Distilled History

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Archive for the ‘Civil War’ Category

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.


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
February 15th, 2013 by Cameron

Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Part I

American Experience

One of my favorite television programs is American Experience on PBS. Known for their well-produced and in-depth historical documentaries, American Experience has been simply killing it lately. “Death and the Civil War aired back in November, a film based on the fantastic book This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust. Recently, they aired another exceptional film titled  “The Abolitionists. A student of Civil War history, I couldn’t wait to see it. I’ve always been fascinated by the abolitionists and the significant role they played in the conflict.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy

I was especially excited because the St. Louis area has ties to one of the earliest and most noteworthy abolitionists, Elijah Parish Lovejoy. Although familiar with his tragic murder in 1837, I didn’t know much about the rest of his life. I looked forward to learning more in the documentary.

I was disappointed to discover that he’s barely mentioned.  Actually, the film could have been titled “The John Brown and Frederick Douglass Show”, since those two eat up most of the airtime (with a bit of William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe sprinkled in). Primary contributors to the movement for sure, but I think Lovejoy deserved more attention. In three hours of programming, his name is mentioned just once.

I think that’s a significant oversight. One of the earliest voices in the abolitionist movement, it was Lovejoy’s murder in that compelled the then-unknown John Brown to stand up in an Ohio church and dedicate his life to the abolition of slavery.

In fact, I think Lovejoy had such an impact, his story is a too good for just one blog post. For that reason, I’m splitting it into two. This week, I’ll discuss Lovejoy’s early years and his life as a newspaper editor in St. Louis. Next week, I’ll pick up the story when he moves north and meets his ultimate fate in Alton, Illinois.


Elijah Parish Lovejoy was born in Albion, Maine on November 9, 1802. The eldest of nine children, he was simply called “Parish” by members of his family. His upbringing was profoundly religious. Well educated and a gifted student, Lovejoy graduated at the top of his class at Waterville College in Maine (now Colby College).

He began his career as a teacher in Maine, but didn’t find the occupation satisfying. The lure of the frontier appealed to him, and he decided to move west. He came to St. Louis in 1827 at the age of 25. Incorporated as a city just five years earlier, St. Louis at the time had a population of about 5,000 people. It was the wild west, and Lovejoy was about to become one of its most controversial residents.

While in St. Louis, he decided to try his hand at journalism. In 1830, he purchased one-half interest in a newspaper named the St. Louis Times. He spent the next two years working as its editor.

The Old Meeting House

At this stage of his life, there were few signs that Lovejoy would become a leading voice in the growing abolitionist movement. Letters home focus more on religion and his difficulty fully embracing the fervent doctrine espoused by his parents. His early editorials in the St. Louis Times seldom mention the institution of slavery. Privately, he thought the institution was evil, but he believed that emancipation should be gradual, not immediate.

That would change in 1832, when Lovejoy attended a service at the 1st Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. On that day, an abolitionist named Reverend David Nelson addressed the congregation. His words made a significant impact on Elijah Lovejoy.

Nelson openly condemned the institution of slavery as evil. He attacked the selling of human beings as a sin as great as adultery and murder. As a result of Nelson’s speech, Lovejoy found his religious awakening and was soon converted. Befriending the fiery speaker, Nelson recognized Lovejoy’s abilities and counseled him to enter the ministry. Lovejoy took his advice, heading east to attend the Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. Again finishing at the top of his class, Lovejoy returned to St. Louis and resumed his career as an editor, albeit with a far different voice.

He sold his stake in the St. Louis Times and started a new paper named the St. Louis Observer. It was to be a religious publication, dedicated to attacking frontier vices such as alcohol, tobacco, and “moral laxity”. In the early months of publication, only occasional references were made to slavery. Now a Presbyterian minister, he used the paper mainly as a platform for his religious beliefs. Displaying a defiant personality, Lovejoy was completely intolerant of any faith other than his own. He frequently attacked Baptists, Episcopalians, most of all, Roman Catholics. Referring to the faith as “Popery”, he condemned anyone remotely associated with the Roman Catholic Church.

The St. Louis Observer

In 1834, the language of Lovejoy’s editorials begins to shift. The discussion of slavery becomes more common and confrontational.  Although insisting that he was not an abolitionist, Lovejoy begins to demand for an immediate end to slavery. In an 1835 editorial, he writes: “The atmosphere of slavery is an unnatural one for Americans to live in. The institution is repugnant to the very first principles of liberty.”

Slavery Quote

In the slave state of Missouri, the majority of the population wanted nothing to do with any form of emancipation, gradual or immediate. With each editorial, Lovejoy was increasingly viewed as a troublemaker and a destabilizing force in the city. Threats of tar and feathering, physical harm, and destruction of his newspaper operation became common. One local paper even posted handbills around the city calling for mob action to destroy his printing press.

