Distilled History

A Drinking Blog with a History Problem
June 30th, 2016

The Magnificent Southern Hotel

The Southern Hotel on Plates 4 & 24

As much as I love the rich history of St. Louis, I must admit that a vivid imagination is often necessary to enjoy much of it. This city has always had an inclination for knocking down old stuff, and that fact makes it tough for many in St. Louis to recall what the streets, buildings, and people who moved among them looked like years ago.

Fortunately, I believe I’ve always had a pretty good ability to think things up. As much as I wish I could still gaze upon long-lost treasures such as the Planter’s House Hotel or Chouteau’s Mansion, I’ve never had a difficult time staring at a parking garage and imagining a vivid St. Louis street scene that occurred there 150 years ago.

And that’s what I did just a few weeks ago. I hopped on my bike, rode downtown, and worked my way to the corner of 4th and Walnut. That’s where the Stadium East Parking Garage stands today. It’s an active garage, often filled with cars and surrounded by ticket scalpers on Cardinal game days. But as I sat there and stared, I saw something completely different. I was looking at the majestic Southern Hotel, and I envisioned it dominating a bustling corner filled with people, horse-drawn carriages, street vendors, and noise.

4th & Walnut Today

Before I go into detail about that vivid scene, I should mention that one could spend days thinking about what’s happened on that corner. First of all, it’s where Fort San Carlos once stood, the centerpiece of the only battle fought west of the Mississippi River during the American Revolution (an event I wrote about in this blog back in 2013).

It’s also where many believe the famous Odowan Indian Chief Pontiac is buried. Historically significant for the military campaign he personally launched against the British in 1763 (the appropriately titled “Pontiac’s War”), Chief Pontiac was murdered near the village of Cahokia by a Peoria warrior in 1769. It’s believed his remains were brought over the river to St. Louis and interred in the ground near that intersection.

The Southern Hotel in 1869

Those are pretty good reasons to stare at a corner and wonder what once happened there, but I think the magnificent Southern Hotel, which stood on that corner from 1865 until 1934, provides many more. I should also admit I’ve been boasting about the Southern Hotel for years. The guy who owned it from 1865 until 1877 is someone I’m a huge fan of. That man is Robert Campbell, and it his house (now known as the Campbell House Museum) that is the base of operations for this blog and where I spend time as a volunteer.

The Southern Hotel in 1868

The idea behind the Southern Hotel’s construction, a project of several prominent city leaders in the 1850’s, was based in the belief that St. Louis required a world-class hotel as it rushed to become a world-class city. Profit was surely a motivation, but civic pride was the driving force behind this particular hotel. And when it opened in December 1865, the city celebrated. Marching bands played, governors visited, and glowing reports of the opening night’s gala were printed in newspapers across the nation. The Missouri Republican proclaimed it the “finest hotel in the world” and it was “the theme of many celebrated pens and tongues, both native and foreign”. It even became the subject of song: “The Southern Hotel Waltz”, which was published in 1865 by composer Albert Mahler.

The Southern Hotel Waltz

The Southern Hotel occupied the entire block bounded by Walnut, 4th, 5th (now Broadway) and Elm Streets (of which Elm no longer exists in that part of the city). The principal front and entrance of the hotel faced Walnut Street, stretching 270 feet from one end to the other. The Southern was six stories tall, with an exterior made of “Chicago stone”, which the St. Louis Republican at the time described as “magnesian stone of excellent properties”. It contained over 350 guest rooms and apartments, and employed nearly the same number of people to keep it running. It was designed in the Italianate style by the famous St. Louis architect George Barnett, who’s other notable works included the Old Courthouse, Henry Shaw’s Tower Grove House, and the Grand Water Tower.

