Distilled History

A Drinking Blog with a History Problem

Archive for the ‘Historic Photography’ Category

June 6th, 2017 by Cameron Collins

A Toast to Minnie Kleeman

A small piece of history

Sometimes even the littlest of things can make a tremendous impact.

I should know, because I watched it happen two years ago. And it all started with a little piece of paper with the name “Minnie” written on it.

To be more specific, this little piece of paper is glued to the inside of a kitchen cabinet at the Campbell House Museum, where I’ve been a volunteer since 2012.  The written name “Minnie” is short for “Philomena”, as in Philomena Ann Kleeman, a cook who lived and worked in the Campbell family’s home over eighty years ago.

But before I get to the great story about Minnie and that little piece of paper, allow me to provide a bit of background information.

Philomena Kleeman in 1934The Campbell House Museum has been open for more than seventy years. And while it’s a great place for visitors to look at beautiful stuff and hear great stories, much more is happening behind the scenes. It’s a place of constant research and learning, and that’s a major reason I’m glad to be part of the Campbell family.

And it may surprise many that we are still just scratching the surface. Even after seventy-four years of operation, significant new information is constantly emerging. For example, we didn’t know the name of the architects who designed the house until a few years ago (Joseph C. Edgar and Thomas Warying Walsh). We just learned where one of the Campbell children is buried (he’s in Bellefontaine Cemetery with his brothers and sisters). And in an astounding 2012 discovery, it was proven that Robert Campbell once owned an enslaved woman named Eliza. All of these are important changes to the Campbell narrative, but even the littlest things like name pronunciations have thrown us for a loop. If you took my tour four years ago, you would have heard me pronounce Hazlett Campbell’s name with a short “a” vowel sound (like “hat”). Take my tour today and you’ll hear me say it with a long “a” (like “maze”).

The 1880 Census

But if there’s one aspect of the Campbell story that remains elusive, it’s the story of the Campbell servants. These are the scores of men and women who lived and worked behind the scenes as domestic laborers. They are the cooks, housekeepers, maids, and coachmen who worked long hours keeping the Campbell House running smoothly. And other than a few notable exceptions, we know almost nothing about them. Several names can be found from family letters, official documents, and census records, but that’s about it. Most of the Campbell servants simply showed up to work for a year or two and then left. And when they left, they took all of their stuff (letters, journals, photographs) with them. Little evidence of their time in the Campbell House was left behind.

Mary BoersteServants are an important part of the Campbell story, but they also represent an aspect of private life that has all but disappeared. Hiring live-in domestic labor still happens today, but on an infinitesimally smaller scale. 150 years ago, it wasn’t just commonplace for a wealthy family to utilize domestic labor, it was expected. And it would have been impossible for Robert and Virginia to live the lavish lifestyle they did without the aid of servants. In fact, the number of servants employed by a wealthy family even played a role in determining social status. With as many as nine or ten servants living at 20 Lucas Place during the peak years of the Campbell House, there’s no doubt that the Campbell family found themselves near the very top of the 1875 St. Louis social ladder.

While servant names and faces continue to be elusive, what is known is that their days were filled with backbreaking work. Campbell servants worked an average of 78 hours a week. On-call at all hours, servants were hard at work before the family awoke, and were still at it long after the family went to bed. The Campbell servants were responsible for every household chore, including cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, emptying chamber pots, sewing garments, arranging ice delivery, pulling weeds, fetching coal, driving carriages, and much more. During a time when appliances like washing machines, gas stoves, and microwaves didn’t exist, little time was available for anything but work.

Gus Meyer

Andy Hahn, the Executive Director of the Campbell House, once offered up a perfect analogy. He told me the primary job responsibility of a servant in the late 1870’s could be equated to the primary purpose of a household appliance today.  Take the vacuum cleaner, for example. In 2017, the time needed to vacuum a home can often be counted in minutes (maybe twenty in my little south city bungalow). But 125 years ago, cleaning carpets was an arduous, time-consuming task. In homes with wall-to-wall carpeting (known as “fitted carpets” back then), a servant would begin the process of cleaning a carpet by removing every piece of furniture from the room. And since Victorian-era homeowners loved filling their homes with as many chairs, tables, sofas, and pianos that could possibly fit inside, it was a major effort just to get the process going. After the room was cleared, a servant then had to get down on the floor and tear out the seams where each piece of carpet was stitched together. With the carpet separated into manageable pieces, each section was taken outside, hung on a line, and beaten with a carpet beater. After getting the dirt and dust swatted out, the maid had then had to put it all back together. After the pieces were perfectly aligned, re-sewn, and the furniture was moved back into place, it was time to move on to the next room. And since carpets were cleaned twice a year (on average), the process probably started again as soon as it was completed.

Campbell House Parlor

But being a domestic laborer in an elite, upper-class home did have its merits. It allowed young men and women to earn a decent wage along with free room and board. In some instances, even a servant’s clothing was provided. With few expenses (and little free time to spend money), a young woman like Philomena Kleeman could save her money and prepare for a life ahead. And that’s exactly what she did. Although her time at the Campbell House probably wasn’t as labor-intensive as what was described above (only one Campbell was alive during her time there), she made the most of it. After working at the Campbell House as a cook from 1932 to 1936, she returned to her hometown of Tell City, Indiana with $3,000 in her pocket. After marrying her sweetheart William Emmett Miller, she used her savings to build the house in which they would spend the rest of their lives together.

1953 Campbell House Guestbook

But wait a minute… didn’t I just get done explaining that very little is known about the Campbell servants? How could I possibly know how much Minnie Kleeman saved and what she did with it? And how do I know the name of the guy she married? Well, this is where this story gets even better. And it all started with that little piece of paper glued to a kitchen cabinet door.

It all started on a Saturday when I was at the house giving tours. A fellow docent named Dennis Rastert told me a story about a Christmas party held at the Campbell House back in 1922. The party was hosted by Hugh Campbell, the older of two surviving Campbell sons living in the home at the time. Hugh Campbell was a very generous man, and one way in which he showed his appreciation to those who worked for him was to throw lavish Christmas parties for his servants and their families.