Increasingly worried for his safety, Lovejoy’s friends and colleagues pleaded with him to ease his rhetoric. Lovejoy would have none of it. He responded defiantly that his rights to free speech and free press were constitutionally protected. He also didn’t hesitate to respond to threats by being provocative in return. When pro-slavery voices accused him of favoring interracial marriage, he raised the taboo subject of sexual abuse in a slave society. Claiming the raping of slaves by their masters was even worse than the physical torture of whips and lashes, Lovejoy enraged his detractors even further. Up to that point, nobody had printed anything like that in St. Louis.

Elijah Lovejoy Quote

Despite his defiance, one dramatic event changed everything for Elijah Lovejoy.  In April 1836, a free black man named Francis McIntosh was involved in a scuffle on the St. Louis riverfront. It started when an unruly sailor was attempting to avoid arrest as McIntosh stood nearby. What happened next varies by account. Either McIntosh helped the man escape, or he ignored a request to assist in apprehending him. Either way, McIntosh was himself arrested and taken off to jail. Captured and charged with a crime in a slave state, McIntosh likely determined that his days of freedom were numbered. As two men led him to jail, McIntosh pulled a knife and lunged. One constable was killed and the other was seriously injured.


Captured again, McIntosh was locked up in jail. News of the event spread quickly through the city, and someone suggested McIntosh should be burned alive. A large mob soon gathered around the jailhouse, with over 2,000 enraged citizens clamoring for justice. Eventually, the mob broke through the door and pulled McIntosh from his cell. Dragged to the edge of town, McIntosh was chained him to a locust tree while wood was piled around him. The pyre was lit and McIntosh slowly started to burn. As the flames engulfed him, McIntosh pleaded for someone in the crowd to shoot him and put him out of his misery.

The Francis McIntosh Lynching

The fire burned for more than twenty minutes before McIntosh succumbed. With their task complete, the crowd quickly dispersed. With his charred remains left chained to the tree, a group of children began throwing rocks at his corpse in a game to see who could break the skull first.

Appalled by the event, Elijah Lovejoy went on the attack. In his next editorial, he harshly condemned the actions of the mob. Lamenting the lack of lawful society in St. Louis, he proclaimed it to be “savage barbarity”. He called for all who participated in the lynching to “seek forgiveness”.

A court was convened to investigate the lynching. Presiding over the grand jury was a judge named Luke Edward Lawless.  A slave-owner himself, Lawless had no problem with the rough culture of his city. He proceeded to make one of the most amazing speeches in the history of our nation’s courts.

As he addressed the grand jury, Lawless stated that the death of Francis McIntosh was unlawful and tragic. However, he instructed the grand jury not to hold anyone guilty of the crime. He stated that since thousands were involved, the case was “beyond the reach of human law”. Lawless then produced copies of the St. Louis Observer and handed them to the jury.  Reading specific anti-slavery quotes from the publication, he stated it was newspapers like the Observer that “fanaticize the negro and excite him against the white man”. By doing so, he laid blame squarely at the feet of Elijah P. Lovejoy. He then asked for action against Lovejoy, asking the grand jury to consider what could be done about press that causes “widespread mischief”.

Judge Lawless

Despite Lovejoy’s scathing rebuttal in the next Observer editorial, the speech by Lawless was welcomed by the people of St. Louis. After alienating almost everyone in town, and for fear of physical violence against his family, Elijah Lovejoy announced that the Observer would be moved across the river to Alton, Illinois. Believing he’d have more support on free soil while being able to maintain St. Louis subscriptions, Lovejoy decided it was time to go.

On the same night his final editorial was published, a group of men gathered in St. Louis. Banging a drum as they marched through the streets, the mob quickly grew to over 200 men. They arrived at the front door of Lovejoy’s newspaper operation just after midnight. The door was broken down and contents of the building were attacked. Lovejoy’s printing press was broken apart and thrown in the Mississippi.

It was the first of Elijah P. Lovejoy’s printing presses to be destroyed and thrown in a river. There would be three more.

The Drink

Paul Simon

In my research for this post, I was pleased to find a biography written by none other than the late bow-tied Senator of Illinois, Paul Simon. His book Freedom’s Champion was a great introduction Lovejoy’s life. Simon should know a thing or two about Lovejoy, since he also worked as a newspaper editor in southern Illinois before entering politics.

As for getting the drink, this was a tough one. Lovejoy didn’t drink, and he didn’t care for drinkers. I couldn’t really go by location, because the Gateway Arch now stands where Lovejoy’s home and newspaper operation existed. The “Old Meeting House” where he preached still stands in St. Louis County, but there isn’t a bar anywhere near it. That left me with the event that ended his time in St. Louis, the Francis McIntosh lynching.

