Henry Shaw’s St. Louis Parks

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 1856

Henry Shaw came to America as a teenager, the son of a man who was looking for new markets for his family’s English steel business. The family set up a hardware store in a little village called St. Louis. By the time he was 40, Henry was able to retire a rich man. It was when he revisited the beautiful open gardens of England in 1851 that he found a new purpose. He recalled that St. Louis—indeed all of America—then had no public gardens, and few public parks. Returning to the by-now bustling city where he had made his fortune, Henry commenced building the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1856.

The idea of a public horticultural reserve funded by an enterprising private citizen captivated plant experts like St. Louisan George Englemann and Asa Gray of Harvard, the nation’s foremost botanist. They began accumulating plants to contribute to Shaw’s project. In 1859, the Botanical Garden opened to the public.

Yet its benefactor wasn’t finished. Since all of the city’s extant parks were small, he approached municipal leaders about possibly donating a large public park. He envisioned a glorious, sprawling place where all residents could enjoy the outdoors. It took some legislative wrangling at the state level, but Shaw eventually donated his own property to create Tower Grove Park—277 acres of land covered with 20,000 trees. It opened in 1870.

Shaw later published botanical tracts, endowed the School of Botany at Washington University, and opened schools, hospitals, and other contributions to his home city. His botanical garden is now a National Historic Landmark, and the oldest and one of the greatest of its type in the U.S. It offers nearly 80 acres of garden oasis in the heart of the city, numerous impressive collections of rare flowers, and centers for research and education.