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How St. Louis Nearly Became The Nation’s Capital

Missouri History Museum

Why should a nation that sprawls from the Atlantic to the Pacific have its capital on the Eastern seaboard? It’s a reasonable question now, but to many Americans, it felt even more pressing in the years following the Civil War.

After all, Washington, D.C., was then a swampy, mosquito-infested backwater (its population was just 75,000 souls in 1860). Travel from the frontier to the Capitol building took days, not hours, and didn’t always seem worth the trip. Some Midwestern congressmen argued that St. Louis — a rapidly growing city twice as big as D.C., and “the great vitalizing heart of the Republic” — should instead be the seat of government.

That phrase comes from an eccentric local booster named Logan Uriah Reavis, who derided D.C. as “distant place on the outskirts of the country, with little power or prestige,” writes Livia Gershon in a fascinating piece for Smithsonian Magazine.

And while Reavis was unique in clinging to the idea for decades, he wasn’t alone in supporting it.

A Plan To Put St. Louis Front And Center
Journalist Livia Gershon discusses the aborted plan on St. Louis on the Air

“People were not too happy with how Washington, D.C., was at the time,” Gershon explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. “It was kind of a mess.” Congressional earmarks to address the district’s problems got people questioning whether they were doubling down a bad idea: “I think that spurred some people to say, ‘Wait, why should the capital be here at all?’”

St. Louis was a logical alternative. By 1870, the city had become the fourth largest in the country — and local backers found support from some surprising places. Even the Chicago Tribune weighed in, with editor Joseph Medill expressing his support in 1869, Gershon wrote.

“That did seem to give the idea some momentum,” she said.

Ultimately, a resolution to move the capital to St. Louis came just 20 votes shy of passage in the House of Representatives. A subsequent national convention to discuss the idea drew delegates from 17 states and territories, but participation from the original colonies was lackluster. A second convention drew fewer people, and eventually, such talk fizzled out.

Gershon said that’s not necessarily a good thing. The historians she interviewed suggested moving the capital west would have had many merits.

“It is kind of lopsided, that we do have so much institutional power of all kinds on the coasts now, and if you did have the seat of government in the middle, it might counterbalance that to some extent,” she explained.

Asked whether she’d like to lead the charge to bring the idea back to the fore, and push new life into the idea once pushed by fellow journalists Logan Uriah Heep, Joseph Medill and Joseph Pulitzer, Gershon demurred.

“It’s a great idea,” she said politely. “I’d love to see people work on that.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.