Distilled History

A Drinking Blog with a History Problem
April 9th, 2015 by Cameron

Der Boss President

Chris Von der AheOh, baseball. It’s finally time for baseball.

And boy do I need it. After several dense and exhausting posts, (including one that detailed how death once visited St. Louis), it’s time to lighten things up. And what better time to do it than right now, because baseball is finally here again.

I’ve taken a swing at St. Louis baseball previously in Distilled History, and my fun search for where baseball has been played in this town remains one of my most popular posts.  I’m still catching hell (often) for not being a Cardinal fan, but I hope my appreciation for the history of the game in St. Louis allows me a brief reprieve.

That’s unlikely, but as I mentally prepare for a certain down year in the Bronx, I decided to take a longer look at one particular St. Louisan who had a major impact on the history of my favorite game.

His name was Chris Von der Ahe, and in the early days of the game, he’s a major reason why baseball took root in St. Louis. His tenure as owner of the St. Louis Browns (before they were Cardinals) ended over a century ago, but his legacy is vital to the history of the game and this city.  Actually, I’ve been a bit surprised to learn that many of my Cardinal-loving friends know nothing about him. I guess history isn’t for everyone, but I have a very good reason why every baseball fan in St. Louis should raise a glass to the memory of Chris Von der Ahe:

Beer.The Golden Lion

That’s right. As baseball fans, we should all take a moment and thank Chris Von der Ahe for beer. Well, maybe not beer in general, but certainly how it relates to the game of baseball. It sounds crazy now, but before Chris Von der Ahe stuck his bulbous nose into professional baseball back in the 1870’s, taking in a professional baseball game while sipping a cold beer was no easy feat. In fact, it was completely forbidden.

My interest in Von der Ahe was kindled by a recent book suggestion. The Summer of Beer and Whiskey by Edward Achorn details the story of a riveting pennant race the St. Louis Browns participated in during the summer of 1883. It’s a wonderful story of 19th century baseball, and Chris Von der Ahe is Achorn’s central figure in it.

1882 St. Louis Brown Stockings

Von der Ahe’s larger-than-life personality pours off Achorn’s pages. He was bombastic, egotistical, and undeniably controversial. He drank often, he was a blatant philanderer, and he craved constant adulation from everyone around him. He was an incessant self-promoter, often telling stories of his rise to the top as cigar smoke wafted from beneath his walrus mustache. He was “portly”, he wore bowler hats, and he radiated confidence in heavily starched shirts. His German accent was so thick that utterances of “Paseball” and “Vas it a good game?” led some to amusement and others to underestimate his shrewd intelligence. During his time in baseball, his drive to earn a profit drove every decision he made. When he achieved it, he’d proudly walk down Grand Avenue behind a wheelbarrow filled with cash. When he didn’t, he’d start meddling in a game that he didn’t fully understand. His actions, fines, and demands often left his managers and players completely exasperated. He was “Der Boss President”, and he made sure everyone knew it.

theboss_compton

Christian Frederick Wilhelm Von der Ahe was born in Prussia on October 2, 1848. Many note his birth year as 1851, but as Achorn points out, it’s likely Von der Ahe changed the date intentionally in order to avoid military service in Germany. Freed from army life, Von der Ahe left his native country and emigrated to America in 1867.

Chis Von der Ahe 1886In 1870, just three years later, he’s running his own grocery store on the western edge of St. Louis. In the same year, he marries Emma Hoffman and the couple give birth to a son. His early days in St. Louis aren’t remarkable compared to the thousands of Germans who poured into Missouri in the mid-19th century. Von der Ahe was a businessman, and his decision to add a saloon to the back of his grocery store made sense. The beer industry was thriving in St. Louis in the 1870’s, and the opportunities to make money selling it were substantial. In 1874, Chris Von der Ahe stumbled upon one of them.

That’s the year Von der Ahe moved his grocery and saloon to the northwest corner of Grand and St. Louis avenues. He likely didn’t realize his good fortune at first, but the new grocery stood just a block away from the Grand Avenue Grounds. That ballpark would soon become home to the first professional baseball club in St. Louis, the St. Louis Brown Stockings.

In his book Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns, author J. Thomas Hetrick tells the story behind Von der Ahe’s epiphany. On a warm summer day, Von der Ahe asked one of his bartenders, Ned Cuthbert, why the saloon frequently emptied for a just a few hours on certain days. Cuthbert, a ball player himself (and a future manager the St. Louis Browns), told him that’s when his customers walked down the street to see a ballgame.

Suddenly, Chris Von der Ahe became very interested in baseball.

Chris Von der Ahe Quote

Baseball in the 1870’s was a much different game than we know today. The sport had taken the country by storm in the years since the Civil War, but the game was still in its infancy. Players didn’t wear gloves, a coin flip determined who batted first, and foul balls caught on a bounce were considered outs. Sitting in the grandstands next to a woman was almost unheard of, and in an era when the Prohibition movement was gaining momentum, holding a mug of beer in your hand was nearing the same fate. In fact, baseball’s early years were so riddled with gambling, game fixing, and unruly behavior by players that many simply gave up on it. The first iteration of the St. Louis Brown Stockings, which folded in 1877 after a game fixing scandal, met the same fate as many 19th century ball clubs.

Chris Von der Ahe Timeline

William Hulbert

Enter a man named William Hulbert. In 1876, as owner of the National League’s Chicago White Stockings (now known as the Cubs), Hulbert became a major force in restoring baseball to its proper place in American sport. His decisive efforts in opposing all forms of gambling, improving player behavior (on and off the field), and restoring integrity to the game are undeniably commendable. But many at the time believed he took matters too far. He set ticket prices at National League games at fifty cents, a price that assured only the wealthy and people of means would be in attendance. If a common laborer or lowly immigrant happened to get a ticket, the National League’s ban on Sunday baseball eliminated the only day of leisure available to a class of people required to work six days a week. Finally, every National League ballpark was strictly forbidden to sell alcohol to spectators in any form.

To a German immigrant in St. Louis that had just started becoming interested (and investing) in baseball, such regulations were ludicrous. Chris Von der Ahe insisted that in cities with large German populations (such as St. Louis and Cincinnati), making the game accessible to immigrants and the lower classes was essential to making baseball profitable. Von der Ahe wasn’t alone in his opinion. The Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball’s first professional team since its inception in 1869, was expelled from the National League in 1880 as a result of the team’s refusal to adhere to Hulbert’s strict regulations.

The 1885 St. Louis Browns

With the folding of the Brown Stockings and Cincinnati out of the National League, two major western cities found themselves without a professional club. But in 1880, Chris Von der Ahe was persuaded by Ned Cuthbert and a man named Alfred Spink (the future founder of the Sporting News), to invest in a new professional baseball team in St. Louis. Seeing the game as a perfect way to sell barrels of beer to packed grandstands, Von der Ahe dumped his entire life savings into the venture. Along with obtaining the lease to the Grand Avenue Grounds (soon to be renamed as “Sportsman’s Park”) and upgrading the facility to hold over 10,000 thirsty cranks (the 1870’s term for “fans”), professional baseball was finally back in St. Louis.

After a year of playing a schedule filled with semi-pro opponents, Chris Von der Ahe and representatives from five other cities met in Cincinnati in late 1881. When the meeting adjourned, a new professional league named the American Association had been formed, with plans to begin play in 1882. To lure cranks to their new league, American Association owners took direct aim at William Hulbert’s  restrictive National League rules. At the insistence of the Von der Ahe and the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the sale of alcohol at games was allowed and even encouraged. Games could be scheduled on Sunday without fear of retribution. And most importantly, all six teams agreed to a ticket price of just twenty-five cents, making the game accessible to a class of people who had been previously priced out of baseball.

On May 2, 1882, the season opened as Chris Von der Ahe’s St. Louis Brown Stockings faced the Louisville Eclipse at Sportsman’s Park. That game, which the Brown Stockings won 9-7, is considered the first one ever played in the rich history of the St. Louis Cardinal franchise.

St. Louis Base Ball Timeline

In the first several years of play, the American Association thrived. Crowds packed into grandstands as National League owners fretted about how to counter the “Beer and Whiskey Circuit”, a moniker the American Association owners didn’t mind in the least. Despite mediocre production from the Browns in the first few years of play, attendance at Sportsman’s Park soared. Von der Ahe capitalized on the support by lining grandstand aisles with vendors holding trays of beer and shots of whiskey. Marching bands entertained customers before and after games as Von der Ahe lured many of them back to his saloon for another drink. He even turned distant right field into an open beer garden, in which balls remained in play if they happened to be hit that far.

The 1888 St. Louis Browns

Then the Browns began to win. Led by player/manager Charles Comiskey (and aided by piles of money Von der Ahe threw at the best players available), the Browns won four consecutive American Association pennants from 1885-1888. At the conclusion of the 1886 season, the Browns topped the National League champion Chicago White Stockings in an early version of the World Series. It must have been a fine day for Chris Von der Ahe to defeat the team of his old rival Hulbert (who had died in 1882) and own the best baseball team in the world.

However, success would not last for Chris Von der Ahe. Despite repeated success on the diamond, his ego and pursuit of financial gain became a hindrance. He repeatedly fined players for poor play, barked orders at them from his personal box, and openly questioned managerial decisions. He once fined third baseman Arlie Latham for “singing and otherwise acting up” during a game. In another notable incident, his team openly rebelled after Von der Ahe chastised player in front of spectators. The team refused to get on the train after the game, and when they did play again, they started losing suspiciously. In 1885, he suddenly sold away five of his best players, infuriating his manager and opening himself up to severe criticism from the press. In time, the Sporting News would begin referring to him as “Chris Von der Ha Ha!”. Further salary dumps in 1877 fueled speculation that Von der Ahe planned to move the team to New York, a city with limitless baseball and beer profits that everyone knew he craved.

Chris Von der Ahe Quote

His controversies weren’t limited to baseball.In 1895, Von der Ahe marched across Grand Avenue and attacked an African-American man he was certain had robbed his saloon. After landing several blows, he pulled out a pistol and fired it at the man’s feet. His unabashed womanizing led him to divorce (twice), notably from his first wife Emma who even smashed a bottle over the head of one of his lovers that had the nerve to appear at Sportsman’s Park. His only son Edward helped prove the infidelity in his mother’s attempt to sue Von der Ahe for divorce. When the trial ended, he severed ties from his father for good.

But in the end, it was debt that took down Chris Von der Ahe. The more he meddled in the game, the more he alienated players, fellow league owners, and fans. Ticket sales plummeted, debt mounted, and the St. Louis Browns became the worst team in baseball in the 1890’s. After baseball minds got together and agreed to merge St. Louis and three other clubs into the National League, Von der Ahe’s players suddenly found themselves without a contractual obligation the Browns. The best of them jumped at the opportunity to sign with other clubs.

The Von der Ahe grave at Bellefontaine Cemetery

After a litany of lawsuits and legal wranglings that peppered the decade, the end finally came in 1898. Failing to pay a settlement from a lawsuit brought against him in Pittsburgh, Von der Ahe was grabbed, thrown in a truck, and taken by force to Pennsylvania. Eventually freed after being jailed and put on trial, the incident was a massive source of embarrassment for the proud German. In the wake of it, with outlets such as the Sporting News calling for his immediate dismissal from the game, National League brass finally took action. In 1899, Chris Von der Ahe was forced from ownership of the St. Louis Browns and the team was sold at auction.

In the years after his life in baseball, Chris Von der Ahe slowly faded into obscurity. Once a national name, he returned to the life of a simple saloon owner in St. Louis. But for a brief moment in 1907, Chris Von der Ahe was again able to bask in the glow of overwhelming adulation. At a dinner held to honor the history of the Browns at the Southern Hotel in downtown St. Louis, Von der Ahe stood before thunderous applause. For an evening, people forgot about the controversial Chris Von der Ahe and recognized him for all he had done for St. Louis baseball.

For a fleeting moment, Chris Von der Ahe was “Der Boss President” again.

The Drink

It’s important to note that when the St. Louis Browns became members of the National League in 1892, no stipulation was put in place requiring the St. Louis club to cease scheduling games on Sunday or to stop selling beer to its fans. It took several years, but as Edward Achorn details in the epilogue of his wonderful book, other National League teams eventually chose to shed the silly restrictions as well. Today, millions of baseball fans go to Sunday ball games and order large, expensive beers without giving it a second thought. It’s likely that would have become possible without Chris Von der Ahe’s meddling, but he was still the first to make it his issue. And for that, we should all raise a glass to the man.

For my own personal toast, I’m in somewhat of a bind because I can’t drink a beer at the ball game. The St. Louis Cardinals are opening the season in Chicago and my favorite team plays 1,000 miles away. But I do love listening to baseball on the radio. Instead of packing into a crowded sports bar, I’m going to take the opportunity to enjoy St. Louis before the summer humidity gets here. While I listen to the Yanks play the Blue Jays on the porch of my little house in south city, I’ll throw down a few cold beers.

Baseball is here again, and I’m a happy man.
quote_line
Key Sources and Additional Reading: 

Note: Like Von der Ahe’s personality, the full story of our “Boss President” is far too big to fit into a single post.  I’m already thinking the story of his demise is one that I may need to detail further in this blog at some point in the future. In the meantime, the following sources can provide a detailed (and fascinating) look at the full story behind of Chris Von der Ahe.