The Campbell House

The 1922 party is special because we actually have a written account of the event by someone who was there. In his account, a man named Dewey Dauby details an extravagant affair that included a catered nine-course meal and dancing to a seven-piece orchestra. Among other indulgences, Dauby describes his plate surrounded by “six small glasses filled with wine and liquors of different kinds”, and he goes on to say that it was impossible to empty one of the glasses without it being immediately refilled. As the festivities continued, Dauby admits to feeling a bit “dizzy” while making eye contact with another man “in a funny hat” on the other side of the room. After the two men raised their glasses to each other, Dauby hilariously realized that he’d been toasting to his own reflection in a mirror.

Dewey Dauby was at the Campbell House in 1922 as the guest of Mary Boerste, one of the few Campbell servants we know quite a bit about. Dauby had recently married Mary’s niece, Polly (Pauline) Kleeman, and the couple attended the party as part of their honeymoon in St. Louis. Born in 1883, Mary Boerste came to St. Louis in 1904 to visit the World’s Fair. Instead of returning home after her visit, Mary answered an ad in a newspaper for a housekeeping job at the Campbell home. And after being hired by Hugh Campbell, she remained there for the next thirty-two years, becoming one of the longest-tenured servants and a significant part of the Campbell story.

Servants in the Garden

 After telling me this story, Dennis showed me the small piece of paper  (that I had never paid much attention to) glued to the inside of the kitchen cabinet. Seeing “Minnie” written on it, I learned the name was short for Philomena Ann Kleeman, Mary Boerste’s niece. Minnie also attended the epic 1922 Christmas party. She was eighteen at the time, and she’d return to the Campbell House ten years later when her aunt Mary helped secure her a job as the Campbell cook.

As for me (sufficiently envious of Dennis and his tale), I walked back into the kitchen and took a picture of Minnie’s little piece of paper. Happy to add another story to my tours, I applied a shiny filter and posted it on the social media site Instagram. A few weeks later, my iPhone dinged and notified me that someone had commented on my post. And that’s when the real fun began.

 (I’ll let the image below speak for itself)

The Instagram Post that Started it all

After a few back and forth messages on Instagram, I soon found myself in the midst of an amazing email correspondence with Beth Puckett, Minnie’s oldest granddaughter. She explained the Instagram find was the result of a simple Google search by her cousin, Susan Kornreich Wolf, who was visiting her mother, Patricia Miller Kornreich, in Maine. The two were curious about Minnie’s time in St. Louis working for a millionaire and discovered the above Instagram post, shared it with the rest of Minnie’s family, and just like that, a new connection between the Campbell House and someone who lived and worked there came to be.

William Miller & Philomena Kleeman

The excitement of this new connection quickly spread throughout the Campbell House and Minnie’s family. Information began flowing back and forth, and both sides became excited about a rare opportunity to share information. And a couple of months later, four members of Minnie’s family came to St. Louis to see the Campbell House in person. Along with Minnie’s children Wilma and Cliff, Minnie’s granddaughter Beth and great-granddaughter Emma spent an afternoon touring the house and talking with museum staff. Interestingly, it wasn’t the first visit for Wilma and Cliff. In 1953, Minnie brought her entire family to St. Louis to see the place where she lived and worked for four years. At the time, Wilma was fourteen and Cliff was ten. Their visit is even recorded in the Campbell House guest book.

But the story gets even better. During their visit, Minnie’s family donated two shirts that Minnie had taken with her back to Indiana in 1936. The shirts once belonged to Hazlett Campbell, and getting those shirts was a significant acquisition for the Campbell House. Prior to that donation, no clothing belonging to any of the Campbell children existed in the museum’s collection. And for those wondering if Minnie Kleeman stole the shirts, she didn’t. It’s funny to consider, but Hazlett Campbell was beyond the need for such fancy attire when Minnie worked in the house. One plausible theory is that she simply held on to the shirts as a source of extra fabric.

I was unable to be there when Minnie’s family came to visit the Campbell House, but I was fortunate to be part of a second donation that soon followed. A few weeks after their visit, Minnie’s granddaughter Beth contacted me again to arrange a special delivery. A few days later, I hand-delivered a photo album to the museum that once belonged to Mary Boerste, Minnie’s aunt who worked in the Campbell House for more than thirty years. Mary Boerste died in the Campbell House in 1936, and Minnie’s family believes it was this event that stirred Minnie to return to her home in Indiana. Along with her own belongings (and a couple of Hazlett Campbell’s shirts), Minnie also packed up her aunt’s photo album and took it all with her. Nearly eighty years later, Minnie’s family generously decided to hand it back to the Campbell House.

Hazlett Campbell's shirts make their return

This special photo album contains nearly 200 photographs that had never been seen by anyone at the Campbell House before. Suddenly, after more than seventy years of operation, the Campbell House had new photographs of the home, new photographs of the garden, and best of all, new photographs of Mary Boerste and other servants. From these photographs, the museum learned the house once had awnings, that a unique screen once existed in the garden, and that the furniture in Mary Boerste’s bedroom wasn’t arranged as she had it during her time in the house.

Mary's Bedroom

But perhaps the highlight of this experience is learning more about Philomena Kleeman herself. Through a freak social media connection, we now know that a woman who once  lived in the Campbell House lived a splendid life after she left. And we’ve learned more about how she lived it. We know she was a hard worker, but she was reluctant to come to St. Louis in 1932 because she’d be far from the man she loved. And we know that she married William Miller as soon as she returned to Tell City in 1936. We know that together Minnie and William raised five wonderful children, and that all of them came to St. Louis in 1953 to visit the museum where Minnie once lived and worked. We know that her fried chicken was everyone’s favorite, along with mashed potatoes, milk gravy, and green beans. We even know that Minnie continued gluing recipes and housekeeping tips to her cabinet doors like she did at the Campbell House. And finally, along with so much more, we know that Minnie passed away in 1983.

Today, two years after the events in this post happened, I still look forward to telling visitors about my favorite items in the Campbell House collection. But now there’s one I look forward to more than any other. Today, my favorite item in the Campbell collection is not a piece of furniture, a painting, or a stained glass window. It’s not Virginia’s Limoges china, Robert’s straight razor, or the Schomacker piano in the parlor.

It’s a little piece of paper glued to the inside of a cabinet with the name “Minnie” written on it.

Minnie's Family
The Drink
This is the most difficult Distilled History post I’ve ever written. Unlike posts about cholera epidemics in the 1840’s and fires in the 1870’s, people who care deeply about the subject matter of this post are still around. I wanted to make sure I got it right.

