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How Dogtown got its name — and the history of an 'unofficial' St. Louis neighborhood

Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Dogtown businesses celebrate the community's traditions.

“Dogtown? How did it get its name?"

That was the query our Curious Louis series from attorney Nathan Goldberg, who wondered about the colorful name of the historic St. Louis neighborhood located just south of Forest Park.

In particular, he wondered about a connection that's sometimes suggested — and just as frequently discredited — between Dogtown and the Filipinos and indigenous people who lived (and died) in a "human zoo" exhibit at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Forest Park, commonly known as the World's Fair. According to the legend, the Igorot people from the Philippines hunted dogs in the neighborhood for ceremonial rituals.

(Related: 1904 World's Fair Revised: One Artist Memorializes Filipino And Indigenous People)

The sensational tale about Dogtown and the World’s Fair refuses to die, says Bob Corbett, 77, a keeper of Dogtown history.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Bob Corbett, keeper of Dogtown history

“It’s just silly,” said Corbett, who’s been debunking the myth for years.

He’s a retired Webster University philosophy professor who grew up in Dogtown, left for 30 years, and then returned to the neighborhood in 1993. That’s when he began researching and collecting Dogtown history. He’s a board member of the Dogtown Historical Society, which he founded in 2002.

Corbett has an extensive collection of Dogtown material, and he shares his research on his website

For many reasons, the World’s Fair explanation is nonsensical, he says, but here’s the most convincing one: The nickname predated the fair. He has news clippings from the late 1800s referring to the area as “dogtown.”  

So how did Dogtown get its name?

Well, it might (or might not) have to do with coal mines and watchdogs, which, Corbett says, is the other popular explanation.

But there’s no official record to check because, well, Dogtown isn’t an official place.

After talking to Corbett, here are five things to know:

1. Dogtown is not 'officially' Dogtown

If you look at the city’s list of 79 neighborhoods, you won’t find Dogtown because it’s not an official neighborhood of the city of St. Louis.

“We call it Dogtown. Almost everybody in St. Louis calls it Dogtown, but the city doesn’t formally recognize the name of Dogtown,’’ Corbett said.

Instead, Dogtown encompasses several official city neighborhoods, including Clayton-Tamm, Hi-Pointe, Franz Park, Cheltenham and a wee section of Ellendale.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Dogtown was traditionally a blue-collar Irish-American neighborhood.

2. Dogtown’s boundaries

According to Corbett, the boundaries of Dogtown are generally defined as: Oakland Avenue to the north, Macklind Avenue on the east; Manchester Avenue to the south (except for a section between Hampton and Dale avenues that juts under Highway 44) and the Maplewood city limits (around McCausland Avenue) on the west.

He says the historical society first determined Dogtown’s boundaries when it was incorporating as a nonprofit, but has made some slight adjustments over the years. For example, the western boundary was extended to include some homes on the west side of McCausland that were clearly part of the original neighborhood.

Dogtown doesn’t always appear on maps of the city, but that doesn’t matter to Corbett.

“We live here,’’ he says. “We all know where it is.’’


3. They used to mine coal and make bricks there

The Dogtown area was once known for coal mining and brick-manufacturing, according to Corbett.

The area had large deposits of coal and clay, but it took the railroad to spark development.

“There were numerous attempts to mine it and get it to the riverfront to be shipped out, but the clay and the coal were just too heavy. Even with huge oxen teams they couldn’t get it to the river. There was no way to move it,’’ he said.

That changed in the early 1850s, when the Pacific Railway laid 5 miles of tracks from the city into the countryside. Corbett says the original station was about where the Hampton viaduct bridge is today on Manchester.

Mary Delach Leonard
St. Louis Public Radio
Shamrocks abound in Dogtown.

“Once the train track was there, then clay and coal were accessible,’’ he said. “People began mining, and a neighborhood sprung up. Mainly, it was the miners and the butcher, baker and candlestick maker — the people who made a neighborhood possible.”

And there was a Catholic church. St. James Parish, at the intersection of Tamm and Wade, dates to 1860.

Most of the early residents were immigrants who came to work in the mines and the brick-making factories. Many were from Ireland, but others came from Germany, France and the Balkans.

The area was originally known as Cheltenham. Its history was detailed in a 1937 book written by the Rev. P.J. O’Connor, the pastor of St. James.

According to O’Connor, an English colony of Quakers established a factory to manufacture clay products at the site, which was originally called Sulphur Springs.

O’Connor wrote that Dogtown was “so-called by squatters who built shacks in the neighborhood of Graham and West Park in 1876.” According to this theory, the squatters were miners who were displaced when the city bought the nearby land for Forest Park — and they had watchdogs to protect their shacks and belongings from hobos riding the rails.

4. Dogtown references predate the World’s Fair

Corbett credits O’Connor with giving rise to the theory that Dogtown was named for the miners’ watchdogs. And he’s made it his mission to track down the origin of the World’s Fair myth.

When he began studying Dogtown’s history, he conducted interviews with many of the older residents of the community.

“All the older people — when you asked them about the Dogtown name, and I went around asking — nobody ever gave me that story,’’ he said.

Corbett says the oldest reference to the nickname that he’s found was in a newspaper article published five years before the World’s Fair. On Aug. 14, 1889, the Missouri Republic reported the wild tale of a 5-year-old boy who told St. Louis police quite a fib: that his father killed his mother who lived “in the classic precincts of Dogtown, near Cheltenham.”

Corbett says the World’s Fair theory didn’t become popular until the 1980s. He believes the story got going when Seamus McDaniel’s, a popular local haunt, added the lore about the Igorots to its menu.

Though the Philippines exhibit was nearby, in what is now the Wydown-Forsyth National Historic District in Clayton, there is no evidence about dog-hunting during the fair. In fact, Corbett said, it was the city that pressured the Igorots to perform the rituals as part of the World’s Fair hype. And the city arranged to provide the dogs from local pounds.

In his research, Corbett has discovered other places referred to as “dogtowns,’’ scattered about the country. Many were coal-mining towns, and there are lots of “dog” terms associated with mining: A “Dog hole,” for example, refers to the opening of a mine, and miners changed clothing in “dog houses.”

A few years ago, some longtime Dogtown residents developed their own theory that the name derived from mining terminology.

5. It's a small town in a big city

Corbett lives in the house his parents built, next door to his brother. Another brother lives just up the street.

That’s not unusual for the neighborhood, where some residents are third- and fourth-generation Dogtowners. Like The Hill, it’s a neighborhood where families have put down roots for generations.

“There are many people who have real history here,’’ he said.

Dogtown, which was traditionally a blue-collar Irish-American neighborhood, is seeing some changes — particularly on the west side where more affluent residents are buying older homes and replacing them with larger homes, Corbett said.

He says the neighborhood is known for its neighborhood bars and eateries and the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade sponsored by the St. Louis Ancient Order of Hibernians. The parade can go on for hours because the emphasis is not on fancy floats but on “clans” marching.

Living in Dogtown is like living in a small town in a big city, Corbett said.

“It’s a lovely, lovely place to live.’’ 

Editor's Note: According to John Haller, here's a little more on the theory mentioned in the story that Dogtown's name was derived from coal-mining terms. The originators of the theory were Tom Haller and Michael Gittins. Haller's great-grandparents immigrated to the area in the 1800s to work in the mines and later built Kies Bakery. Gittins' family owned the Gittins Hotel, built around 1850. He was told the story by his relatives.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.