  • The Summer of Beer & Whiskey by Edward Achorn
  • Before They Were Cardinals by John David Cash
  • Chris Von der Ahe and the St. Louis Browns by J. Thomas Hetrick
  • Baseball’s “Boss President” Chris von der Ahe and the Nineteenth-Century St. Louis Browns by Jim Rygelski – Gateway Heritage Magazine (Missouri History Museum)
  • This Game of Games – A (fantastic) website dedicated to telling the story of St. Louis baseball in the 19th century
March 11th, 2015 by Cameron

One Hell of a Summer

Portrait of Joseph J. Mersman (1824-1893)

On a cold and dreary evening in late February 1849, a young man with a small journal tucked into the pocket of his overcoat stepped off the steamer Thomas Jefferson and onto the St. Louis riverfront. His name was Joseph J. Mersman, and his story isn’t much different from the thousands of immigrants who poured into St Louis in the years prior to the Civil War. Mersman was of German heritage, born in the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg twenty-five years earlier. He came to America at the age of eight and eventually settled with his family in southwestern Ohio. As a young man, he distinguished himself as a bright, hardworking, and ambitious individual. A whiskey rectifier by trade, he had just concluded a ten-year apprenticeship in Cincinnati. When it ended, he set out to make his own way, and St. Louis is where he’d do it.

Mersman’s story isn’t exactly unique, but how we know his story is. It’s because of that journal he carried in his pocket. In reading Joseph Mersman’s words, we get his account, in his own handwriting, of a new life in a new city. And the story gets even better because of the month and year he happened to arrive. That’s because in the weeks before Mersman disembarked, another traveler of note arrived in the same way looking to make St. Louis home. The difference is this predecessor didn’t bring cigars, whiskey, and a love for theater like Joseph Mersman did.

It was Vibrio Cholerae. And it brought death.

Vibrio Cholerae

Better known simply as “cholera”, no disease gripped people with fear more than the invisible germ that ravaged populations around the world in the 18th and 19th Centuries. St. Louis was no exception. In the fall of 1832, the city’s first major outbreak of cholera killed hundreds at a time when the population barely exceeded 6,000. Just seventeen years later, the number of people calling St. Louis home had soared past 70,000. And when Joseph Mersman became one of them in 1849, St. Louis was on the precipice of a truly gruesome summer. By August 1, just six months later, ten percent of the city’s population would be dead.

The exact number of people killed in the 1849 cholera outbreak is actually unknown. Dr. William McPheeters, a prominent physician in St. Louis at the time, tallied 4,557 in an article published in the wake of the outbreak. However, most historians agree the number is much higher, closer to seven or eight thousand. The disease killed so quickly and on such a massive scale, many deaths weren’t (or simply couldn’t be) reported. Hundreds of victims that succumbed to the disease were simply buried, thrown in the river, or dumped on carts that traveled the streets at night picking up bodies. Regardless of the final number, cholera’s resurgence in 1849 killed unlike anything in the city’s history.

Joseph Mersman Quote #1

Upon his own arrival, Mersman writes in his journal about how muddy St. Louis is. It’s actually quite an understatement. Familiar with life in an urban jungle (he came from Cincinnati, which was much larger than St. Louis in 1849), Mersman was simply used to it. But someone visiting from the 21st century would be horrified by the sanitary conditions of St. Louis in 1849. The city was congested, it reeked, it was polluted, and it was teeming with filth.

Kayser's Lake

The average St. Louisan living in 1849 inhabited a city that perhaps grew too quickly for its own good. When Joseph Mersman arrived, the city had yet to implement key infrastructure elements. A functioning sewer system is just one example. As a result, the disposal of waste, particularly human waste, was often handled in a primitive way. If not right onto the street, people regularly dumped feces into creeks, ponds, and the Mississippi River. With little knowledge of the danger it introduced, it was also commonplace to find privies and outhouses erected directly next to wells and cisterns.

Many St. Louisans realized it was a growing problem and tried to do something about it. In a notable example, an engineer named Henry Kayser suggested using the limestone sinkholes beneath the city as a natural sewer. It worked, but a densely populated city can quickly overwhelm nature. After heavy rains, the sinkholes backed up, forming a block-sized pond of human waste and festering water at the north end of the city. It was dubbed “Kayser’s Lake” by nearby residents disgusted with the result.

St. Louis in 1849While cholera was beginning to get a head of steam, Joseph Mersman was beginning a new career. He was by trade a whiskey rectifier, a profession that entailed purchasing cheap whiskey made from surplus corn and improving it. This was done by re-distilling it and adding various ingredients to improve the taste. When the process was complete, the improved spirit was sold to hotels, saloons, brothels, and anyone else who would buy it. His partner in trade was a man named John Clemens Nulsen. Both of German heritage, the two men formed a lasting friendship along with a successful business selling whiskey.

Joseph Mersman Quote #2

Joseph Mersman knew cholera was on the rise even before he arrived in St. Louis. He notes reports of outbreaks in New Orleans and Vicksburg, which meant cholera was likely working its way up the Mississippi. It was just a matter of time until it reached St. Louis.

Joseph Mersman's Diary

Cholera is a deadly disease caused by a microscopic bacterium. Look at Vibrio Cholerae through a microscope and it looks like a curvy little worm. But if a human being ingests about 100 million of them (which a glass of tainted water can provide), death may come within a matter of hours. Cholera does this by rapidly reproducing and clinging to the walls of a human small intestine. An epidemiologist could provide a more scientific explanation, but the quick version is as cholera continues to multiply, the body is essentially tricked into discharging water (mostly through extraordinary bouts of diarrhea). That’s how cholera kills. It dehydrates its victim, and it does it very quickly.

Dr. William McPheeters, the same man who tallied the number of dead when it was over, was also the man to treat the first reported case of the outbreak on January 5, 1849. His patient, a stocky German who had arrived in St. Louis on a steamboat from New Orleans, was described as “Vomiting freely, with frequent and copious discharges from the bowels; at first of slight bilious character, but it soon became pure “rice water.” As the disease progressed, his patient suffered intense abdominal pain and his skin became “of a blue color and very much corrugated.” McPheeter’s first patient died the next morning.

Steamboats on the St. Louis Riverfront

The diarrhea, or “rice water” as Dr. McPheeters referred to it, is one of the primary symptoms of cholera. It consists of evacuated bodily fluids (mostly water) and small bits of intestinal lining (that happen to resemble rice). It’s an unpleasant scenario to consider, but it’s important in the understanding of how cholera spreads from one person to another. In St. Louis and cities around the world, buckets of “rice water” discharged from cholera patients were often poured right into a city’s water supply. When a neighbor came to retrieve a bucket of drinking water for the day, the cholera within was essentially being hand-delivered to its next victim.John Snow

This helps explain why St. Louis became the most deadly American city to be living in during the summer of 1849. In a crowded, polluted, river-dependent city, nobody understood that infected water was spreading cholera. In fact, only one person had started to figure it out, but he lived half a world away.  John Snow, a noted physician and scientist in London was piecing together his theory at the same time cholera was closing in on St. Louis. Snow wouldn’t prove his theory until five years later, when he isolated a single water pump in London’s Soho neighborhood as the culprit behind a cholera outbreak that ravaged London in 1854.

But in the mid-19th century, few were willing to accept such a theory.  Nearly everyone believed they already had cholera figured out. While many chalked it up as a punishment from God, most people believed that diseases such as cholera, the plague, and even chlamydia were spread through foul air, specifically by the noxious fumes generated by rotting organic matter. This is the miasma theory, and it was widely endorsed in the mid-19th century. It’s advocates included John Snow’s colleague William Farr, Florence Nightingale, and St. Louis’s own Dr. William McPheeters, who wrote of the 1849 outbreak:

Quote by Dr. William McPheeters

As detailed earlier, St. Louis had more than its fair share of rotting organic matter. And in neighborhoods packed with slaughterhouses, poorly built graveyards, animal pens, tenements, and tanneries, the stench was often overpowering. With gagging at the smell of rotting flesh and fecal matter a natural reaction in every living human, it’s not a stretch to believe that people once believed noxious vapors played a role in making people sick.

Illustration by George John PinwellAs 1849 moved into spring, the spread of cholera began to pick up steam in St. Louis. By the end of May, cholera was killing up to eighty people a day. As a result, it’s estimated that up to 20,000 people fled the city (some sources estimate up to half of the population picked up and left). Around this time the city started to take action. Arsenal Island, located south of the city, was turned into a quarantine zone. All boats traveling north were required to stop and be inspected. Anyone on board showing symptoms of cholera was forced to remain on the island until dead or until symptoms disappeared.

Joseph Mersman remained in the city to keep his new business running, but wrote on May 13th that the “City looks like a desert Compared to its usual appearance”. Regardless, Mersman did his best to maintain a normal life. He continued to focus on work, visit saloons with friends, and attend theater productions.

Joseph Mersman Quote #3

But things would go from bad to worse. On May 17, a fire broke out on the riverfront destroying much of the downtown business district. Raging for nearly twelve hours, the blaze destroyed over 400 buildings. Remarkably, many St. Louisans welcomed the fire, hoping it would also burn away the contagion spreading through the city.  Then cholera hit close to home when Mersman’s own building contractor fell to the disease. In the wake of this, Mersman becomes less inclined to wander about in his new city. He writes “one cannot be certain of staying alive for another day” and makes a point to complete his work early each day and remain close to home. He uses the time to study languages, which he practices by writing many of his journal entries en français.

Joseph Mersman Quote #4

June and July brought the worst of it. With hundreds dying everyday, terror gripped the city. Tired of waiting for the city to act, the people of St. Louis took matters into their own hands. After several prominent citizens angrily confronted city officials, a Committee of Public Health was formed, consisting of the mayor (the only city official allowed to join) and various members of the community. Completely ignorant of cholera’s methods, the committee held fast to the theory that miasma was behind it all. In short order, several extraordinary city regulations were implemented. However, none of them addressed the city’s contaminated water supply.Columbarium of the Missouri Crematory

Keeping hogs in the city was forbidden until the outbreak was over. Scavenger carts were ordered to make rounds in city neighborhoods, picking up garbage, dead animals, and sewage (with the contents frequently being dumped into the river or Chouteau’s Pond). Fines were levied on citizens who didn’t keep their property clean and free of filth. People were advised to burn sulphur and coal in order to rid the air of disease. Temporary hospitals were established around the city, with a multitude of doctors and collection vehicles assigned to each. Fish, veal, and pork were banned, despite doctors insisting on a strict diet of nothing but meat. Long suspected of spreading cholera, vegetables were banned from being sold in city markets. Since many believed the disease originated in poor neighborhoods crowded with German and Irish immigrants, some concluded (including the previously mentioned Dr. William McPheeters)  that even sauerkraut and cabbage had something to do with cholera’s wrath. And in a city that would become famous for making it, even beer was banned in St. Louis during the summer months of 1849.

Joseph Mersman Quote #6Remarkably, perhaps by an overall improvement in city sanitary conditions, or that death and flight left fewer people in St. Louis for cholera to infect, or maybe Vibrio Cholerae had simply run its course, the number of reported cases began to drop significantly in the final days of July 1849. The city declared it over on August 1, and by mid-August, Dr. McPheeters tallied deaths by the week instead of by the day.

It didn’t go out without a fight. It had one more go at the man who had been writing about it all summer. On August 1, Joseph Mersman must have agonized as he witnessed his business partner Clemens Nulsen become afflicted and suffer through the symptoms of cholera. Knowing his close friend could be dead within hours, Mersman tried to ease his mind by concentrating on business matters. Then, on the very next day, Joseph Mersman felt the sharp pinch of severe abdominal pain. Cholera had finally come for him too.

Joseph Mersman Quote #5

Remarkably, Joseph Mersman and John Clemens Nulsen both survived. And in the wake of it, the two men would have many more reasons to celebrate. Along with a successful business, the two men became brothers-in-law when Mersman married Claudine Creuzbauer in 1851 (Nulsen had married Claudine’s sister Albertine in 1848). John and Claudia had eight children together, which must explain why his daily musings in a journal became few and far between in the years after their marriage. With fortune at hand, the family moved into a stately home in the Lafayette Square neighborhood. Leaving a healthy estate behind (that his children grappled over), Joseph John Mersman died on March 26, 1892.

The Campbell House Museum

As for St. Louis, The 1849 cholera epidemic had a lasting impact on the city. Most importantly, the death toll of nearly 10% shattered hundreds of families across the city. It was impossible for any one individual to avoid some level of tragedy. But as families mourned loved ones lost, St. Louis quickly went to work making the city safer and more livable.  Chouteau’s Pond and Kayser’s Lake were drained, sewer systems were built, sanitation improved, and rural cemeteries such as Bellefontaine and Calvary were founded outside of city limits.  Many who fled the city to escape cholera stayed away, leading to the growth of towns and communities beyond city limits. It also led to the development of new areas within the city, luring wealthy citizens such as Robert and Virginia Campbell (who lost their oldest son to the epidemic) and Henry Shaw to spend more time away from a dirty and congested riverfront.

And finally, cholera wasn’t done either. It reared its head again in 1853 and 1873, but each time on a much smaller scale. And despite John Snow’s efforts in London, western civilization didn’t really get a handle on the little germ until 1884 when the German microbiologist Robert Koch finally put the miasma theory to rest. Koch confirmed and publicized the findings of Filippo Paccini, an Italian scientist who’s isolation of Vibrio Cholerae was disregarded thirty years earlier.

Chouteau's Pond drained

The Mill Creek Sewer

The Drink
Angel's Envy & Riegers

I’ve rarely been more excited in my few years writing Distilled History than the moment I learned about Joseph Mersman’s diary.