In trying to find a drink for this post, I asked Beth if Minnie liked to have a drink from time to time, and if she did, what was her beverage of choice? My grandmother was a sherry drinker, so I found it funny when Beth told me that her grandmother didn’t go for that. Minnie was content with a cold beer or two on a hot summer day.

But Beth also sent me a fantastic photograph of Minnie taken sometime during the 1970’s. In it, Minnie is holding a drink in her hand while smiling from ear to ear. Is it possible that Minnie is holding a Manhattan cocktail? Is it possible that she also enjoyed a drink that is also my personal favorite? Or maybe I’m trying to make this story even better than it needs to be. Either way, the photograph makes me think that Minnie Miller led a wonderful life after her time in St. Louis.

And I’ll drink to that.

Minnie & a Manhattan (maybe?)
April 13th, 2017 by Cameron Collins

The St. Louis Water Towers

In the past few years, I have been fortunate for many opportunities that I have been given to share my take on St. Louis history. In presentations, tours, and talks to various groups and organizations, I’ve found that I really enjoy getting out and talking up the great history of this city. I also always try to accompany my talks with plenty of visuals, photographs, and maps. I mix it up based on what the event is, but a few images have been included in nearly every presentation I have given. One of them is this image, which features the three famous standpipe water towers located in St. Louis.

The St. Louis Water TowersThe St. Louis Water Towers

I say “famous” because just about anyone who has lived in or spent time in St. Louis has at least seen these three structures. They are standpipe water towers, and each one of them played an important role in helping deliver water to the people of St. Louis in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. All three of them rise more than 150 feet into the air, and they are hard to miss if one happens to be on a nearby highway or in a city neighborhood that happens to have one. From left to right, they are the Grand Avenue Water Tower, the Bissell Street Water Tower, and the Compton Hill Water Tower.

The notable fact about St. Louis and its three towers is that although hundreds of these standpipe water towers once existed all over the country, only seven remain standing today. St. Louis has three of them, with Milwaukee, New York, Chicago, and Louisville rounding out other four. This is the same fact I use in my presentations, and it always gets a nice response from the audience. I always notice a few people nodding their heads in agreement or a few others showing pleasant surprise. St. Louis likes being a winner, and St. Louis won the water tower game.

The Grand Avenue Water Tower

The towers are special to me because along with a few other structures (such as the bear pit wall in Fairground Park), the towers are a reason I started writing this blog. Back when I started to poke around St. Louis to get a better look at it, I was repeatedly drawn to these three structures. However, while I’ve stared at these towers, photographed them, talked about them, and even climbed one of them a few times over the years, I’ve never really tried to figure out the answer to one important question:

How did they work?

Not intending to make it a blog post, I set out to learn a bit more about the towers for my own benefit. But along the way I learned some good stuff, so I decided to turn it into a quick Distilled History entry. And fortunately, few topics have been easier to research. Each tower has its own Wikipedia page, the National Register of Historic Places nomination forms for each are available online, and a simple Google search landed me a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article written by Joe Holleman that answered the very question I was asking. And best of all, the Compton Hill Water Tower even has its own foundation with plenty of information available to those interested.

Interior Views of the Compton Hill Water Tower

Prior to working on this post, I had always assumed the three water towers somehow served the same purpose as modern water towers do today. Simply put, I thought they stored water. I just never took the time (until now) to figure out where all the water was being held (the St. Louis water towers look much skinnier than today’s bulbous versions). But I soon learned that water storage was never the intended purpose. In fact, they aren’t even the same kind of water tower. The key function of the St.Louis towers was not storing water, but regulating water pressure.

According to the St. Louis Water Department, in the mid-to-late 1900’s the city utilized a system of steam-driven pumps to deliver water from water plants to consumers in and around the city. The water got around no problem, but the steam pumps created surges in water pressure. The steam pumps caused water pipes to frequently rattle and shake, and delivering water to the upper levels of multi-story buildings was difficult. To remedy this, each water tower contained an enormous (100+ feet tall, 5-6 feet wide) vertical iron pipe filled with water. The standpipe acted like a vent, with the water level rising and falling as the intensity of the water pressure in the water mains fluctuated. As a result, the water towers were responsible for allowing consumers to get an even flow of water from the city’s waterworks.

I was also interested to learn that even the masonry sheathings found on each tower serves a special purpose. Each has its own unique and beautiful exterior, and it’s logical to assume that the decorative masonry installed on each was done for aesthetic purposes. Actually, there’s more to it. The primary functions of the stone, brick, and terracotta exteriors are to protect the standpipe inside. If left to the elements, water inside the giant pipes would freeze, causing the pipes to burst like any standard water pipe would.

It’s also important to note that the water towers, especially the Grand Avenue and Bissell Street towers, represented the city’s first modern and comprehensive water distribution system. As new areas of the city suddenly had a working water supply, new builders, homeowners, and businesses began to populate new neighborhoods. St. Louis actually grew because of these water towers.

Grand Avenue Water Tower

Located at the intersection of Grand Avenue and 20th Street in the College Hill neighborhood, the Grand Avenue Water Tower is the oldest of the three St. Louis water towers. Built in 1871 when Grand Avenue was still a dirt road, the Grand Avenue Tower was designed by architect George I. Barnett, who also designed the Old Courthouse, Henry Shaw’s Tower The Grand Water Tower in Compton & DryGrove House, and the Missouri Governor’s Mansion. Interestingly, the Grand Water Tower was commissioned when a man named Thomas Whitman, the brother of the poet Walt Whitman, worked as an engineer for the St. Louis Water Department. The Grand Water Tower served St. Louis until 1912 when the city installed a modern pump system that delivered water at an even pressure and the need for the tower was eliminated. Soon after, the iron standpipe and spiral interior staircase were removed. In the 1920’s, lights were installed atop the Grand Water Tower and were used as aviation beacons. According to the tower’s National Register of Historic Places nomination form, some in the city government wanted the tower razed in the 1930’s, but a group of local businessmen successfully “agitated to have it restored”. Today, the Grand Water Tower may need a coat of paint or two, but it continues to stand tall in north city. It can also lay claim to being the tallest free-standing Corinthian column in the world.

