What can I say about New Orleans that hasn’t been said. Like St. Louis, it has a very rich, old, and diverse heritage. I was also able to view Sandborn maps of the downtown area of New Orleans to give me some insights into what was were in the 1930s. It is slightly different than it was pre-hurricane Katrina. The major channel that Rose and Malcolm would walk along and where they watched a floating Marti Gras parade for the Krewe of Zulu, was still there in the ‘30s. It is now filled in; in its place is a major highway.
The French Quarter survived Katrina because, as back then, it was the highest point of land and where the old downtown was first developed in the early 1720’s. There was even a church at the sight of the current St. Louis Cathedral which opened in 1727. It’s hard to imagine back that far!
As in St. Louis, it was inhabited by a wide variety of people over its very long history. First it was an Indian portage, then the French came, finally settling in the “beautiful crescent” in 1718–then called Nouvelle Orleans after the French regent; Philippe of Orleans. The spot for the city was picked by Jean Baptiste LeMoynede Bienville, the then governor of the territory of Louisiana (the Louisiana territory was named after King Louis the XIV). This spot was picked because it was a halfway point between two existing forts on the Mississippi: Natchez—Fort Rosalie for the Duchess de Pontchartrain); and Mobile—Fort Louis. It was also reported to be safe from Hurricanes and tidal waves. (We know how wrong that is).
John Law, president of the “Company of the West” or “of the Indes” and a professional gambler and well know manipulator, was given authority over this young colony by the Duc d ‘Orleans. He enticed many Europeans to make the voyage to this colony in 1718. Eight hundred came over to a colony of only 700 and were scattered among the meager settlements at the time, along with the oppressed of the time paupers, prisoners, slaves, prostitutes and even a group of Ursuline nuns were sent over (including 10,000 Germans- 2000 of whom actually made it to the new world and eventually settled in New Orleans),.
A hurricane destroyed the small settlement in 1721. It was quickly rebuild with the present day street plans in the present day French Quarter. These plans were signed by Pierre Le Blond de La Tour. It had swamp on three sides and the river on the fourth where they built a levee.
In 1762 the king of Spain, Charles the III, accepted the gift of Louisiana from his cousin, Louis XV, the king of France. At this time England was at war with Spain and had taken Havana and invaded Florida (Florida being slightly different then present day). This transaction was kept secret until the February 10, 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ended the French and Indian War. It ceded Canada to England and everything east of the Mississippi. England returned the Philippine islands and Cuba to Spain in exchange for Florida.
[Side note: the French and Indian wars had been going on in North America since 1689. In one of the last of these wars a Colonel by the name of George Washington fought against the French in the Ohio Valley.]
The people of New Orleans during this “Spanish period” were still mostly traders, not farmers, and the city, its culture, and language remained French.
[Side note: the word “Creole is derived from the Spanish criollo: a child born in the colonies, therefore, native-born Orleanians of Spanish and French descent were called Creoles.]
What the Spanish did leave behind in New Orleans, besides Creoles, was the Spanish style architecture, which the Vieux Carre (French Quarter) is still known for today. This was mostly because of two devastating fires in 1788 and again in 1794 which burned many buildings to the ground. Subsequently the new buildings were made of brick and stucco in a Spanish American style, with tile roofs, patios, or courtyards (like the one Malcolm takes Rose to). From what I can gather, the famous wrought iron balconies didn’t appear until approximately 1849 because of the building done by Micaela Almonester Pontalba, born of a French father and French Creole mother in 1795. She married her 20 year old cousin, Joseph de Pontalba when she was 16—a Frenchman. In the interest of a bit of historic gossip, both families were very rich and it seemed they didn’t get along well. Joseph’s father, the Baron, ended up shooting Micaela—three or four times into her chest, cutting off two fingers but not killing her. He then shot and fatally killed himself. He did this because he was upset about her request for divorce from his son. She went on to build 16, three-story houses on each side of Jackson Square (then Place d’Armes) made of red brick and cast iron decorated balconies that are still there today. (Look for the monogram “AP” (Almonester-Pontalba) on the railings. She also put up the present day iron fence that surrounds Jackson Square.
The French Quarter got its second renovation in the 1920s and ‘30s. This was boosted by FDR’s WPA during the depression, so Rose would have seen some of the Vieux Carre that was destroyed, some that had been renovated (Jackson square and the French Market, including the Cafe du monde where she first tasted the sweet pasty: beignet), and some that was still in disrepair.