I’ve struggled a bit recently finding really good drink connections (James Eads presented a challenge), but it’s like Joseph Mersman simply fell into my lap. Not only did he provide a fascinating perspective of St. Louis during its darkest hours, he was a whiskey man.

Upon his arrival in St. Louis, Mersman writes about getting to know the city, and much of this is done by attending theater and drinking in saloons. He never mentions it by name, but it’s very likely he had a drink or two at the Planter’s House Hotel, located just down the street from the whiskey rectification business he operated with John Clemens Nulsen. It’s also possible he was also served by the cocktail icon Jerry Thomas, who tended bar at the Planter’s House during Mersman’s early days in St. Louis.

Mersman's Dom Brandy Old Plum Recipe

Anyway, what’s even more exciting is Joseph Mersman scrawled out many of his own whiskey rectification recipes in the same journal that detailed cholera. If I had more time (and 70 gallons of whiskey on hand), it would be a fun project to not only fully decipher his recipe for “Dom Brandy Old Plum”, but scale down the ingredients and try it myself.

But until then, I knew the guy I had to talk to about whiskey rectification in the 21st century. Ted Kilgore, the mad cocktail genius at the (new) Planter’s House, needed about three seconds to understand what I was up to. After watching him run off, and getting a hug from his lovely wife (this blog has its perks), Ted returned and presented me with two blended whiskeys to try. Of the two I picked Angel’s Envy, a blended Kentucky straight bourbon aged in port wine barrels. Very smooth and delicious, I noted raisins in the aroma.

Port wine and raisins. Joseph Mersman would certainly approve. The same ingredients exist in one hell of a recipe that probably helped him get through the terrifying days of one hell of a summer.

Mersman's Port Wine Recipe

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Key sources and additional reading:

  • Joseph J. Mersman Diary – Missouri Historical Society
  • “A Summer of Terror: Cholera in St. Louis, 1849″ by Linda A. Fisher Missouri Historical Review Vol. 15 (April 2005)
  • “History of Epidemic Cholera in St. Louis in 1849″  by William M. McPheeters St. Louis Medical and Surgical Journal 7  (March 1850)
  • “Cholera Epidemics in St. Louis” Missouri Historical Society – Glimpses of the Past 3 (March 1936)
  • “The St. Louis Cholera Epidemic of 1849″ by Patrick E. McLear Missouri Historical Review 63 (January 1869)
  • The Whiskey Merchant’s Diary: An Urban Life in the Emerging Midwest edited by Linda A. Fisher
  • The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
  • Lion of the Valley by James Primm
February 4th, 2015 by Cameron

Kingshighway’s Way

Kingshighway looking north from Easton AvenueThis is going to sound a bit strange, but I sure do love roads.

That’s right, roads. And by “roads”, I mean the streets, avenues, and parkways all of us frequently drive, bike, or walk on to get around this city. I believe roads play an integral part in delivering good history. A few years ago, when I first thought about looking into the story of this town, my first step was to get out and get lost on the streets of St. Louis.

Think about it. In nearly every situation, a road, a street, a railroad track, a river, or even a foot path must exist in a place before history can happen there. The Mississippi River, which is essentially a road for vehicles that float, is a perfect example. The Mississippi River is the road Pierre Laclède and August Chouteau used to get to the place where St. Louis would come to be.

Perhaps a more practical example is St. Charles Rock Road, which was the first road (or more specifically, the first trail) that connected St. Louis to another early Louisiana Territory settlement, St. Charles. At first, this road was called “King’s Highway”. After it was macadamized in the mid-19th Century, it was called the “Rock Road”. Today, most of Missouri refers to it as Route 180. In St. Louis City, it’s called Martin Luther King. All of this is a great example of how even the name of a road can provide a good story. But in this case, St. Charles Rock Road gives us good history. That’s because in the early frontier days, driving St. Charles Rock Road was a necessary step for getting pioneers from St. Louis to St. Charles, and then on to the Oregon or Santa Fe Trails.

Kingshighway in 1875

That’s a pretty big deal. And it got me thinking.

I wondered if I could effectively research and write about the history of a single road in St. Louis. I figured if I picked a nice long one, it would provide a good backdrop (and a good path) to finding good history in St. Louis. Even better, long busy roads usually have plenty of bars and pubs. While poking around for some good St. Louis history, it’d be easy to take a break and have a drink or two.

Well, I must admit that I had a certain road picked out all along: Kingshighway Boulevard.

Kingshighway's WayI’ve always been intrigued by Kingshighway, the nine mile boulevard that shares a name with that initial incarnation of St. Charles Rock Road. Kingshighway is a major north-south artery that cuts right through the western half of St. Louis. It lies entirely within the city, starting at Florissant Avenue in the north and ending at Gravois Avenue in the south. It’s rare for someone to ever need to drive or bike it from one end to another, but I’ve done it several times. I recommend others do it, because if someone travels those nine miles in one go, they’ll get a fascinating glimpse at the city of St. Louis as it looks today.

That’s because Kingshighway has a bit of everything. It cuts through or acts as a border for eighteen of St. Louis’s seventy-nine neighborhoods (that number may seem low, but few city streets can challenge it). It travels through struggling neighborhoods, affluent neighborhoods, and several others that fall somewhere in between. Drive it and you’ll see people of all color, shapes, and sizes. On a recent stop at the intersection of Kingshighway and Page, I even saw a clown. Kingshighway touches five city parks, nine entries on the National Register of Historic places, and dozens of other points of interest. Finally, Kingshighway boasts hundreds of homes, businesses, schools, and churches where thousands of people live, work, and play.

Common Fields“King’s Highway” isn’t an uncommon name for a road. It’s been used all over the globe and throughout history as a name for a path on which people have traveled. The most famous being the ancient trade route between Syria and Egypt that is mentioned in the Old Testament. That King’s Highway is still in use today, making it about 3,000 years older than the version I’ve been driving, biking, and drinking along during the past few weeks. Other King’s Highways of note include King George II’s colonial highway that connected the American colonies and the 17th Century Spanish trade route that rambled all the way from Florida to Mexico. In fact, St. Louis even had two Kingshighways at one time. Union Boulevard used to be called “Second Kingshighway” until it was renamed in honor of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War.

More than one story exists about how the St. Louis Kingshighway came to be. In the book The Streets of St. Louis by William Magnan, it’s detailed that St. Louis’s Kingshighway originated as an Indian trail that led to a portage on the Missouri River. It was known as the “King’s Trace” or “King’s Road” by early settlers, and the name is derived from the custom of naming public roads that connect a sovereign’s territory to outlying lands. In St. Louis’s case, those outlying lands were the common fields. Used for farming and raising livestock outside of the village, the common fields were long, narrow strips of farm land that radiated out to the west of St. Louis.

Map of Kingshighway - NorthVarious other sources also detail that when St. Louis was first founded, early French settlers referred to the road as the “Rue de Roi” (“Roi” meaning “King” in French). When the Spaniards took over, it became “El Camino Real”. And finally, when the Louisiana Territory became American in 1803, the English translation of “King’s Highway” finally began to stick. In the early 1900’s, the apostrophe and space dropped for simplicity and it became the “Kingshighway” we see on street signs today.

Gratiot League Square

Another version of Kingshighway’s origin comes from a man named Charles P. Chouteau, a descendant of the co-founder of St. Louis, Auguste Chouteau. In 1895, Charles Chouteau explained to a local newspaper that Kingshighway did not originate as an Indian trail. He claimed it was created and even named by his own grandfather, a Frenchman named Charles Gratiot. A distinguished veteran of the Revolutionary War, Gratiot came to St. Louis in 1780. In 1785, he appealed to the governing Spanish authorities for a large tract of land west of the village. Thirteen years later in 1798, it was granted.

That sizable tract of land (over 6,700 acres) was henceforth known as the “Gratiot League Square”. On today’s map of St. Louis, several notable neighborhoods fit neatly inside it, including Dogtown, the Hill, Clifton Heights, and even my own neighborhood, Lindenwood Park.

(And for those interested, the pronunciation of Gratiot, at least in St. Louis, is “Grash-ut”. It’s another perfect example of how St. Louis repeatedly whiffs at pronouncing anything French.)

The Penrose Park Velodrome

Gratiot’s acquisition was named after the man himself and the distance of one league (about three miles) that each side of the square measured. And in order to mark the boundary between his land and the common fields to the east, Gratiot laid out a new road. According to his grandson, he named it “King’s Highway” in order to “honor the reigning monarch” of Spain. Chouteau also suggests this regal name was slyly chosen in order to keep the Spanish authorities interested in helping pay for any maintenance or upgrades.

Whichever story of origin is true, it must be noted that Kingshighway has spent much of its history traveling through only sparsely developed areas of St. Louis. In fact, it didn’t even become part of the city until 1876 when the St. Louis city border was pushed westward from Grand Avenue to its current position just west of Forest Park.

But unlike other north-south thoroughfares such as Grand or Jefferson, Kingshighway wouldn’t see much action until planning for the 1904 World’s Fair began. That’s when city planners suggested turning Kingshighway into a major artery for the developing western half of the city. In 1903, the King’s Highway Boulevard Commission was formed, a group that submitted an expansive proposal for Kingshighway redevelopment. Upon completion, supporters of the proposal claimed that St. Louis “will possess the longest and grandest boulevard in the world.”

Saint Louis Jockey and Trotting Club

At the time, only about one mile of Kingshighway (from Lindell north to Easton) was even paved. Mud and dirt made carriage travel difficult, with one newspaper account claiming that it was “impossible, in rainy weather, to cross King’s Highway without stilts”. Proposed improvements included grading, paving, and widening its entire length, building new bridges, adding decorative landscaping, and lining it with ornamental lampposts. Most significantly, Kingshighway was to be lengthened to nearly eighteen miles, reaching from a new park at the Chain of Rocks in the north to Carondelet Park in the south. Upon completion, a St. Louisan would have access to all four of the city’s major parks (O’Fallon, Forest, Tower Grove, and Carondelet) and it’s two major cemeteries (Calvary and Bellefontaine) from one single road.

Unfortunately, if turns out St. Louis wasn’t quite ready for the “Champs-Élysées of the West” as many hoped it would be.

Kingshighway - CentralFinancial oversights and rising land costs delayed the project from the start. And despite popular approval, certain property owners were adamantly opposed to selling their land for the sake of a wider road. As a result, the plan became mired in courtrooms and council meetings. It would be twenty years before any actual work began. By then, many of the key proposals in the original plan were revised or even stripped out, including the proposal to extend Kingshighway’s length.

Celebrity Blankets & Luxury SuitesOne proposal that did make the cut was the idea to build and upgrade smaller parks along the route. A major beneficiary of this was Penrose Park, a smaller park that sits on the east side of Kingshighway just south of I-70. It’s also worth nothing that one of the city’s most unique amenities exists here, the Penrose Park Velodrome. One of only twenty-seven velodromes in the United States, it offers a 1/5 mile cycling racetrack with forty degree banking.

The Royale & O'Connells

Personally, my favorite (and most used) stretch of Kingshighway is the one I live closest to. It’s the southern section, stretching from Highway 44 to its southern terminus at Gravois Avenue.

Kingshighway Entrance to Tower Grove ParkThe most significant part of this stretch sits on the east side of Kingshighway (across the street from the previously mentioned Gratiot League Square). This land, stretching from Kingshighway to Grand Avenue, was once known as the “Prairie de Noyers”. It was a common field used for farming and raising livestock, but that changed when valuable coal and clay deposits were discovered in the area in the mid-19th Century. A notable example of this is the strong Italian presence that still exists in the Hill neighborhood on the west side of South Kingshighway. It was the clay pits and brick plants that spurred Italian immigrants to settle in the area years ago. Today, we are still reaping the benefits from the community they created.

But the most significant (well, at least in my opinion) event in the development of this area happened in the 1850’s when a man named Henry Shaw started buying strips of land in the Prairie de Noyers and converting them to what is essentially a giant, fantastic garden. As a result, St. Louis now reaps the benefits of Tower Grove Park and the world-renowned Missouri Botanical Garden. I’ve expressed my admiration for Mr. Shaw often in this blog (here and here), so it’s obvious that the road I often take to get to Shaw’s old stomping ground should get its own Distilled History post.

Kingshighway - South

The Drink

The Lafayette Sidecar

Another reason I prefer the southern stretch of Kingshighway is that it’s the only section where I can stop and get a drink. The northern section actually offers a restaurant specializing in tripe (yes, tripe), but it lacks a bar of any sort. The only option in the central section requires getting inside and navigating a luxury hotel (which didn’t stop me this time).

But the southern section provides a nice run starting with O’Connells and a well-poured Guinness at the intersection of Kingshighway and Shaw. Another mile or so to the south is The Royale, which is one of my favorite bars in the city. Not only is the name suitable (King’s Highway was also referred to as “Rue Royale” by French settlers), but the Royale offers a well-rounded drink menu that any beer or cocktail connoisseur will find appealing. For my Kingshighway tour, I enjoyed a perfectly prepared Lafayette Sidecar.

Only a couple other drinking options exist on Kingshighway (well, non-Applebees options), making it possible for someone to actually drink their way down Kinghshighway in one trip. I did just that, creating my own Kingshighway pub crawl at the same time I researched this post.

With that in mind, have I mentioned how much fun writing this blog is?

Christian Brothers College

A View from the Chase

The Racquet Club

Thomas Schuetz Saloon

Southtown Famous-Barr on Kingshighway

January 6th, 2015 by Cameron

Elmira’s Water Cure

Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York

At long last, the pen is finally moving again.

