10 Surprising Secrets From St. Louis History
Founded a quarter millennia ago, St. Louis, Missouri, is today known for its iconic and mysteriously futuristic arch. Here are 10 things you may not know about the city's history.
1. ST. LOUIS IS RIDDLED WITH CAVES SAID TO HAVE BEEN USED BY ESCAPED SLAVES, BOOTLEGGERS, AND MORE.
The caves below St. Louis were widely used for at least 10,000 years. A local tradition says that these caves played a vital role in the Underground Railroad, providing shelter for those fleeing the slave state of Missouri. During Prohibition, the caves made natural bootlegger vaults. Even after the repeal, many city residents found refuge in these underground spaces, which were cool in summer and warm in winter. Over the 20th century, hidden warrens that had once provided secret taverns and beer cellars metamorphosed into underground churches, warehouses, nightclubs, roller rinks, and even a 300-seat theater. One enterprising brewing family even used an underground stream below their manor as a family pool (where, rumor has it, blind fish would occasionally make an appearance).
2. ICE CREAM CONES REPORTEDLY DEBUTED IN ST. LOUIS.
The 1904 St. Louis World's Fair has few modern precedents. The city celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase with grand edifices, concourses, lagoons, and palaces. According to tradition, in the midst of all the hubbub, a concessionaire named Ernest A. Hamwi found himself selling small waffle-like pastries next to an overwhelmed ice cream vendor. When his neighbor ran out of dishes, Hamwi rolled his confection into a tiny cone, and the rest is conical history. But like all great inventions, several people came to the same idea independently; other claimants include Antonio Valvona, who in 1902 patented an “Apparatus for baking biscuit-cups for ice-cream,” and Frank and Charlie Menches, whose descendants claim they wrapped dough around a sailor’s tool for the Medina County Fair in Ohio a few months before St. Louis’s Fair. (For food historians, the debate about what counts as the "first" ice cream cone lives on.)
3. ST. LOUIS WAS ONCE A MAJOR AMERICAN COFFEE HUB.
Back when the Mississippi River was the closest thing to an information superhighway, St. Louis was well-positioned to receive exotic shipments. In the 18th century, coffee arrived from French traders, and in the 19th century it came up from New Orleans. By the early 20th century, St. Louis was the largest inland distributor of coffee in the world, although demographic changes had dethroned the city by the time of the Great Depression.
4. ONE OF ITS MOST FAMOUS STATUES HAD TO BE MOVED BECAUSE IT WAS FREQUENTLY SUBMERGED IN THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER.
In 2006, St. Louis erected The Captains’ Return, a mighty bronze statue celebrating the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s arrival back in civilization. Depicting a boat landing, the sculpture made its home on the St. Louis Wharf. But the Mississippi River is subject to water level swings of up to 50 feet; at half that depth, Lewis was completely submerged, and Clark’s triumphant wave transformed into a frantic cry for help. Eight years after installation, the sculpture was removed and relocated to higher ground. Bronze being porous, it took a year to dry out.
5. ST. LOUIS HAD THE NATION’S LAST PNEUMATIC TUBE SYSTEM.
Tube delivery is now relegated to drive-through windows at banks and pharmacies. But in the 19th century, pneumatic mail dispatch was all the rage. New York City had the largest such system, at 55 miles. St. Louis’s tube network was the smallest, with only four miles, and it was the last such system built by a major American city. By the early 20th century, a futuristic new technology known as “the car” put a swift end to tube networks everywhere.
6. A SECRET SOCIETY FOUNDED IN THE 1870S CREATED AN ANNUAL DEBUTANTES BALL THAT STILL RUNS TODAY.
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 unleashed several political aftershocks, perhaps none so strange as the Veiled Prophet Ball. This annual event, created by a secret society of "Veiled Prophets" (really St. Louis elite), gave a nod to Mardi Gras, but did so with a Byzantine level of pomp and ritual that bordered on menacing—the first “prophets” sported Klan-like hoods and shotguns. In the 1990s, the event was renamed the Fair Saint Louis and moved to the waterfront; these days, the annual celebration shows few signs of its symbolic roots (although the city still acknowledges the Fair’s early role in “reinforcing the notion of a benevolent cultural elite”).
7. A JAZZ AGE BALLROOM HAS BEEN WALLED OFF FOR SIX DECADES.
Built for the 1904 exposition, the Hotel Jefferson was extensively overhauled in the 1920s. Included in this remodel was an exquisite, two-story art deco ballroom with rippling balconies, a massive chandelier, and a 1200-person capacity dance floor. The space closed in the 1950s, and when the building reopened as affordable senior living two decades later, the ballroom was walled off. But the room itself is still intact, if a bit dusty (and closed off to the public). Adding to the creepy factor is the venue’s name, The Gold Room, which was also the name of the haunted ballroom that eventually seduced Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
8. ONE OF THE WORLD’S FIRST SKYSCRAPERS WAS BUILT IN ST. LOUIS IN THE 1890S.
The Wainwright Building wasn’t the tallest building in 1890s America (Chicago and New York had taller). But it was the first skyscraper to look the part, embracing its height with a sheer wall of windows instead of tiered floors or overhanging ledges. Built by a Chicago firm for a wealthy local brewer, the building was designed with the visual language of Roman columns—including an ornamented base and crown—and was eventually awarded City Landmark, National Historic Landmark, and National Register of Historic Places. Frank Lloyd Wright called it "the very first human expression of a tall steel office-building as architecture." These days, its ten floors seem a bit more meager, dwarfed by the futuristic Gateway Arch just six blocks away.
9. DURING CONSTRUCTION OF THE ST. LOUIS ARCH, THE TWO SIDES NEEDED TO BE ACCURATE WITHIN 1/64TH OF AN INCH.
The Gateway Arch is the nation’s tallest national monument, an honor that does little to convey its actual immensity. The Arch is four times taller than the Statue of Liberty (not including the statue's pedestal). It weighs more than 200 space shuttles. Yet the site surveying—done at night, lest the sun’s rays cause measurement distortions—had to match both legs with only 1/64th of an inch worth of wiggle room (that’s smaller than a mechanical pencil lead). A variance that was any wider would have kept the legs from connecting properly and doomed the structural load. If that seems like an impressive feat, here’s another: It was constructed in the mid-'60s, meaning without the assistance of personal computers.
10. DIRECTOR JOHN CARPENTER ONCE PURCHASED A ST. LOUIS BRIDGE FOR $1 WHILE FILMING ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.
Manhattan was too expensive for Carpenter’s 1981 sci-fi dystopia. It also wasn’t nearly dystopian enough. A series of fires had ravaged parts of St. Louis in 1976, so the director decided to use the desolate streets as one huge backlot. For the film’s climax—a car chase across the “69th Street Bridge”—he arranged to buy the abandoned Chain of Rocks bridge, on the north edge of St. Louis, for $1 (the purchase removed local governments from any liability). As soon as filming wrapped, the director was refunded his money.