Spanish New Orleans was overseen by a succession of men for over 30 years: Don Antonio do Ulloa (with the help of the French Commandant and acting govenor: Charles Aubry), Don Alejandro “Bloody” O’Reilly ( an Irish soldier of fortune ) who finally suppressed a local uprising against the Spanish by imprisoning or killing some key rebels. Don Luis di Unzaga y Amezaga was a mild governor who married a Creole. (The American Revolution started during his time in office and he helped the colonist in their struggle with Britain.)
Bernardo de Galvez was the next governor at the age of 31 who also married a Creole. (During his term Spain declared war on England on May 8, 1779. He fought against the British at Baton Rouge, Natchez and Fort Manchac, Mobile and Pensacola.) The Treaty of Peace, signed in 1783, acknowledged the independence of the United States with a southern boarder line of 31 deg latitude, everything south belonging to Spain.
There were a few more after these men that I won’t mention here. Of historic note, however; in 1795 Etienne deBore started sugar granulation on his plantation approx. six miles north of the city (Audubon Park area). The Jesuits introduced sugar cane into the area in 1751. [Side note: the cotton gin was invented in 1793. Both of these developments eventually created the plantation aristocracy in the South we are all so familiar with.]
In the 1790’s there were ocean going vessels in the river taking shipments from the states to Europe and South America, as well as Keelboats, called “Kaintocks” by the local Creoles, and flatboats. These rough Americans did nothing to help endear the locals to these new intruders and started the general dislike for the Americans by the Creoles of New Orleans, especially after these Americans won their freedom from England and started moving into Louisiana in droves. Some were businessmen, planters, and Yankee clerks who didn’t know a word of French. They were there to make money and this would go against the grain of the more leisurely Creole aristocrats
If you remember any of your high school history you would remember that in 1803 the Unites States purchased the territory of Louisiana (827,987 square miles of it) from the French, specifically from Napoleon Bonaparte.
So how did it go from Spanish control back to French? Well, in 1800 Charles the IV of Spain gave Louisiana to the then very strong Napoleon in the Treaty of San Ildefonso. When the acquisition was announced in 1801, it caused great excitement in the area.
In 1803 there were just under 10,000 people in New Orleans, the majority of which were white French and Spanish Creoles. There were also Acadians (exciles from French Acadia), Germans who spoke perfect French, Indians, Castilian soldiers, Negroes (about 1/3 who were free people of color, gens de couleur libres) and a mix of the dregs of society. It was a trading center: rice, indigo, sugar, tobacco, and cotton. Most were Roman Catholic but very liberal in their acceptance of the many brothels, saloons and gambling halls–a side service to the traders—and most couldn’t read or write. This amalgamation now had to become American. Of course, this didn’t happen overnight, and when the new comers came to town and settled “up town” (up river of the New Basin canal – just west of the present Canal Street), the locals “down town” in the French Quarter resented their capitalistic ways.
The territory of Orleans became the state of Louisiana in 1812. The other significant event that occurred soon after this was the Battle of New Orleans, January 8th, 1815, in which Andrew Jackson lead the diverse population of the area against the British (2000 British lost their lives to our seven!) to save the city (This was during the War of 1812).
The city prospered for decades, until the civil war. Much of this was from the Golden age of Steamboating: 1820-1880s, which Grandma B. was a part of, but she was on the upper Mississippi during the heyday of mining for lead ore in Gelina, Illinois (gelina is the name for lead). She could have very well have seen riverboats with products from the New Orleans docked in Gelina. Gelina was the main port town north of St. Louis at that time–a hop, skip and a jump to Chicago by train.
In the 1800’s there was much growth in the city. The American side of the city—north of the New Basin Canal, just west of Canal street—had its own square—Lafayette Square. The Creole side had Place d’Armes later called Jackson Square in 1851 for Andrew Jackson—their hero. The opulent avenue was Esplanade in the French Quarter and St. Charles Avenue in the American sector. This is where the St. Charles Theater was built in 1835 (near Poydras St.). It is the theater that Rose and Malcolm went to on their arranged date.
The New Basin Canal, where Rose and Malcolm watch the Zulu Krewe dressed in black face during Marti Gras, was started in this time period (1832 to be exact). It took six years to build and took 8,000 Irish and German lives from yellow fever and cholera. They dug the channel by hand in a swamp infested with mosquitoes. It turned out to be a major business route for merchants. It was ordered filled in 1946. The Pontchartrain expressway took its place in 1961.