I read several accounts of that tragic event for this post. One claimed it happened “in the center of town”, but the general consensus was that McIntosh was dragged to the western outskirts of the city. What’s remarkable to remember is that in 1836, the outskirts of the city was less than a mile from the riverfront. The exact location is unknown, but a few accounts placed the episode somewhere near the intersection of 7th and Chestnut.

Thinking there must be a place to get a drink around there, I was horrified to find a Hooters at that exact intersection. I could only imagine what kind of hell would arrive in my glass if I ordered a cocktail there.

Just for fun, I decided to see what would happen if I did.  At the very least, I figured it’d make for a good story.

I sat down at the bar and was greeted by the standard Hooters waitress. She was exceptionally friendly, squeezed into a shirt that was far too small, and absolutely clueless about how to make a Manhattan.  She actually called me “Baby”.

The Hooters Manhattan

She ran off to get instructions from her manager. When she returned, I was pleasantly surprised when she asked me if I’d like it up or on the rocks (a good start). I ordered it up with Jack Daniels and she ran off again to make it.

As I waited for her return, I couldn’t get over the environment. First of all, the lighting in Hooters is glaring. It’s so bright in there,  I felt like I was in a police lineup. Maybe that’s the point, but you certainly can’t drink in the shadows at a Hooters. Next to me at the bar was a guy who brought his girlfriend in for Valentines Day. I couldn’t help but smile as they exchanged kisses between bites of chicken wings.

My drink arrived in a rocks glass (cocktail glasses are not an option at Hooters). I think the ratio of whiskey to vermouth was at least five to one. In other words, I had a glass of whiskey. Surprisingly, no cherry was added. What’s weirder is that I watched the waitress shake it vigorously in ice, but the drink was lukewarm when I took a sip. I can offer no plausible explanation.

What a wretched drink snob I am, but I must say that the experience was really amusing. The staff was extremely friendly and fun about it. Even the manager came over and asked me if the drink was any good. I lied and said it was. Finally, he laughed and said “We don’t get that drink order in here very often”. Nope, I bet they sure don’t.

October 12th, 2012 by Cameron

The (Almost) Civil War Bicycle Tour of St. Louis

The Civil War in St. Louis

I am a big fan of travel writing. I like to read about the different perspectives and experiences offered by people who seek out hidden corners of the world. Travelogues often contain a great amount of historical discovery. Guys like Paul Theroux and Simon Winchester write great books that see back in time. A few years ago, a good friend told me that I should read A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson. The book tells the story of his attempt to hike the entire 2,000+ miles of the Appalachian Trail in one shot.

Bill Bryson is a great writer. He is brilliant and extremely funny. He’s an American, but he lived in England for twenty years. His book about hiking the Appalachian Trail was an attempt to rediscover America after moving back to the states. Recently, Bryson has ventured into other areas of study such as science (A Short History of Nearly Everything) and history (At Home: A Short History of Private Life). I’ve read many of his books, and I’ve enjoyed all of them.

Well, except for A Walk in the Woods.

Actually, maybe I shouldn’t go that far. I enjoyed much of the book. It’s funny and insightful. Bryson has a great ability to describe his encounters with bears, bizarre characters (like the noteworthy “Chicken John”), and the trail itself. He provides history of the trail and he makes a strong plea for conservation while he’s at it. His partner on the hike, a former drug addict named simply “Katz”, is the perfect comedic sideshow to the story. But here’s my issue (spoiler alert!): They didn’t finish the hike. After months of bugs, bears, turmoil, and mayhem, the two decided to quit and go home. I can’t deny that I had a bad taste in my mouth as I read the final pages.

A Walk in the Woods

So, why am I even talking about Bill Bryson? Why mention him in a blog post titled “The (Almost) Civil War Bicycle Tour of St. Louis”? It’s because on a far smaller scale, I may have found my reason to cut Bill Bryson a little slack.

Here’s what I had in mind for this blog post. Recently, I discovered the Missouri History Museum released a mobile app named “The Civil War in St. Louis”. It’s free, and I highly recommend it to anyone who would like to get out and see some historical locations in St. Louis relating to the Civil War. The app focuses on a “primary” tour containing twenty sites. The app provides directions, maps, photographs, descriptions, and even an audio narrative to listen to at each stop. The app also contains several “secondary” locations that are notable, but not included in the main tour.

I haven’t worked the Civil War into this blog so far, so I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to do so. Even better, I came up with a plan to do the entire tour by bicycle in one day. It’d be a perfect opportunity to get a long ride in, learn some Civil War history, and of course, get some drinks along the way (well, it is Distilled History, after all). Hitting all twenty sites in one shot would present me with a bike ride of about fifty-five miles. Throw in some history, and that’s a fun day.

