Windy City Blues

Environmental historian William Cronon explains how Chicago passed St. Louis by and changed America

Back in the first half of the 19th century, there was no more natural city to become the great metropolis of inland North America than St. Louis. The Missouri, Mississippi and Illinois rivers converge here; the Ohio comes in down river a piece. Fur was the booming commodity, and the economic tendrils of St. Louis commerce extended all the way to Montana, where beavers were trapped and skinned, and to the Gulf port of New Orleans and on to Eastern markets and Europe, where the furs became elegant fashion for cosmopolitans.

"St. Louis folks really thought that nature had ordained their city as the gateway to the West," says environmental historian William Cronon, author of Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. "When you have a fur economy, when you have an economy that's about migrations out onto the Plains -- St. Louis is very well situated for that profit."

But what is "nature" and what is "natural" are unstable human concepts. "There's a deep, long-standing paradox within the word 'nature,'" Cronon, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, explains with an expert teacher's clarity and patience. "The English literary critic Raymond Williams once remarked that the word 'nature' is the most complicated word in the English language. I don't think he's far off on that."

William Cronon: "I've really come to the conclusion that if we want to protect rural America, if we want to protect wilderness, then we've got to make our peace with the cities."
William Cronon: "I've really come to the conclusion that if we want to protect rural America, if we want to protect wilderness, then we've got to make our peace with the cities."

By 1840, St. Louis' "natural" prominence was changing with the "wild scream of the locomotive," as contemporary chroniclers gave the advent of modernity a frontier metaphor. "Plop railroads down," Cronon continues, "and link those railroads to the Great Lakes, with the input of New York capital, and all of a sudden St. Louis is in a very different relationship to 'nature' than Chicago is. In the second half of the 19th century, Chicago looks like it has the 'natural' advantage."

Cronon is tall, lean, with a thin gray beard. He's quick to laugh and is gracious enough not to be too hard on 19th-century St. Louisans; his hosts for his afternoon lecture (the Missouri History Museum and Missouri Botanical Garden) are 21st-century St. Louisans with, it would be assumed, some civic pride to be maintained. And, historically speaking, Cronon doesn't think St. Louis had a chance.

"The story of St. Louis and Chicago often gets narrated as 'these poor St. Louis folks who didn't know what hit them,' but in fact I don't know, frankly, that there was that much folks in St. Louis could have done to resist the choices that were being made by corporate capital that was deciding to allocate railroad lines in the way that they were. I don't know that a St. Louis entrepreneur could have gone to New York and said, 'Here's why you ought to invest just as much capital in St. Louis railroads as you're investing in Chicago railroads.' It would have been a pretty hard case to make. There's a real disadvantage St. Louis was at in that competition."

One of those disadvantages, again, comes from attitudes about that word "nature." People believed in the primacy of those rivers, a belief that turned into faith. "People act on the pictures that are in their heads," says Cronon, who has degrees in philosophy as well as history. "And if you use the word 'natural' in a particular way, you act on the assumptions that are built into that word 'natural.' So if you assume that there is a 'natural' geographical logic that is going to make St. Louis the central metropolis of North America, and nature has ordained that, you don't have to do anything about it. It's like God has said it's going to happen. You don't need to invest capital in railroads, because nobody could ever resist the logic of the Mississippi. How could anybody?"

Such a thought would have been "unnatural."

Chicago, then, became the city of big shoulders (and the recipient of Eastern venture capital), and St. Louis began its long wane. Cronon throws even more salt on our wounds, proposing that the true gateway to the West is not where the Arch stands but, again, Chicago. A telling detail in Nature's Metropolis comes from a post-Civil War visitor to Omaha, who describes a city that before the war was a port for St. Louis riverboat trade. "The ancient store boxes in the cellar have 'St. Louis' stenciled on them" he chronicles, "those on the pavement, 'Chicago.'"

Cronon's point is not to beat up on poor St. Louis but to tell an astonishing story about the rise of a modern city and the incredible effects of Chicago's progress on the West or, more poignantly, how the relationship changed between people and the land in the 19th century -- changes that are now taken for granted or are now thought of as "natural."

"I guess I'd say the deepest moral argument of this book -- political, moral, spiritual argument of the book," says Cronon, "is that the world has become an ever more interconnected place. One of the creations of modernity since the urban industrial revolution, since the 19th century forward, is that all parts of the world are now linked with each other ever more tightly than they ever were before. But the very processes that have linked them together are also the forces that have obscured those connections from us.

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