Frenchtown History

The Frenchtown neighborhood owes its name to the early French settlers who founded St. Charles, and to our distinctive style of architecture. The district has the largest concentration of French Colonial style architecture in the Midwest, earning it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. These simple structures, constructed from about 1820-50, feature an extended main roof over raised open-air galleried front porches and double front doors accessing both the living and dining rooms on the main level, which are often mistaken as duplexes. Kitchens were in the walkout basement and the upper floor was a sleeping loft. Most are built with brick made here in Frenchtown on cut limestone foundations from quarries nearby. Several historic homes in the area still retain their summer kitchens: small detached brick buildings used for cooking, washing laundry and smoking meats as well as brick carriage houses.

Famous people associated with Frenchtown include Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, a fur trader of French and African descent who founded Chicago and spent his last ten years in a stone house at the corner of Second and Decatur Streets. Lewis and Clark dined at a home in Frenchtown before departing on their exploration westward. Mother Rose Philippine Duchesne founded the Academy of the Sacred Heart in 1818, the first free school west of the Mississippi at the corners of Clark and Second Streets. She was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1988 and remains entombed there in the Duchesne Memorial Shrine. The original school building is gone but the Convent, built in 1834, still stands.

The arrival of the railroad and large wave of German immigration in the 1830’s after Gottfried Duden and Louis Eversman published a glowing account of the new frontier spurred groups and societies to support immigration here. By the mid 1800’s, Frenchtown was a “city within the city”. North Second Street was a bustling thriving commercial district. Butchers, bakers, tinsmiths and saddle makers all had
shops on the street; many lived above them on the second floor. Farmers brought their grain to the mill located in the 900 block and stayed at the boarding house at the corner of French and Second Streets. The fire department‘s restored hose company #2 at 1121 North Second Street is now the Historic Frenchtown Museum with changing exhibits of local interest and walking tour brochures.

The St. Charles Car Company, organized in 1872 and purchased by the American Car Foundry (ACF) in 1899 is located between Second Street and the Missouri River. By 1890 it employed more than 1800 men and was known worldwide as a leader in streetcar and railcar design. By the hundreds they walked our streets and sidewalks to and from work. By 1910 at least one member of every household in Frenchtown worked at ACF. During WWI, they manufactured more than 50,000 army escort wagons.
During WWII they produced hospital cars and eleven tanks a day rolled out of the shops. Today one of the largest buildings has been repurposed for indoor tennis by the Steel Shop Tennis Club and Foundry Arts Center resides at the south end of the site just off Main Street.

Frenchtown is once again enjoying a rise in popularity as an antique shopping and arts district. The influx of rehabbers and young families is beginning to show in the restored homes on North Third, Fourth and Fifth Streets.

Frenchtown’s rich history emphasizes its identity as a place of diversity, local commerce, and cultural importance. To learn more about Frenchtown’s history, be sure to visit the Frenchtown Heritage Museum at 1121 N. Second Street.