Bissell Street Water Tower

Located just a couple blocks east of the Grand Water Tower, the Bissell Street Water Tower stands at the intersection of Bissell Street and Blair Avenue in North St. Louis City. Completed in 1886, the Bissell Street Water Tower (or “Red” Tower as it is commonly called) was designed by William S. Eames, the deputy The Bissell Street Water Towercommissioner of public buildings at the time. Built to supplement the nearby Grand Avenue Water Tower, both towers were located near the Bissell Point Plant, the city’s first water treatment facility. Standing at 194 feet tall, the Bissell Street Tower is the tallest of the three water towers in St. Louis (and it’s also taller than the four found in other cities).  Set in a circular plaza 67 feet in diameter, the “New Red” tower (as it is also known) is my personal favorite. But the New Red Tower doesn’t seen to get as much attention as the others, perhaps due to the fact that it sits off the beaten path. And maybe as a result, it has spent more time under threat of demolition than the other two. After being removed from service in 1912 (the same year as the Grand ower), the Bissell Tower spent much of the 1900’s under the threat of demolition. Efforts were made by the city in the 1950’s and 1960’s to have it razed. Fortunately, a study concluded that restoring the tower would not be significantly more expensive than tearing it down. With help from a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the tower was restored in the 1970’s and continues to stand today.

Compton Hill Water Tower

The youngest of the three water towers, the Compton Hill Water Tower was built in 1898. It was designed by architect Harvey Ellis, a man who had a hand in Theodore Link’s winning design for St. Louis’s Union Station. Located in Reservoir Park at the intersection of South Grand and Russell, the Compton The Compton Hill Water TowerHill Water Tower stands 179 feet tall. It remained in service until 1929. Along with being a magnificent icon in South St. Louis, the Compton Hill Water Tower is also special because it’s the only tower open to the public. On one Saturday each month (and on evenings with a full moon), the Water Tower Park & Preservation Society will let people in to climb the 198 stairs to an observation room and get a fantastic 360-degree view of St. Louis. It’s the same thing people were doing 113 years ago, when thousands of visitors climbed the tower during the summer of the 1904 World’s Fair. From the top, the 28-million gallon Compton Reservoir can’t be missed, a reservoir that still provides water to residents of the city. The Compton Hill Water Tower also shares Reservoir Park with the a large bronze sculpture known as “The Naked Truth”. Designed by Berlin sculptor Wilhelm Wandschneider, the Naked Truth honors the German-American press in St. Louis. Due to the statue’s nudity, the Naked Truth created a bit of controversy when the design was unveiled.The Drink

Tower Pub

Getting a drink to celebrate the three water towers was tough. Not a single (and I mean not one) drinking establishment exists near any of them. Well, the Compton Hill Tower has a few bars within a few blocks, but nothing that really relates to the iconic structure. And as many know, the neighborhood around the Grand and Bissell Towers is a struggling one. As a result, I decided to get my drink at a place that at least shares a word with what I had been thinking about: Tower Pub on Morganford.

I actually go to Tower Pub often. They have a nice patio and good happy hour specials. It gets too crowded for me later in the evening, but it’s a pleasant south city hangout. And along with toasting water towers, I had another exciting reason to share a few Urban Chestnuts with friends. Yesterday (April 13, 2017), was the day I finally could hold my new book with my own two A Beer at Tower Pubhands. After picking up cases of Lost Treasures of St. Louis from my publisher, I made sure to get out and celebrate two years of hard work (and I may have celebrated a bit too much). I’ll have more to share about that project in the future, but please consider purchasing a copy in the time being. Signed copies can be purchased in the Distilled History Store (the link is also at the top of the page), but the book is available in bookstores and other retail outlets as well. I’ll also have plenty of events and signings in the coming months.

As for the water towers, I recommend getting out and taking a closer look at these fine structures (and be sure to climb the Compton tower). All three were made City Landmarks in 1966, and they each hold a special place in the story of St. Louis.

The Compton Hill Water Tower in 1890
The Bissell Street Water Tower
The Grand Avenue Water Tower
August 12th, 2016 by Cameron Collins

George Eyser’s Big Day at the 1904 Olympics

Clicky Thing

Here’s what I typed into Google a few days ago:

“What is that clicky thing on an Olympic bow?”

While enthralled with NBC’s archery coverage of the Rio Olympics over the past week, I kept noticing this little piece of metal (or maybe it’s plastic) on an archer’s bow flip down and “click” (it makes an audible “click”) just before an arrow was released. And I was sure Google would give me some fancy techno-archery term to describe something only what an Olympic archer would know.

Well, it turns out it’s just a clicker. Seriously. They call it a “clicker”.

Anyway, the purpose of a clicker is to let the archer know that the arrow has been drawn back enough to effectively fire it. It’s usually made of strong wire or carbon, and the audible “click” is the signal to fire away. And once again, I’m enlightened.

A Turnverein Team at the 1904 Olympics

Actually, this little nugget of information helps explain why I am so happy the Rio Olympics are finally here. The Olympics are filled with great history, and each time I watch the games, I find myself wanting to know more. So my Olympic experience is not just watching the games. I use the time as an opportunity to flip through reference books, click-through Wikipedia, and ask Google for the stories behind the sports that are played, where they have been played, and most importantly, the people who have played them. As I figure out what a “clicker” is, I’m also learning that the South Koreans are the best archers in the world (at least in the Olympics), that humans have been shooting arrows at things for over 70,000 years, and that the only sport women could participate in at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics was in fact, archery.

And speaking of St. Louis, all of this reminds me how great it is that the city I now call home once hosted the Summer Olympics.

The Horizontal Bar Competition at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics

The St. Louis games suffer a poor reputation in most Olympic histories, but it’s still fun to know we had one. Only twenty-two cities in the world have hosted the summer games, and it’s a feather in our cap to say we are one of them. Even better, we flat-out stole the Olympics from our midwest rival Chicago, the city the games were originally awarded to. That’s a story (and a good one) for another day, but I first have to tell the story of George Eyser, a story I’ve been saving since I last wrote about the Olympics in 2012.

George Louis Eyser was born on August 31, 1870 in Kiel, Germany. His family emigrated to the United States when he was fourteen, first settling in Colorado and then in St. Louis. He became an American citizen in 1894, was a bookkeeper by trade, but other than two remarkable facts, little else is known about George Eyser’s story. The first fact is that at some point in his youth, George Eyser was run over by a train and lost his left leg. The second is that despite this tragedy, George Eyser became an Olympic champion, winning six gymnastics medals (three gold, two silver, and one bronze) in a single day at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics.