[Of historic note: New Orleans, in this time period, had the nick name of “Dixie.” This is from the word “Dix”, which people called the 10 dollar bill printed in the 1800s for exclusive use in New Orleans. One side of the bill noted the denomination in English—Ten—and French on the other—Dix—(dee in French, dix in English). ]
Malcolms great, great, great, great grandmother came over as a young girl during the Haitian (Saint Dominque) sugar plantation insurrections of 1791 along with many other gens de couleur—people of color. And their color and heritage varied. Some were mulattoes (half-black), some quadroon like Malcolm g4th grandmother (one quarter black), or octoroons (one-eighth black). When she was 17, she marries a white Frenchman, and she became his placage—his concubine. As in those times, he would have set her up in her own house with her own servants. If he got married, all of this was hers to keep. Subsequent grandmothers marry both “colored” men (or a free black man. A slave was called a “black” man), or Creoles–thus Malcolm’s “cafe au lait” complexion (coffee with cream).
One can not talk of New Orleans and not mention Carnival or Mardi Gras—French for fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday when the Catholics start the 40 days of penitence and fasting.
Between 1806 and 1823 laws forbad masking and balls, so private clubs were formed. The first parade was held in 1837. The first float appeared in 1839.
In 1857 the first krewe (the Mystick Krewe of Comus) was formed by a secret society in order to restore some order and dignity to a celebration that seemed to be getting more dangerous over time. As different krewes emerged, they each had their own parade and ball. In 1872 Rex, the king of Carnival, was introduced along with the Mardi Gras colors: purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power. In 1874 Rex arrives in the city by steamboat at the foot of Canal St. with all the boat’s whistles blaring. This is the birth of the river parades that Rose and Malcolm watched on the Mississippi and on the Canal.
1871 started the traditions of naming a queen and the throwing of trinkets. Doubloons weren’t thrown until 1960 by the Rex Krewe, though that same krewe had used them in 1884 and 1893.
[Historic note: no Mardi Gras was celebrated during WWI and WWII and during the Korean war in 1951.]
Krewes were private, mostly white, clubs. This became a hot political issue in the 1960’s during the civil right movement. But as mentioned in my story, there were a few all black krewes as well. The Zulu Krewe is mentioned in my story. To mock what the white folks were doing, the blacks in the Zulu parade dressed in all black, wore black face with exaggerated white around their eyes and mouths and grass skirts. The Zulu king would give out coconuts from his tug on the Basin Canal. After WWI the blacks created the “Indians,” not a krewe but different gangs of blacks that dressed as American Indians. These different “Indian” gangs roamed the black neighborhoods and taunted and sometimes fought against each other in the streets under their costumed disguises.
It is a long tradition that people that are watching the parades dress in costume for Mardi Gras: men as women, women as men and everything in between. Some black women had a tradition of dressing in baby doll outfits complete with bonnets. These women were frequently prostitutes. Of course, all the ball were costume affairs and by invitation only. In the hay-day of the red light district (1889-1917 Storyville), the prostitutes even had a ball of their own. The first such affair was in 1882 called the “Ball of the two well known Gentleman.” It was held for pimps, prostitutes, petty politicians and police. Rival clubs were the CCC Club, and the Red Light Social Club.
Kings Louis the XIV AND XV, of France sent over women of ill repute for the French settlers. When the Spanish owned the area, they did not condone this practice. In 1803, when American bought the territory, prostitution again flourished. The “Swamp,” as it was initially known, was bounded by S. Liberty St., S. Robertson, Girod and Julia. It was filled with cheap dance halls, saloons, brothels, gambling halls, cockfighting pits and rooming houses from approx. 1820-1850.
In 1866 Basin St. started to be used for some of the fancier pleasure houses. In 1869 Hattie Hamilton built a beautiful brothel at 21 S. Basin St. It was known as “the 21.” Second was Kate Townsend at 40 S. Basin St. She got $100/night and required ball gowns to be worn by her girls when they were downstairs. Minnie Ha Ha also had a Mansion on Basin Street in the 1860s. All these buildings were large, multiple stories and finely or at least elaborately furnished. There were many “cribs” further north in this district were men (or women) could spend as little as a dollar for someone’s company. But my guess is you got what you paid for, probably including a venereal disease or two!
