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Aug. 22, 1876 • How the 'Great Divorce' of St. Louis City and St. Louis County started

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St. Louis County Courthouse after "Great Divorce," 1878

A drawing of the St. Louis County Courthouse in present-day Clayton as it appeared shortly after construction in 1878. The county had to build its own courthouse after the contentious "Great Divorce" that separated the city from the county in March 1877. The building now known as the Old Courthouse downtown had been the county courthouse, but became city property through the separation. County officials chose a site on 100 acres donated by Ralph Clayton, a farmer who owned 700 acres in the heart of the city that now bears his name. The county broke ground on April 19, 1878, with Clayton himself taking honors with the shovel. The courthouse cost $38,000 to build and opened in December 1878 on a square of land at present-day North Central Avenue and Forsyth Boulevard. The building was in the middle of the square, just like a proper country courthouse. Image courtesy Missouri History Museum

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.

In 1875, the city was St. Louis County's largest municipality, and its boundary reached just past Grand Boulevard. But the 1870 population of 310,864 represented a 30 percent increase in the five years since war's end. The unincorporated county, meanwhile, was home to barely 31,000 souls. Kirkwood was a whistle-stop 12 blocks square, Ferguson a lonely station platform, Creve Coeur a post office. The future site of the courthouse in the future Clayton was a farm.

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.

Prominent promoters cried foul and rushed to court. Hearings found such likely fraud as a rural precinct that recorded 132 votes against and two in favor, with 128 ballots showing eraser marks. A Butler minion, pressed in court about irregularities, blurted: "I deny the facts."

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. 

And finally, in May of 2019, after months of widespread and unflagging criticism, organizers of the city-county merger initiative called Better Together, pulled their beleaguered consolidation proposal from ballot consideration.

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