© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

‘Trains & Trolleys’ explores the railroads that altered St. Louis’ fortunes

As this photo of Olive Street from 1908 or 1909 shows, horses had to adjust to streetcars on bustling St. Louis streets.
Courtesy of Missouri Historical Society
As this photo of Olive Street from 1908 or 1909 shows, horses had to adjust to streetcars on bustling St. Louis streets.

The first run of the first train to leave St. Louis for Jefferson City was an event — a crucial step in St. Louis’ ambitions to become a stop on the fledgling transcontinental railroad. Pacific Railroad engineer Thomas O’Sullivan personally invited notables including Henry Chouteau (a descendant of one of the city’s founders), Thomas O’Flaherty (a businessman and the father of Kate Chopin) and the Rev. Artemus Bullard (pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in St. Louis).

But the 1855 journey proved ill-fated — all four men perished when a trestle on the bridge above the Gasconade River collapsed, plunging the steam locomotive “Missouri” and 13 railcars into the muddy waters.

“The bridge built there was built very hastily, not entirely according to drawings,” explained author Molly Butterworth of the Gasconade trestle. “And it was, quote unquote, tested just a couple of days before the big passenger excursion, but it was not tested at speed, nor with equipment of the same weight.”

In total, 31 people died. Five months later, a different railroad company bridged the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Illinois, putting the transcontinental journey on a northern track that bypassed St. Louis.

Butterworth’s new book from Reedy Press, “Trains and Trolleys” tells that story, and more. She explained on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air that the Gasconade River tragedy was a major setback for the city’s ambitions.

But the bigger reason the city lost out to Chicago involved a different river crossing. St. Louis lacked a convenient bridge over the Mississippi until the Eads Bridge was completed in 1887 — 31 years after the Rock Island bridge provided an easy crossing to the north.

Author Molly Butterworth.
Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
Author Molly Butterworth

And for that, Butterworth blames the ferry companies whose business was dependent on people and goods crossing the river sans bridge.

“I don't want to point all my fingers at the Wiggins Ferry Co., but they wisely — the owners and investors in Wiggins — had ingratiated themselves so well into local politics that they literally put a chokehold on any idea of building a railroad bridge across the Mississippi River,” Butterworth said. “They were even equipping their own cargo ferry boats with rail. They had their own rail docking stations on either side of the river, and they would move locomotives and cargo cars via boat.”

That jerry-rigged system was “certainly not economically or ecologically feasible or preferred,” Butterworth acknowledged. “But it was good for the check holders for the Wiggins Ferry Co.”

During the interview, Butterworth discussed the research that went into her book, how the advent of railroads changed St. Louis’ fortunes and why trolleys remain a quixotic idea despite millions of dollars in federal investment. She also took questions from callers.

Molly Butterworth joins St. Louis on the Air

Related Event
What: “Trains and Trolleys” presentation and book signing
When: Nov. 6
Where: Iron Spike Toy Model Railroad Museum, 1498 High St., Washington, MO 63090

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. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Stay Connected
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.