Sidney Story–an Alderman—came up with an ordinance to keep the prostitution between N. Robertson and N. Basin St. and from Customhouse St. (now Iberville St.) to St. Louis St. (Storyville). This was called Storyville. Uptown (West of the Basin Canal) the blacks were to have their own red light district from Perdido to Gravier Streets and Franklin to Locust Streets.
Lulu White was a famous black madam who had a mansion on Customhouse St. called “Mahogany Hill.” She was said to have worn diamonds and a bright red wig. She also had a saloon on the corner of Basin St. and Bienville. It later became a Broadway Cabaret. It was still there in 1943.
Tom Anderson was called the “Mayor of Storyville.” He was a pimp and a Louisiana State legislator. He owned a saloon in Storyville. (He was 71 years old in 1928). He married Gertrude Dix who managed 209 and 225 Basin St. brothels called “The Arlington”. She died in 1961.
Emma Johnson was a bad madam. She got her girls on drugs and sold kids into slavery. She had “shows of depravity” at 331 and 335 Basin St. She died in 1927.
Willie V. Piazza was at the other end of the spectrum of madams. She spoke English, Spanish, French and Dutch. She wore a monocle and smoked Russian cigarettes. She even had a large library in her brothel. She had “Jelly Roll” Morton and Tony Jackson play piano at her place and people would come just to hear them play. She was still alive in 1947 living in France.
In 1938 when Rose was in town, many of these buildings in this area were still standing but most were not inhabitable. Prostitution was then spread out again into different parts of the city. Pete LaLa’s Cafe was open, as far as I can tell, and was on the corner of Iberville and Marais, in the old Storyville area. The front of Pete’s was a saloon with music and dancing, the back was gambling and upstairs you could rent a room by the hour.
In 1940s the city wanted to try and erase some of the history of Storyville, so they changed the name of Basin St. to N. Saratoga. They soon discovered that there was money to be made in the famous (or infamous) Basin St. so it was changed back in 1945.
My madam, Madam E., was made from a compilation of madams that I read about. I took some of my material from Polly Adler–a famous madam in New York City in the ‘40s–and some from a madam who had a place out West; I think it was in the Hollywood area. There was also a Madam Sherry in Chicago who was pretty famous. The story goes that when she was having problems with the police, Al Capone told her to pay the top man in the police department to cut down on the raids to her establishment and let him figure out what the other cops down the line would get. (Sound familiar!).
Prairie du Chien New Orleans Steamboats St. Louis
Savanna is like most river towns in that it runs north, south along the river. At least it did when Rose visited it. It was a major railroad hub at one time, hence the present railroad museum housed in an old railroad car next to the tracks, not far from the river. That is why, in part, I put the piece in where Rose and Lilly Mae are watching the large locomotive rush by them. I also included it because at that time, railroads were still a major part of the landscape. Goods traveled by them as well as people. Earl and Marilyn told me about the Burlington “Zephyr” that they took—Marilyn, to LaCrosse or Chicago; Earl, to go off to war (but that is for my second book!). The town is hemmed in to the East by a large hill or maybe it’s considered a small bluff, so the current town has spread out over the hill and left the quiet charm of the old down town not too unlike what it must have been like in the 30s.
I didn’t have a personal contact for my research in this town—someone that lived there during the 30s—so I can not honestly tell you what it was like relative to segregation issues. I would guess, however, since it was a railroad town, they might have seen more black people then Prairie did. For the sake of the story, I made the restaurant segregated. (There is currently a restaurant next to the abandoned Radkey Hotel. It is attached to what appears to be the old hotel lobby by a set of double doors, so I’m sure it was a restaurant that Rose and Lilly Mae would have seen in the 30s). The Radkey Hotel was built in 1888.
The five and dime Rose and Lilly Mae went into was there, as well as the movie theatre (though neither was there when I went). In fact, there were two theatres in town in the 30s as there was in Prairie du Chien. That really tells you how important movie theatres were at the time, for such small towns to have two each! I don’t know if Savanna had a used book store, however. That is made up.
The steps and the small bluff Rose and Lilly Mae climbed are there, and afford a wonderful view of the town, river and country side to its west. Like Rose, I would love to have a house on top of this bluff and wake to that scene each morning.
Savanna was settled by three related families in 1828 (Aaron Pierce and Harriet Bellow Pierce originally from Massachusetts, the family of George Davidson and William Blundell who traveled from Galena on a flat boat down the Fever River, then the Mississippi. Aaron and Harriet went by ox-drawn wagon.
