ST. LOUIS • The big referendum was three days away. City voters would consider a $7.5 million bond issue to demolish the dingy riverfront district and build a memorial park honoring President Thomas Jefferson.
Mayor Bernard F. Dickmann wanted a winner. On Sept. 7, 1935, he jammed the city’s workforce into Kiel Opera House and told them to churn a big vote, or else.
“I am tired of pussyfooting and backbiting,” Dickmann said. “We will know who is working and who is shirking, because there is going to be checkup, and I don’t mean maybe.”
He declared election day a City Hall holiday but threatened firings for anyone who didn’t work the polls. In the days before civil service, Mayors could do that.
On Sept. 10, the voters came through, with enthusiastic help from precinct workers. Too much help, it soon appeared.
The bond issue carried with 123,299 votes for to 50,713 against, or 71 percent yes, enough to pass the tough threshold of 66.6 percent (two-thirds). Almost half of all city voters took part, unusually high for a special referendum.
The bond issue had widespread support, starting with Luther Ely Smith, the civic-minded lawyer who suggested a memorial to Jefferson. Dickmann jumped on the idea to provide jobs during the Depression and lobbied his fellow Democrats in Washington for New Deal money. Backers included the Chamber of Commerce and labor unions.
The outgunned opposition included property owners of the 39-block riverfront district, the city’s Young Republicans and a new group, the Citizens Non-Partisan Committee, which called the bond issue “ill-considered and ridiculous.” Leading it was Paul O. Peters, an energetic former newspaperman.
Dickmann applauded the victory. Peters dug into the numbers and cried foul. The 5th Ward turf of Democratic state Sen. Mike Kinney, who rose from the political wing of the old Egan’s Rats criminal gang, favored the bond issue 39-to-1. One precinct produced 398 votes in favor to only one against — quality work by city machine standards.
Property owners filed multiple lawsuits challenging the complicated federal-city deal. Peters rushed to Washington with his tale of political skulduggery. Dickmann was right behind him, urging his federal friends to pony up.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration dodged the ballot issue as a local snit. On Dec. 21, it created the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, future home of the Gateway Arch.
The Post-Dispatch picked up Peters’ complaint with a lengthy expose of “widespread fraud,” complete with affidavits from people who said they hadn’t voted — but whose names were marked on election-day rolls. A city grand jury requested to examine the ballot boxes, but Circuit Judge John Joynt ruled that state law allowed them to be opened only for disputes between candidates.
The last property lawsuits fizzled. On Oct. 9, 1939, Dickmann swung a crowbar to begin demolishing 486 buildings. The next year, Peters unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
Construction on the flattened riverfront landscape didn’t begin until 1959.