TChief Pontiac Commemorative Plaqueo imagine what this special hotel looked like in its day, it’s important to note that the city of St. Louis at that time was a very crowded place. The population was almost exactly what it is today (about 320,000), but the city itself was much smaller. Before 1876, the city’s western boundary sat just a few hundred feet west of Grand Avenue, and Carondelet hadn’t been added yet. Although new neighborhoods had been developed away from the congested riverfront starting in the 1850’s, the city around the Southern Hotel remained densely populated. The neighborhood around the Southern was also a very upscale part of town. Grand homes and elegant buildings surrounded the hotel, especially to the north and west. It was a time when St. Louis was one of the biggest cities in America, and it could rival the glitz and glamour of cities like New York and Philadelphia.

The Southern was the most luxurious hotel in St. Louis, and if one wanted to be seen, the Southern was the place to be. If one stood on the corner of 4th and Walnut in the 1870’s, seeing a celebrated actress of the day, a business tycoon, or even a president walk through its doors would not have been a surprise. Inside, one could find Mark Twain playing billiards, Adolphus Busch sipping wine, or Ulysses S. Grant leaning against the Southern Hotel’s famous mahogany bar. In the hotel’s immense rotunda, Theodore Roosevelt, Oscar Wilde, or the famous actress Lily Langtry could stride by, all of whom were guests at the Southern at one time or another. And if one was fortunate to be invited, attending a lavish banquet in honor of a prominent citizen such as James Eads, Henry Blow, or Robert Campbell was a possibility.

The Southern Hotel in 1888

Famous guests aside, the Southern Hotel was also the site of some remarkable events. The most tragic of them explains why there were actually two Southern Hotels. In the early morning hours of April 11, 1877, a fire broke out in the hotel’s basement. The result was a tragedy that rocked the city of St. Louis and became front-page news across the nation. Perhaps more than twenty guests and hotel employees were killed, many more were severely injured, and the original Southern Hotel was completely destroyed. However, the story of that fire is also remarkable for the bravery and heroism shown by the St. Louis Fire Department (and that story is coming up next in this blog).

The Southern Hotel Dining Room in 1894

Another amazing story is the Preller trunk murder.  On April 12, 1885, the manager of the Southern Hotel checked room 144 after reports of a foul odor emanating from the room. Inside, he found the decomposing body of a man stuffed inside a trunk bound with rope. The victim, identified as Charles Arthur Preller, was found wearing nothing but a pair of white underwear with the name “H.M. Books” stitched into the waistband. A cross had been carved into Preller’s chest and a placard with the inscription “So perish all traitors to the great cause” was found along with the body. The subsequent trial of H.M Brooks (who had to be fetched from New Zealand) is so fantastic that I can’t do it justice here (in other words, Preller also gets his own future Distilled History post).

Bob Wilkinson, barber of the Southern Hotel

Along with fires and murders, the Southern provided the backdrop for a host of notable events. It’s at the Southern where a man named Logan Reavis argued that the capital of the United States should be moved from Washington D.C. to St. Louis. It’s where James Eads proposed building a ship railway across Mexico, and where William McKinley caused an uproar when he did something no other president had done before: he lit a cigarette in public. In a room at the Southern Hotel in 1888, Democrats decided to nominate Grover Cleveland for President. Eight years later, Republicans used the Southern to negotiate the nomination for William McKinley. The outlaw Jesse James was rumored to stay at the Southern Hotel during his visits to St. Louis under the alias “J.J. Howard”. He came often for the purpose of racing his horses at the St. Louis Jockey Club (and he was recalled as an excellent tipper). In the years prior to becoming a publishing icon, Joseph Pulitzer lived in rooms 305 and 306 at the Southern Hotel, and he was there on the night of the tragic fire. In an article written for the paper Pulitzer would own just two years later (the St. Louis Dispatch), it’s reported that Pulitzer had to flee the building “sans shirt, stockings, or anything else”.