The Concordia Turnverein Gymnastics Team in 1908

Before I get to the details of Eyser’s special day, let me set the table a little bit. A key reason why many Olympic historians believe the St. Louis games came up short is that many of the world’s best athletes didn’t bother to show up and compete. Many even use George Eyser to help make this point. If a man with a wooden leg could win gold, the guy who won silver must have been a pushover. It’s an argument that does have some merit. Getting to the middle of North America in 1904 wasn’t an easy task, and the 1904 Olympic organizers decided to stretch the Olympic events out over four months to coincide with the 1904 World’s Fair. To complicate things, organizers also broke the gymnastics competition into two separate events. One competition was held in early July of 1904, and the other in late October. As a result, many of the best European athletes decided not to make the trip. And although Germany sent a team of athletes to compete in the July competition, they didn’t stick around to compete in October.

But I believe George Eyser’s accomplishment shouldn’t be diminished. The level of competition he faced certainly wasn’t as skilled as it is today, but the sport of gymnastics was in its infancy in 1904. Despite this, Eyser undoubtedly faced athletes skilled in gymnastics. One example is Anton Heida, a 25-year old Austrian from Philadelphia who won six gymnastics medals of his own, including five golds. Heida was also the 1902 national champion in the long horse vault, and was a respected gymnastics athlete. In fact, the only event in which Heida did not win gold was the parallel bars competition. And it was George Eyser who beat him.

Concordia Turnverein

In what must have been a fascinating event to watch, Eyser and Heida also tied in the long horse vault (known simply as the “vault” in today’s Olympics), and each man was awarded a gold medal. Eyser’s performance is remarkable because unlike events that didn’t require the use of leg power, such as rope climbing or the horizontal bar, the vault competition certainly did. And the 1904 event didn’t include a springboard like it does today. George Eyser was required to launch himself over the apparatus and safely land not just once, but three times. His impressive final score matched that of a national champion who had both legs intact.

Turner Meet Headline

Another reason I’m inclined to believe George Eyser was exceptional is because of how popular gymnastics was among German Americans at the time. This was due to an actual gymnastic movement, or Turnverein, founded by man named Friedrich Ludwig Jahn at a time when Germany was occupied by Napoleon’s forces in the early 19th Century. Established for the purpose of cultivating health and vigor through gymnastics, the Turnverein movement came to America when German immigration was at its peak in the mid-1900’s. As a result, hundreds of Turnverein (also known as “Turner”) societies were founded all over the country. In large cities like St. Louis, Turner halls became the athletic, social, and political centers for thousands of German immigrants settling into a new life in America. More than a dozen Turner halls were founded in St. Louis, and each one contained a gymnasium filled with German athletes learning gymnastics, practicing gymnastics, and making gymnastics a part of their daily lives. It was also common for Turner clubs to participate against each other in organized gymnastic competitions and athletic meets, with members representing their club first and country second. And this is how George Eyser became an Olympian. Along with the South St. Louis Turnverein, St. Louis was represented by the Concordia Turners at the 1904 games against clubs from cities like New York, Chicago, Cleveland, and many others. In fact, no fewer than thirteen Turnvereins participated in the 1904 Olympics, and one must assume that George Eyser was just one of many with sufficient gymnastic ability to win gold.

Concordia Turnverein First Active Class

The popularity of gymnastics among German Americans could be one reason why the 1904 Olympic organizers decided to hold two separate gymnastic competitions. The events contested in July were restricted to Turners only, and were even referred to as the “Turner Games”. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in the days before the competition that “It will without doubt be the greatest competition ever held by Turner societies”. The Post-Dispatch also reported that the German Turnverein en route from Berlin was favored to win, but it wasn’t to be. When the German team arrived in St. Louis, it was discovered that the German athletes didn’t all belong to the same Turnverein. And since that is how the American athletes were organized, the Germans were barred from the team competitions.

Turners racing in the 100 yard dash

George Eyser didn’t find Olympic glory in the July competition. His Concordia team finished fourth in the team event (Anton Heida’s Philadelphia club won gold), and the all-around competition included track and field events that didn’t suit George Eyser’s unique disability. Not surprisingly, Eyser finished 118th (dead last) in the 100 yard dash, 118th in the long jump, and 76th in the shot put. However, despite a wooden leg, Eyser’s time of 15.4 seconds in the 100 meter dash is certainly impressive. The winner of the event, Max Emmerich of Indianapolis, won with a time of 10.6 seconds, just five seconds faster than Eyser.

Eyser & Heida's Medal Fight

On October 29, 1904, when the second set of gymnastic events began, George Eyser’s prospects for success were far better. The October events were apparatus-only, allowing Eyser to capitalize on his upper-body strength and technical gymnastic ability. As a result, he won gold in the parallel bars, rope climbing, and as mentioned earlier, tied for gold with Anton Heida in the long horse vault event. To round out his impressive day, Eyser won silver medals in the all-around and side horse, and won a bronze on the horizontal bar. Regardless of how the St. Louis Olympics are viewed today, George Eyser’s accomplishment of six medals in a single day is an impressive one. He faced quality competition in a sport that was widely contested at the time. And it wasn’t until 2008, when Natalie du Toit swam for South Africa at the Beijing Olympics, did another Olympic athlete compete with an artificial leg.

As I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t able to find much else about the rest of George Eyser’s life. But it certainly seems that his competitive fire continued to burn. Along with continuing his gymnastics career with the Concordia Turners, I found George Eyser in a newspaper article published six months after the St. Louis Olympics ended. It seems there is more to the story between Anton Heida and George Eyser’s Olympic competition. The article states that the 1904 parallel bars gold medal was originally awarded to Anton Heida as the result of a scoring error. But when the scoring error was identified and Eyser proclaimed the winner, Heida refused to relinquish the gold medal. And as the article suggests, the matter was likely headed to court. Unfortunately, I can find no record of the resolution.

But I have another week of Olympics, so I have plenty of time to keep digging.

The Drink

Caipirinha

With all the Turners jumping, swinging, and flipping in this post, I suppose I should be celebrating the Olympics by drinking something at least a bit German. But with the games set in Rio De Janeiro, I simply couldn’t resist toasting George Eyser with anything but Brazil’s national cocktail, the caipirinha.