I must apologize for taking a few months off. I didn’t really go anywhere, it’s just that Distilled History needed to take a breather. I needed a break so I could throw a few back with the Campbell Family, talk James Eads with fellow history pals, and enjoy the incredible gin selection at my new favorite watering hole.  I also needed it because after bonking my head (quite badly) during a softball game in Tower Grove Park, things got a bit cloudy.

Well, maybe it was a bit worse than that. I lost my short-term memory for a few days, and docs told me that I suffered what is called a “subarachnoid hemorrhage”. It turns out that I’m actually quite lucky to be alive. Even better, I still remember all the useless stuff I’ve written about cocktails, cyclones, prostitutes, beer gardens, and all that other history I’ve compiled about my favorite city.

Well, almost my favorite city.

Elmira from East HillSome readers may recall that I am not a native St. Louisan. I’ve been here nearly twenty years, but I hail from Elmira, a small city located in upstate New York. Elmira is still, and will always be, my home.  It’s where I was born, it’s where I became smitten with the Manhattan cocktail, and perhaps most importantly, it still contains my nutty (but wonderful) mother. As much as I love St. Louis, it simply can’t compete with that.

And as I detailed a couple of years ago, Elmira also has a rich and enlightening history. And since I spent the last week sitting in my hometown drinking ungodly amounts of gin with Mom, I’m kicking off 2015 with some Elmira history. St. Louis, I’m going to be writing about you for years to come (barring additional head trauma), so hang tight. I’ll be back with you soon enough.

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Waturecure Hill RoadAs many know, Elmira’s most notable historical asset is the great American author Samuel Clemens. And despite recent unfortunate activity, Elmira is a good place. You have to scratch the surface a bit to see it, but Elmira is filled with thousands of people who are proud of the city’s history.

Elmira also has a fun little battle going with my fellow Missourians in the town of Hannibal over which area is the true “Mark Twain Country”. Hannibal has a case, but it’s tough to deny my hometown’s claim. Twain spent over twenty summers there, he fell in love (and got married) there, and best of all, he wrote much of his best stuff there.

But perhaps most significantly, he’s well… still there.

I always visit Mark Twain’s grave when I’m home in Elmira. I think it’s really cool that I can visit Twain and his beloved wife Olivia at the same time I visit a couple grandparents. All them share a current address in the (Bellefontaine-esque) Woodlawn Cemetery (and even better, my Grammy lies in peace less than twenty-five yards from another Elmira icon, Ernie Davis).

Anyway, good Elmira history goes far beyond Mark Twain. Much of it has absolutely nothing to do with the guy, but on my recent trip home I looked into a fun topic that shares a common denominator with the great author.

A simple road.

Let me paint the picture. Back in the day, perhaps after playing billiards and throwing a few back with pals at Klapproth’s Tavern on Lake Street, Mark Twain would hop into his carriage and steer it towards East Road (the same road I found myself standing on 150 years later). East Road was the path Mark Twain needed to get to Quarry Farm, his place of residence while summering in Elmira. On the way, Twain could look to his right and wave to Reverend Thomas Beecher, his good friend and the man who married him to Olivia Langdon. Beecher, an Elmira icon himself, had no difficulty acquainting himself to famous authors. His own sister only happened to write the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, a little tale she titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

(See what I’m doing here? Eat your heart out, Hannibal.)

1896 Elmira Map

Anyway, as Twain’s carriage continued upward, Twain would keep an eye out for the hard left he needed on Crane Road, the final turn needed to get him home. But Twain wouldn’t be able do it without visually swallowing the enormous complex of buildings that appeared on his left. That resort, known as “Elmira’s Water Cure”, gave the road the name it bears today, Watercure Hill Road. Almost nothing remains of the resort today (I think), but it must have been a site to see in the days of Silas and Rachel Gleason, two remarkable physicians who came to Elmira in 1852 and opened one of the first hydrotherapy resorts in the United States.

Elmira's Water Cure

Silas Gleason was born in Massachusetts in 1818. After growing up in Vermont and attending Oberlin College in Ohio, he returned to Vermont and graduated from medical school in 1844. In the same year, he married Rachel Brooks, a teacher from Vermont who became interested in studying (and ultimately practicing) medicine with her new husband. The two soon focused on a growing medical movement popular in Germany and England at the time: “Hydropathy”, or “Hydrotherapy” as it’s known today.

Hydrotherapy

As WebMD puts it, Hydrotherapy is “the use of water to treat a disease or to maintain health.” In the 1850’s, many physicians believed that warm and cold baths, compresses, spraying people with water, drinking copious amounts of water, and even tightly wrapping naked people in blankets soaked in water could help ease pain, cure disease, and help relieve symptoms of chronic ailments.

In the 19th Century, common water treatments included “head baths” for vertigo and hypertension, cold showers for people suffering from melancholia, and even “arm baths” to relieve of all things, a sore throat. Extreme treatments included strapping naked women to chairs and hosing them down, a “treatment” some believed could aid in preventing a wife from straying from her marriage.

Modern medicine has helped our ancestors realize that treating cholera or tuberculosis with a warm foot bath wasn’t gonna cut it, but hydrotherapy isn’t entirely quack medicine. It’s hard to argue that a warm bath can’t provide a brief respite to anyone having a rough go. Hydrotherapy also promoted practices such as good hygiene (during a time when bathing on a daily basis was unheard of), drinking ample amounts of clean water (instead of say, rot-gut whiskey), and even the simple relief of splashing cold water on your face after a shitty day at the office.

Fast forward to 2014, and all of us are probably practicing hydrotherapy on some level.

Rachel & Silas Gleason

Unlike the guys fire hosing women trapped in really bad marriages, it seems Elmira’s water doctors had a sense of reason to them. Silas and Rachel Gleason did not profess to be groundbreaking scientists or proponents of  rewriting medical theory. Instead, they promoted their means of treatment as a supplement to standard medical practices of the time.  They had no desire to “do away with doctors” or promote new theories in curing disease. They simply believed in improving life by making many of the same behavioral choices many of us make today. Examples include exercising daily, eating healthy, and getting outside as much as possible. The Gleasons simply believed water could assist these actions by putting the body in balance, removing toxins, and cleansing the mind.

Rachel Brooks Gleason Quote

Even without their Water Cure, the Gleasons were something a remarkable pair. While many Elmirans likely believed they were a couple of flakes , and others offered skepticism about their methods of treatment (Mark Twain included himself among this group), the Gleasons did become respected and active citizens in their new community.

Susan B. AnthonyBefore establishing the Water Cure in Elmira, Silas Gleason participated in the establishment of a medical school in central New York. He lobbied for the new school to admit female students, an almost unheard of idea at the time. But he won his case, and his wife Rachel became one of its first students. When she graduated in 1851, Rachel Gleason became one of the first women in United States history to hold a medical degree. And during many years as a co-founder of Elmira’s Water Cure, she was the only female physician in Chemung County.

This fact could explain why Susan B. Anthony took notice of the Elmira’s Water Cure and eventually became a patient. It’s also possible Anthony was drawn to Elmira by Rachel Gleason herself.  Dr. Gleason was a progressive thinker, intelligent, skilled, and undoubtedly an ideal acquaintance to have at the onset of a burgeoning women’s movement.

Elmira Water-Cure

His wife’s personal physician, Samuel Clemens called her “the almost divine Mrs. Gleason”, and insisted that she treat his wife Olivia during each instance of childbirth. In one amusing story, it’s claimed that Gleason was called to Buffalo to tend to Olivia Langdon after the birth of a son. When Dr. Gleason attempted to leave after a few days, a panicked Clemens supposedly barred the door and made “horrendous threats” about what would happen if she was allowed to escape.

In 1870, she published a book titled Talks to My Patients that became  a bestseller in the United States and England. Building on progressive ideals she held dear, the book focused primarily on women’s health, providing insight from years of treating women at the Water Cure. Along with providing advice on topics such as pregnancy and menstruation, she also displayed her progressive leanings  by promoting the use birth control and candidly telling women to simply “enjoy sex”.

Hints to Patients

In 1850, Elmira was a town of about 10,000 people (it was incorporated in 1864). After visiting Elmira to treat a patient, Silas Gleason became convinced it was the perfect setting for a new Water-Cure home. With the support of his wife, they chose a quiet hill on the east side of town with a nearby glen that provided all the water they needed.  The Gleasons called Elmira a “pretty town” with “delightful views” available among the “hills grand and the valley beautiful”. On nearly forty acres of wheat fields, they built their impressive complex. It opened to the public on June 1, 1852.

Water-Cure Dinner Horn

The main structure was four stories, flanked by two three-story wings. Over time, additional renovation and construction would expand it to enable the treatment of over 100 patients at a time. It was surrounded by nature trails, fruit trees, and vegetable gardens. It had a gymnasium, a bowling alley, and even a putting green. Bathrooms were over 100 feet long, enabling up to twenty women the ability to bathe privately at once. But Rachel Gleason was quick to point that patients should not expect hotel-like accommodations. It was a home for invalids, and strict rules were established. Along with scheduled water treatments, all patients were required to exercise twice daily, “quiet” was required during certain hours of the day, and smoking was not allowed in any part of “the Cure” except the billiard room.

Other more specific rules forbade patients from throwing anything out of open windows, driving tacks or nails in walls, and allowing children to play in the halls, the parlor, or on the veranda.

Elmira's Water-Cure

In 1852, a week’s stay at the Water-Cure ran from $7 to $10, depending on the desired level of treatment and accommodations (even an extra blanket added to the rate). That was a steep price for someone living in 1850, which means the thousands of patients treated by Silas and Rachel Gleason were usually people of means. While there, a host of resident doctors, nurses, and interns bathed, sprayed, wrapped, and dunked names of note that include the previously mentioned famed suffragette, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Clara Barton, most of the Langdon Family (Mark Twain’s in-laws), several children of Brigham Young, Vice President Shuyler Colfax Jr., and even Emily Dickinson’s mother.

Stone Pillar on Watercure Hill Road

Finally, it must be noted the Water Cure was a fully successful venture. The Gleasons ran it for nearly fifty years, and it usually ran at full tilt. In the later years, it went through name changes (Gleason Sanitarium, Gleason Health Resort) and ownership changes (Dr. John C. Fisher took over in 1898) before Silas Gleason ultimately died in 1899. Moving to Buffalo after her husband’s passing, Rachel Brooks Gleason died in 1905.

As for the structure itself, the Water Cure was converted to a nursing home before closing for good in the wake of World War II. The buildings, bath houses, and remaining structures were all demolished in 1959.

Today, if one takes a drive up Watercure Hill Road (the road’s current name), it’s difficult to find any trace of what once stood at the corner where Mark Twain needed to hang a left. But take a closer look. Just past the “City of Elmira” sign, two stone pillars can be seen, hidden in the trees and brush, of an area that shows absolutely no evidence of human residence or activity.

Look for those pillars if you take a drive up East Hill. Because a century ago, those pillars marked the entrance to Silas and Rachel Gleason’s little slice of Elmira history.

The Drink
Fever Tree Tonic Water

When I first thought about the drink to pair with this post, only one came to mind. As Rachel and Silas Gleason would certainly insist, it has to be water.

But I’m going to kick it up a notch and talk a little tonic water.

I’ve been researching the history of tonic water, but that’s actually a topic for a future Distilled History post. In this post, I’d like to focus simply on the quality of tonic water. As I’ve tried to convince my dear mother, she needs to stock better tonic water in the house. And by the way, she also needs to screw the caps on tighter. Flat tonic water makes people sad (as Rachel and Silas Gleason were assuredly aware of).

Anyway, the gin and tonic is my standard drink. I love them, but I also know the g&t isn’t considered by many to be a “good” cocktail. It’s basic and kinda boring, and cheap tonic water makes them any version seem to taste the same. Even my mother (who doesn’t seem to mind flat tonic water), insists ordering a gin and tonic in a bar or restaurant simply isn’t worth it.

But like so many aspects of the cocktail scene today, even lowly tonic water is getting some love. Gin drinkers are realizing that stirring a processed tonic loaded with high fructose corn syrup does no favors to good gin. Better options include premium tonic brands like Fever Tree and tonic syrups like Jack Rudy or Tomr’s.  Any of these offer natural ingredients and a significant upgrade in taste.

Recently, I even attended a workshop at the Gin Room on South Grand (my favorite Water Cure in St. Louis) where I learned how to make my own tonic water. It was easy, fun, and as soon as I get my hands on some cinchona bark (to add the key tonic ingredient, quinine), I’ll never need a water cure other than my own.

Fever Tree Tonic Water

Notes:

Nearly all of my information for this post was gathered from a few short visits to the Chemung Valley History Museum (operated by the Chemung County Historical Society) and the Steele Memorial Library in Elmira. My short trips home don’t allow me much time for research (I didn’t even have time to get into their research room), but I’m beyond grateful to a certain archivist who pointed me towards three key sources:

  • The Chemung Historical Journal, Vol 12, No 2, December 1966
  • The Chemung Historical Journal, Vol 32, No. 2, December 1986
  • The Chemung Historical Journal, Vol 54, No. 2, December 2008
September 11th, 2014 by Cameron

#drinkuptweetupSTL

Please Join Us!

Here’s an interesting (and perhaps horrifying) fact that merges history and drinking: In ancient Rome, a popular remedy for curing a hangover was to fry and eat… (wait for it…) birds.

Beauty Lives On

And I’m not talking about chickens and turkeys. After a night of authentic toga parties and too much wine, hungover Romans chewed on fried canaries. 