The Southern Hotel in 1914

Sports and recreation were also no stranger to the Southern. People gambled, drank, boasted, and challenged each other daily at the Southern Hotel. The hotel’s bar is where Adolphus Busch placed $100 bets that he could name any wine he sipped, and it’s where “Gentleman Jim” Corbett challenged John L. Sullivan for the heavyweight championship in 1892. The result of that bet was one of the most famous fights in boxing history, and the first match to require that gloves be worn by the heavyweight contenders. Even baseball can point to the Southern for some of its history. Newspaper accounts of the time reported that the Southern Hotel’s lobby is where two newspaper men helped the American League’s Ban Johnson and the National League’s John Brush settle their differences. As a result, an annual event known as the “World Series” would come to be.

The Southern Hotel in 1934

After the fire in 1877, the Southern Hotel was rebuilt (eventually) and it opened again to great fanfare in 1881. The new version was bigger, fancier, and advertised as “completely fireproof”. This newer version of the Southern continued as the city’s premier hotel, and it thrived during exciting times such when the world came to St. Louis in 1904. But cultures change, cities change, and the glimmer of the Southern began to fade in the early 20th Century. Citing declining patronage, the Southern Hotel was closed for good on August 1, 1912. Despite immediate rumors that it would soon reopen as a hotel, be converted into an office building, or even turned into a beer garden, none of them came to fruition. The former Southern Hotel spent its final two decades mostly empty or sporadically utilized as an exhibition hall for automobile shows. Burdened by taxes they no longer wanted to pay, the owners announced in 1933 the building was to be demolished.

And just two years later, a shiny new Mobil gas station opened on a pretty remarkable corner in downtown St. Louis.

The Drink
Tony Faust's Restaurant and Oyster Bar

For someone like me (someone who spends way too much time thinking about how and what people were drinking 150 years ago), places like the Southern Hotel are special. Today, great bars can still be found at hotels, but it’s not quite the same. Hotels were social centers back then, and hotels were places where 19th Century drinkers went if they wanted something other than a shot of whiskey (see: saloon) or a stein of beer (see: beer garden). Specifically, it was hotel bars that helped usher in an increasingly popular form of drink in the late 19th Century: the cocktail. St. Louis’s most famous example of this is the Planter’s House Hotel, which stood on the other side of the Old Courthouse. That’s where Jerry Thomas, a man known as the “father of American mixology”, plied his trade in the mid-19th Century.

Today, good cocktail bars are ubiquitous, and I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of passing one of them up in order to get a drink for this post. For one thing, parking is no fun for hotel drinking, especially at the many downtown St. Louis options. However, it’s only fitting that I make my way to a hotel bar and toast the Southern, so I chose the St. Louis Union Station’s Hilton Hotel. Thinking it’s probably closest I can get to the spaciousness and grandeur of the Southern Hotel in its prime, I can report that I wasn’t disappointed at all. Union Station’s Grand Hall, with all its tourists, light shows, and lack of cocktail snobbery (that I can provide), is a fun place to have a drink.

Union Station's Grand Hall

I ordered the New York Central Manhattan off the cocktail menu (of course), and I’ll admit I wasn’t disappointed with that, either. The price is ridiculous ($11 for Four Roses?), but I’m pleased to report it was stirred and served up without me asking for it that way.

Cheers to you, majestic Southern!

Southern Hotel Timeline

 Key sources:

  • The Campbell House Museum archives gave me enough material about the Southern Hotel to write a book about the Southern and everything that happened there. I’m considering it.
  • “St. Louis’ Southern Hotel Fire of 1877” – Gateway Heritage, Fall 1985, pages 38-48
  • Many of the anecdotes about stuff like Busch’s wine bets, Corbett’s challenge, and the presidential nominations came from newspaper articles “remembering” the Southern Hotel when it was demolished in the 1930’s. Someday, I’d like to go back and nail them down with primary sources, but I think that will have to wait for a bigger project (book) to do that. In the meantime, the September 8, 1933 and the August 15, 1934 editions of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were a big help
  • In researching this post, I probably dug through over one hundred newspaper articles from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the Missouri Republican, the New York Times, and many others. I’m not going to list them all here, but if anyone would like a list, please contact me.
  • More attention to sources will be given in my next post about the 1877 fire that destroyed the Southern Hotel
June 5th, 2013

The Battle of Fort San Carlos

Fort San Carlos

A few weeks ago, a friend forwarded me an Internet article titled “Best Cities for History Buffs”. St. Louis is included on the list, and at first, I was happy to see this town get some recognition as a place with a rich historical legacy.

