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Pictorial St. Louis – The Great Metropolis of the Mississippi Valley

The panoramic map was a popular cartographic form used to depict U.S. and Canadian cities and towns during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Known also as bird’s-eye views, perspective maps, or aero views, panoramic maps are nonphotographic representations of cities portrayed as if viewed from above at an oblique angle. Typically printed on one sheet, such as the example of St Louis below, panoramic maps depict street patterns, individual buildings, and major landscape features though they not generally drawn to scale.

Color bird's eye view of the city of St. Louis. The river is in the foreground with numerous ships and a bridge with the city sprawling out into the distance.

The city of St. Louis. Map drawn by Parsons & Atwater, published by Currier & Ives, 1874. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Geography and Map Division has over 1,700 of these beautiful panoramic maps in the collection, but one item stands out above all the others as one of the crowning achievements of the art, Camille N. Dry’s 1875 atlas, Pictorial St. Louis; The Great Metropolis of the Mississippi Valley. A visually stunning atlas, instead of only one sheet, it was produced on 110 plates, which if trimmed and assembled creates a panorama of the city measuring about 9 by 24 feet. The preface of this monumental work includes the following notes regarding its preparation:

A careful perspective, which required a surface of three hundred square feet, was then erected from a correct survey of the city, extending northward from Arsenal Island to the Water Works, a distance of about ten miles, on the river front; and from the Insane Asylum on the southwest to the Cemeteries on the northwest. Every foot of the vast territory within these limits has been carefully examined and topographically drawn in perspective . . . and the faithfulness and accuracy with which this work has been done, an examination of the pages will attest.

Index page of Pictorial St. Louis, the great metropolis of the Mississippi valley. Atlas by Camille N. Dry, 1876. Geography and Map Division.

The St. Louis panorama was likely prepared to show the city’s progress at the United States Centennial celebration of 1876. The verso of each plate contains information on various aspects of St. Louis economic life, including businesses, professions, schools, churches, and governmental organizations. Every building in the area was drawn on the map, and 1,999 specific sites were identified by name. A note in the preface requests that any mistakes detected be looked upon with a lenient eye by an indulgent public “in view of the magnitude of the work, the originality of the idea, and the difficulties encountered in carrying it out.” Certainly nothing of this scale had been attempted before, nor was it tried again.

Not much is known about the artist, Camille N. Dry. His name first appears on bird’s eye views published in 1871 of Galveston, Texas and Vicksburg, Mississippi. He continued to publish various panoramic views of the southeast United States over the next several years before making his way to St. Louis where he partnered with the publisher Richard J. Compton to create this atlas. While we know Dry had at least several assistants in this undertaking, their names have been lost to history.

Map showing drawings of buildings, streets, railroads, carriages, people, parks, etc.

Plate 3 of Pictorial St. Louis, the great metropolis of the Mississippi valley. Atlas by Camille N. Dry, 1876. Geography and Map Division.

The amount of details visible in the map are astounding. One only has to consult photographs of the era to see that the buildings were drawn in exacting detail. For example, the Olympic Theater, built in 1866, can be found on Dry’s map on 5th St. A comparison of a photograph of the theater from the same time period shows the building was drawn with precise accuracy.

Detail of Olympic Theater, Plate 24.

Olympic Theater. Photo by by Boehl & Koening, 187-. Prints and Photographs Division.

There are other stories lurking in the details of this atlas. As I was perusing the pages, I noticed a building with a large crowd surrounding the entrance and more people running towards the action. Of course this made me curious and had me looking deeper for the cause of this unusual activity.

A street filled with small figured congregating around the entrance to the bank with more running towards it.

Detail of Peoples Savings Institution, Plate 6.

Newspaper article describing the theft of Edmund Wuerpel

The state journal. (Jefferson City, Mo.), 05 Feb. 1875. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

The index at the bottom of the sheet states that the building is the “Late People’s Savings Institution.” With this information, I searched the Library’s digitized newspaper collection and was able to find the answer to the swarm of figures outside the bank. On February 1, 1875, during the months Dry was creating his masterpiece, the bank was forced to close its doors as it was found that the cashier, Edmund Wuerpel, was missing along with $62,000, an equivalent of about 1.6 million dollars today! The newspaper reports:

“The news of the closing of the bank spread through the southern portion of the city like wildfire and brought an excited crowd of people, men and women, to the building. They were loud in their demands, denouncing the concern as a fraud and threatening mob violence to the officers.”

Unfortunately the bank was forced to close permanently and many people lost their money. Another newspaper article three years following this incident confirms that Wuerpel and the money were never found.

Detail of horse drawn trolleys, Plate 44.

There are so many other details to explore within the pages of this atlas. You can see the horse drawn street railways, helping the populace move around the booming city. Pages 35-42 of the atlas text provides a history and detailed route information for each of the 10 private lines then operating in the city.

Or you can explore the 142 church buildings that would have towered over the St. Louis skyline. There are 10 churches listed in just the one plate shown below!

Plate 42 of Pictorial St. Louis, the great metropolis of the Mississippi valley. Atlas by Camille N. Dry, 1876. Geography and Map Division.

And one can’t help but miss the Eads Bridge in the forefront of the city, completed in 1874 and an engineering marvel of its day. Due to the size and strength of the river, it was the first bridge to cross the Mississippi south of the Missouri River. It was the first large-scale use of steel as a structural material, with the deepest underwater construction at the time. Its center arch was the longest rigid span ever built at 520 feet. It now stands as the oldest bridge to cross the mighty Mississippi.

Large bridge spanning the Mississippi River with numerous boats and buildings on the shore.

Plate 2 of Pictorial St. Louis, the great metropolis of the Mississippi valley. Atlas by Camille N. Dry, 1876. Geography and Map Division.

With today’s technology, it can be easy to take for granted the instantaneous street views we can find on the internet or satellite images that show us the exact layout of a city. In 1875, this masterpiece of cartography was the first and only of its kind, showing the intimate details of an entire thriving city. And for that, we must thank Camille N. Dry for his outstanding work!

Aerial view of commercial district of St. Louis, Missouri. Hoelke & Benecke, ca. 1862-1868. Prints and Photographs Division.

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One Comment

  1. DR Gould
    April 26, 2022 at 4:39 pm

    I have an original July 4th 1876 birds eye view of the 1876 Centennial Fair Grounds of St. Louis. It is an 18 x 22 inch map program. Very nicely illustrated. It was on Grand Ave. between Franklin Ave. and Cass Ave.

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