St. Louis’ Great Divorce: A complete history of the city and county separation and attempts to get back together

By on March 11, 2019

From St. Louis Magazine:  We’ve been wasting our breath arguing. This whole city-county arrangement was never legal in the first place. First, the Scheme to divide the city of St. Louis from the county was submitted after midnight on July 3, 1875—on a national holiday, when legal documents cannot be filed.

Second, the vote to separate the city from the county failed. City residents just barely voted yes (11,878 to 11,525), and county residents voted no (2,617 to 848).

Then there was a recount—after a judge in the Missouri Court of Appeals threw out ballots that showed partially erased yes votes replaced with nos. According to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, election officials admitted they’d “stuffed in bogus votes by the handful, swore to false returns and by every device of perjury, corruption and rascality did all that lay in their power to convert the election into a shameless farce.” They said they’d been directed to falsify the count by politicians (in both city and county) who feared they’d lose power if the measure passed. The politicians at fault were not indicted, but the court did direct that the ballots be recounted. The new tally flipped the outcome to victory by a margin of 1,253.

And with that inauspicious beginning, city and county separated.

Deep Background

In the first five years after the Civil War, the population of the city of St. Louis shot up 30 percent, to 310,864. From there, it continued to rise, sparking elated predictions that it would soon hit 1 million. But it peaked at 880,000 in 1950 and started a long downward slide, picking up speed as it dropped below the 1870 count to hit, in 2017, a U.S. Census estimate of 308,626.

Meanwhile, St. Louis County started with 27,000 in rural population and grew to 996,726, in spitting range of that million the city was supposed to reach.

Fortunes had reversed.

Back in 1870, the city was the locus of power and civic energy, controlling nearly $148 million in taxable wealth (compared to $14 million in the county). City residents suspected that the county court was not only remote but corrupt and wasteful as well, greased by patronage. It allowed the state legislature to meddle in their affairs. It allowed—that great American theme—unfair taxation.

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About Dede Hance