Luther H. Bowen named the town (presumably for the Savanna that lay south of the settlement) and started laying it out. He also built the first hotel in town—the Mississippi House. In 1839, when Savanna was named the county seat of Carroll County, the town boasted of stores, hotels, a ferry, a sawmill and a brickyard.
By 1847 there were almost 500 inhabitants. That was the year they built a one room brick school house at the corner of Madison and Third St. It remained in use until 1891. In 1857 the town was designated a termainal for the R& M railroad (the Racine and Mississippi) later to become the Western Union Railroad. The first train didn’t arrive until 1865. Before a permanent bridge was built across the Mississippi in 1880 for the trains from Chicago, track was laid across the ice during the winter.
By the turn of the century there were 3,325 inhabitants of Savanna with business such as a bank, Laundry, a company that made carbonated beverages, churches, groceries, brewery (Keller’s beer), general store, drug store, large roundhouse and accompanying freight house, several saloons, lumber yard, hardware store, meat market, blacksmith shop, telephone office, newpaper, confectionery, and even a Opera house. In the winter, the ice business also kept many men busy in town. Everything a town would need.
The Savanna Boat Club house that Rose and Lilly Mae see as they leave the steamer was built in 1915 and burned down in 1977. The still present brick library was built in 1906. The large, metal bridge Rose spies to the north of town was dedicated in 1933. The Marth Brothers Variety Store was opened in 1934 and is now the Ben Franklin Store on 325 Main St. The Orpheum theatre where Rose and Lilly Mae saw the Shirley Temple movie burned in a fire in 1937. It was built in 1912. The Web theatre was the other movie house in town until The Times theater opened in the 40s.
Prairie du Chien New Orleans Savanna St. Louis
Some may wonder why I picked the Capital excursion boat as the boat Rose would work on. Well, as I was looking at the archived newspaper “The Courior” in the Prairie du Chien library, I saw an ad just as it is presented in my story. It didn’t have a subsequent ad for help however, as my story suggests. I needed to find a legitimate way for Rose to get onto the boat, so I added that to make the story work.
Then when I was in Savanna, Illinois and was looking in a book that their community had put together, I saw a picture of the Capital docked next to town, so I knew then that I had my boat.
I don’t remember the exact sequence of events that brought me to Henry Evans, my first Capital authority. I think it was through Bette Gordon, the proprietor of the Mercantile library at the U of Missouri at St. Louis. Henry gave me many details and wonderful pictures about the Capital that I was not able to find on my own. Henry had researched the boat because he had made a model of it. At that point I only had a couple pictures of the outside of the boat. Another contact was put in my lap just before I was going to send my book to be set up for printing. Bette got me in touch with an assistant at the library, Annie Blum, who gave me the name of Mary Otte. As you know from the book, Mary worked on the Capital in the 1930s as the purser—the person who handles the money–, so she was able to give me details that I wasn’t able to find out from my own research.
The Capital is a grand old boat. She was owned by the steamer company, the Streckus Steamer Company. It started out as the Pittsburgh, owned by the Diamond Jo Line. In 1896 it was destroyed by a tornado when it was moored at St. Louis. The hull and engines were salvaged and converted to the steamer Dubuque. In 1919 it was sold to the Steckfus Line who converted it to an excursion boat, the Capital. The Capital measured 265.6 ft long, and 50.7 ft wide. It was the largest rear paddle wheeler around at that time. It was dismantled in 1945. I get conflicting information about the color of the boat but it was mostly white, with maybe some blue and green accents. The Rainbow Dance floor on the second deck measured 1200 ft by 45 ft. Henry thinks the floor was maple. She was also unique in that she had her own life boats “of the Lane type” that hung over the promenade, third, deck—five boats on each side.
There was a cafeteria on the first and third decks, the 4th deck being 2/3 enclosed and heated to allow excursions when the weather wasn’t as nice. These decks were filled with square, wooden tables and chairs. As I mentioned in my book, the Streckfus company was always looking to make innovation on their steamers, so when the Capital was redone they put in a cafeteria line on the first deck taken from restaurant in New York City. I think they may have also had this same thing on the 4th deck. I know they served food on the fourth deck and had a soda fountain in the stern of the dance floor, in front of the bathrooms.
