The Great Divorce of 1876 in St. Louis

Most of you are familiar with the iconic Gateway Arch in St. Louis Missouri. What is less known but has been a disaster for over 100 years is the status of St. Louis is different that other cities is that St. Louis does not reside in a county. It has it’s own boundaries. How can that be you may be wondering? The simple answer is taxes. However, it is much more than that. It is commonly known as The Great Divorce of 1876.

Here is a more detailed account from the St. Louis Post Dispatch

 ST. LOUIS • On Aug. 22, 1876, voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County went to the polls to decide the region’s most fateful ballot question – the “Great Divorce,” or whether to split the city away from the county.

The idea narrowly carried the city but lost badly in the county. That should have been the end of it. But the tale is a complicated affair, as it has been ever since with any serious public issue straddling the city-county line.

In the years after the Civil War, business leaders of the fast-growing city became aggravated by what they considered meddling by the Missouri Legislature, made possible largely through statutes empowering St. Louis County government. As always, a big issue was taxation. Pro-separation leaders considered county government redundant and burdensome.

A special Board of Freeholders proposed to expand the city limit, separate it entirely from the county and create a city home-rule charter. The new boundary would more than triple the city’s area, to 61.37 square miles, and take in Forest, Carondelet and O’Fallon parks. With so much land west of Grand undeveloped, boosters thought there was plenty of room.

Opposition came from rural interests and ward politicians such as Edward Butler, the city’s closest example of a Tammany-style boss. When the votes were counted, city residents approved the split 11,878 to 11,525, but countians trounced it 2,617 to 848, for an overall “no” margin of 1,416 votes.

The Missouri Court of Appeals, including the vigorously pro-city Judge Thomas Gantt, eventually affirmed the tossing of 5,068 ballots, most of them “no” votes, for an overall victory margin of 1,253. The city declared itself independent in March 1877, and the courthouse crowd conceded.

Ever since, efforts to repair the divorce have taken upon a Humpty Dumpty difficulty. In 1926, a reconciliation carried in the city and failed in the county. In 1962, both sides of Skinker Boulevard rejected a New York-style borough plan. Pro-merger forces have had to content themselves with such steps as the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, the Zoo-Museum District and the regional sales tax for trails.

The chance of St. Louis City and County becoming one again are pretty slim.


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