Days 72-73/ May 9th-10th – St. Louis, MO: St. Louis and Clark

For much of the 19th century, St. Louis was the Rivendell of America, a last homely outpost for explorers, and later settlers, before they plunged into the West.  When the Lewis & Clark expedition left from near here in 1804, it could barely be described as an American town: until the previous year, when it had been acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase, it had been first a French fur-trading post and then a Spanish frontier town.  St. Louis remained a bilingual city for decades afterwards, and to this day is one of the strongholds of Catholicism in America.

St. Louis from the Gateway Arch

St. Louis: Gateway to Yet More Walking

While most Americans imbibe the story of Lewis & Clark with their mother’s milk, they’re not as well-known outside the United States, and so, given that they inspired the choice of our walking route for the next month or so, it’s probably worth sketching the outline of what they did for the benefit of British readers.

Shortly after the Purchase, Jefferson chose his former aide Meriwether Lewis to lead a newly-established body, the ‘Corps of Discovery’, on a search for a viable river route to the Pacific across the new territory.  Lewis chose William Clark, a former army officer who had once served under him, as his second-in-command, and they set off west with a party of 33 men, leaving from Pittsburgh in August 1803 and setting off again from near St. Louis in May 1804.  They travelled upriver along the Missouri to its source (in what is now Montana), and crossed the Rockies and the Continental Divide on horseback before descending the Columbia River in canoes to reach the Pacific (in what is now Oregon) in December 1805.  After spending a miserable wet winter on the coast, they returned via much the same route and arrived back in St. Louis in September 1806, hailed as heroes by a populace that had long since given them up for dead.

There are many remarkable things about the expedition.  It found a viable route to the Pacific in an area of millions of square miles at the first time of asking; it lost only a single member (to illness) in thousands of miles of travel through unmapped territory; it included a native American interpreter, Sacagawea, who gave birth en route and travelled with her newborn baby; and it encountered numerous tribes – including the Sioux, Mandan, Blackfeet and Crow – who were either ignorant of or hostile to white men, yet was responsible for the deaths of only two Indians. Over the next month, we’ll be following roughly the route of the expedition, first to Kansas City and then northwards to Omaha, where we’ll leave it as we cross the river and carry on across the plains of Nebraska.

St. Louis skyline from the Cahokia Mounds

The skyline of St. Louis from across the Mississippi

Of course, St. Louis was more than just a starting-point for expeditions and emigration to the West.  It was, above all, a port, from the time the first Mississippi steamboat, the pleasingly named Zebulon M. Pike, arrived here in 1817, freeing shipping from the tyranny of the current and inaugurating a boom in riverine commerce.  The city’s population doubled during the 1850s, and it became the second-largest port in America, the fourth-largest city in the country and the largest west of Pittsburgh.  Although the river trade was hit by the Civil War and the birth of the railroads, St. Louis was still a substantial city at the turn of the century, and the obvious candidate in 1904 to host the World’s Fair, which was combined with celebrations of the centenary of the Louisiana Purchase.  The city fathers were understandably keen for these events to pull in the crowds, and were so concerned by what they saw as a rival event – the Olympics – in nearby Chicago that they threatened to undermine it with their own sporting contests unless the Games, too, were moved to St. Louis.  Chicago gave in.

These Olympics – only the third of the modern era – were, by any standards, spectacularly interesting.  Believing that St. Louis was deep in wild and dangerous Indian country, or simply not relishing a journey of weeks in each direction to get there and back, many countries declined to send athletes.  Of the 651 competitors, over 500 were American.  In many events, there were no foreign entrants at all, and, somewhat unsurprisingly, the US team won 239 of the 280 available medals.  (If you’ve ever watched an Olympic Games on US television, you get the sense that this is really how America would prefer all Games to be.)

1904 Olympics plaque in Francis Field

"The Olympian Games, and other athletic events"

From the start, the Games played second fiddle to the World’s Fair and Louisiana Purchase commemorations.  They were staged over the unusually ambitious time period of 4 ½ months, mixed in with other sporting events, like YMCA swimming contests, taking place as part of the Fair.  Despite these disadvantages, they threw up some notable Olympians, like George Eyser, who contrived to win six gymnastic medals despite the usually prohibitive disadvantage of having a wooden left leg.

In the marathon, Frederick Lorz crossed the line first and accepted the gold medal, before conceding that he had in fact dropped out after nine miles and been driven back to the stadium to retrieve his clothes.  The actual winner, Thomas Hicks, had to be dosed with strychnine and brandy near the finish, was helped over the line by his trainers and nearly died in the stadium.  The race featured the first black Africans to compete in an Olympics, though they were only in St. Louis as part of a Boer War exhibit at the Fair; one of them finished ninth, and might have done better had wild dogs not chased him a mile off the course.  Despite this stiff competition, the hero of the race must be Felix Carbajal, a Cuban postman, who owned no shorts and had to make a pair out of his trousers.  He stopped during the race to scrump apples from an orchard, got indigestion as a result and had to stop by the roadside for a long nap to recover.  He still finished fourth.

Francis Field, at Washington University in St. Louis

Francis Field: Home of perhaps the worst Olympics ever staged

There is no surviving Olympic village in St. Louis.  The only vestige of the Games is to be found at Francis Field, an unremarkable modern running track on the pleasant campus of Washington University, where a small plaque on the gates records that the 1904 Olympics were held there.  But the city’s real priorities are still clear.  On the opposite gate, a similar plaque of identical size commemorates David Francis, the college benefactor who donated the field, and notes with pride that he was the president of the company that organised the centenary celebrations of the Louisiana Purchase.

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One Response to “Days 72-73/ May 9th-10th – St. Louis, MO: St. Louis and Clark”

  1. Linda Hastings Says:

    We are vicariously enjoying your trip across the country and love your wit and wisdom. FYI When we took a cruise the tour guide was named Meriwether after her great, great, etc. grandfather. Enjoy! Linda

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