However, in the days since reading it, I have to admit that a certain theme of the article keeps creeping into the back of my mind. That theme has also kept me mildly annoyed.

In the article, the author includes St. Louis as a “smaller” city with “lesser-known, but no less important” historical landmarks. New Orleans, another city with a staggering amount of history, joins us along with Newport, Rhode Island, New Castle, Delaware, and Charlottesville, Virginia.

I know Charlottesville has Monticello since I’ve been there. That’s a great historical asset, but it’s going to need some slaughter-filled Civil War battles or something to join the big dogs. It doesn’t, and it must be one of the few cities in Virginia that can’t say it does. New Castle, on other hand, is a thriving metropolis of (wait for it) 5,285 people. It has some significant colonial architecture and it’s where William Penn first stepped on American soil. For those keeping score (like me), I just summed up the history of New Castle in one sentence. Try doing that with St. Louis or New Orleans.

Fort San Carlos Diorama

I grudgingly accept many people consider St. Louis to be a “smaller” city. It actually isn’t, but that’s difficult to realize because so much of the population has moved beyond the immovable city border set in 1877. Likewise, much of St. Louis history goes unnoticed, and that is exactly why I write this blog. I’m not even from here, and I can’t get enough of the stories this town has to tell. It’s my belief that St. Louis is easily in the top-ten when it comes to ranking historic American cities.

This got me thinking, and I started to realize how easy it is for me to make that case. Sit back and think for a moment how few American cities can boast a historic resume like this one:

The two most historically significant rivers in North America converge here. In 1250, a Native American city stood nearby that contained more people than London or Paris did at the time. St. Louis was founded by the French, ceded to the Spanish, fought over by the British, and purchased by the Americans. It was once the frontier, and Manifest Destiny unfurled from our front porch. Wedged in the middle of our greatest conflict, it was the largest city in the largest border state during the Civil War. During America’s Gilded Age, only three American cities could claim a larger population. It has been a center of commerce, transportation, industry, education, entertainment, and alcohol (of course, we can’t forget alcohol). The world came here in 1904. Even the race to the suburbs that has depleted the city in the last seventy years is of significant historical record.

If St. Louis isn’t among the big cities of American history with that list, here’s one more nugget: Downtown St. Louis was a battlefield during the American Revolution.

Mural of the attack by Oscar Berninghaus

To me, that battle is a perfect example of how comprehensive and diverse the history of St. Louis is. In 1780, on what is now the corner of Walnut and 4th Streets, St. Louis staged the only battle in the American Revolution fought west of the Mississippi River. Even more interesting is that it wasn’t very “American” at all. The kingdoms of Spain and Great Britain were the belligerents. To mix it up further, the Spanish force consisted mainly of French creoles and slaves. The British force was overwhelmingly Indian, with a sprinkling of Canadian hunters and British regulars thrown in. Remarkably, these two patchwork armies went about trying to kill each other over a small fur-trading village that wouldn’t become part of the United States for another twenty-four years.

Now that is what I call good history.

“The Battle of Fort San Carlos”, as it would be known, was named after a stone tower that played a key role in the engagement. The tower stood just beyond the current-day location of Busch Stadium’s center field wall. In fact, if Busch Stadium existed in 1780, attending spectators couldn’t ask for better seats from which to watch a war.

The key figure in St. Louis leading up to this event was the Spanish governor of Upper Louisiana, a military man named Don Fernando de Leyba. Arriving in St. Louis in 1778, he quickly initiated plans to fortify the village. With France entering the American Revolution on the side of the colonial government in 1788, Leyba knew that Spain would eventually be drawn into the fight. As the center of the profitable Missouri River fur trade, Leyba also knew the British coveted the village located at the confluence of North America’s two greatest rivers.

