouri at the end of the fourth month. It was commanded by Pierre Laclede Liguest, the chief partner in a company chartered to trade with the Indians of the Missouri River. He was a Frenchman, a man of great energy and executive force, and his company of hunters, trappers, mechanics, and farmers, were also French.
On his way up the river Captain Liguest had noticed this superb bend of land, high enough above the water to avoid the floods, and its surface only undulating enough for the purposes of a settlement. Having reached the mouth of the Muddy River (as they called the Missouri) in the month of December, and finding no place there well suited to his purpose, he dropped down the stream seventeen miles, and drove the prows of his boats into what is now the Levee of St. Louis. It was too late in the season to begin a settlement. But he „blazed” the trees to mark the spot, and he said to a young man of his company, Auguste Chouteau: –
„You will come here as soon as the river is free from ice, and will cause this place to be cleared, and form a settlement according to the plan I shall give you.”
The fleet fell down the river to the nearest French settlement, Fort de Chartres. Captain Liguest said to the commander of this fort on arriving: –
„I have found a situation where I intend to establish a settlement which in the future will become one of the most beautiful cities in America.”
These are not imaginary words. Auguste Chouteau, who was selected to form the settlement, kept a diary, part of which is now preserved in the Mercantile Library at St. Louis, and in it this saying of Captain Liguest is recorded. So, the next spring he dispatched young Chouteau with a select body of thirty mechanics and hunters to the site of the proposed settlement.
„You will go,” said he, „and disembark at the place where we marked the trees. You will begin to clear the place and build a large shed to contain the provisions and tools and some little cabins to lodge the men.”
On the fifteenth of February, 1764, the party arrived, and the next morning began to build their shed. Liguest named the settlement St. Louis, in honor of the patron saint of the royal house of France – Louis XV. being then upon the throne. All went well with the settlement, and it soon became the seat of the fur trade for an immense region of country, extending gradually from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains.
The French lived more peacefully with the Indians than any other people who assisted to settle this continent, and the reason appears to have been that they became almost Indian themselves. They built their huts in the wigwam fashion, with poles stuck in the ground. They imitated the ways and customs of the Indians, both in living and in hunting. They went on hunting expeditions with Indians, wore the same garments, and learned to live on meat only, as Indian hunting parties generally did. But the circumstance which most endeared the French to the Indians was their marrying the daughters of the chiefs, which made the Indians regard them as belonging to their tribe. Besides this, they accommodated themselves to the Indian character, and learned how to please them. A St. Louis fur trader, who was living a few years ago in the ninetieth year of his age, used to speak of the ease with which an influential chief could be conciliated.
„I could always,” said he, „make the principal chief of a tribe my friend by a piece of vermilion, a pocket looking-glass, some flashy-looking beads, and a knife. These things made him a puppet in my hands.”
Even if a valuable horse had been stolen, a chief, whose friendship had been won in this manner, would continue to scold the tribe until the horse was brought back. The Indians, too, were delighted with the Frenchman’s fiddle, his dancing, his gayety of manner, and even with the bright pageantry of his religion. It was when the settlement was six years old that the inhabitants of St. Louis, a very few hundreds in number, gathered to take part in the consecration of a little church, made very much like the great council wigwam of the Indians, the logs being placed upright, and the interstices filled with mortar. This church stood near the river, almost on the very site of the present cathedral. Mass was said, and the Te Deum was chanted. At the first laying out of the village, Captain Liguest set apart the whole block as a site for the church, and it remains church property to this day.
It is evident from Chouteau’s diary that Pierre Laclede Liguest, though he had able and energetic assistants, was the soul of the enterprise, and the real founder of St. Louis. He was one of that stock of Frenchmen who put the imprint of their nation, never to be effaced, upon the map of North America – a kind of Frenchman unspeakably different from those who figured in the comic opera and the masquerade ball of the late corrupt and effeminating empire. He was a genial and generous man, who rewarded his followers bountifully, and took the lead in every service of difficulty and danger. While on a visit to New Orleans he died of one of the diseases of the country, and was buried on the shore near the mouth of the Arkansas River.
His executor and chief assistant, Auguste Chouteau, born at New Orleans in 1739, lived one hundred years, not dying till 1839. There are many people in St. Louis who remember him. A very remarkable coincidence was, that his brother, Pierre Chouteau, born in New Orleans in 1749, died in St. Louis in 1849, having also lived just one hundred years. Both of these brothers were identified with St. Louis from the beginning, where they lived in affluence and honor for seventy years, and where their descendants still reside.
The growth of St. Louis was long retarded by the narrowness and tyranny of the Spanish government, to which the French ceded the country about the time when St. Louis was settled. But in 1804 it was transferred to the United States, and from that time its progress has been rapid and almost uninterrupted. When President Jefferson’s agent took possession, there was no post-office, no ferry over the river, no newspaper, no hotel, no Protestant church, and no school. Nor could any one hold land who was not a Catholic. Instantly, and as a matter of course, all restricting laws were swept away; and before two years had passed there was a ferry, a post-office, a newspaper, a Protestant church, a hotel, and two schools, one French and one English.