Fortunately, this practice fell out of favor long before the Campbell family began their run in St. Louis. If it hadn’t, it’s possible that Beauty, the handsome finch that fluttered around the Campbell aviary over one-hundred years ago, may have suffered a grizzly fate after one of Ginny’s late-night house parties.

Beauty is actually one of my favorite stops on the Campbell House scene. I don’t think I’ve ever given a tour when I didn’t point out Hazlett Campbell’s pet bird that was stuffed, bottled, and placed on a mantle long ago. There’s no doubt about it—visitors always get a kick out of Beauty.

Campbell House Museum

I also can’t think of a more appropriate Campbell family member than Beauty to represent the fun event going down at the Campbell House later this month. Beauty was a tweeter, and she’ll be on hand when Distilled History teams up with the Campbell House to host another #drinkuptweetupSTL.

What’s a “#drinkuptweetupSTL” you ask? Well, it’s the hashtag we are using to describe a special invitation we are extending to the many friends of the Campbell House Museum and Distilled History: Come over and have a drink with us.

Distilled History T-Shirts

No joke. On the evening of Friday September 26th, we’ll have the Campbell House open, we’ll have the garden set up with tables of food and booze, and we’ll even have a great band, Typhoon Jackson, jamming in the background.

Please stop by, bring a friend or two, get a glimpse of one of the most remarkable historic homes in the United States, learn a bit of drinking history (that’s where I come in), and most importantly, have a drink with us.

The best part is that it’s all free. Food will be provided courtesy of the Maya Cafe in Maplewood and beer will be provided by our Lucas Place neighbors, Schlafly. Along with other refreshments, we’ll also have a big bowl of Virginia Campbell’s Roman punch.  It’s Ginny’s own recipe from her cookbook written in the mid-1800’s (and it mentions nothing about canaries). The only catch is that since we’ll be drinking alcohol, our under-21 friends will have to sit this one out (sorry, kiddos).

Grant's Cup

And to sweeten the pot even further, we’ll be raffling off several prizes throughout the evening. We have plenty of Campbell House, Urban Chestnut, and Distilled History swag to give away, but the ultimate raffle prize is one I think is pretty special.

Other than Beauty, one of my favorite pieces in the Campbell House collection is a silver julep cup once owned by Ulysses S. Grant.  Grant is not only the logo of Distilled History, he was good pals with Rob and Ginny, and he visited the family often during his Presidency. His cup is normally locked away for safekeeping, but one lucky raffle winner will be able to hold it and drink their choice of booze from it.

For anyone who’s a fan of drinking and history (like me), it doesn’t get much better than that.

That’s the skinny on the 2014 #drinkuptweetupSTL. For more information, head over to the Campbell House blog.  They are the folks to contact if you have any questions. I’ll also leave it to them to tell you about another special raffle prize: A special batch of Campbell beer.

See you on Friday, September 26th!

Ginny's House Party Irish Ale

September 3rd, 2014 by Cameron

And Finally, the Bridge (The Summer of Eads, Part IV)

Note: This is the final post in a four-part series I have written about the life and work of James B. Eads. Previous entries can be found here:  Part IPart II, and Part III
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James B. EadsFrom a distance, the Eads Bridge doesn’t really look like a big deal. It is, but its physical appearance doesn’t exactly tell the story. It doesn’t tower like the Brooklyn Bridge, it doesn’t stretch like the Golden Gate, and it doesn’t sparkle and look all space-agey like the new Stan Musial Veterans Bridge that now stands to the north.

Once the iconic structure of St. Louis, the Eads Bridge even had that distinction wrested away by the Gateway Arch nearly fifty years ago.  Everyone knows the Eads Bridge exists, but these facts can explain why many St. Louisans don’t realize what a landmark structure it is.

To help realize it, imagine what a radical change that bridge must have brought to St. Louis in 1874. Before the Eads Bridge existed, a booming city of 300,000 people was difficult to get to. Most of America lay to the east, and those wanting to come to St. Louis (or anyplace west of it) had no simple way to cross the biggest, nastiest river on the continent.

On a humid day in July 1874, all of that changed. Suddenly, a St. Louisan could walk, drive a carriage, or trot a horse over that big river in just a few minutes. Trains, no longer required to stop and load cargo onto ferry boats,  could chug right through on the bridge’s lower level. Ice, floods, and congested river traffic suddenly became afterthoughts to travelers wishing to cross. Even for the average family taking a Sunday stroll on the upper deck, the Eads Bridge provided an entirely new way to look at the city they lived in.

Eads Bridge Construction

And it was built by a man who had absolutely no experience building bridges. James Eads, nationally known for his work on or under water, had never built anything that stood above water. This may explain why Eads’s bridge design, unveiled to the public in 1867, was unlike anything that had been seen. When it was completed seven years later, it would stand as one of the most remarkable structures constructed in the 19th century. In its construction, James Eads would repeatedly make civil engineering history.

James Eads was undoubtedly a genius, but his story isn’t complete without also emphasizing the drive and determination the man possessed. As Robert W. Jackson details in his book Rails Across the Mississippi, Eads was simply relentless. His ability to garner support, financially and technically, for his vision of the bridge equals his ability to design one that wouldn’t fall down. In the years after Eads’s death, Emerson W. Gould, the captain of the Knickerbocker when Eads was a mudclerk, echoes this sentiment:

Emerson Gould Quote

Ingenuity and business acumen aside, Eads was also looking out for the future of his city. Already losing ground to Chicago in the race to tie the nation together with railroad tracks, the pieces finally came together for a St. Louis bridge in 1867. It’s a long story (read Jackson’s Rails Across the Mississippi for the extended version), but as contracts and bridge companies started bubbling to the surface, Eads became convinced that outside interests, primarily Chicago, were in control. He was probably right, but more importantly, Eads believed the competing bridge designs were vastly inferior to his. James Eads knew the Mississippi, and James Eads knew what it could do to a poorly designed bridge.

Biplane Flying Under Eads BridgeSoon surrounded by loyal business associates and hand-picked allies, James Eads pried his way into the discussion. In May of 1867, he was named Director of the St. Louis and Illinois Bridge Company. Shortly after, he was named Chief Engineer. As rival bridge companies began to lose ground, Eads unveiled his preliminary bridge design to the public in the summer of 1867. The plans were a hit. The St. Louis Democrat declared Eads’s design to be a “triumph for St. Louis!”

Despite his reputation and overwhelming public support, many had serious doubts about the feasibility of Eads’s design. After being urged to have an expert review his plans, Eads showed the initial design to Jacob Linville, a respected bridge engineer of the time.  His review was anything but glowing.

Jacob Linville Quote

Eads brushed off such criticism and continued finalizing his design. Inspired by the Koblenz Railroad Bridge in Germany, Eads settled on a ribbed arched design. Eads explained that it offered a “beauty and economy” over the standard truss bridge employed frequently at that time.

The Koblenz Railroad Bridge

It was just one way in which Eads was pushing the boundaries of bridge construction, but he was actually required by law to do so. Before Congress authorized the construction of several bridges over western rivers, the steamboat industry had lobbied extensively to limit or prevent railroad bridges from being built. As a result, several restrictions were put in place, making the construction of a railroad extremely difficult.

  • It couldn’t be made of wood
  • It couldn’t be a draw bridge or suspension bridge
  • It had to carry rail and vehicular traffic
  • The lowest part of the superstructure had to be at least fifty feet above the water
  • The bridge must have one span of at least 500 feet or two spans of at least 250 feet

James Eads embraced the challenge and then took it to another level. Up to that time in history, no arched bridge had ever been built with a span of more than 500 feet. Eads designed his bridge to have three. When complete, all three of the spans utilized in the Eads bridge would be longer than any ever built. To hold them up (as detailed in the Summer of Eads Part I), two massive pneumatic caissons would be sunk to bedrock. Each of them would also be the largest ever built and each would be sunk to an unprecedented depth.

Andrew CarnegieFinally, James Eads made his most daring decision yet. He opted to build the superstructure out of steel, a material that had never been used before on such a massive scale.

It was a landmark decision in the history of civil engineering. As Howard S. Miller points out, “In 1867, structural steel was a novelty.” In the age of iron, it was a “new and virtually unknown structural material.”

It was also expensive and difficult to make. However, advances in mass steel production, such as the Bessemer process, made steel a viable option. After studying its use in Europe on smaller projects, Eads decided to build a steel bridge. It would be the first time in history the material would be used on such a scale.

In 1867, many believed Eads mad to insist on using steel. Even Andrew Carnegie, a man who would one day become the richest man in America because of steel, repeatedly urged Eads to use iron. Carnegie was a director of the Keystone Bridge Company, which had won the contract to supply metal to the project.  The two men clashed repeatedly, especially over Eads’s insistence that the steel be of unprecedented quality.

Henry Flad

It must be noted that James Eads wasn’t a one man show. Aware of his own inexperience in the field, and looking to comfort cautious investors, Eads recruited several brilliant and experienced engineers to work at his side. Men such as Henry Flad, Charles Pfeiffer, and Benjamin Singleton would play pivotal roles in the design and construction of the bridge.

With much of the construction work in the capable hands, Eads was able to focus on bridge finances and improving his own health. Exhausted, overworked, and teetering on collapse, Eads even tried to resign in 1868. His resignation was refused, but Eads required extended periods of leave throughout the life of the project. During these periods of recuperation, bridge construction often ground to a halt.

Despite opposition to his design, poor health, and clashes with subcontractors, bridge construction commenced. On a cold and drizzled day In February, 1868, James Eads stood on the bank of the Mississippi River, gave a short speech, and watched the first limestone block settle into place. Bridge construction had finally begun.

Two years later, the massive stone piers that would support the bridge rose out of the water (as detailed in Part I). Construction could now begin on the steel superstructure. It would mark another moment in engineering history. The superstructure of the bridge was built using a cantilever method of support. Soon, arches of steel tubing stretched out from each pier without any support from below. Again, this method of bridge construction had never been done before on such a scale.

Cantilver Bridge Construction, 1873

Despite progress on all fronts, James Eads continued to be challenged by adversaries. As late as 1873, the steamboat industry hurled one final legal challenge.  Claiming the bridge would present a “serious obstacle to river navigation”, the bridge was deemed illegal by the Army Corps of Engineers. But since the bridge was nearly complete, they demanded Eads dig a channel on the Illinois side so river traffic could circumvent the bridge. Furious at the suggestion, Eads reached out to a friend that owed him a favor. As detailed previously in the Summer of Eads, Part III, Ulysses S. Grant, now President of the United States, had benefited greatly from Eads’s ironclad gunboats in the Civil War. When Eads asked Grant to weigh in on the matter, Grant bluntly overruled the Army engineers. Bridge construction could now proceed as James Eads wished.

Eads Bridge from Below

Bridge construction continued over the next three years. Supervised by Eads’s first assistant Henry Flad, the steel arches stretching out from each pier inched closer together. On September 15, 1783, the final steel tube was lifted from below and squeezed into place. Suddenly, the light at the end of the tunnel poked through. With the two largest construction hurdles cleared (the sinking of the piers and the successful spanning of the first arch), the structural integrity of Eads’s bridge was assured. Detractors of Eads’s vision were silenced, the last financial hurdles were cleared, and the road over the river unfurled.

In July 1874, the bridge was set to open. To prove it would hold, an elephant was marched across. After William Tecumseh Sherman drove in the final railroad stake, trains crossed for the first time. Finally, on July 4, 1874, on the day of the country’s 98th birthday, the city officially opened the Illinois and St. Louis Bridge.

Eads Bridge Entrance in the 1920's

Despite a sweltering 102 degrees, the city teemed with joy and celebration to mark the occasion. With visitors in town from near and far, over 300,000 people turned out to see a parade that stretched over fourteen miles. Rows of cannon were placed on each side of the river. As the cannon fired salutes, trains carried revelers across the river and dignitaries gave speeches. James Eads was at the center of it all.

His role in the project wasn’t lost on anyone. The St. Louis Republican proclaimed in print “James B. Eads stands today the foremost man of his time.” When James Eads was asked to weigh in on his creation, his response is one that only a man of supreme confidence could offer.

James B. Eads Quote

Eads Bridge

The Drink
Walt Whitman

My idea for an Eads Bridge drink goes all the way back to my friend that I introduced in The Summer of Eads, Part I. Amanda Clark, who runs Renegade Tours STL, is the guilty party in getting me to think non-stop about James Eads and his bridge.

She also gave me the idea of how to drink to them both. It’s this quote, written by Walt Whitman when he visited St. Louis in 1879. The bridge was only five years old a the time, and it mesmerized the famous poet.

“I have haunted the river every night lately, where I could get a look at the bridge by moonlight. It is indeed a structure of perfection and beauty unsurpassable, and I never tire of it.”

Whitman’s quote about the Eads Bridge is actually pretty well-known among St. Louis history nerds. It comes from Specimen Days, Whitman’s collection of daily observations published in 1882. Along with his description of the bridge, the reader  is treated to this description of St. Louis in the late 19th Century:

“The water of the west, in some places, is not very good, but they make it up here by plenty of fair wine, and inexhaustible quantities of the best beer in the world”

He’s got that right. With InBev (Budweiser) and the recent explosion of craft breweries here, St. Louis is undoubtedly a great beer town. Even better, the house where Whitman stayed during his visit (belonging to his brother Thomas), was located on Pine Street. If it stood today, it’d be a stone’s throw from Schlafly’s Tap Room.

