When the British writer Anthony Trollope visited St. Louis, we were in the early days of the Civil War. Trollope, like his mother more than twenty years before, was on an extensive tour of America. Unlike his hypercritical mother, he was tolerant of his American cousins—or perhaps we had grown more civilized by 1861—but he cast a critical eye and wrote with a blunt honesty about our faults and failings.
In his chapter on Missouri, Trollope wrote extensive descriptions of St. Louis, a place he found not entirely attractive, "but," he admitted, "I did not visit it at an attractive time. The war had disturbed everything and given a special color of its own to men's thoughts and words."
"The town is well built," Trollope noted, "with good shops, straight streets, never-ending rows of excellent houses, and every sign of commercial wealth and domestic comfort — but that was in the past, for there was no present appearance either of comfort or of wealth."
Trollope thought the levee was the great glory of St. Louis but here too he saw the effects of war: “In the good days of peace,” he wrote, “a hundred vessels were to be seen here, each with its double funnels. The line of them seemed to be never ending even when I was there, but then a very large proportion of them were lying idle. They resemble huge wooden houses, apparently of frail architecture, floating upon the water. . .When they begin to move, they moan and groan in melancholy tones; and as they continue on their courses they puff and bluster. Now they lie, in a continuous line nearly a mile in length, along the levee of St. Louis, dirty, dingy, and now, alas! mute. They have ceased to groan and puff, and, if this war be continued for six months longer, will become rotten and useless as they lie.”
The war of course did continue for many more months than six; and although the bloody battles were fought elsewhere, St. Louis shared in the suffering of the country’s harsh and bitter conflict. Indeed, with the tensions and hostilities within St. Louis and all over the state, Missouri and its major city are powerful examples of the way our country was being torn apart.
Would Anthony Trollope find us a better place today? Have we completely recovered, after a hundred and fifty years, from the causes, controversies, and effects of the war that broke us apart? Will future travelers find St. Louis welcoming and attractive, concerned with being a place of harmony and good will? It is up to each of us to make it so.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Bob Archibald is the President of the Missouri Historical Society