The app is based on a book I am already familiar with: The Civil War in St. Louis: A Guided Tour, by William C. Winter. St. Louis played a huge factor in the Civil War, so I was really excited to get this day going. Just glancing at the list of sites, I knew I was going to learn a few things. I know nothing about Brant Mansion, Berthold Mansion, or Myrtle Street Prison. Others I know well, like the Eugene Field House, Lyon Park, and Stifel’s Brewery. A few of the sites will eventually get their own post in this blog, such as Camp Jackson and Lynch’s Slave Pen.

So there’s my plan. Follow along as I provide the commentary of my day. I realize I’m no travel writer, but I think it’s about as close as I’ll ever get to doing something like documenting a hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Ruby & I

My plan was to park near the first stop (the Old Courthouse), but I quickly realized I picked the absolute wrong day to do this tour. There’s a Cardinal playoff game going on at Busch Stadium. This means I’m kidding myself if I think I can park downtown. I’m also surrounded by a sea of red. It’s about an hour before game time, so the sidewalks are packed with Cardinal fans milling around. As I begin my tour, I’m slightly annoyed.

Map to Stop #1

I find a parking spot several blocks away and I bike to the first stop of the tour. When I get to the “Stop #1″ marker on the iPhone map, I’m facing the Old Courthouse on 4th and Market. I play the audio tour through the app and I hear the story of Dred and Harriet Scott.

Anyone who doesn’t know about Dred Scott surely slept through history class. History is probably the only class I didn’t sleep through, so I think it’s great that I live in a town with ties to this guy. In 1846, it was in this courthouse that Dred and Harriet began the fight to get their freedom. After years of trials and appeals, the case would eventually reach the United States Supreme Court. The verdict would be a divisive moment in the years leading to the Civil War. Today, the Old Courthouse is one of the iconic structures in St. Louis and is currently going through some renovations. A nice statue of Dred and Harriet sits on 4th Street facing the Gateway Arch.

Dred Scott’s story in St. Louis is definitely something I plan to write about in the future, so I won’t say any more. Time to head to the second stop of the tour.

Stop #1 - The Old Courthouse #1

Stop #2 - The Old Courthouse #2

The second stop of the tour is on the other side of the Old Courthouse, so I simply just walk around the block. I’m facing the building from the Broadway side. There are tons of Cardinal fans here. I’m in full bike gear and scalpers are trying to sell me tickets. Really?


The app plays and tells another story of the Old Courthouse. The front steps of the Old Courthouse were once used for slave auctions in St. Louis. At the time of the Civil War, St. Louis was largely a pro-Union city in a slave state. The audio commentary tells the story of a slave auction that occurred here on January 1, 1861. At this sale, a group of anti-slavery protesters disrupted the proceedings by continuously making low-ball auction bids. Eventually, the slave dealers became frustrated and left. I think that’s pretty great story and I’m happy to learn about it. Time to head to the third stop.

Stop #2 - The Old Courthouse #2

The app now directs me to another corner on the same block. I simply walk over and face the corner of northwest corner of 4th and Chestnut. Except for the short ride to the first stop, I haven’t even gotten on the bike. This is pretty easy tour so far.

Map to Stop #3

This is the former site of the grand Planters House Hotel. Nothing remains of it today, but it was once one of the most lavish and famous hotels in St. Louis. Celebrities, dignitaries and politicians were frequent guests. I’ll also give a plug to the Campbell House Museum and mention it was also the home of Robert and Virginia Campbell after they were first married. I play the audio commentary, and it tells me a story I’m familiar with. In June 1861, this is where a famous meeting between the pro-Confederate Missouri Governor Claiborne Jackson and Union leader Nathaniel Lyon occurred. They met to discuss the fate of Missouri in the coming conflict.

History tells us that meeting didn’t go very well. To sum it up, at one point Lyon famously stood up and proclaimed “This means war!” before storming out. Whew. That’s not good.

Three stops down and seventeen to go.

Stop #3 - The Planters House Hotel

For stop four, I’m directed to the northwest corner of Pine and Broadway, just a couple blocks south of the Old Courthouse. It’s the former site of the Berthold Mansion. I had to weave through several Cardinal fans, but I barely needed to clip into my pedals. One group of people liked the University of Dayton sweatshirt I had on (I’m an alum), so I received a series of fist-bumps. Strangely, that was about the only human interaction I had during the tour (other than the bartenders I’d soon be ordering from, of course).

Map to Stop #4

I’m actually not familiar with the Berthold Mansion. The app tells me that at one time, it was the stronghold of a group of pro-Confederate men in St. Louis who called themselves “The Minutemen” (hey, that’s original). One day in early 1861, these guys raised a secessionist flag over the mansion, enraging Union supporters in St. Louis. The Confederate flag had yet to be designed, but this was actually one of the first southern flags to fly in Missouri. It an example of the deep rift that existed among certain groups of St. Louisans leading up to the war. Actually, I’m realizing that is the primary theme of the tour. St. Louis was a divided city during the Civil War, and it the atmosphere was tense.

