Chicago, IL

Was St. Louis Ever Bigger Than Chicago?

Evan Crosby

St. Louis, Mo. - There are a number of things that separate St. Louis, Missouri, from Chicago, Illinois, today.

For example, about 300 miles of Interstate 55 separate the two cities. Furthermore, the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry separates their respective fan bases in each city. But, the biggest thing that probably separates St. Louis from Chicago now is the stark differences in their respective populations.

For instance, Chicago is categorized as an Alpha world city with a population of nearly 3 million residents, which is about 10-times the population of St. Louis.

However, there was a time when America's "Gateway to the West" was actually bigger than the "Second City."

Throughout the second-half of the 19th century, the City of St. Louis experienced dramatic population growth and economic development. It became a major hub for manufacturing and transportation. In fact, the city was one of the largest railroad centers in the country.

Furthermore, St. Louis became one of the largest cities in the United States.

For example, at the time of the 1850 Census, St. Louis had a population of nearly 80,000, while Chicago had a population of less than 30,000 residents.

At the 1860 Census, the population of St. Louis had more than doubled to 160,000 people. While Chicago was still much smaller, its population more than tripled during the 1850s to around 112,000 residents.

By the 1870 Census, St. Louis was still holding on to the title as the bigger city, but Chi-Town was gaining fast. The population of St. Louis had nearly doubled again to 310,000, while the population of Chicago had grown to nearly 300,000 people.

Events in the 1870s would prove pivotal in Chicago's continued growth and supplanting St. Louis as one of the nation's largest cities.

For example, the Great Divorce between the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County ended up being a big mistake for the city. Therefore, since 1876, St. Louis has stayed the same geographic size, unable to annex surrounding areas and residents. The city ended up losing a lot of its population, businesses, and jobs to suburban St. Louis County.

Meanwhile, after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Chicago would rebuild, expand its boundaries, and eventually become the largest rail hub in the United States, which is something else that Chi-Town overtook St. Louis in.

By the 1880 Census, St. Louis was no longer the bigger city.

While the population of St. Louis had grown to 350,000 residents, Chicago's population had skyrocketed to over 500,000 residents. And within another decade, it would double to more than 1 million people.

St. Louis continued to grow until the 1950s, it just didn't experience the massive population growth and economic development that Chicago experienced during that same time. For instance, the population of St. Louis never reached 1 million residents, while the Windy City would eventually hit 3 million residents.

In short, just over 150 years ago, the St. Louis and Chicago rivalry looked a lot different when the Gateway to the West was bigger than the Windy City.

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I am a business and finance writer who helps consumers understand the issues impacting their money to make them more financially savvy. I enjoy writing about personal finance and economic issues impacting communities.

Kansas City, MO

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