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Commentary Detail

Draining the Pond
Commentary by: Bob Archibald
Aired April 20, 2012

One of my favorite spots in St. Louis isnít there at all. Chouteauís Pond is a dim memory in our lexicon of long-gone places in our city.

Until the late 1840s Chouteau's Pond was a 100-acre mill pond and wooded area that was a bustling recreation spot for St. Louis residents. An itinerant artist painted a landscape of it in 1844, picturing the small, clear lake, a sailing boat in its midst, and a woman in kerchief and apron driving cattle along the peaceful bank. Just a few years later the Pond was a sinkhole of polluted waters, industrial run-off, and household garbage. The cholera scourge of 1848 and í49, with presumed miasma over standing waters, proved to be the mill pondís death knell.

Mayor John Krum called a meeting to consider the problem. Removal of standing bodies of water and the development of a sewage system were discussed, but the drainage of Chouteauís Pond caused considerable agitation. Elihu Shepard was among those who lamented the loss:

ďEvery old inhabitant had been fed on food from that mill. Every man and boy had fished from that pond. Every lady of St. Louis had perambulated its grassy banks. To destroy this great monument of the labors of one of the greatest benefactors and first builders of St. Louis seemed an act of sacrilege Ö Yet it seemed inevitable; the multiplying of factories and butcher shops along its border had destroyed the beauty and defiled the purity of the waters. The pondís presence had become an ulcer ÖĒ

In The Crossing, one of his early novels, St. Louis writer Winston Churchill waxed nostalgic over the site.

He wrote: ďAt length we began to go down into the valley where Chouteauís Pond was, and we caught glimpses of the shimmering of its waters through the trees and presently heard them tumbling lightly over the mill dam. The spot was made for romance Ė a sequestered vale, clad with forest trees, cleared a little by the water-side, where Monsieur Lenoir raised his maize and his vegetables. Below the mill Ö where the creek lay in pools on its limestone bed, the village washing was done ÖĒ

His book was published in 1904, and Churchill was far too young to have remembered the scene for himself. Chouteauís Pond and its romantic vision was no doubt gleaned from stories of his elders and their life in early St. Louis.

Itís good to remember a scene like this. And itís essential to observe the lesson of what careless pollution and lack of stewardship can render to the loveliest of places.

(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)

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Bob Archibald

Bob Archibald


Bob Archibald is the President of the Missouri Historical Society

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