There was some debate about where the kitchen was, but Mary Otte said it was on the first deck, behind the open, eating area/cafeteria. The 4 boilers were in the very front for some reason (maybe weight distribution?), right behind the grand, mahogany staircase. Mary’s office was right under the staircase and faced the boiler room. She said the door (or “hatch”) to below deck—the hold–where the black hands stayed was right across from her office door. I have a picture of the first deck cafeteria, called the “Green Room” that shows large pipes that carried the steam from the coal fired boilers to the very back of the boat where the engine room was. Henry said there were 2 turbine generators by Westing-house there that ran 100 fans and ventilators and 5,000 lights throughout the boat. There was also the water purification system on the first deck that changed the muddy Mississippi into something drinkable. I can’t imagine it would be drinkable to today’s standard, since everything, including raw sewage from the river boats, was thrown into the river. Henry said the crew drank river water. I didn’t ask Mary if that was the case or not.
As mentioned in the “afterword” in my book, the crew, including the black musicians, stayed with the boat the whole season. I would assume the same crew that worked the upper river worked on her when she was docked for the summer in New Orleans and did harbor excursions, but I don’t know that for sure. Mary said that only white women handled the money i.e. the concessions of candy, cigars/cigarettes and popcorn on the dance floor and in the cafeteria lines and only the white crew (purser, cashiers, officers, pilots, engineers and the captain) stayed on the 6th deck, the crew cabins. Mary said a colored maid cleaned her cabin, and that she showered by the engine room but had a basin and pitcher in her cabin.
In the fall of 1935 the steamer was used as a floating merchandise display mart. It was called the “Rice-Stix Show Boat.” It traveled for 3 weeks like this, going 1200 miles, made 11 stops and had 7721 merchants from 9 states check out its wares. Interesting marketing idea!
Roy Streckfus, one of Commodore John and Theresa’s 10 children (3 of whom died before reaching adulthood), was the captain of the Capital. Though in its debut run in May of 1920, the captain was Cornelius McGee. The article that mentions this said there was a crew of 125. Mary Otte remembered a crew of 20-30. The “Waterways Journal” told me in 1937 the pilots were Captain Kelly King and Lee Short, with John and Henry Pemberton in the engine room with Walter Hasse as mate (what ever “mate” means). Miss Selma Walgreen was in charge of the office. Henry game me a copy of a souvenir harbor guide from New Orleans that help tell me a lot about the boat.
The Capital’s summer season ran from May to September with trips up the Illinois river out of St. Louis at the beginning and end of the season. Otherwise it was touting day and “moonlight” excursions from St. Louis to St. Paul. When it went to New Orleans, it took on excursion the whole way down then did just short excursions for a dock at the end of Canal Street and 30 miles total back and fourth on each side of the dock.
Rose’s second boat, the J.S. Deluxe, was the first boat that the Streckfus family built exclusively for excursion. It was designed to be more luxurious than the Capital but was about the same size. It had side paddles toward the back of the boat vs the rear placement the Capital had. The J.S. was rebuilt from the steamer Quincy in 1919 by the Streckfus company. It was also purchased from the Diamond Jo Line.
I don’t know any other details about the interior of this vessel other than what I mention in my story. It was named after the President of the company, Commodore John Streckfus. I have one article from the Streckfus magazine that says it would travel up the Ohio and as far north as St. Paul, but it also went as far south as New Orleans. Another source said it primarily worked the lower river, south of St. Louis.
Prairie du Chien New Orleans Savanna Steamboats
I could write a whole book on the city of St. Louis. My extended weekend there was a very enjoyable one, taking in the major sights, visiting the Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, and participating in a church service at the Antioch Baptist Church.
I was also able to look at Sandborn maps at the lovely, downtown public library, so I was able to see what town really looked like at the time Rose would be visiting. Interestingly, the riverfront had just been cleaned up in the mid 1930’s. Before that it was a shanty town, a product of the depression, just like you read about in the history books. I wonder where they put all those poor folks when they made them move. When Rose would have gotten there it would have just been an open area as described, with a pier for the excursion boats—it was a major destination and jumping off point for The Diamond Joe line and Streckfus line of excursion boats—and a place for railroad cargo. There were many abandoned buildings or empty lots in the first block or so from the river dock during that time. It was still the old down town and hadn’t begun its revitalization yet.