Prior to the opening ceremonies of the Rio games, the caipirinha is actually a drink that I have never tried. I’ve been told often that is delicious, but for one reason or another, I’ve never ordered it. But as the Rio Olympics drew closer, I made sure to have a bottle of cachaça on hand.

Cachaça is the most popular distilled spirit in Brazil and the key spirit in the caipirinha. It’s distilled from sugarcane juice and has close ties to rum (but I’ve also been told not to call it a “Brazilian rum”). Anyway, it’s safe to say I became well-acquainted with the caipirinha since the opening ceremonies a week ago. I had a splitting headache the next morning, but it reminded me that I now have another cocktail for the bar book. It is a tart, refreshing drink that is not only perfect for Olympic watching, but for surviving the dog days of summer St. Louis is so eager to provide.

My caipirinha recipe:

  • 2 ounces Uma Gold Cachaça
  • 2 sugar cubes
  • 1/2 lime cut into half-wheels

Muddle sugar cubes and lime wheels in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and 2 ounces of cachaça (or maybe a bit more if you are in the fourth hour Olympic opening ceremonies) and shake vigorously. Pour into a rocks glass and enjoy.

And don’t forget to raise your glass to George Eyser, a true St. Louis Olympic champion.

March 11th, 2015 by Cameron Collins

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

quote_line

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
September 3rd, 2014 by Cameron Collins

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
quote_line

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.

June 3rd, 2014 by Cameron Collins

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
January 28th, 2014 by Cameron Collins

Adding a Bit of Color to St. Louis History

Union General Ambrose Burnside

In recent months, I’ve noticed a trend in the world of digital photography that I think is pretty neat. In various blogs, social media feeds, and Internet articles, folks have been posting colorized versions of historic black and white photographs. Try googling something like “Civil War in color”, and you’ll find scores of Rebs in butternut, Yanks in blue, and battlefields scattered with dead versions of each. All of them are decked out in a full spectrum of color.

I know some people are opposed to the practice, but I’m a fan. Detractors suggest colorizing black and white photography destroys the artist’s original vision, and there is merit to that argument. Tell me a colorized version of Identical Twins by Diane Arbus is better than the original, and we’ll go a few rounds. But on the other hand, I think Civil War photographers like Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner would have used color photography if it was available during their time. Either way, the original will always be there to look at (and prefer) if one chooses to do so.

Actually, I think the entire argument is a waste of time. Most of the colorized historic photographs I’ve seen online don’t look sufficiently realistic to begin with (the image of Burnside by Mads Madsen being a notable exception). Few get the flesh tones right, vegetation is often overwhelmingly monotone, and finer details get largely ignored. It still doesn’t bother me in the least, because I think it’s all just good fun. For me, it’s simply entertaining to look at a color version of a moment in time that I’ve never seen in color before.

Imagination is fun, and that’s as far as it goes in my book.

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 by Diane Arbus

When I was a photography student in college, one of my favorite classes was a techniques class in which colorizing our own black and white photography was at the heart of several assignments. This was back in 1992 (yikes), and Photoshop was a long way off. Instead, we colorized by hand using Marshall Photo Oils, tinting agents, and a variety of chemicals. Of the several photographs I colored, maybe one or two at were good enough to put on a wall. Maybe the others weren’t, but I still had fun seeing what I could do.

Anyway, in continuing my streak of unfortunate months of January, I recently emerged from a three-week trip to the gates of Hell. Others may know this experience as having a bad case of the flu. Unfortunately, this was no minor case of sniffles and mild coughing. I thought I was a tough guy and didn’t need a flu shot this year. Instead, I missed two weeks of work, lost ten pounds, and nearly landed in the hospital. I even vomited on my cat.

Kitty survived the ordeal, but I spent weeks without an ounce of the energy needed to come near this blog. Even the thought of drinking one of my beloved Manhattans made my stomach turn (which is also the reason a drink doesn’t accompany this post). In order to preserve my sanity while I waited for various drugs to kick in, I surprisingly found working with Photoshop to be a good way to pass the time. Turns out pushing pixels around a computer screen is the perfect low-impact flu activity. It also didn’t require any deep thought, providing a welcome respite for my perpetually aching head.

With that in hand, I went about trying to figure out how to add a bit of color to St. Louis’ past.

Before I display my initial attempts at this new hobby, I can’t resist taking the opportunity to show off one of the more… amusing reasons I first chose to dabble in Photoshop many years ago. My good pal Hopkins knows this all too well. The experience certainly helped me in this new endeavor.

Musical Hopkins!

When I got down to it, I found that colorizing photographs is not difficult, but it’s extremely time-consuming. This post probably required more hours of work than any other in the life of this blog, and looking at the result, I’m not sure it was worth it. I also think that if I didn’t have a 102 temperature, coloring leaves for eight hours straight would have sent me off completely off the edge. But in the end, I think I produced a few examples worthy enough to display here. Most importantly, I had fun. And now that I’m nearly healed up, I promise to put this new hobby aside and get back to a the historic, long-winded, and drunken Distilled History posts that many of you are used to.

While I took a stab at this with a few images from previous Distilled History posts, I also found a few new images that helped me figure this out the necessary techniques (in other words, portraits with sharp focus are ideal). Notably, I was delighted to find numerous photographs by the legendary Lewis Wickes Hine in the photo archives of the Library of Congress. Hines became famous for using photography as a tool to promote social reform, most notably as a means to get child labor regulations implemented. In the early 20th century, he photographed many truant children on the streets of St. Louis working long hours at various street jobs.

This photograph shows three young “newsies” on Jefferson Avenue. It was taken on May 9th, 1910.

Newsies at Skeeter's Branch by Lewis Hine

Colorization of Newsies at Skeeter's Branch

I tried colorizing an image from the 1904 World’s Fair, but I was quickly overwhelmed. However, many images from the 1904 Olympics are perfect for colorizing. This photograph shows American Fred Winters competing in the weightlifting competition. He went on to win the silver medal.

Read more about the 1904 Olympics in this post and this post, both published in the summer of 2012.

Weightlifter Fred Winters at the 1904 Olympics

Historic photographs of daily life are by far my favorite. I often wish I could just leap into an image such as the one below and ask the subjects what their lives are like. In this case, I want to ask these two kids why they didn’t choose a spot away from the public toilet to play a game of marbles.