Dry Hopped APA at Schlafly's Tap Room

It took Walt Whitman’s love for Eads’s masterwork to find a drink, but that’s good enough for me. Besides, I’ve always been a big fan of Schlafly. The first of the microbreweries in St. Louis, I have probably spent thousands of dollars over the years at their Tap Room and Bottleworks facilities. I know I’ll be back to both locations often to drink their good beer.

As for James Eads, I’m not done with him either. He has plenty of additional stories to tell, but it’s time to bring the Summer of Eads to a close. And as I’ve mentioned in the other posts in this series, Eads wasn’t exactly the easiest guy to drink with. With that in mind, it’s time to mix a cocktail and find some good St. Louis history.

July 29th, 2014 by Cameron

Blood and Sand and Steam (The Summer of Eads, Part III)

Note: This is Part III in a series of Distilled History posts I am writing about one of the most remarkable St. Louisans to ever live, James Buchanan Eads. Part One, which details caisson disease during the building of Eads Bridge, can be found here. Part II, which gives a brief introduction to his life, can be found here.

Also, Distilled History now has a Facebook page. Please give it a “Like” to see the stuff that doesn’t make the blog, random St. Louis history tidbits, and of course, my own musings on drinking good cocktails.

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Eads Gravesite in Bellefontaine Cemetery

My delightful “Summer of Eads” rolls on.

Without a doubt, I have had a good ‘ol time getting to really know James Eads over the past few months. But I’ll also confess that he’s put me in one hell of a pickle. He’s an overwhelming subject to write about. Try as I might, I have struggled mightily trying to cram all of his accomplishments into a few boozy blog posts.

Furthermore, he’s a tough guy to drink with. I’ve scoured the streets near his bridge, where his glass factory stood, where his gunboats were built, and where his mansion sat. No bar or cocktail idea was born from any of these searches. Unless I devised my own “Eads Cocktail” (which would probably need to include river water), I was out of luck.

But I can always find a reason to drink. It’s just that I’ve never stumbled into one like I did for this post. It happened after picking up (several more) books about  bridges, gunboats, and diving bells at the St. Louis Central Library. I then settled in at one of my favorite barrooms to read about what else James Eads had his hands in. As I ordered my drink, I flipped open a book titled Guns on the Western Waters by H. Allen Gosnell. I searched the index to find out where James Eads shows up, and it directed me to a chapter that made me do a double-take. The title of the chapter was nearly identical to the name of the bar I was sitting in at that exact moment. Blood and Sand and SteamWhat a tasty coincidence that I found myself reading Blood and Sand and Steam while drinking a delicious cocktail in Blood and Sand. And there ya go, my drink problem was solved.

As I sipped my delicious cocktail (the “You in Your Were”), I dove into the next remarkable chapter of Eads’s life. I was excited, because before I became a big St. Louis history nerd, I was a big Civil War history nerd (just two of many reasons). I’m also solidly pro-Union. I have no patience for any of that pro-Confederate nonsense people spout these days, so I was thrilled to learn that James Eads felt the same way in his time that I do in mine.

At the outbreak of the war, James Eads was only forty-one years old. He was retired, extremely wealthy, and a well-respected man in St. Louis. He was done with salvage work, but innovation and the Mississippi were never far from his mind. From his stately Compton Hill mansion, he found himself free to brew up a few ideas in order to help the good guys win the Civil War.

Scott's Great Snake

James Eads knew the western rivers would play an important strategic role in the upcoming conflict. Notably, control of the Mississippi River was a key component of Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan, a naval strategy devised to blockade and squeeze the Confederacy like a coiled snake. Like General Scott, Eads believed that if the Union controlled the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis, it would ultimately control the western theater of the war. If it succeeded, the Confederacy would be effectively severed in two.

Abraham Lincoln realized this as well, referring to the Mississippi as the “backbone of the rebellion” and the “key to the whole situation”. Just days after Fort Sumter was fired upon in April 1861, James Eads received a letter from Edward Bates. A former Missouri Congressman and friend of Eads, Bates had recently been named as Attorney General in Lincoln’s cabinet.

Letter from Edward Bates to James EadsIt was the letter he’d been waiting for. Prior to the war, Eads had already been lobbying politicians and war strategists to let him help. His reputation as a river man preceded him, so it wasn’t long before Eads found himself in Washington D.C. reviewing river strategy with Lincoln’s cabinet. While there, he enthusiastically backed a proposal to build a fleet of gunboats that could help conquer the lower Mississippi. Soon after, the plan evolved into building a flotilla of ironclad gunboats, a type of military vessel never before seen in the western hemisphere.

The Attack on Fort Donelson

Eads took full advantage of the opportunity. As bids for the project opened on August 5, 1861, Eads submitted a bold proposal, easily winning the government contract.  Two days later, he signed a contract stipulating that he’d deliver seven ironclad gunboats at a cost of only $89,600 each. Remarkably, he promised they’d ready to go in only sixty-five days. He was so confident in his plan that he even agreed to pay a hefty fine of $250 per boat for each day it was late.

With a due date of October 10, 1861, Eads went right to work. He contracted with foundries, sawmills, and forges in several states, instantly putting thousands of men to work around the clock. His primary base of operation was the Union Iron Works, a shipyard Eads leased to the south of St. Louis in the village of Carondelet. It was here, near the point where the River Des Peres flows into the Mississippi, that the first ironclad warships ever constructed in the United States came to be.

Union Iron Works in Harper's Weekly

The ships were built, but not designed by James Eads. Although Eads would make significant design improvements to ironclad construction as the war progressed, the first seven were designed by an engineer named Samuel Pook. Named “Pook’s Turtles” because of the resemblance they took in the water, the first ironclads were like nothing that had been seen before. At 175 feet long and 51 feet wide, the boats squatted low in the water. Each was armed with thirteen cannon poking out of sloped wooden sides covered with 2-1/2 inch iron plate. A crew of 175 manned each gunboat.

Due to financial delays and design issues, Eads didn’t meet his self-imposed deadline of October 10. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Using his own wealth to finance the project, he nearly bankrupted himself while government financing lagged behind. Fortunately, financing was resolved, all late fees were repaid, and the seven “City-class” gunboats, as they were known, were delivered by mid-November. Each was commissioned into the War Department’s Western Gunboat Flotilla in January 1862.

The Attack on Fort Henry

The first was the Carondelet, which slid into the Mississippi River on October 12, 1861. It was the first ironclad built in American history, completed three months before the Monitor, it’s more famous cousin in the east. The St. Louis rolled off just a few days later, and it would plant its own stake in history. After engaging Confederate timberclad gunboats at the Battle of Lucas Bend in January 1862, James Eads boasted about the event in a letter he sent to Abraham Lincoln:

James Eads Letter to Abraham LincolnThe Carondelet and St. Louis were soon followed by the Louisville and the Pittsburg. To maximize production, Eads had the other three built at a second shipyard in Mound City, Illinois, located about 150 miles south of St. Louis. There, the Cincinnati, the Mound City, and the Cairo rounded out the fleet.

The Original Seven GunboatsIn addition to City-class gunboats, Eads contracted with the government to have several of his own salvage boats converted to ironclads. The Benton, previously known as Salvage Boat No. 7, was commissioned into the Western Gunboat Flotilla in February 1862. Weighing over 1,000 tons and armored with thicker 3-1/2 inch iron plate, the Benton was much larger than the original seven. It would become the most powerful boat in the western theater of the Civil War.

Each of the gunboats would make a significant impact in the western theater of war. Tough and reliable, the ironclads could fire away at close-range while the thick iron plating protected them from returning fire. Although the gunboats were slow and susceptible to mines, shells from Confederate shore batteries dealt minimal damage. The plating caused cannon fire to bounce harmlessly off the angled sides. Even before the boats were launched, Eads had the durability of iron siding tested at his shipyard in Carondelet. Successfully deflecting cannon fire from as close as 200 yards, Eads must have known that he was building the navy of the future.

Current Site of Union Iron WorksThe military success of Eads’s gunboats would be immediate, and they would help launch the career of the Union’s greatest general. At the Battle of Fort Henry in February 1862, the ironclads played a major role in the first significant Union victory under Ulysses S. Grant. Deemed “a victory exclusively for the gunboats” the bombardment from the Cairo, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Essex (another converted Eads salvage ship) was so effective that the Confederate garrison surrendered before Grant’s land force  even arrived on the scene.

Soon after, the St. Louis, Carondelet, Louisville and Pittsburg aided Grant in taking Fort Donelson. With his famous demand for “Unconditional Surrender” in the aftermath of this battle, Grant’s reputation as a fighter soared. Furthermore, with the help of Eads’s gunboats, two major tributaries of the Mississippi (the Cumberland and the Tennessee) were now open to the Union.

It wouldn’t stop there. As the war progressed, Eads relentlessly worked at improving ironclad design. With his shipyards working around the clock building more ironclads, he included turrets like those found on the Monitor, built boats that drew less water, and continued to improve the effectiveness of iron armor. He also built lighter boats, including a series of “tinclads” that were faster and more maneuverable, but could still withstand musket fire. By the end of the war, his Union Marine Works in Carondelet would produce more armored warships than any other shipyard during the Civil War.

Finally, on July 4, 1863, the Anaconda Plan became a harsh reality for the south. Again aided by Union ironclads, the final Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi surrendered to Union forces. Vicksburg’s fall came just one day after victory at Gettysburg in the east. The war for the river had been won in the west.

The Confederacy was cut in half, and it was made possible by the gunboats James Eads built.

Eads's Drawing for the Milwaukee
The Drink
Blood and Sand CocktailsI’ve already mentioned the drink I found for this post, so there isn’t much else to say other than Blood & Sand is (again) one of the best places to drink great cocktails in St. Louis.

However, I want to mention a menu theme that I particularly enjoy.  They name their cocktails after songs. Even better, most of them seem to be named after bands and musicians I listen to often.

I may need to ask TJ and Adam at Blood and Sand (two of the friendliest guys around) to help me out if I ever write about the rich musical history of St. Louis. I’m sure a “Maple Leaf Rag” or a “Birth of the Cool” cocktail would fit nicely on their menu.

But before I get to thinking about Scott Joplin or Miles Davis, I need to close out my Summer of Eads. There’s a particular bridge that needs a closer look.

quote_lineSources invaluable to this post (other key sources also listed in Part I and Part II of the Summer of Eads):

  • Civil War St. Louis by Louis S. Gerteis
  • James B. Eads The Civil War Ironclads and His Mississippi by Rex T. Jackson
  • Guns on the Western Waters by H. Allen Gosnell
July 7th, 2014 by Cameron

The Summer of Eads, Part II

Note: This is part two in a series I have titled “The Summer of Eads”. Dealing with a subject (James B. Eads) that is impossible to fit into a single Distilled History post, I’ve decided to write a few. Part one can be found here.

James Eads on the St. Louis Walk of Fame

A couple of weeks ago, I spent some time strolling through the Loop and taking note of the numerous stars and plaques embedded in the sidewalk as part of the notable “St. Louis Walk of Fame” exhibit.

The 137 names on the Walk of Fame, each signified by a brass star and descriptive plaque, stretch for several blocks on each side of Delmar Boulevard. These stars are actually a significant source of nostalgia for me. I don’t get to the Loop much these days, but when I first moved to St. Louis in 1995, I worked in a bookstore just a couple of miles away. The few measly dollars found in my paychecks were usually spent in bars that had one of these stars in front of it.

The Walk of Fame was established in 1988 by Joe Edwards. He’s also the guy behind the famous Blueberry Hill, a bar those stars have led me to more than any other. I’m sure that stopping to read the various plaques while heading into (or stumbling out of) Blueberry Hill is one of the many reasons I became interested in the history of this town.

I found the star for the subject of my summer, James B. Eads, outside a tattoo parlor on the north side of Delmar. One of the first names selected for Walk of Fame induction back in 1989, Eads deservedly went in alongside notable St. Louis names such as Chuck Berry and T.S. Eliot.

Dan Zettwoch PrintAs I took a long look at his plaque, I thought about how little I knew about the man before I began this project several weeks ago. I think most of St. Louis is in the same boat. We all know his bridge, but the story behind the guy who built it is largely unknown. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to tell the story of James Eads before he became an internationally renowned engineer. Turns out it’s a darn good story.

Surprisingly, I couldn’t find much about his early life. Plenty of sources provide detail of his engineering prowess, but few provide more than a brief overview of his early years. Many of them rely on one source, a short biography written in 1900 by Louis How, Eads’ own grandson. It may have been fun to find to find some dirt on this guy, but I don’t think there’s any to find. As I gradually learned, James Eads was a indeed a special guy. He had it figured out from the start.

James Buchanan Eads

James Buchanan Eads was born on May 23, 1820 in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. He was the youngest of three children to Thomas Clark Eads and Ann Buchanan. Regarding Thomas Eads, Louis How asserts he was never “very prosperous”. So he moved his family to find stable income, first to Cincinnati in 1822 and then to Louisville in 1829. In 1833, Thomas Eads decided to uproot his family again, this time to St. Louis. At the age of thirteen, young James Eads boarded the steamboat Carolton. Along with his mother and two sisters (his father stayed behind to gather supplies for a store he planned to open), James Eads started his journey west, to the city where he’d make his mark.

Traveling on a steamboat was surely a wonder for the young, curious Eads. Fascinated by machinery and mechanics from an early age, his father supported his interest by building James a small workshop in Louisville. Four hours on end, he tinkered away in it, taking apart the family clock, building scale models of steamboats, and even constructing a functional steam engine. As Louis How recounts in his biography, a particularly boyish (and ingenious) moment during this childhood occurred when he produced a small wagon that mysteriously moved about the room. As his mother and sisters gaped in awe, it was soon revealed that the motive power was produced by a live rat hidden underneath.

