"Trains and Trolleys"| Reviewed by Bill Schwab
In 1849, the Pacific Railroad was commissioned to build and operate a railroad line from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. Construction was delayed until 1851 because of a raging cholera epidemic. Finally, in 1855, with fanfare and hoopla, the first train left St. Louis for Jefferson City. The completion of this stretch of track was crucial for St. Louis to win a stop on the planned transcontinental railroad.
This first long-awaited journey of Pacific Railroad’s “Missouri” train, however, ended in tragedy when the hastily built Gasconade River Bridge west of Hermann collapsed and the steam locomotive and 13 railcars plummeted into the cold, murky water. Thirty-one passengers, many of whom were notable St. Louis politicians and civic leaders, were killed.
The bridge’s collapse was attributed to its hurried construction and inability to sustain the heavy weight of the fully-loaded train. When, five months later, another railroad company successfully bridged the Mississippi River at Rock Island IL, St. Louisans’ aspirations to become a major stop on the nation’s first cross-country railroad line were ended.
Molly Butterworth tells this captivating story and many more in her latest book “Trains and Trolleys: Railroads and Streetcars in St. Louis.” She maintains that local ferry companies had used their political influence to prevent the construction of a railway bridge across the Mississippi River at St. Louis because the ferry business depended on people and goods using their boats to traverse the river. As early as1870 the Wiggins Ferry Company was “equipping their own cargo ferry boats with rail. They had their own docking stations on either side of the river, and they would move locomotives and cargo cars via boat.” When the Eads Bridge was finally constructed in 1877, it was too late: Chicago was already well established as the major rail hub for the middle of the country.
Although St. Louis provided only second-place railroad service in the Midwest, the Gateway City was the site of the most important railcar manufacturers in the world. These included American Car and Foundry and the St. Louis Car Company. Many historic railroad structures can still be found in the St. Louis area including Union Station and several suburban depots.
The latter part of the book describes the streetcar system that provided transportation throughout the city and many parts of St. Louis County starting in 1886 with horse-drawn streetcars. When I became a student in St. Louis in 1963 the trolleys were still in operation, but the word was out that they would only be running for a few more months. A local student insisted that he take me on a trolley ride before they ceased operation. We rode from downtown to the grand Wellston Station named after Erastus Wells the father of public transportation in St. Louis. This station was the end of the line, so the tracks circled the building returning us to our starting point. Shortly thereafter the trolleys were discontinued and relegated to museums, the junkyard, or the occasional production of the musical “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
Historian Butterworth is owed a debt of gratitude for adeptly capturing the birth, growth, and decline of railroading in St. Louis with both narratives and images. As the former Executive Director of the Transportation Museum, she had access to many primary resources and used them to document the history and significance of the railroads and trolleys in transporting goods and people throughout the region.
About the Author: Butterworth started her museum career as a high school volunteer at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. She is a former curator and director of the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis and currently serves as the historic building preservationist at Faust Park in west St. Louis County. She also is the co-author of “They Will Run: The Golden Age of the Automobile in St. Louis.” Butterworth resides in Villa Ridge and has made presentations about both books at the Washington Public Library. Reedy Press is the publisher of this 218-page local interest book.