Stop #4 - Berthold Mansion

Next, I’m led about two blocks south 510 Locust Street. I’m now facing the current Mercantile Exchange Building. The app tells me it is the former location of the St. Louis Mercantile Library. According to Winter’s Civil War book, the Mercantile Library is still open, but that’s obviously not the case. The app sets me straight and tells me the library has recently moved to the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Map to Stop #5

When I listened to the audio commentary, I had my first “No shit?” moment of the day. I learned the Mercantile Library first opened in 1854. The building was three stories tall, and the Grand Hall on the third floor was the largest assembly room in St. Louis at the time. In 1861, that hall was the location where a group of state delegates met and voted to keep Missouri in the Union. I never knew this was the location where that went down. I love learning history tidbits like that.

Even better, I then learned that the assembly hall is also where the Missouri Emancipation Ordination was adopted in 1865, officially freeing all slaves in the state. Again, I find myself saying “No shit?”.

Stop #5 - The Mercantile Library

Finally, I get to ride for a few miles. Stop #6 is Lyon Park, a location I know well. It sits directly to the east of the Anhueser-Busch (ahem, InBev) Brewery on South Broadway. South Broadway is a great street to ride a bicycle on. It’s wide, has bike lanes, and it goes through great neighborhoods. There is history all around.

Map to Stop #6

The park is named for Union General Nathaniel Lyon. A large statue of him sits at one corner of the park. It was also the site of the United States Arsenal during the time of the Civil War. It was here that Lyon organized his troops to march on the Confederates camped at Camp Jackson on the western edge of St. Louis. The result would be one of the most dramatic events in St. Louis history. As I mentioned earlier, Camp Jackson will definitely get its own post in Distilled History at some time, so I won’t go into further detail here.

Stop #6 - Lyon Park

Time to get a drink. Heading back north on Broadway, I turn into Soulard and stop for a couple at 1860 Saloon. Obviously, I pick this place simply for the name.

Map to Drink Stop #1

The next stop takes me back north. Here’s my first indication that the Missouri History Museum didn’t design this tour for bicyclists. Or maybe they didn’t mean for it to be done all in one shot? Stop #7 brings me back to almost exactly where the tour started. In addition, I’m passing stops that I know I have to visit later on. Fortunately, I like bicycling.

Map to Stop #7

I’m on the riverfront just north of the Martin Luther King bridge. In the fall of 1863, a man named Frank Martin was fishing from a small boat here on the river. He witnessed several men lighting a nearby steamboat on fire. The fire spread to two other steamboats before being extinguished. According to the audio commentary, this became a common practice in the next few months. It seems lighting steamboats on fire became a common way for pro-Confederates and pro-Unionists to piss each other off. When arson starts happening, you know you are in a divided city.

Stop #7 - Steamboat Fires

The next stop sends me south to another point on the riverfront. I’m now directly in front of the Arch, but facing east, looking over the river. I passed right by this stop to get to the other riverfront stop. Sigh.

Map to Stop #8


When I play the audio commentary, I hear a pretty cool story. At this location in 1863, twenty-one people were huddled aboard a ship named the “Belle Memphis”. Accused of being southern sympathizers and spies, these men and women were being banished from St. Louis. The ship took these people down the river to a port in Tennessee and simply dumped them off. One woman was included in this group simply for writing a letter to her husband in the Confederate Army. They were forced to make their way in a new city. Most would never return to St. Louis.

Stop #8 - Banished Southern Sympathizers

For the next stop, I head back north and west into downtown. I’m backtracking again. I pass by Lumière Casino, which makes me cringe. It’s the biggest eyesore on the riverfront. It doesn’t help that I’d rather be dragged over broken glass than spend time at a casino.

Map to Stop #9

When I get to the next stop, I’m at the corner of Washington and Tucker. In 1864, this was the northernmost point of the Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair. I have read about this event, but I don’t know much about it. The app fills in some gaps. During the war, St. Louis was overcome with illness, severe injury, and death on a scale never before experienced. The fair was a fundraiser organized by Union supporters in order to raise money for U.S. soldiers and the families they left behind. It brought in a profit of $500,000, medical supplies, and much-needed relief to city that needed it. According to the app commentary, this fair attracted visitors from all over the country.

Stop #9 - Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair

The next two stops are actually both at the same place. I’m directed south to the intersection of Broadway and Clark. It’s located right next to Busch Stadium. The baseball game has started, but I still had to deal with traffic and tons of Cardinal fans as I make my way to the stop.

Map to Stop #10

Back in the Civil War era, this was the corner of Myrtle and 5th. It was the site of business for Mr. Bernard Lynch, a successful slave dealer. At this corner, in the shadow of the present-day Busch Stadium, a large slave pen existed. Even worse, it was notable for containing children. At this site, children as young as five years old were held and auctioned off.

