Mini-Flood 31: O’Fallon Park

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photograph by Jason Gray

This North St. Louis park carries the namesake of one of St. Louis’ earliest business success stories and benefactors. John O’Fallon, a nephew of the explorer William Clark, came to live in St. Louis after the War of 1812. Here, he set up a booming business to sell supplies to troops, and even helped to fund the start-up school that would become Washington University. As for the Park, O’Fallon’s son sold the land to the city in order to help generate public support for the location of the then proposed Forest Park.

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photograph by Susan Price

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photograph by Jackie Johnson

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photograph by Jason Gray

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photograph by Dan Henrichs Photography, St. Louis

The 1800’s in St. Louis were a time of explosive growth and citywide advancement. For instance, in 1820, St. Louis was little more than a quasi rural settlement of some 4,600 residents, but by 1860, with a population of 186,000, it had reached the status of becoming the United States’ eighth largest city. This tremendous expansion came upon waves of European immigrants, and remained virtually unscathed by calamitous events like subsequent cholera outbreaks, a great downtown fire, and even the Civil War (fought in Missouri like nowhere else). Throughout this period, St. Louis and the many generous benefactors living among its community made sizable contributions to the “way of life” of the growing metropolis. Streets were paved and expanded upon, water treatment was introduced, public transportation began, city parks were formed, places of higher learning were founded, and as a result, the city took on its now familiar shape, brick by brick. Among those private individuals whose generous contributions propelled this progress, was John O’Fallon.

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photograph by Dr. Ashley Green

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photograph by Jason Gray

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photograph by Theresa Harter

It is alleged that John O’Fallon’s familial heritage can be traced back several centuries in Ireland, to at least the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion. O’Fallon’s father, a physician, crossed the Atlantic during the Revolutionary War, where he served as chief surgeon under George Washington. In America, Dr. O’Fallon married the sister of the soon-to-be famous explorer, William Clark.

Their son, John O’Fallon rose in the military ranks during the War of 1812, but was ultimately wounded in the Battle of Tippecanoe. After this, O’Fallon moved to St. Louis, where he received training from his uncle, William Clark, who managed Indian Affairs for the region. In St. Louis, the industrious O’Fallon (now a military Captain) built a very profitable business supplying resources to the U.S. Army. Upon this fortune, Captain O’Fallon leveraged a transition into State politics, where he served for a time in legislation. During this time, and for many years afterward, he was highly involved in promoting the interests of St. Louis, which he did through both private investment and by turning ears. In addition to the site which would become the park, Mr. O’Fallon owned large tracts of land throughout St. Louis, which he either donated philanthropically, managed for development, or sold for substantial profit. All in all, Captain John O’Fallon’s mark on St. Louis is nearly impossible to fully register; in terms of land donations alone, O’Fallon donated ground for both Saint Louis University and Washington University (originally dubbed “O’Fallon Institute”), the city’s first Methodist church (now gone), and the Charless Home, among many others.

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photograph by Ann Aurbach

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photograph by Theresa Harter

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photograph by Sarah Anne Heege

At home in the stately four-story mansion, built on the highest point of the farm known as “Athlone” (an ode to the family’s Irish origins), John Julius O’Fallon witnessed many of his father’s civic grand gestures. It is no surprise then that the son would follow in such footsteps. By 1875, a year before Forest Park was to be dedicated, the great Captain O’Fallon had been dead for ten years, and the son, named an honorary Colonel for his Civil War actions, found himself in a position central to the grand plans of the growing city.

During Reconstruction, politics in St. Louis were turbulent and “pie in the sky” dreaming abounded. Among the plans brought forth, Hiram Leffingwell, a real estate developer, proposed a massive park on the city’s western border to rival that of New York’s Central Park, which would spur development in that direction (until this time, riverside property was considered to be most valuable, and so city growth paralleled the Mississippi). The proposal was considered controversial due to both the imagined size of the new park (originally 3,000 acres) and its location, a days’ carriage ride away from anywhere but Downtown. Though park promoters found sellers of the land fairly easy to convince, the problem of distance was harder to rectify. As a concession, two additional parks were proposed to become established simultaneous to Forest Park, in order to provide recreation to city residents furthest away. The additional parks were to be Carondelet Park (located in the newly annexed Carondelet community of south St. Louis) and O’Fallon Park (the site of Col. John J. O’Fallon’s familial estate, which he sold to the city for a modest sum). All three parks were designed to be accessible to one another via majestic boulevards, Kingshighway and Grand, and were strongly considered during the city’s secession from St. Louis County in 1876.

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photograph by Jason Gray

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photograph by Susan Price

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photograph by Theresa Harter

Most traces of the O’Fallon’s estate have been lost from O’Fallon Park, including the mansion which tragically burned shortly after the property was sold to the city. Nonetheless, the Park boasts a number of significant features today that are testaments to the several generations of St. Louisans that have enjoyed it as an urban retreat. A lake was introduced in the 1890’s, which serves today as an attraction for area fishermen. According to local accounts, the lake is still stocked for this purpose at the beginning of each month. The iconic boathouse is reminiscent of the one in Carondelet Park, and was built in the same year, 1908. O’Fallon Park also features a playground, picnic pavilions, tennis courts, basketball courts, as well as its newest addition, the O’Fallon Rec Plex (operated by YMCA). The Rec Plex offers much needed programs for the neighboring communities (College Hill, Penrose, and O’Fallon) that include child care and camps, a full service gym, swimming pools, and more. Additionally, O’Fallon Park falls within the mission purview of The North Campus, a community sponsored program focused on improving education and creating opportunities for children living nearby. Supported by 21st Ward Alderman, Antonio French, The North Campus appears primed for success, even though the climb will be steep.

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photograph by Jackie Johnson

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photograph by Theresa Harter

Undoubtedly, O’Fallon Park has received some bad press as of late for violence and overall crime, but I hope that this will not deter area residents from enjoying their park. It is a beautiful recreation spot, full of absolute potential, and certainly those who are giving it a bad reputation are in the minority there. With a bit of determination on behalf of people like French, and with the support of its surrounding community, O’Fallon Park will surely secure a bright spot in the future of St. Louis, just as its namesake had for the city’s past.

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photograph by Dan Henrichs Photography, St. Louis

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photograph by Ann Aurbach

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MAP:
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