St. Louis was also a major railroad hub, with Eads bridge’s (finished in 1874, designed by Captain James B Eads. It’s still quite a sight!) lower level carrying the east, west trains into town which intersected the main north, south line that ran along the west side of the river. (The upper level of the bridge is currently closed but the lower level is being used by the commuter train service—the Metrolink). The large railroad station—Union Station–was and still is about a mile west of the river. It was built over Charteau’s pond—a pond and sewer pit that was filled in after the major cholera epidemic in 1849. Union station opened in 1894 as the largest single level passenger terminal in the world, at that time; 269 trains operated daily, including 35 commuter trains. Someone has done a wonderful job of restoring the main station (as seen by the pictures here) and has preserved at least some of the arrival and departure area, complete with historic pictures and explanations of what is now a large shopping mall. It is one of the many sites anyone visiting the city must see.
I describe St. Louis as a sleeping giant, because I think it does not do enough to tout the wonderful heritage and vast array of sights a person can see if they want to truly see the city. With my short time in the city, I was not able to really explore the beautiful Forest Park. I’m sure a person could take a whole day or two just in that place, with the Zoo, art museum and historical society all on its grounds, beside the large park itself.
The thing that hit me when I was driving around most of the old city was the number of homes that are built of brick. Brick homes abound both in the Ville and in the richer near west end where the likes of Monica and Alyssia lived. It is nice to see that in both places they are starting some restorations and they are continuing to keep with the historic brick designs. There must have been a significant brick industry near by.
The near west end of the city where the large homes with gated streets once where and still are, is a place a person could spend a good deal of time in as well. The interesting entrances to some of these streets are still there with their beautiful homes and well manicured lawns stand as they did so many years ago. The Washington Terrace gothic turrets and clock still stand (built in 1893), as well as the stately Kingsbury Place and Westmorland Place. Soldan High school is also still there (built to represent Tudor Revival architecture, opened in 1909 as a magnet school), but I was not able to tour inside the school any further than Grandma B was in my story. My request was looked on with suspicion, as per the times, so I was not allowed in past the front hallway. The school reopened in the 1990s as a collage prep school, as it was when Rose went there but back then it was probably exclusively white. Soldan now appears to be a mostly black school. Interesting switch of the times I think.
I was able to tour the well preserved sanctuary of the Antioch Baptist Church. That was after I attended an inspiring church service in the new sanctuary (some of which I took to use in my story). I am glad folks in this welcoming church community had to foresight to preserve the lovely, old sanctuary when they decided they needed to expand for the future. The people in the church office where kind enough to get me in contact with Dorothy Brown, the church clerk. She was able to supply me with some detail of that church community that gave Grandma and Rose a real place in the community.
The Ville is also sleeping giant that appears to just be coming out of its slumber. There are many, I’m sure, once lovely brick homes that are abandoned, but they have torn some down close to the church and are putting some new brick homes in their place. I was also told the well preserved (at least on the outside) Homer Phillips Hospital—which is mostly not is use–is going to be used, at least in part, as elderly housing. Its opening in 1937 was a major celebration and accomplishment for the black community of St. Louis. Sumner high school is still there as well as the Simmons grade school, but I couldn’t tell if either was in use (I was there on the weekend). The once vibrant shopping district of Easton Avenue (now Martin Luther King Drive) is totally gone.
The Ville was created, in part, because in the early 1900’s neighborhood’s race restricted covenants which pushed more and more blacks into this smaller area of St. Louis.
The Ville is named from a shortened version of Elleardsville, which was named after Charles Elleard who came to St. Louis in the 1860’s and had a large, 200 archer estate and floral company in the area. It was originally settled by German and Irish, with some African-Americans.
Simmons school—the school that Della and Marcus go to—still has the name Elleardsville above its entrance in cement because it was originally called Elleardsville Colored School No. 8. It was the first black institution in the Ville when it opened in 1873. It was renamed in 1891 for Dr. William J. Simmons, a Baptist clergyman, educator and author. Sumner High School opened in 1875 and was the first secondary black High School west of the Mississippi. This brought many families, such as Grandma B.’s, to the area. Some of its more famous graduates are the internationally know opera star, Grace Bumbry, Chuck Berry, LaMonte McLamore and Ronald Townson of the singing group the Fifth Dimension, Arthur Ash and Tina Turner (then known as Annie Mae Bulock).
Turner Middle School, formerly the Charles Henry Turner Open Air School for Handicapped Children opened in 1925 and was the first school for handicapped black children in the city. It was named for Charles Turner, a distinguished, black entomologist.
