Laclede’s Landing is a historic commercial district of cobbled streets and brick and wrought iron construction located on the northern edge of the original settlement of St. Louis.
The area that would become St. Louis, just south of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, was originally inhabited by Mississippian mound builders. While their main site was across the Mississippi River in Cahokia, IL, St. Louis was also an important Mississippian site, and was once known as Mound City due to the profusion of Mississippian mounds, all but one of which was destroyed in the development of the city.
Laclede’s Landing was named after Pierre Laclede, the founder of St. Louis. In defiance of direction from the French colonial authority in New Orleans, Laclede sought to create not merely a trading post, but a city, what he predicted would be one of the finest cities in North America. The reluctance of the colonial authorities to support a larger settlement was due to the distance; while New Orleans was only a few weeks away downriver, the return trip to St. Louis would take months.
When Laclede arrived in 1764, the area was inhabited by Osage, a Souian Indian people recently pushed west over the Mississippi by the Iroquois. The Osage were a physically imposing people, with men regularly reaching 7ft in height, and women often over 6ft. In a typical pattern of French interaction with indigenous people, Laclede requested permission from the Osage to establish a fur trading post. As an aggressive people, the Osage were happy to trade furs from up the Missouri River for firearms and prestige goods they used to extend their influence and expand their trade network.
The early growth of St. Louis was due to the ending of the Seven Years War, also known as the French and Indian War. France lost, ceding everything east of the Mississippi to England. To keep it from the British, France ceded everything west of the Mississippi to Spain; thus, though he did not know it, the territory on which Laclede founded St. Louis was claimed by Spain, not France. Now under the thumb of the hated British, many French farmers living across the river in present day Illinois packed up and moved to St. Louis, to live under the Spanish and to take advantage of the economic opportunities available in the new trade post.
St. Louis was acquired by the nascent United States through the Louisiana Purchase. Recently reacquired by France after Napoleon’s conquest of Spain, Napoleon sold it to the United States after the successful slave revolt in Haiti meant he no longer had need of a North American bread basket. Since France had not yet taken administrative control of St. Louis, when it was turned over to the United States, a three flag ceremony was held, in which the Spanish flag was lowered at night and French flag raised, then replaced by the American flag in the morning.
St. Louis’s location on the Mississippi meant that it profited enormously from the invention of steamboats. St. Louis was soon the third busiest port in the United States. The riverfront was a nonstop bustle of activity, with steamboats lined up for miles, often two or even three deep. To support the enormous amount of trade passing through, large brick warehouses were constructed all along the riverfront, including the area that would become Laclede’s Landing.
The era of steamboats was vital for St. Louis, but it was relatively brief. Soon, steamboats were displaced by the growth of railroads. Fortunately, St. Louis became an important rail hub, thanks in large part to the 1874 construction of the Eads Bridge. James Eads, its designer, was a fascinating character, who previously worked at the St. Louis Arsenal constructing ironclad warships. He also pioneered a method of using a diving bell to recover goods from sunken steamboats. His design for the Eads bridge incorporated huge amounts of steel, and was only possible because the Bessemer process of steel production was recently pioneered across the Atlantic. Allegedly Andrew Carnegie initially refused to provide the steel for the project, believing the bridge would fail and wishing to avoid his steel being associated with the disaster. To support the bridge, Eads had to dig through almost 80ft of river mud to reach the bedrock, a problem solved by the use of pressurized caissons. Workers began growing quite sick and even dying when they came out of the pressurized caissons, leading to the discovery of “the bends,” or decompression sickness. Eads bridge is still in use, and forms the southern boundary of Laclede’s Landing.
As St. Louis’s importance as a trade hub waned, many of the brick warehouses lining the river were abandoned. The riverfront was becoming an eyesore. This was partially solved by the construction of the Gateway Arch, a 630ft stainless steel monument just south of Laclede’s Landing. Many historic structures were demolished to make way for construction. Now, Laclede’s Landing is the only distinct in which the historic brick warehouses can be seen.
As with many American cities, as industry left and jobs were lost, downtown St. Louis suffered. Since the 1990s, the city has made a concerted effort to invest in the downtown area, including Laclede’s Landing. Previously empty buildings now host shops, bars, and restaurants. Ongoing improvement projects include paving some of the cobblestone streets to make navigating the area easier. Many warehouses have been converted to lofts, and Laclede’s Landing is an increasingly popular neighborhood, especially among younger St. Louisans.
Much like the Landing itself, culinary options see the traditional rubbing shoulders with the latest trends. Many locally owned bars and restaurants provide unique culinary experiences, from Korean fried chicken to traditional steakhouses. Laclede’s Landing also has a reputation for a lively nightlife. In addition to food and drink, Laclede’s Landing hosts events such as the Big Muddy Blues Festival. Horse drawn carriages are available for a tour of downtown. Already a destination, the ongoing developments in the Landing will see its popularity continue to grow.