In 1861, Union soldiers seized Lynch’s Slave Pen and converted it to Myrtle Street Prison. The audio commentary then tells me about one of the famous inmates of Myrtle Street Prison. During the 1850’s Colonel “Doc” Jennison and his men (called “Jayhawks”) terrorized and looted towns along the Missouri-Kansas border. His imprisonment sparked controversy in St. Louis because many in town considered him a faithful Unionist and proud supporter of abolition.

Today, the factory that makes Tums antacid tablets is located here. It’s also filled with tons of ticket scalpers on game day.

Stop #10 & #11

The app then directs me south to the Eugene Field House. I’m curious because Eugene Field really had nothing to do with the Civil War. It’s a great historic home, but Eugene Field barely lived here. And what’s the deal with the toy museum? He was a poet. My beloved Campbell House should be on this tour before Field House is. Also, why didn’t the app stop me here when I passed it on the way to Lyon Park?

Map to Stop #12

Anyway, the Eugene Field House is located at 634 South Broadway. It was part of “Walsh’s Row”, a series of brick houses built in 1845. The Eugene Field House is the only one that remains. Fortunately, I’m pleased that to hear that its inclusion in this tour is due to Eugene’s father, Roswell Field. In 1853, it was Roswell Field who brought the Dred Scott case to the Supreme Court. His reputation and legacy would forever benefit from that case.

Stop #12 - Eugene Field House

Time for another drink stop. This place has been mentioned before in my blog post about Compton & Dry. It’s next to Field House and it’s empty, so it’s a good place to take a breather. All the Cardinal fans are at the game, so I have the outdoor garden to myself. The weather is great, so I sit outside and have a couple of beers.

Map to Drink Stop #2

First of all, I finally learned how to pronounce this street. It’s pronounced “Grash-ut”. It’s not a commonly referred to street in St. Louis, but I always assumed it was pronounced “Grat-ee-ot” or something odd like that. I could do an entire blog post about how St. Louisans pronounce their streets. Seriously. I think I may have to do that.

Map of Stop #13

I’m now at the intersection of Chouteau and 8th. This was the location of the Union-run Gratiot Street Prison. It was smack in the middle of one of St. Louis’s wealthiest neighborhoods at the time. Twelve-hundred prisoners were first incarcerated here on Christmas Eve in 1861. Prisoners included men, women, and children. If you broke the law in St. Louis, you were likely headed to this overcrowded and filthy prison.

Today, it’s the entrance to Purina Corporation’s parking lot.

Stop #13 - Gratiot Street Prison

Here’s where the bike riding starts. I know the location of Camp Jackson well, so I hop on the bike and head west towards St. Louis University. I get to the corner of Grand & Lindell and walk through campus.

Map to Stop #14

This area was once the outskirts of St. Louis. The area was called “Lindell Grove”. The app tells the story of Camp Jackson, which is also discussed at the Lyon Park stop. Anyone who is interested in the Civil War in St. Louis needs to know about what went down during the Camp Jackson affair. Some even refer to the event as the “St. Louis Massacre”. It’s easily the most significant even in St. Louis during the Civil War. It’s also too big of a deal to discuss here, so look for a future Distilled History post about it.

Surprisingly, there’s a plaque here providing some historical information about Camp Jackson. Usually, if there’s anything historically significant near St. Louis University, it gets ripped down. Father Biondi must have missed this.

Stop #14 - Camp Jackson

Here’s a lengthy ride into north St. Louis. Unlike some people, I love biking in north St. Louis. I love to see the architecture and think about how things have changed in this city. Even better, Benton Barracks was where Fairground Park is now located. There is great history in this part of town. You can get worked over in this part of town if you aren’t careful, but I’ve never had an issue.The app tells me to go to the western edge of the park at the corner of Natural Bridge and Fair.

Map to Stop #15

I don’t know a ton about Benton Barracks, so I’m excited to hear what the app tells me. This is where Union soldiers encamped and trained in St. Louis during the Civil War. It was built on 150 acres of land owned by John O’Fallon, a prominent St. Louisan at that time. The app also tells a humorous story about a man who refused to move off the land to make room for the camp, so the army made him a chaplain. He was an atheist, but the new gig allowed him to stay put.

Stop #15 - Benton Barracks

The tour is now sending me all the way back into south city. This is a perfect time to stop and get a drink. On my way south, I take a detour into Lafayette Square and get a beer at Square One Brewery. St. Louis has recently exploded with several great microbreweries, and Square One is a good example. They serve good craft beer here.

Map to Drink Stop #3

I’m now heading to the intersection of Indiana and Shenandoah in south city. This could have been placed right after the Gratiot Street Prison stop. There doesn’t seem to be any timeline to the tour, so why are the tour stops spread out all over the place?