Downtown St. Louis still has many of the “skyscrapers” it had in the 30s and back then 15 plus stories was a sky scraper. St. Louis claims to have the world’s first skyscraper, the Wainwright building. It was built in 1892 and is 10 stories high. It is still there on the corner of Chestnut and Seventh Streets. Downtown there are still wonderful buildings such as the “Old Post Office” and customs house, opened in 1884, which is being renovated as I speak; the lovely main public library, that is worth a trip inside, even if you don’t need to check out any books; City Hall built in Louis the XIV style after the Hotel de Ville in Paris in 1904; the Kiel Auditorium, which opened in 1932 and was torn down in 1992. It was replaced by the current Kiel multipurpose center. Apparently the renovated Kiel Opera House still stands. The Court House is still there and, of course, the structural wonder—the Gateway Arch—which was built in the 1960s. The Old Church or Old Cathedral that Rose visits is still there and is also just a short walk from the arch and worth the trip.
One of the highlights of my research trip to St. Louis was my private—I just happened to be the only one there the morning I went—tour of “The Fabulous Fox” Theatre (built in 1929 by film mogul William Fox, renovated and reopen in 1982). Now that is an amazing structure. Its interior design is described as Siamese-Byzantine. It is a conglomeration of Moorish, far Eastern, Egyptian, Babylonian and Indian themes. Many of the paintings, sculptures and furnishings were purchased by Fox’s wife, Eve Leo, from her travels around the world. Originally it seated 5,060 for 35 to 65 cents a head, depending on the time of day. Now it seats 4,278 plus 234 seats in the private Fox Club. I was even lucky enough to hear the large, four manual, Wurlitzer organ play as it must have done many, many years ago to the silent films that had played in the theatre (it is one of only five of its type ever built, with 36 ranks—what ever those are–and 2700 pipes),. Though the Fox didn’t play silent films for long; it was build for the talkies and even had central air and a passenger elevator. Fox Associates have to be commended on their foresight in not allowing such a jewel to succumb to the wrecker ball.
Just driving through town I would see buildings that would make me want to stop and stare. The diversity in architectural style in this town is truly amazing, and speaks of the diversity of its heritage. I wasn’t able to make it to the Shaw’s Garden or Missouri Botanical Garden (opened in 1859), but my parents have been there and they thought it was lovely. There is also a strong beer legacy in St. Louis, and even thought I wasn’t able to visit the Anheuser Bush grounds, I hear they are worth seeing, even if you don’t like beer. Falstaff and Lemp breweries also were in town in the ‘30s.
(Small, interesting fact: the first gas station in the world opened in St. Louis in 1905 at 418 S. Theresa Ave. The gas was pumped through a garden hose!)
St. Louis history starts in 1703 when some Catholic priests establish a mission there. Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette were the first Europeans to see the area in 1673. La Salle claimed the entire valley for France in 1678. In 1765 Pierre Laclede and party traveled from New Orleans and started building a settlement there. Laclede must have realized the importance of this location–where the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers meet.
After the first Treaty of Paris in 1763, which was the end of the French and Indian War and gave everything east of the Mississippi to England, this small settlement began to grow rapidly. Louis Saint Ange de Bellerive was its first lieutenant governor from 1766 – ’68. Then came a series of Spanish governors. St. Louis was acquired from France under President Jefferson in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.
Before there was railroad travel, there was the river, and up to the 1900s the rivers were still a major way people and goods traveled. Later it became a railroad town where a major north, south line met an east, west line. It’s not called the “Gateway to the West” for nothing.
[Of historic note: St. Louis was the first English speaking country to host the Olympic Games in 1904. The same year it hosted the worlds fair; a truly spectacular event for the city. This was set up in Forest Park and the pictures of the buildings and lagoons built and then destroyed for the worlds fair are amazing. One can imagine what a wonderful sight it was for Grandma B. and her family to see. A few things remain in the park from the fair, the Zoo’s bird house–a gift from Smithsonian museum–and the Art Museum which was the fair’s Palace of Fine Arts.]
St. Louis’s cultural heritage is large—Germans, Irish, Italians, Poles and Blacks, who came to the “northern” city in greater numbers after the civil war. Some folk passed through on there way out west, some came to stay. By 1860 the city had grown considerably, to just over 160,000 inhabitants. And like many large cities, the neighborhoods were divided by these racial groups. Initially, this was an advantage because of language and religious practices, but also as in most big cities, it morphed into areas of haves and have-nots, the haves spreading further west as the down-town declined.
But in recent years, as in many cities, the down-town area has seen a resurgence of interest and renewal.