ST. LOUIS • The city broke away from St. Louis County after a contentious election in 1876. Four years later, Chicago beat St. Louis in the federal census.

St. Louis’ consolation was its own bounding growth. The 1900 census ranked the city as the nation’s fourth largest, behind only New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. The 1904 World’s Fair was a smash, Union Station was bustling. Times were flush.

But the 1920 federal count demoted St. Louis to sixth, behind Cleveland and Detroit. Local business leaders began doubting the wisdom of their grandfathers’ Great Divorce from St. Louis County.

In 1923, they created the “Million Population Club” to promote expanding the city. The club declared, “We must come to realize that the pre-eminent issue (here) is consolidation of St. Louis County and City.”

The city population was 772,897 in 1920, while the county’s was 100,737. Sixty percent of countians lived within two miles of the city limit. University City, the largest of the county’s 13 municipalities, had 5,500 residents.

A regional Board of Freeholders, with nine members each from city and county, began work in 1925. The chairman was Henry Caulfield, a future Missouri governor. It proposed having the city annex the county whole and divide it into six wards, enlarging the St. Louis Board of Aldermen to 34 seats.

Clayton and University City would be joined in one ward. Another would cover farmland from Oakville to far West County, taking in Valley Park and Eureka.

Promoters said the city would give countians better roads, police, water and schools. The city would swell to 950,000 residents, with plenty of room for boom. But only one county freeholder endorsed it.

A special election was called for Oct. 26, 1926. Majorities in both city and county were necessary for adoption.

City leaders and the Chamber of Commerce backed it, as did a county group led by Joseph Forshaw Jr. of Richmond Heights.

“Some people say they like their little governments,” Forshaw said. “They are behind the times.”

County politicians, led by Republican boss Fred Essen, fought it. So did Tony Foley, who ran a casino just inside Wellston from the city. Freeholder Arthur Lashly, a prominent lawyer from Webster Groves, emerged as the opposition’s intellectual leader, calling the proposal “a governmental monstrosity. ... Mere addition of territory does not make for a great city.”

City voters favored it 7 to 1, but the county tally was more than 2 to 1 against. The strongest opposition was from the farm areas. Richmond Heights and Glendale favored it. University City and Maplewood narrowly voted to reject.

St. Louis fell to seventh largest city in 1930, when another reunification bid was defeated. The last big try, the “Borough Plan,” failed in 1962.

The city ranked 57th in population in 2010.

Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series.

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