Map to Stop #16

This area is the former location of Fort No. 4, one of a serious of fortifications that existed around St. Louis. The app then tells me the story about a pretty significant event that happened here. In 1864, a crowd of 3,000 people gathered here to watch the execution of six Confederate soldiers. The execution was part of a grizzly act of retribution ordered by Union command. Six Confederate captives were picked at random and shot. Today, their graves can be found in a single row at Jefferson Barracks.

Stop #16 - Fort No. 4

If you notice, I seem to have skipped stop #17. That’s because this is my Bill Bryson moment. Stop #17 is supposed to send me to the U.S. Grant National Historic Site. Located west of the city, bicycling there and back would add about twenty-five miles to the tour. It’s getting late and there is simply no way I’m doing that. I’m not even giving it a second thought. Maybe that’s what went through Bill Bryson’s head as he looked at his itinerary: “No way. I’m going home”. Furthermore, it’s not like I’m writing a book about this. It’s a simple blog post. Grant is getting skipped.

Well played, Mr. Bryson. Well played.

Still, I have to head back into north city to get to stop #18. Why wasn’t I directed there after Benton Barracks? I’m tired of riding through downtown St. Louis.

Map to Stop #18

Eventually, I get to the corner of Howard and 14th just north of downtown. It’s hard to believe a large brewery once stood here. At the time of the Civil War, this was the site of a brewery owned by Charles Gottfried Stifel, a German who came to St. Louis in 1849. In 1860, Stifel bought twenty-five muskets and began drilling other German Unionists in the malt house of his brewery. Pro-Unionist Germans in St. Louis signed up with Stifel’s militia in large numbers. A year later, his force of 1,000 men were ambushed by secessionists in downtown St. Louis. The conflict would leave eight St. Louisans dead.

Stifel will definitely get his own place in Distilled History, so I won’t say much more now. In addition, I’m antsy to close out this tour.

Stop #18 - Stifel Brewery


Stop #19 directs me back south. Of course, I’m heading right back to a part of town I’ve been to twice already. This is insane. I’m too tired to even stop for a beer. I need to get this thing over with.


Still, I know nothing about Brant Mansion. I’m pleasantly surprised about what I hear from the audio commentary at this stop. For a few months in 1861, this house was the Union headquarters of John C. Frémont. I actually wrote a paper about John C. Frémont in college, so I’m kind of pissed at myself for not knowing about this house. The story of Frémont is good. He angered Abraham Lincoln early in the war when he put Missouri under martial law and then threatened to free Missouri slaves. When Lincoln overruled him, his wife even traveled to Washington to plead his case. In the end, Frémont learned you don’t cross Abe. Soon after, he was looking for new work.



Finally, the final stop. It’s sends me back into downtown. The final stop is St. John’s Apostle and Evangelist Church located on Plaza Square. It’s about a mile away.


I often mention this church during tours at Campbell House Museum. It’s one of the few remaining structures in that area that were built prior to the war and still exist. Interestingly, this church was funded by donations from a Confederate militia. The priest, John Bannon, was a Confederate soldier. As a result, he was targeted by Union supporters. He had to disguise himself in order to escape out the back of his church and find protection outside of St. Louis.



I skipped it, but I decided that I should at least drive out to White Haven and complete the tour. I bike back to the car and load it up. I then head to the U.S. Grant National Historic Site west of the city. When I get there, I’m confronted with big, white, closed metal gates. It’s after 5 p.m. and I realize the place is closed. I’m elated! If I had biked twelve miles to find myself staring at a closed gate, I would have lost my mind.


Most St. Louisans are familiar with White Haven. It’s one of two structures still standing in St. Louis that Ulysses S. Grant lived in. Grant first visited White Haven after he graduated from West Point. He came to White Haven to visit the family of one of his fellow cadets, Fred Dent. While there, he’d meet Julia Dent, his future wife. What’s even more interesting is that the Dents were slave owners. The man who would lead the Union Army and help free the slaves married into a family that had eighteen of them.


The Drink

So there’s the tour. Twenty sites and about twenty-nine miles on the bike. I headed back home and enjoyed a Hendrick’s martini on my porch to close out the day.

In closing, I would like to add that the Missouri History Museum really put together a great mobile app. Even though I whined about the route, it was a fun day. Many of the “then” images used in this post are directly from that app, so they get the credit all around. I purposely skipped a bunch of information revealed in the app, so I recommend other St. Louis history nuts check it out and maybe visit a few sites. It’s definitely a neat experience to stand at the same sites where history happened.

Last but not least, get over and see the Museum’s exhibit about the Civil War in Missouri before it closes. It’s very impressive.

