The sulphur springs of Cheltenham
How a once-idyllic valley turned into an industrial center, and what's left today
This article was originally published in my companion newsletter Story Cauldron.
I often think about the places that are lost to history, and imagine how things have changed over time. With each technological advancement, as money comes and goes, and as people move in and out of an area, there are innovations and renovations, and demolitions. Houses turn into parks while wild areas turn into shopping centers. And so many rivers and other natural spaces are destroyed.
And along the way, people forget what used to be.
As a historian and a storyteller, I decided to set my Favor Faeries novel series in St. Louis, and as I work on it, I seek out unusual locations for many scenes. On one “location scouting” expedition, I discovered a bridge and couldn’t figure out why it was there. I still haven’t completely answered that question, but it’s opened up a whole lot of history, and I keep falling down the rabbit hole.
The discovery of the bridge inspired me to investigate the history of a sulfur spring that once existed in the area southeast of the intersection of present-day Manchester and Hampton here in St Louis. While you may not know the area, there was likely a similar location in your hometown, as ‘progress’ happens everywhere, so while the details will differ, the general flow of time will likely be the same.
The magical sulphur springs
In the early 1800s, St. Louis was a thriving city along the Mississippi, but most people lived within just a few blocks near the river.
The sprawling hills west of St. Louis were already home to the Osage, the Kiikaapoi, and others, but for the settlers from Europe, it was space to leave their mark. As a result, wealthy men who wanted land of their own pushed westward into the River Des Peres valley.
This was a time when the River Des Peres (now a fetid channelized river that is barely more than an open sewer) was still “a clear crystal stream” and a “thread of silver sheen” that “stretched a serpentine course through groves, orchards, farmlands, broken abruptly at intervals by a delightful vista of bluffs, hills and valleys.” The land around the river was thick with oaks and pawpaws, sycamores and cottonwoods, with wild apple trees and blackberry thickets, and deer and elk regularly visited and pawed at the muddy banks of the streams.
But for settlers, the defining characteristic of this particular area was the sulphur spring, said to provide great health benefits to those who bathed in its waters. According to journalist Walter Barlow Stevens, “horses and cattle at pasture went a long distance to drink the sulfur water in preference to any other.”
By all accounts, it was an absolutely wonderful place to be.
Charles Gratiot obtained a land grant to the area from the Spanish in 1785, which became the Gratiot League Square. He built a country house there in 1790, though he and his family lived mostly in the city. But his efforts put the area on the map, and slowly others joined him. In one noteworthy case, English naturalist John Bradbury had also built a home near the spring by 1819.
Soon, Sulphur Springs became popular with the well-to-do St. Louis crowd, who lived a mighty six miles away (a round-trip would take nearly a day by carriage via dirt roads). Despite the distance, according to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “its romantic woods and medicinal waters soon became an attraction for the more ambitious picnickers and pleasure seekers, and a hotel was built.” The hotel was followed by bathhouses in the spring of 1852.
In 1858 the Icarians, French communalists, settled in this area with 200 followers, adding considerably to the population, although their community fell apart by 1864.
We don’t know exactly where the spring was located, but here’s a map that was drawn back in 1923 by a man who lived and worked in the area, and would have seen the springs as a boy. It’s our best documentation for where the spring was located.
For those familiar with the area, here’s my attempt to apply the locations of the above map to a current map of the area solely for reference purposes. The railroad tracks at the bottom would have been the Missouri Pacific tracks, and just below them, but not depicted, would be Manchester Avenue. Modern-day Hampton Road would be just to the right of the edge of the map. As best as I can tell, I-44 runs along much of the path of the old spring.
It was a lovely area that even in 1875, with a railroad line, a smelter, and at least three brickworks, hadn’t yet turned into the heavy industrial area that it would become.
The first train west
By the middle of the century, the area around the sulfur springs had been christened Cheltenham. It was a testament to the popularity of this location that in 1852 the Pacific railroad built the first tracks west of the Mississippi right to Cheltenham.
For the journey west, a new locomotive had been built in Massachusetts and arrived in St. Louis via New Orleans aboard a steamboat. On December 9th, the first train left the station in St. Louis near 14th Street and Chouteau Avenue and traveled to the terminus near what is now the Hampton Road viaduct. As Rev. P.J. O’Connor wrote, “At Sulphur Springs speeches of congratulations were made by Mayor Kennett, Edward Bates and James H. Lucas, and lunch was served at the local hotel.” The Republican, a local paper, hailed it as "a new epoch in the history of our state."
And as noted on an official St. Louis site, the railroad “made Cheltenham a bit of a boomtown, since it now had, or would soon have, ready access to ways to move its firebrick to eastern factories.”
