Saturday, January 22, 2022

The history of Carondelet’s heavy industry

The southern end of St. Louis used to be a bustling industrial hub with large factories, foundries and shipyards that employed thousands. Almost all of that is gone today.

Carondelet deserves more attention. It was an independent community until the 19th century, when it was annexed to St. Louis. This history has given Carondelet its unique personality. Its stone houses have been featured before. What I find most fascinating about Carondelet, which was actually a city with its own mayor. It has a rich industrial heritage that has been largely lost to deindustrialization and demolition. The southern end of St. Louis used to be a bustling industrial hub with large factories, foundries, shipyards and other facilities that employed many. Almost all of this is gone today.

Carondelet is located at the confluence between the Mississippi River and River des Peres. There is a gradual rise in the hills to north like St. Louis, and there are even dramatic bluffs to the north of Carondelet’s downtown. There are streets of worker’s houses just a few steps from the industries that made use of the transportation networks. Carondelet was visited by the Iron Mountain Railroad on its southward journey. It provided easy access to St. Louis and iron ore from Missouri. In the middle of the 19th century there was optimism as geologists incorrectly believed that Iron Mountain was entirely made of iron ore. Although it was not true, iron ore from the nearby mountain and other mines provided steady supplies to St. Louis and Carondelet smelters via the railroad. Other raw materials such as pink granite, which is now Elephant Rocks State Park in the north, also flowed northward.

During the Civil War James B. Eads, a shipyard owner at the foot of Davis Street, was the home to ironclads. This was one of Carondelet’s most prominent industries. The yards used to be the Carondelet Marine Railway Company. They were later remodeled for Eads new plans for the Union to regain control of the Mississippi River, which was under the control of the Confederacy in South. The 14 ironclads built in the Union Shipyards were used to help Ulysses S. Grant win at Vicksburg in 1863, which split the Confederacy in half. Eads would build the bridge over St. Louis’ Mississippi River after the war. It would bear his name later. The site is largely empty today, but barges still dock nearby.

Vulcan Iron Works was also established in 1858. It was one of many industries that took advantage Carondelet’s position on the Mississippi River. It was located in the patch area, in the southeast corner of Carondelet, by the River des Peres. The furnaces were temperamental and posed a risk of an explosion every day. A furnace explosion in October 1874 caused part of the building to fall. Bricks and timbers fell on workers who had been badly burned by the steam and intense heat that had escaped. Post-Dispatch article describing some of the staggering statistics about the size of the operation was published after the plant was demolished in 1898. The monthly payroll at the foundry was $200,000. It employed upwards of 2,000 to 3,000 workers during its peak. Railroad rails were the primary product. The plant was eventually closed because of the obsolescence in its machinery. It is amazing how difficult it is for photographs to be taken of this massive St. Louis presence. The Jupiter Iron Works, another foundry in Carondelet that was demolished in early 20th-century gives us an idea about what these foundries looked.

The Great Lakes Carbon Company was established in the same area as the Vulcan Iron Works and shipyards. The complex, better known by its last name Carondelet coke, was demolished by the EPA and cleaned up by them as a Superfund site because of extensive pollution. The plant was used to produce coke and coal as well as gas for almost 100 years. Coke is made by heating coal without air in large furnaces or ovens. This results in a fuel that is high in carbon and has fewer impurities, but it also emits large amounts of pollution. Carondelet Coke’s buildings were beautiful to see, including the furnaces, which were still standing a decade ago. However, they were all destroyed as part of an environmental cleanup. The famous crane that spanned over the river at the site was a popular spot for urban explorers from St. Louis.

The Klausmann Brewery was established in 1888, along the River des Peres at Lorentz, and South Broadway, to quench the thirst of the workers in the region. John Kraus, the brewery’s president, managed it during its golden age in Carondelet. He died in 1897, leaving behind a fortune of $500,000. The brewery closed in the wake of Prohibition. However, it was one of the few that reopened with a $2,000,000 investment. The St. Louis Brewing Association was purchased by backers from Oklahoma, Chicago, and Chicago in 1934. This association was the second of two conglomerates that combined smaller breweries to challenge Anheuser-Busch or Lemp. The old buildings were purchased by the investors for $100,000. The venture failed and the buildings were demolished.

Milling is one industry that remains in Carondelet. Friedrich Gottfried Hermann Baur (German immigrant) founded an early flour mill in 1870. He came from Stuttgart, Germany. Born in 1848, he arrived in St. Louis in 1868 and died in 1934. Andrew Baur, his son purchased the Ziebold Flour Mill in St. Louis. It was 100 years old when it was originally bought by the Carondelet Milling Company. The sale was worth $150,000. In 1945, the Baurs were gone and the buildings have been demolished. However, Carondelet still has a large scale of milling. Italgrani USA has the largest durum and semolina mills in North America, as well as a grain elevator right on the river. Riviana Foods produces a variety of pasta and rice products in the vicinity.

Perhaps the best way to say goodbye is to remember the St. Columbkille Roman Catholic Church, an Irish Catholic parish that was lost. It was located just up the hill from the foundries. The workers and their families would travel to St. Columbkille or other nearby churches on any day they had some time off, for over a century. They had fled untold poverty and oppression in Ireland and were now faced with dangerous and difficult work in Carondelet. Many of the old factories and shipyards have been demolished, but many of their homes still remain, some still being owned by their descendants. This is perhaps the most important legacy of Carondelet’s industrial past.

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