Diagram of the Battle of Fort San Carlos

Leyba was right. When Spain finally declared war in 1779, the British plan to control the Mississippi Valley quickly went into action. In a nutshell, the British plan consisted of rolling back American military successes on the east bank of the Mississippi, while taking control of Spanish possessions on the west bank. If successful, the British would establish solid footing in lands west of the Appalachians.

A former fur trader and British officer named Emanuel Hesse was placed in charge of the campaign. With few British regulars available outside the eastern theater of war, Hesse enlisted Indian forces from tribes around the Great Lakes that were hostile towards colonial French interests. With promises of weapons, riches, and spoils of war, an army of Sioux, Chippewa, Winnebagoes, Menominees, and other tribes were recruited. In 1780, the British-led force began moving south towards St. Louis. Along the way, 250 additional Sauk and Fox Indians joined the ranks, bringing the total to just over 1,000 fighting men.

Informed that St. Louis would get no financial assistance from the colonial Spanish government in New Orleans, Leyba appealed to villagers to help pay for its own defense. To help the cause, Leyba donated more than a third of the necessary funds out of his own pocket. His plan consisted of building four stone towers around the village, starting with one on the vulnerable western side. He also ordered a large trench dug around the perimeter of the entire village. The trench would connect the four towers and provide a strong defensive position from attackers.

King Charles III of Spain

On April 17, 1780, the first stone in the foundation of the western tower was placed. When completed, the cylindrical fort stood about forty feet tall and thirty feet in diameter. It was named Fort San Carlos after the Spanish King Charles III.

But Leyba had underestimated the costs of fortification. Money ran out before the other towers could be built. Instead, felled trees, logs spiked into the ground, and parapets constructed at each end of the trench would have to suffice. Finally, Leyba ordered five cannon placed on top of Fort San Carlos.

With rudimentary defenses in place, word soon arrived from that the British force had gathered in the north and were preparing for attack. Despite defenses that fell short of expectations, this was significant. Unbeknownst to the British-led force, Leyba and the villagers fully expected a battle in the coming days.

The British and Indian force expected to surprise and overwhelm the small fur-trading village. Hesse was so confident that he even decided to divide his force. A larger force of about 750 was sent across the Mississippi towards St. Louis, while a smaller force of 300 was directed south to attack the American-held outpost at Cahokia.

On May 26, 1780, the attacking force approached the village from the north and west. As Indian warriors crept from tree cover, they came upon villagers tending to crops and livestock in the common fields west of the village. One of the first to discover the day of attack had come was Jean Marie Cardinal, a French creole who had recently moved to St. Louis with his family. As Cardinal attempted to flee, an Indian warrior caught and killed him.

News of the attack spread, and farmers, field hands, and slaves suddenly rushed towards the village for safety. The Indians gave chase, catching villagers and slaughtering them before the eyes of loved ones who looked on. A few villagers managed to fight back. Pursued by an Indian warrior, a slave suddenly turned and confronted his attacker. The slave wrested a musket from the Indian and killed him with it before crossing to safety. Marie Josepha Rigauche, a school teacher, made several trips beyond the village gates armed with a pistol and knife in order to help people get to safety.

The Indians and British must have initially believed the rout was on, but the cannon atop the stone tower exploded with a booming reality check. Suddenly, it was apparent that the village was not only expecting the attack, but prepared for it. In his book, Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, 1764-1980, James Primm makes the case that the noise of the cannon was the key factor in the battle. Although far out of range, many Indians stopped in their tracks upon hearing cannon fire. Even the eastern attack on Cahokia lost momentum when the Indians realized the stone tower on the other side of the river had big guns on top of it.

When the Indians realized they had a fight on their hands, only two tribes, the Sioux and Winnebagoes, continued to press the attack. Watching from atop the fort, Leyba described their attack to be:

Captain de Leyba Quote

Despite their bravery, Indian war tactics did not favor attacking stone forts and entrenched riflemen. The Fox and Sauks, already hesitant about attacking a bordering colonial power, halted after one cannon volley. The few British and Canadians remained far in the rear and did not enter the foray at all.

