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De Soto City

De Soto City Hall is located at 17 Boyd Street, De Soto, MO 63020; phone: 636-586-3326.

Beginnings [1]

De Soto, Missouri is located in Jefferson County, approximately forty miles south of Saint Louis. The first European settlements in the area were established near Kimswick and the salt mines in the area. The first known settler in what would later become De Soto was Isaac Van Metre, who built a cabin near what is now Main and Stone Streets in 1803. Van Metre built his cabin on land that was granted to Walter De Witt by the Spanish Governor in 1800, but is was not surveyed until 1804 (after the United States acquired the Louisiana Purchase), after which Van Meter sold out to De Witt. De Witt had a large household, with an extensive family and fifteen slaves on his estate, but by 1818 he had moved out of the area to parts unknown. Rufus Easton also received a land grant from the Spanish government (both grants were confirmed by Congress in 1816) in what would become De Soto. Besides these two men, Edward Butler, Robert and Green De Witt (Walter's brothers), George Hammond, William Russell, G. J. Johnson, Ammon Knighton, Thorton Jarvis, Thomas C. Fletcher, and Louis Rankin were also some of the earliest landowners in the small community. The area was almost entirely of French descent until the 1850s, when English and Irish settlers started to arrive in the area. During this time, the isolated community survived on mining and agriculture for its financial well being. In the 1850s, the area began to grow. In 1855, the first-known major business was established when Colonel John W. Fletcher constructed a saw mill near where the railroad machine shops now stand. Two years later, in 1857, Thomas C. Fletcher, later governor of Missouri, and Louis James Rankin platted De Soto.

Fletcher and Rankin were influenced by the decision of a group of Saint Louis businessmen on March 3, 1851 to build a railroad from Saint Louis south to Pilot Knob and on to Iron Mountain. This railroad, known as the Iron Mountain Railroad (later the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad), began construction in 1853. By 1857, the railroad was approaching De Soto, and Thomas Fletcher saw a business opportunity. He and Rankin (his brother-in-law) began to buy as much land as they could, so that as the railroad approached, they were ready to present their plan to the railroad. The plan consisted of presenting the railroad with a town where the railroad could have land for its uses. The tracks reached De Soto on September 27, 1857. On October 20th of that year, the first passenger train pulled into De Soto; the same day the post office was established. The next spring, Rankin and Fletcher offered to build a station for the railroad in De Soto, at their own expense. The railroad quickly agreed, and in 1859 the De Soto depot became the property of the railroad. Even as Rankin and Fletcher were beginning work on the station, they also started selling lots. On May 1, 1858, E. M. Boley bought lots 11 and 12 of Block 7 and erected the first business house in De Soto, a saloon he sold the next year.

De Soto's population did not initially grow quickly, in large part because of upheaval caused by the Civil War. The location of De Soto in southern Missouri often led to fierce "guerrilla" warfare in the area, in part caused by disputes over control of the railroad line, which hindered growth and development even further. Despite the hardships faced by the people of De Soto during the Civil War, the town emerged from the bloodshed positioned to see some of the most dynamic growth in the city's history. This growth started in earnest in 1869, when the petition for township was certified as signed by the requisite two-thirds of the population. De Soto was officially incorporated as the Town of De Soto. The greatest source of De Soto's growth was still to come.

In 1872, only three years later, the railroad company began negotiations to establish a roundhouse for repair and maintenance of locomotives in De Soto, with the possibility of later opening a machine shop in the area. To attract the roundhouse and potential machine shop, the town of De Soto agreed to give the railroad land in the center of town. To achieve this goal legally, the town was temporarily disincorporated on August 12, 1872 and re-incorporated the same day, but excluding the land for the railroad while extending the town limits, which also assured the railroad that it would not be taxed by the city for the land or improvements upon the land. On August 31, 1872, the people of De Soto held a referendum and passed a bond issue that were to raise $25,000 . The bonds (issued at ten percent) would purchase and donate the land to the railroad. The bonds were first issued on October 1, 1872 and the railroad happily accepted the donated land for use as a roundhouse and by 1878 decided to build its car works and machine shops in De Soto as well.

Six years later, by March 1878, De Soto had grown large enough that it was designated a city of the fourth class. Despite the increased growth, there were still setbacks to the development of the town. In 1882, conflicts over the city's handling of its bond debt spurred C. C. Fletcher, George Rathburn and others to bring suit against the city. The case resulted in the dissolution of the De Soto city government. De Soto reincorporated in February, 1883, though the new government was still hindered by the bond debt issues. Finally, in October of 1886, the residents of the city voted on a plan to fund the debt payments and De Soto continued to grow unimpeded. The railroad related businesses and the jobs, as well as all the support jobs that developed in town because of the increase in population, helped to fuel further growth. By 1900, De Soto had a population of over 7000 people, compared to the less than 200 people when the Civil War started or even the 3500-4000 people in De Soto by 1888, just six years after the car works and machine shop opened. The railroad car works, locomotive shop (built in 1878) and the roundhouse were an integral part of the local economy. The car works employed 150 men and the machine shop employed 250 men.

In addition to the direct economic benefits the railroad brought to De Soto, the development of the railroad also brought indirect economic benefits to the region. The first of these benefits was the transportation offered by the railroad. The area around De Soto was not only home to the Valles Mines, but also a number of other lead mines and even some salt mines. The railroads helped to increase the profitability of these mines by providing fast and relatively inexpensive transportation to markets. The mines developed from a small scale industry into the largest industry in the area. This growth was made possible by the development of the railroads since ore is a bulky product and difficult to ship to market. With the development of the railroads, there were now options other than relying on river traffic to get the ore to market, decreasing the cost of transportation and increasing the profits from the sale of the ore.

  1. Karen Bode Baxter, Mandy Ford and Timothy P Maloney, Louis J. and Harriet Rozer House, De Soto, Jefferson County, Missouri, nomination document, 2006, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
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