Boys Playing Marbles in an Alley

Colorized version of Boys Playing Marbles in an Alley

In May 1896, one of the deadliest and costliest tornados in American history ripped through the heart of south St. Louis. The aftermath was photographed extensively, and several remarkable images are available online. While the tornado made short work of a bandstand in Lafayette Square Park, the statue of Thomas Hart Benton (that still stands today) survived unharmed.

Read more about the 1896 Cyclone in this Distilled History post published in November 2012.

Aftermath of the 1896 Cyclone in Lafayette Square Park

Colorization of 1896 Cycle Aftermath

James “Cool Papa” Bell led the Negro League St. Louis Stars to two World Championships in 1928 and 1930. One of the greatest ballplayers to ever call St. Louis home, many believe the speedy center fielder was one of the fastest men to ever play the game.

Read more about St. Louis baseball history in this Distilled History post published in April 2013.

James

On May 5, 1910, Lewis Hine photographed a boy named “Gurley” selling newspapers at the corner of Washington and 18th in downtown St. Louis.

Gurley on 18th & Washington

Gurley on 18th & Washington Colorized

Water sports at the 1904 Olympics were contested in a man-made lake located at the present-day corner of Skinker and Wydown. Unfortunately, livestock from nearby World’s Fair agricultural exhibits used the same lake to bathe and defecate in. As a result, many competitors became severely ill. Four water polo players died of typhus within a year.

Read more about the 1904 Olympics in this post and this post, both published in the summer of 2012.

1904 Olympic Swimmers

When I first thought of this project, I knew colorizing one or more of the St. Louis Motordrome images taken by J.R.Eike in the early 20th Century was a must. Men like the two guys below risked death by racing motorcycles at speeds over 100mph on steep track embankments. The St. Louis Motordrome that once stood at Grand and Meramec in south city had a 62 degree embankment, which was one of the steepest tracks ever built.

Use of J.R. Eike’s photographs are courtesy of Thomas Kempland. Read more about the St. Louis Motordrome in this Distilled History post published in September 2012.

St. Louis Motodrome

St. Louis Motordrome Colorized

This photograph shows the main entrance to Schnaider’s Beer Garden, which thrived at the intersection of Mississippi and Chouteau in the late 19th century. Located across the street from his brewery, up to 10,000 people at a time could pack Schnaider’s and fill their bellies with beer. Another fun fact about Schnaider’s is the band that played nightly at Schnaider’s would eventually evolve into the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Read more about Schnaider’s Beer Garden in this Distilled History post published in October 2012.

Schnaider's Beer Garden

Colorization of Schnaider's Beer Garden Photograph

November 12th, 2012 by Cameron Collins

The Great Cyclone of 1896

The Great Cyclone of 1896

In the late afternoon of May 27, 1896,  a meteorologist by the name of Irl Hicks looked out the window of his observatory on 22nd street in St. Louis. He watched anxiously as black clouds and green skies loomed dangerously to the south.  An ordained minister, Confederate veteran, and publisher of his own almanac, Hicks knew exactly what was happening. By watching barometer in his office all day, he knew the air pressure in St. Louis was dangerously low. Shortly after 4 p.m., he ordered the storm doors to the building be closed. He instructed others to find safety and prepare for the tornado that was about to slam into the city.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (such as the T.S. Eliot post), one of the great joys of writing this blog is discovering where history happened in St. Louis. Recently, I met a woman who told me the third floor of her home in the Lafayette Square neighborhood was ripped off by the tornado Mr. Hicks correctly predicted over 120 years ago.  This piqued my curiosity, and I wanted to learn more about that day. I’ve found that most St. Louisans believe 1896 tornado was limited to the Lafayette Square neighborhood. In fact, it hit far more than that. The “Great Cyclone of 1896”  (as it would be known) ripped an eight mile swath of destruction through St. Louis and East St. Louis. To this day, it accounts for the single deadliest day in the history of both cities. It is the second deadliest tornado in the history of the United States (behind the “Tri-State Tornado” that hit Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana in 1925). Adjusted for inflation, the estimated $2.9 billion dollars of damage makes it the single costliest tornado in the history of the United States.

I also learned that my bike commute to work each morning nearly follows the path of the tornado exactly (except for the last leg into East St. Louis). Since I have quite a bit of time to kill on these rides, it’s been a fascinating event to think about each morning as I head to work.

Path of the Great Cyclone of 1896

Unlike Reverend Hicks, few St. Louisans had a barometer nearby to warn them of the tornado that touched down just past 5 p.m. In twenty minutes, 255 people would be dead. Over a thousand would be  injured.  Over three-hundred buildings were completely destroyed while  nearly eight-thousand were severely damaged. Homes were ripped from the earth, trees were uprooted, and boats were hurled across the Mississippi River. Factories, hospitals, and churches were flattened. The city’s most treasured public park would come to look like a battlefield. In just twenty minutes, St. Louis would be cut off from the rest of the world as every telegraph line out of the city would be severed.

The tornado first touched down near the City Poor House on Arsenal Street, just east of Hampton Avenue. This complex of brick buildings held over 1,300 poor, elderly, and impoverished residents. Few were given any warning as walls crumbled and chimneys toppled . Amazingly, nobody was killed. The tornado then jumped across the street and took the roof off an entire wing of the Female Hospital. It then twisted east, narrowly missing the hulking St. Louis Insane Asylum.  Still, not a single life was lost. That good fortune wouldn’t last long.

As it headed east towards Kingshighway Boulevard, the conical shape of the tornado became more pronounced.  It roared into Tower Grove Park at the south-west corner and cut across it diagonally.  It stormed through Shaw’s Garden (now the Missouri Botanical Garden), uprooting hundreds of trees and plants as it moved. To the north of Tower Grove Park, the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company was building a large addition of buildings. Ironworkers were still high atop the girders when the tornado hit, causing many to plummet and be crushed beneath fallen iron and brick.

Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company

The tornado then crossed Grand Avenue and slammed into the Compton Heights neighborhood. Here it bounced around towards Jefferson Avenue, tearing off roofs, blowing out windows, and wrecking apartment buildings.  The tail of the tornado snapped around in a wide arc, wreaking havoc from Chouteau Avenue to the north and Russell Boulevard to the south.