Unsuccessful in drawing the defenders into the open, the Indians shifted their attention. They vented their frustration by killing livestock, burning crops, and destroying outlying buildings. By late afternoon, with Leyba’s defenders staying put behind their defenses, the Indians recognized the futility of the engagement. Disbanding by late afternoon, the attacking forces broke up and headed home.

When the dust settled, the village had suffered over 100 casualties, with twenty-one killed. The defeated British reported four Indians killed and four wounded. The number is likely much higher.

While the number of casualties may not seem significant, it was a staggering blow to a village with a population of just 700. Strategically, the battle had an enormous impact. The Spanish victory ended any British hope for control of the Mississippi Valley. It also prevented the looting and razing of St. Louis by a foreign army. The villagers, however, did not revel in the result. Along with seeing many of their own slain and captured, the residents of St. Louis had to deal with the significant loss of livestock and crops destroyed by the frustrated retreating army.

St. Louis in 1796

Despite his efforts to protect St. Louis, the finger of blame for any form of suffering was pointed directly at Fernando de Leyba. Viewed as the lone representative of an indifferent Spanish government based hundreds of miles away, Leyba became a hated man in the village. He died just a month after the battle, and St. Louis did not mourn his passing. In fact, he was referred to as a coward and a traitor. Some even took to calling him the “Spanish Benedict Arnold”.

The disinterested Fox and Sauk Indians fared even worse. Just a month after the battle, a Spanish militia from St. Louis joined up with an American force led by George Rogers Clark. In retribution for their role in the attack on St. Louis, the army marched on the Indian village of Saukenuk to the north and burned it to the ground.

In the years following the battle, the Spanish improved fortifications around St. Louis and reinforced Fort San Carlos. However, a growing city soon expanded beyond the border it once protected. The stone fort was torn down in 1818.

The Drink

Plaque in front of the St. Louis Hilton

Today, the only physical indication of where the battle was fought is a plaque that was placed near the site where Fort San Carlos once stood. I say “near” because when I went to look for it, I circled around Walnut and 4th for thirty minutes finding no sign of it. Exasperated, I checked the Internet and found out the plaque actually sits one block west at the corner of Walnut and Broadway. The marker stands right outside the entrance of the St. Louis Hilton at the Ballpark.

They didn’t know it at the time, but the Sons of the American Revolution actually helped me out a bit when they decided to place it slightly to the west. They gave me a good drink option for this post. At the top of the Hilton is “Three-Sixty”, an open-air rooftop bar on the 27th floor of the hotel. It provides a full view of downtown St. Louis, including a great vantage point of Busch Stadium. It also provides a top-down view of where Fort San Carlos stood 233 years ago.

It’s a fun place to get a drink, and I’ve actually had good cocktail experiences there on previous visits. However, this time I had a bad feeling as I approached the bar. My bartender had that “I’m gonna shake your Manhattan and put it on the rocks” look to him. Instead of taking a step back and thinking things through, I panicked.

Noticing a printed cocktail menu to my left, I blurted out the first drink on the list. To my own horror, I heard myself muttering the name of a foofy drink named “At the End of the Day”.

sancarlos_thedrink

Sigh.

I can only blame myself, and it was as awful as I expected. I’m not a fan of sweets in general, and this drink tasted like Kool-Aid. With absolutely no kick, it didn’t even taste like spiked Kool-Aid. When I drink alcohol, I want to know it. That first sip of a Manhattan or martini can hit like a train, and it’s fantastic. The abomination I forced on myself this night tasted like it should be served in a sippy-cup.

Next time, I’ll roll the dice with a Manhattan. Three-Sixty is a fun place to go, especially on cool nights when the Cardinals are playing. Most people will focus their attention on the little men running around a baseball diamond to the south, but not me.

I prefer to turn my gaze west and imagine little men running around and making history.

A map of St. Louis drawn in 1796. Fort San Carlos circled in red

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