Quality fire-brick clay was discovered in the area in the mid-1800s, and soon the whole area was teeming with mines, massive kilns, and smokestacks as clay mining and manufacturing mingled with smelting and related industries.
In 1844 the Laclede Christy Co. built a small fire-brick kiln near the sulphur spring and the railroad, and soon it was a thriving business, with clay mines being dug throughout the area to the south and southeast of Forest Park.
And with a river and natural springs, there was quite a bit of groundwater to contend with. As clay worker Mario Torretti recalled in 1926,
“the company I worked for, I was under all of this here, sixty feet deep… From Manchester all the way up to Arsenal Street and from here over to Hampton Avenue—that's all undermined. We had to go down there, and they always had two pumps working day and night. The water was coming in there all the time. If they wouldn’t pump it out, they would get drowned out and couldn’t work in the mines. We had to go down and take care of those pumps. That was awful valuable stuff. There were several other mines around here, too. That’s where a lot of these men made their living.”
Initially, as the above image and the black and white 1875 sketch both demonstrate, the area was still somewhat rural despite the new industry. But in time, clay works and other businesses would line both sides of the River Des Peres and spill into the neighboring countryside.
Sulphur springs > the railroad > clay > people
Such tremendous industrial growth was great for the city, as the various clay works produced sewer pipe, fire brick for kilns, and other bricks that would be used in the construction of hundreds of homes and businesses in the area—and shipped all around the world.
All of the clay works (as well as coal and rock quarrying and smelting) employed thousands of people throughout the city to do the difficult and dangerous work of mining and manufacturing, working around kilns that reached very high temperatures. In the area, those jobs fell to recent Catholic Irish and Italian immigrants as well as freed slaves, all of whom faced likely discrimination and unemployment otherwise. And in those days, everyone worked side by side in the mines. (If you’re curious, here’s a list of over 100 mines in the area.)
These people in turn built their own neighborhoods around the mines. As Torretti’s hand-drawn map indicates, there was a small African-American community in proximity to the clay works. The Irish, meanwhile, tended to settle mostly to the north and west (what is colloquially called Dogtown) while the Italian workers formed a tight-knit community on the hill to the east, a neighborhood that today is just known as The Hill, short for the Hill over Cheltenham.
The industry provided jobs, but it led to the destruction of the natural wilderness. Clay manufacturing had dozens of kilns belching out thick smoke. With the railroad, companies also started sending unrefined gold, silver, and lead ore to St. Louis, where smelting companies, such as the St. Louis Smelting and Refining Co., right up the river from the Laclede Christy Clay Works, refined metals into bars and ingots. Like clay, smelting also required massive furnaces, and it had the unfortunate problem of producing toxic arsenic as a by-product. The air became clogged with smoke, and the mining and runoff polluted the river and the groundwater.
The Sulphur Springs and the River Des Peres that had drawn people to this area were ruined, and the fate of the area as an industrial wasteland was set.
Such was the march of progress. In many ways, these developments made St. Louis the city that it is today. Without the discovery of clay and the city’s ability to become one of the world’s biggest producers of bricks, St. Louis would not have been quite the industrial powerhouse that it was in the late 19th century. But the developments left their mark on what was once the most lovely area outside of downtown.
What’s there today?
I’d love to report that since the decline of the clay industry and the shuttering of the smelters in the mid-20th century, the land around the River Des Peres and Sulphur Spring has been allowed to return to its natural state. Unfortunately, as is the case throughout the city, land once used for heavy industry continues its impervious cover and lack of vegetation. Most of it is either light industrial (no more smokestacks) or commercial use to this day.
And in a sad triumph of mankind over nature, there remains no trace of the sulphur spring, which must have been drained as a nuisance sometime between the mid-1850s and 1878. Meanwhile, from 1924 to 1933, the River Des Peres was drained and rerouted, with part of it channelled underground, as a flood-mitigation effort that only partially succeeded.
For a visual look, here’s what’s left. Below is a photo I took of the bridge that started this journey and its modern counterpart. (It’s pretty representative of the entire area.) On the other side of the poor river is the St. Louis Street Department and just beyond that, I-44 runs east to west along the horizon of this image.
It’s rather sobering to see how much the city has changed since the “discovery” of the sulphur springs so long ago. I’m just happy that I was able to share the history of what used to be in this little valley so it’s not completely lost to the ravages of time.
Thank you for going on this journey with me. In future newsletters, I’ll explore the history of mounds that native people built throughout St. Louis and Illinois in the 13th century, as well as the history of the River Des Peres, the great floodwalls along the Mississippi, and so much more.