Finally, during my route, I took a hand-held GPS with me that tracked my route. The crazy map below shows why I’m now ready to show a bit more appreciation for Bill Bryson and his desire to simply go home.

Civil War Bike Map


July 5th, 2012 by Cameron

The Duel on Sunflower Island

View of Alton from Smallpox Island

This is a view of the city of Alton, Illinois from “Smallpox Island”. No longer an actual island, it’s now a recreation area on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. It’s located about nine miles north of the city of St. Louis.

Before the Civil War, it was called “Sunflower Island”. The name changed when a hospital was built there to quarantine prisoners from the Alton Confederate Prison Camp who had become afflicted with communicable disease.

But in 1842, a very interesting event happened on this island. At the time, a man by the name of James Shields was the Illinois State Auditor. He was also a political rival of a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. While living in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln crossed Shields by writing a letter to a Springfield newspaper called the Sagamon Journal. In the letter, Lincoln criticized and poked fun at Shields. This wasn’t an uncommon practice in politics back then. But Mary Todd, Lincoln’s future wife, complicated matters. Unbeknownst to Lincoln, Todd continued writing letters and articles to the paper under a phony name. Her letters openly ridiculed Shields. As a result, his reputation really began to suffer in political circles.


Thinking Abraham Lincoln was behind everything, Shields publicly accused him of having his future wife Mary Todd write the letters. Demanding “satisfaction”, he then challenged Lincoln to a duel. Thinking Lincoln would back down and apologize when confronted with such a decision, Lincoln surprisingly accepted. Since dueling was illegal in Illinois at the time, the two men agreed to cross the river and duel on Missouri’s Sunflower Island on September 22, 1842.

Abraham Lincoln & James Shields

James Shields was 5 feet 9 inches tall, which is tall man for 1842. But Lincoln towered over him at 6 feet 4 inches tall. Since the person challenged has the choice of weapon in a duel, Lincoln smartly exploited his wingspan advantage. Instead of choosing the standard pistol, he chose heavy cavalry sabers. These large swords were commonly referred to at the time as “wrist-breakers”. To emphasize his advantage, Lincoln demonstrated his skill on the day of the duel by hacking down a few tree branches down above Shields’ head. Seeing this demonstration, Shields quickly realized he was outmatched. Not only would he likely lose the duel, he’d look ridiculous while doing so.

Lincoln's Weapon of Choice

Fortunately, memories of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton’s ill-fated duel in 1804 still lingered. The seconds for Lincoln and Shields stepped in and convinced the men to avoid bloodshed. After tempers cooled, Lincoln took responsibility for the letters and issued an apology.

Instead of slicing up a political opponent, Lincoln would obviously go on to become the greatest President this country has ever known. But Shields’ career didn’t turn out too shabby, either. He fought in the Mexican War, the Civil War, and is the only American to have served as a United States Senator for three different states (Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri).

The Drink

Fast Eddie's Bon Air

The drink section of this post was a bit difficult. Since I travelled to Alton to research this post on the 4th of July holiday, I couldn’t find a cocktail bar that was open. But since it’s Alton, my St. Louis pals know there’s one place that won’t turn you away. And since it was 103 degrees outside, it wasn’t exactly martini drinking weather. That’s cheap lager drinking weather. With that, it’s a no-brainer to get a cold one at Fast Eddie’s Bon Air.

Fast Eddie’s has a good story of its own. It was originally owned by Anheuser-Busch. In 1921, the brewery decided to open a drinking establishment in the river town of Alton, Illinois (some St. Louisans may know this is how Bevo Mill in south St. Louis also got its start). It was originally named the “Bon-Air”. However, after owning the bar for ten years, a new statute prohibited brewing companies from owning drinking establishments. It was sold to two men who then operated the bar until 1981. That’s when a man named Eddie Sholar bought it and changed the name to “Fast Eddie’s Bon Air”.

Today, Fast Eddie’s claims to be one of the largest bars in the midwest. On busy nights, it’s packed with hundreds of people. According to their website, some people claim is the #1 volume bar in the world. That seems like a stretch to me, but the place is very big, and it’s very popular. It’s also known for its cheap food. All menu items are the exact same price as the day food started being served, nineteen years ago.

Bud Heavy

Since Fast Eddie’s was originally an A-B bar, drinking cold Budweiser, Bud Light, Busch, and the other AB products is the way to go. I don’t even know if you can get a cocktail at Fast Eddie’s. Honestly, I’ve been there a dozen times and the thought of ordering one there has never crossed my mind.

After walking around Alton, Illinois in 103 degree heat researching this and a few other future history posts, I had no problem drinking cold cheap beer. I don’t really need to go into detail about drinking Anheuser-Busch. We all know how it works. I had a couple of Bud heavies and headed back to St. Louis.

I can be a beer snob with the best of them, but not on this day.


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