The scene at Jefferson & Lafayette

It then stormed east into Lafayette Park and the elegant homes that surrounded it. The 36 acre park was turned into “a wasteland of stripped trees and stumps.” in a matter of seconds. Gazebos and pavilions were hurled into the sky. Pieces of the main bandstand were found over four hundred yards away. Many of the stately homes and churches that surrounded the park were laid to waste.

Lafayette Park

Lafayette Park was a place of beauty and joy to the residents of south city. The first public park in the city of St. Louis, its destruction delivered to them a severe blow.  Surveying the damage from the balcony of his home, a Lafayette Square resident named Charles Simpson openly wept. Although his family was safe, he lamented the destruction of the park he loved dearly. He turned to his son-in-law and said “It took forty years to grow those trees, and I shall never see their like again. The house I can repair, but my trees are gone forever”.

Lafayette Square

The tornado continued east, now bearing down on the massive City Hospital complex. Containing over 400 patients, the tornado ripped roofs and floors away. The crematorium was instantly demolished. One newspaper reported that a patient named George Wilson was sucked out of his second floor room. Amazingly, he landed upright and was able to run back into the basement of the building. Another patient was pulled from his fourth floor room and thrown over 150 yards away. Miraculously, that patient also suffered only minor injuries.

The City Hospital after the tornado

Moving past the hospital, the tornado was still gaining power. It reached its full fury in the Soulard neighborhood, near an intersection that would come to be known as the “vortex”.  Here, at the corner of Seventh and Rutger Streets, a man named Frederick Mauchenheimer owned a tavern on the ground floor of a tenement building. As he sat at a table playing cards with two patrons, the tornado slammed into the building. Every floor of the building collapsed down. Mauchenheimer survived, but the other card players and fifteen others died. Six more people died across the street. The day after the storm, the body of seven-year old Ida Howell was found in the arms of her mother.

The scene at the corner of Seventh & Rutger streets

After wreaking havoc in the Soulard neighborhood, the storm turned north and continued its carnage on the riverfront. Over twenty steamboats, tug boats, and ferries were ripped from their moorings and destroyed. The steamboat “Anchor Line” was hurled across the Mississippi, crashing into pieces on the eastern shore of the river. Although the official death toll on this day is 255, many believe the number is much higher. On the riverfront, scores of people lived in shanty boats. Since their bodies were washed downriver, perhaps as many as 150 deaths were unaccounted for.

Wreckage of the steamboat City of Vicksburg

As the tornado moved across the river, even Eads Bridge wasn’t spared. The top abutment of the first pier, including the girders and rocks, was picked up and thrown onto the tracks behind a passenger train. Two baggage cars were knocked off the tracks. Wagons loaded with goods and merchandise were thrown on top of them.

Eads Bridge on the East St. Louis riverbank

As the tornado moved onto the Illinois side of the river, residents of East St. Louis ran for cover as they watched entire homes pulled from the ground. More than 100 people on this side of the river were killed in a matter of minutes.  The police station and courthouse were completely destroyed. Inside that courthouse, a jury deliberating a case barely escaped with their lives. It wasn’t until minutes before the tornado hit that the judge allowed the members of the jury to flee and find safety.

The tornado was especially deadly at the various rail yards and depots in East St. Louis. When the storm hit the St. Louis, Vandalia, and Terre Haute Railroad Depot, fifteen of the thirty-five workers were killed.

The East St. Louis railyards

When the tornado finally dissipated, St. Louis and East St. Louis were wrecked cities. People emerged by the thousands to survey the damage and search for loved ones. Rescue efforts were organized to locate survivors buried under brick and rubble. One woman was found alive after being buried for over two days. Throughout both cities, the death toll clicked higher as victims succumbed to injuries. Many newspapers reported people physically unharmed by the storm still died of “shock”, and “fright”.

The day after the tornado, hundreds of people began gathering at city morgues to identify lost loved ones. Bodies were laid out on pine boxes as wagons departed and returned with more victims of the storm. At the St. Louis Morgue on 12th and Spruce, the crowd became so large that the police were called in to restore order.

Hundreds gather at the St. Louis Morgue

People come together in the wake of tragedy, and St. Louis in 1896 was no exception. Laborers were hired to remove debris. People who lost their homes were fed and given shelter. Communication was first restored to Kansas City, and then Chicago. Quickly, the rest of the country would come to learn about the tragedy that befell St. Louis. In the coming weeks and months, St. Louis slowly started to rebuild the homes, churches, and factories that it had lost.

Today, Lafayette Square is again one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the city. Tower Grove Park, Compton Heights, and Shaw’s Garden look as elegant as ever. Hundreds of trees now stand tall in Lafayette Park. The City Hospital still stands as an attractive condominium complex. Although few signs of that storm are visible in St. Louis today, it’s a remarkable and tragic event in the history of the city.

The Drink

Square One Brewery

Well, this is a very depressing post to try to tie a drink to, but I’m still gonna do it. And, since that tornado cut quite a swath through St. Louis, it’s not difficult to find a bar that has ties to it. For this one, I chose Square One Brewery & Distillery in Lafayette Square. I know this place well since it’s on my bike route and the building’s previous tenant was my company’s after-work hangout years ago.   Today, Square One lays claim to being the first microdistillery restaurant in the state of Missouri. They pride themselves on pairing food, beer, and spirits together. Personally, I think they do a great job because I’ve always left happy. They brew an excellent selection of craft beers in small batches that are very good. They also make a good whiskey that I’ve had on a few previous visits.

I was tempted to see what Square One would do with a Manhattan. Instead, I checked out their cocktail menu and found a drink that seemed more appropriate for the subject of this post.

The “South Sider” contains Square One’s JJ Neukomm Whiskey, a dash of bitters, and Fevertree Ginger Beer. It’s served on the rocks in a tall glass. I haven’t experimented much with mixing beer and spirits, but this was a good start. The bitters added a nice spicy flavor and I enjoyed the drink.

I asked the bartender if he knew anything about the history of the building. I was told it was built before the tornado, but he did not know the extent of damage it took. Maybe I’ll find out more on my next visit.

The South Sider at Square One

divider
The Great Cyclone

Almost all of the information for this post came from the book The Great Cyclone at St. Louis and East St. Louis, May 27, 1896. It’s a compilation of stories that appeared in St. Louis daily newspapers after the tornado hit. It was first published just days after the tornado hit in 1896. It was recently republished and a new forward was added by St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Tim O’Neil.

All photographs used in this post are courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

%d bloggers like this: