Sunday, February 8, 2015

Family History Writing Challenge Day 8

St. Louis circa 1870, Murdoch & Dickson offices at #9 on map

The financial status of St. Louis was certainly impacted by the Civil War. The war years brought a cessation of river traffic, resulting in St. Louis being cut off from its traditional and most lucrative markets in the south. This in turn harmed the local businesses. The decrease in steamboat traffic particularly caused the downtown levy to decline in importance at St. Louis. After forty years of nearly uninterrupted growth, this was traumatic for the city.

Additionally, there were allegations of impropriety within the U.S. Army Quartermaster's office under the command of Justus McKinstry. His administration was accused of fraud and abuse, with local businessmen bearing the brunt of the corruption. As the firm of Murdoch & Dickson was engaged in supplying everything from clothes to shoes and boots to dry goods, it is highly possible that the firm was a victim of this deception. Their real estate investments would also be a problem due to the fact that the war brought a virtual halt to construction in St. Louis.

1867 Deed
The first inkling of trouble for the firm came in the form of a deed that was entered on May 29, 1867. Charles and Mary Dickson along with John and Julia Murdoch were the parties of the first part, and James Eads and Charles Stevens were parties of the second part. Party of the third part was Barton Bates. Murdoch and Dickson owed Bates $25,000, and they did not have the resources to pay him back. A lot in Block 89 of the City of St. Louis was conveyed to Eads and Stevens to be held in Trust on behalf of Murdoch and Dickson. If the $25,000 was paid to Bates in five, $5,000 notes plus 8% interest, then the land would convert back to Murdoch and Dickson. If the payments were not made, then the land would be sold by Eads and Stevens at auction to satisfy the debt.

James Eads was an important businessman in St. Louis, having arrived in the city was he was just thirteen years old. A self-taught engineer, he began his business life by rescuing wrecked boats and cargo from the Mississippi River. This proved to be lucrative as insurance companies would pay him a percentage of any recovered goods. He then put these skills to work constructing ironclad gunboats for the War Department during the Civil War. In 1867, he formed an organization dedicated to building a bridge across the Mississippi River in St. Louis. Charles Dickson was very instrumental in the organization, which is probably the reason that Eads got involved in this Deed.

But it is this quote from the 1991 book Yankee Merchants and the Making of the Urban West by Jeffrey Adler that offers the best explanation of why a firm with the successful record of Murdoch & Dickson discovered its foundation crumbling around it.

Would the firm be able to recover from the disaster encountered by the east coast investor?

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