Upon arriving in St. Louis, Eads would need every bit of ingenuity he had. As the Carolton approached the St. Louis riverfront on September 6, 1833, a chimney flue toppled over. A deadly fire broke out, killing eight people and severely injuring many more. Ann Eads and her three children emerged on the riverfront unharmed, but all of their possessions were lost. Save for the clothes on their backs, the Eads family suddenly found themselves alone and penniless in a mysterious new city.Sub Marine No. 7

James Eads responded to this adversity with the same hard work and determination that would be indicative of his later career. Discontinuing his formal education in order to help support his family, he started by selling apples on the street. Soon after, he caught the eye of a boarder in a house his mother rented, a mercantile owner named Barret Williams. After recognizing the talent of the young man, Williams offered Eads a job as a clerk in his store, a position that would ultimately provide far more than an income.

It’s during this time when the genius of James Eads really begins to take root. Along with a job, Williams gave James Eads access to his personal library. With no formal schooling past the age of thirteen, it was in this library where James Eads continued his education – on his own.Martha Dillon Eads

In the late hours after the mercantile closed, he poured through the classics, became a fan of poetry, read books about science and history, and most significantly, taught himself engineering and mathematics.

Eads began to apply his self-education in 1839, when he took a job as a mud clerk on the steamboat Knickerbocker. His family had moved again, this time to Iowa, but Eads opted to stay back and pursue opportunity in St. Louis. Among other responsibilities, a mud clerk was responsible for wading through the muck, clearing away obstacles, and securing a boat to shore. It was arduous work, but it offered the hands-on riverboat experience he wanted. And most importantly, it’s where he’d start to become fully acquainted with the river that would shape his brilliant career – the Mississippi.

James Eads would come to understand, as much as anyone in his time, the sheer power of the Mississippi. He lived it aboard the Carolton 1833, and he’d live it again when the Knickerbocker was ripped apart by a snag in 1839. For the second time in six years, Eads found himself shivering on shore and watching the boat that just carried him sink to the bottom of the river. But this time, James Eads had an idea.

The Mississippi, with its unpredictable currents, heavy sediment movements, and countless snags, sank boats on a daily basis. James Eads realized a profit could be made from the cargo that sank with them. In the 19th century, “wreckers” were paid handsomely by ship owners and insurance companies to salvage valuable materials from sunken boats. Additionally, laws of the time stipulated that anything sitting at the bottom of the river five years after it settled there became the property of anyone who could get it.

The Eads Mansion on Compton HillBut it was extremely dangerous work. Salvage boat and diving technology at that time was rudimentary, causing even the bravest of souls to pass on such work. But James Eads, already confident in his own ability, went to work designing a new salvage vessel of his own. After months of revisions and improvements, Eads presented his design to two St. Louis businessmen. Surely amazed by what the 22-year old had proposed, the two men agreed to provide financial backing. Before long, Salvage Boat No. 1 was under construction. James Eads was about to start the next chapter of his life at the bottom of a river.

The venture was an instant success. HisSub Marine found ample reward as it raced around western rivers raising lost cargo before competitors could get to it. At the same time, Eads invented a diving bell, weighted with lead, rigged to air pumps, and equipped with a small seat inside. Inside and submerged, a wrecker could move around the bottom of the river while withstanding fast river currents.

eads_glassfactory

As brave as he was ingenious, Eads did much of the diving bell work on his own. Henceforth known as “Captain” James Eads since he piloted his own boats and worked alongside his men, Eads displayed a remarkable personal commitment to his work. As Louis How writes, Eads boasted later in life that a stretch of fifty miles didn’t exist between St. Louis and New Orleans in which he hadn’t stood under his diving bell on the riverbed.

Eunice Hagerman Eads

This is indicative of the kind of man James Eads was becoming. As he grew into an adult, James Eads developed into a brilliant and profoundly thoughtful man. According to sources, he was inquisitive, generous, and supportive of those close to him. He loved nature, read poetry, and was a very skilled chess player. He enjoyed riddles and humor, but he was tactful and when necessary. Some viewed his confidence as arrogance, but even his detractors considered him an exceptional man.

A successful and respected man by his mid-twenties, Eads now turned his attention to family life. In 1845, he married his cousin, Martha Dillon, after a tenuous courtship (remarkably, Martha’s father didn’t approve of the young inventor). His love for Martha was profound; so much so that he looked to find work closer to home. To do this, he decided to sell his interest in the salvage business and find work where he could stand on solid ground.

The decision would mark the beginning of a difficult chapter in his life. After leasing a large building in St. Louis, Eads invested heavily to transform it into a glass factory. It was the first of its kind west of the Mississippi, but the business struggled from the start. Within two years, sales remained stagnant and his fellow investors pulled out. Suddenly, James Eads found himself with a warehouse full of glass and $25,000 of debt.

To pay off his creditors, James Eads had no choice but return to salvage work. Fortunately, the financial turnaround was immediate, but tragedy continued to darken his personal life. In 1849, James and Martha’s only son James died in infancy. Then in 1852, James Eads lost his mother. In a final devastating blow, he lost his beloved wife just a few months later to cholera.

The Eads MansionIn a letter to Martha before she died, James Eads wrote “‘Drive on’ is my motto”. Drive on he did, and despite personal adversity, his professional life flourished. The salvage business continued to boom during his absence, and he found no shortage of work when he returned to it. Any remaining financial questions were answered in 1849, when a devastating fire on the St. Louis riverfront sunk over twenty riverboats. Eads was contracted to salvage nearly all of them, and the profits put him over the top for good.

As his wealth multiplied, James Eads also discovered that life at the bottom of a river can catch up to a man. Battling various health issues, he decided to give up diving in 1853. After re-marrying in 1854, he purchased a mansion on Compton Hill just west of Lafayette Square. Then in 1857, with a fortune of $500,000 in the bank (about 12 million in 2014), James Eads retired from salvage work for the last time.

He was just thirty-seven years old. And he was just getting started.

Stay tuned for the Summer of Eads Part III, in which James Eads goes to work for the Union in the American Civil War.

The Drink

Eads in a Barrel

Once again, I found myself at the end of a post coming up a drink to connect to the life of a subject that died long ago. This seems to happen often with what I call “the biography posts” (other examples include Homer G. Phillips, Elijah P. Lovejoy, and T.S. Eliot). Not able to find a bar or drink that I could connect Eads to, I almost copped out and simply drank from a flask in front of his bridge again.

But at the last-minute, I remembered a great story I read about James Eads when he was first getting started in the salvage business.

It happened in his first year as a wrecker, when his first salvage boat was still under construction. Offered a contract to raise 100 tons from a sunken barge in Iowa, Eads didn’t want to pass on the opportunity. To do the job, he rigged a barge with derricks and hired a Great Lakes diver from Chicago to come down and do the work.

Diving BellWhen the diver descended into the river, it became apparent the diver’s armor wasn’t suitable for river work. Used to calmer lake water, the fast Mississippi River currents thrashed the man about on each descent. After several attempts with no success, the frustrated (and likely terrified) diver threatened to quit and head home.

Thinking quickly, Eads had an idea. He rushed into town and purchased a 40-gallon whiskey barrel. Bringing it back to the wrecking barge, he knocked one end out, fastened several pigs of lead to the opening, and connected air horses to the other. He then instructed the diver to get inside and be lowered into the river.

The diver adamantly refused to get inside such a contraption, so Eads was forced to do it himself. Remarkably, the diving bell worked. After several descents, Eads had brought up much of the sunken cargo himself.  The diver, realizing the bell was safe and effective, took over and finished the job.

I’d like to think Eads purchased a full whiskey barrel and helped empty it, but that’s probably not the case. But at least I know he bought one. And that’s good enough for me to tie this post to whiskey.

Even better, I was able to purchase my own (much smaller) whiskey barrel at a local liquor store. It’s the perfect size to make a diving bell for my cat, but it’s probably better used  in toasting the accomplishments of a great St. Louisan.

To drink a toast to James Eads, I filled it with a bottle of J.J. Neukomm, a hand-crafted single malt whiskey made right here in St. Louis. It’s even aged oak barrels, just like a guy who spent much of his life inside one.

The Drink

quote_lineSources invaluable to this post:

  • Zettwoch’s Suitcase – A blog by artist Dan Zettwoch
  • Road to the Sea by Florence Dorsey, 1947
  • Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. 41 No 1, 1944
  • Rails across the Mississippi by Robert W. Jackson, 2001
  • The Eads Bridge by Howard Miller and Quinta Scott, 1999
  • A History of the St. Louis Bridge by C.M. Woodward, 1881
June 3rd, 2014 by Cameron

The Summer of Eads, Part I

Eads BridgeOnce again, despite this blog never making me a single dime, my life continues to become richer as a result of it. This time, it’s in the form of a new friend that recently crossed my path.

Her name is Amanda Clark, and she owns and operates Renegade STL, an architecture and history tour company here in St. Louis. Like me, she’s all about telling the story of this city to people who are looking to hear it. Not only do Amanda and I share a common interest in the subject matter, we share a common interest in how we do it. We can both be a bit offbeat, we can each be a bit colorful (perhaps profane), and we don’t mind throwing a few drinks back when we do it.

Amanda may not know it, but she gave me one hell of a problem. On the day I met her, I listened to Amanda discuss one of her favorite St. Louis history topics, James Buchanan Eads. That guy, and the bridge that bears his name, are both very dear to her heart. A bit of this bridge love must have rubbed off on me, because I now find myself thinking about it all the time.

Fast forward to this exact moment and I find myself staring at stacks of notes, books, photographs, and drawings of this city’s landmark bridge. In the past few weeks, I’ve stared at it, biked over it, sketched it, toasted to it, and even joked that I am awesome enough to survive jumping off it. What it all means is that I have way too much information to shove into a single blog entry. My dear mother chides me because my posts are too long as it is, but how can I keep that bridge, the man who designed it, and the drink to celebrate them both under 2,000 words?

Bike-a-Sketch: Eads BridgeI can’t, so I came up with a plan. Like my Elijah P. Lovejoy posts last year, I think certain St. Louis history topics simply require a bit more love than others. For James Eads and his bridge, I’m going to write a couple, or maybe a few, and I’m going to post them all in a row. The good news is that most of my research is done (the biggest time consumer), so all I have to do is write, edit, and of course, drink.

Before I jump in (figuratively), I have to take a moment to clear something up. In discussing the Illinois & St. Louis Bridge (its original name), I often hear fellow St. Louisans confidently make a completely incorrect claim:

Eads Bridge QuoteThe Eads Bridge was definitely not the first bridge to span the Mississippi. It was the first one at St. Louis, and it contained several notable firsts in its design and construction, but it definitely wasn’t the first to span the river.

Perhaps people wouldn’t look to attribute unfounded facts to what the Eads Bridge is above the water if they only knew how special it is under the water. For that reason, I’m going to start my Summer of Eads with the story of the two massive limestone piers that hold it up. Specifically, I’m going to start with the story of the men who suffered building them. It’s a tragic story that I found particularly fascinating while researching every aspect of the structure. It’s also an unusual place to begin this bit of history, but like my new pal Amanda, I do tend to follow the unbeaten path.

Eads Bridge

Although he had never built a bridge before, James Eads knew the river better than anyone. His full story will come later, but it’s that point that must be noted here. The Mississippi is big and cranky. While it made many a riverboat pilot rich in the 19th century, it swallowed up just as many with its unpredictable currents and flows. As a young man, James Eads made his fortune walking around the bottom of it, salvaging wreckage in a diving bell of his own design. He knew first-hand how quickly the Mississippi could move something, and he had to be certain his bridge didn’t move. Sitting two massive bridge supports on silt and mud deposited by river currents wouldn’t cut it. They had to sit on bedrock.

James Buchanan EadsDuring a trip to Europe in 1868, he witnessed first-hand a relatively new technology that he decided to employ in his own bridge, the pneumatic caisson.

Caissons are watertight retaining structures. To work in depths of water, pneumatic caissons are sealed at the top and filled with compressed air. Sealed workspaces created by caissons allowed laborers (referred to as “submarines”) to work at the base of a bridge pier, on the riverbed, by digging up silt and sending it to the surface through pneumatic tubes. As the men dug towards bedrock, huge limestone blocks were piled on top of the caisson, thus building the pier at the same time the caisson pushed deeper into the riverbed. When it hit bedrock, the structure was leveled and the air chambers were filled with concrete. The concrete-filled caisson then became the base of the finished pier.

Pneumatic caissons offered an unprecedented level of efficiency, but at the time, only two bridges in the United States had been built using the technology. Neither came close to the size and depth required in Eads’ bridge design. Even today, the pneumatic caissons used in constructing the Eads Bridge are among the largest ever built.

When the east caisson was launched and sunk to the sandy river bed in October 1869, two engines on the surface went to work pumping compressed air into the chamber far below. This pressurized air compensated for leaks and provided a breathable workspace for laborers below. To get into the chambers, workers descended through a candle-lit spiral staircase and entered an airlock. When the airlock was sealed, an alternate door leading to the chamber was opened. The men could then climb out and begin work at the riverbed.

Dr. Alphonse Jaminet

As workers dug through the sandy riverbed and the caisson sank deeper, air pressure increased to compensate for the higher water pressure outside. When the east caisson hit bedrock in February 1870, the air pressure inside the chamber measured fifty pounds per square inch. That’s over three times the “normal” air pressure a person experiences at sea level.

At first, these pressurized compartments were a source of wonder. Eads himself frequently led friends, politicians, and curious St. Louisans down through the spiral staircase and into the air chambers at the bottom of the river. While there, visitors experienced an eerie atmosphere, water dripping from above, the hissing of escaping air, and a nearly intolerable odor. While many found the experience wholly terrifying, others found amusement. The increased air pressure caused voices to sound nasal and high-pitched, it was impossible to whistle, and blown-out candles seemed to re-light themselves as if by magic.

Soon, the physical effects of working such environments took a darker turn. Foremen started hearing complaints from workmen experiencing severe stomach, head, and joint pains when they emerged from the stairwell. Others suffered temporary paralysis in legs and arms, causing several to be admitted to a local hospital.

The situation became deadly on March 19, 1870, when a man named James Riley emerged from the center access shaft, informed a friend that he was feeling well, and promptly keeled over. He died fifteen minutes later. A few hours later, James Moran, an Irishman who worked in the east pier caisson, died at City Hospital. Three days later, a 22 year-old German named G.S. Alt died after two weeks of hospitalization. The next day, 27 year-old Henry Krausman and 21 year-old Theodor Baum both expired.

Eads Bridge Diagram

The lack of consistency in visible symptoms was confounding. Nearly every case involved stomach and joint pain, but similarities seemed to end there. While several men died, others experienced full recovery within a few hours. An Irishman named Mike McCoole became ill for the first time after three weeks of caisson work while an American named Hugh Devel collapsed on his very first day. An Irishman named Michael Herwin starting spitting blood while a co-worker named James Galloway was found to have pus in his urine. A 20 year-old German named Hansep Miller was hospitalized for nearly two months. Legs fully paralyzed, Miller had no control of his bowels and required frequent catheterization. Another man, a 30 year-old German named William Saylor worked three months in the west pier with no issue. After being transferred to the east pier, he died shortly after his first shift.

On March 31, Eads assigned his family physician, a man named Alphonse Jaminet, to figure it all out. Already familiar with the problem, Jaminet was the obvious choice for the task. Several weeks earlier, on February 28, 1870, he suffered a near-fatal encounter himself. After spending two hours in the east caisson, Jaminet emerged from the stairwell and discovered that he could barely walk. Racked with pain, he somehow made his way home and spent several hours expecting death to come at any moment. Fortunately it didn’t, and his recovery enabled him to spend the next several weeks doing everything he could to assist those afflicted. His detailed transcript, published in 1871, is the first record in history of what we now know as “decompression sickness”.

The Grecian Bend

Jaminet was faced with quite a dilemma. As John L. Phillips explains in his book The Bends: Compressed Air in the History of Science, Diving, and Engineering, it was unlike anything that had been seen before. It was a disease unique to the Industrial Revolution, and Alphonse Jaminet had no medical or scientific basis to work from.

Named “caisson disease” when it reappeared during the building of the Brooklyn Bridge two years later, it was jokingly referred to as “the bends” by workmen in St. Louis. According to Robert W. Jackson in his book, Rails Across the Mississippi, this epithet evolved from a popular fashion of the time. Men who suffered through the severe stomach and joint pain often walked about with a bent over posture. In the late 1800’s, it looked similar to the “Grecian bend”, a pose many women in Victorian society used to show off their bustles.

Today, we know that decompression sickness happens as a result of leaving a pressurized environment (such as a caisson) too quickly. The increased nitrogen produced in the bloodstream in such an environment requires sufficient time to dissolve when leaving it. If the nitrogen doesn’t dissolve, it may form bubbles in the blood and tissues of the body. These bubbles can lodge in the head, abdomen, or joints, producing symptoms experienced by the men working in the caissons.

Jaminet recorded the details of every case presented to him. He attempted to isolate it by recording each worker’s age, nationality, amount of time worked, their body type, and even their daily behavior. His biggest frustration came from the unruly behavior of the men who paid little heed to his warnings. Mostly Irish and German, many of these men were young, strong, and not the type willing to lay down for a spell. With four dollars of pay in their pocket, many rushed out of the caissons and headed straight for the beer and whiskey offered at saloons and taverns along the riverfront.

Caisson & Pier Diagram

Jaminet knew the problem was related to changes in air pressure, but his efforts to remedy the problem never provided the proper level of decompression we know today. Despite this fact, his work must be commended. With the support of James Eads (who also believed frequent saloon visits had a hand in the matter), shift times were reduced, the time between shifts was increased, and men were compelled to rest and eat before going ashore. He even ordered a “floating hospital” built next to the east pier. Many men received overnight care in this facility on the river before being sent home or to the hospital. According to John Phillips, this clinic was the first of its kind to provide on-site care for workers injured on the job.

Perhaps most importantly, he insisted the men working the airlocks, the men essentially controlling the rate of decompression, follow strict guidelines. Prior to this, veteran workers often initiated “greens” to caisson work by opening airlocks as quickly as possible and letting air rush in.

Sinking the East PierHowever, a few methods implemented by Jaminet also display the basic lack of understanding of decompression. Along with his belief that drinking alcohol accelerated symptoms, he also believed taking a hot bath would hasten paralysis. Drinking water was forbidden, and men who complained of thirst were given ice cubes or beef tea. He wasn’t alone. Home remedies circled around the workmen themselves, including various elixirs and useless “magneto-electricity” amulets made of silver and copper.

Despite fifteen deaths, two permanently disabled men, over 100 caisson workers severely afflicted (not counting the men who simply walked off the job when they became ill) caisson and pier work didn’t miss a beat. In fact, the only time caisson work cease was when workers attempted to strike for higher pay. Knowing that St. Louis provided no shortage of men looking for work, Eads and the bridge company simply waited them out. After a few days without pay, the men shuffled back into the caissons.

East Caisson Detail

By late May 1870, work at the riverbed was complete. James Eads was filled with pride in observing the two the two largest and deepest bridge piers ever constructed rise out of the water. As Howard Miller explains in his benchmark essay about the bridge, he had ample reasoning to admire his masterpiece. His accomplished marked a new chapter in the annals of civil engineering. In discussing his accomplishment, Eads wrote:

“When I left it to-day, I could not help being impressed with the feeling that I had never undertaken any mechanical or engineering performance before with such full assurance that failure was absolutely impossible as in the case of this, the greatest work of my life…”

This sentiment is remarkable for a man whose life was filled with wondrous accomplishment. That story comes next in the Summer of Eads.

The Drink

Selecting a drink to celebrate the Eads Bridge was difficult. I can’t drink on the bridge, and the rows of saloons and taverns that once welcomed caisson workers between shifts are all long gone. But I wanted to find something I could tie to the men who did a job I’d never sign up for.

Despite Jaminet’s warnings about drinking alcohol, one can’t blame these guys for ignoring him completely. As I spend my days sitting in a cubicle for too much money, these guys spent their days shoveling mud for not enough. If they didn’t drink for the taste, they certainly drank to celebrate surviving another shift.

A final anecdote found in my research further illustrate the dangerous changes in air pressure these men experienced. In Rails Across the Mississippi, Robert W. Jackson tells the story of a caisson worker who inadvertently carried a flask of brandy in his pocket down into an air chamber. Or perhaps it was intentional, and this man thought a few nips far below would help prevent the joint pain he suffered after work. Either way, it must have been a shock when he emerged at the surface and the flask exploded in his pocket. If he hadn’t already determined his job was dangerous, he surely must have realized it at that moment.

Personally, I wouldn’t climb down into a caisson if the reincarnation of James Eads came back to life and offered to lead me down into one himself. Instead, I decided to simply go stare at it again, just as I did after my new friend Amanda told me her version of its story.

But this time, I brought a flask of brandy with me. With no risk of it exploding in my hand, I raised it and drank to the men who worked and died building our famous bridge.

quote_line

Sources invaluable to this post:

  • Rails across the Mississippi by Robert W. Jackson, 2001
  • The Eads Bridge by Howard Miller and Quinta Scott, 1999
  • A History of the St. Louis Bridge by C.M. Woodward, 1881
  • The Bends: Compressed air in the History of Science, Diving, and Engineering by John L. Phillips, 1998
  • Physical Effects of Compressed Air, and of the Causes of Pathological Symptoms Produced on Man, By Increased Atmospheric Pressure Employed for the Sinking of Piers, in the Construction of the Illinois and St. Louis Bridge over the Mississippi River at St. Louis Missouri by Alphonse Jaminet, M.D., 1871
May 7th, 2014 by Cameron

More Love for Rob & Ginny

Rob & Ginny's Crib

A few months ago, I started my third year as a volunteer docent at the Campbell House Museum in downtown St. Louis. I’ve said it many times before in this blog, but I just have to say it again: I love this place. There are so many reasons why it’s special, so I decided it was time for Distilled History to highlight a couple more of them for people to come down and see it in person.

When people take my tour of Robert and Virginia Campbell’s house, most visitors will recognize right away that I tend to focus on the history of the family and the house they inhabited. I do love all the stuff that’s inside the house, and I’ll always point it out, but I’ll admit that china sets and chamber pots are not my strong suit. If Ulysses S. Grant drank out of a silver cup that’s now on display in the butler’s pantry, knowing why he drank (and of course what he drank) is far more interesting to me than the cup itself.

My preference for the “how did it happen” instead of the “how pretty it is” could be why the history of the city of St. Louis gets a prime seat at the table during one of my tours. To me, the history of the Campbell House and the family is far more vivid when accompanied by the story of the city that rapidly grew around them. The two are irrevocably linked together.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. When Robert Campbell stepped onto the St. Louis riverfront for the first time in 1824, he stood before a town containing around 4,000 people. St. Louis was young, and it didn’t extend very far from the river that had initiated its creation. Lewis and Clark had set off just from the same point just twenty years earlier, and one of the city’s co-founders, Auguste Chouteau, was still alive.Rococo Revival Furniture

When Robert died just fifty-five years later in 1879, that small town had grown into an enormous beast of 350,000 people. He’d watch his house, built in 1851 on farmland beyond city limits, become enveloped by buildings, commerce, and a city that wasn’t taking it slow. The story of how all of that happened, and all of the accompanying subplots (Civil War, cholera, cyclones, and beer, to name just a few) makes for a fascinating Campbell House tour. Hear it, and one will understand that Rob and his family were on board for on one hell of a ride.

Anyway, one of the great things about being a visitor to the Campbell House is that every tour is different. While my tour may focus on how Rob and his family  moved through St. Louis, another docent may provide amazing facts about Rococo Revival furniture, Virginia’s intricate needlework on display in the formal parlor, or the $40,000 spent on one massive shopping trip in 1855 (for those wondering, that’s like dropping 1.5 million in today’s dollars).

Weekend Manager ExtraordinaireOne person in particular has a fun project going that’s helping me further appreciate these inanimate aspects of Campbell life. David Newman, the weekend manager, posts a daily photograph on social media as part of a project he calls “Campbell House Photo-a-Day”.

David is one of my favorite people at Campbell House. He’s barely over twenty (I think), and his energy level is really kind of disgusting. Along with his weekend responsibilities of keeping me and a few others in line, he’s in graduate school, he’s a Park Ranger at White Haven, and he’s frequently marching off to Civil War reenactments playing the role of a Union private. When all of that isn’t happening, he’s playing gigs or jamming with his band mates until the wee hours of the morning in his apartment in the Campbell Carriage House. Watching this guy go makes me feel very old.

But David knows his stuff, and talking Campbell history with him is fun. If we aren’t leading people around the house, we can usually be found seated around the break room table checking each other’s facts, comparing notes, and making sure our tours are solid.

He’s also got a great eye and is an accomplished photographer. I love this project he has going on, so I decided to take a break from the usual burden of research-heavy Distilled History and show off what David is up to. The following slide show highlights forty or so of my favorite images he has taken in recent weeks. Hopefully, they’ll convince a few Distilled History readers to take his tour and see these things for themselves.

After that, I hope people will come back and hear my side of the story.

(To see more of David’s fun project, search for #chmphotoaday on Instagram)

The Drink

Beer in the Garden

Another (new) aspect of my tour at the Campbell House is one that I’m pretty excited about. Since I started volunteering there, I’ve always thought it would be great if I could offer a cold beverage to people while they listened to me throw down some good history. I mean, my two favorite subjects are history and booze, so why not try to add a drink to my favorite history in St. Louis?

However, I knew without asking that serving beer inside the Campbell House was not an option.  Spilling PBR on a 165 year-old sofa would put me in some hot water. Even worse, it would certainly be me that spilled it. That can’t happen, but the idea kept nagging at me. But then it hit me: There are no sofas in the garden.

Suddenly, I had it all figured out! If I offered a cold beer to museum visitors outside, it would make for a fitting conclusion to the tour. It could also be an opportunity for visitors to take a seat under the gazebo and we’d continue the conversation from one of the best viewpoints of the house. We could even talk about Campbell family alcohol preferences (another topic I’ve included in recent tours).

Remarkably, when I reluctantly asked the museum brass if I could do this, their response was immediate.

Great idea! But the beer must be free.

Woah! Not only did they like the idea and support it, but the lack of a liquor license means I can’t charge a dime for it. My plan was to give it away all along, so everything has fit neatly into place. Come for a tour at the Campbell House, ask for the Distilled History guy, and you’ll get free beer on your tour. If you’re lucky, I’ll even have some homebrew on hand that I’m brewing specifically for this endeavor.

So, there you go. Plenty of reasons, including cold beer in your hand, to get down to the Campbell House Museum. You’re out of excuses.

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