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10 Surprising Secrets From St. Louis History

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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. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

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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.

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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.

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literature
25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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5 Cemetery Road Trips for the Ultimate Taphophile
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Autumn is the best time of year for a road trip. The weather is cooling down, the leaves are turning, and fewer people are on the roads. With Halloween on the horizon, cemeteries are natural destinations. These five journeys are a great way to explore America’s rich and varied history as recorded on its tombstones—and truly dedicated taphophiles (from the Greek for tomb) can combine them into one itinerary covering 22 states and more than 10,000 miles. Tombstone tourists, rejoice.

1. NORTHEAST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Northeast cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. Hope Cemetery
201 Maple Avenue, Barre, Vermont
44.2107° N, 72.4994° W

Barre’s Hope Cemetery is a jaw-dropping open-air sculpture garden, featuring locally quarried granite carved into everything from angels to sports cars to life-sized portraits. The cemetery is especially gorgeous when the leaves turn in autumn.

B. Mount Auburn Cemetery
580 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts
42.3752° N, 71.1450° W

Designed by Dr. Jacob Bigelow, the foremost botanist of his day, this breathtaking place may be the most important cemetery in America. Its opening in 1831 signaled a shift from austere churchyards to park-like cemeteries full of trees and flowers. One of the most striking grave monuments remembers Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science.

C. Touro Jewish Cemetery
Touro Street, Newport, Rhode Island
41.48793° N, 71.30936° W

Open only one day a year, the Touro Cemetery is the second-oldest Jewish cemetery in the U.S. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a beautiful poem about the place. Nearby Touro Synagogue offers a brochure to explain the significance of the cemetery to visitors who come to gaze through its gates.

D. Green-Wood Cemetery
500 25th Street, Brooklyn, New York
40.6590° N, 73.9956° W

Lovely Green-Wood Cemetery is the forefather of city parks in America. Full of famous names and one-of-a-kind monuments, the cemetery rewards repeat visits. Among those buried here are Jean-Michel Basquiat, FAO Schwarz, and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

E. Soldiers’ National Cemetery
Gettysburg National Military Park
1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
39.82177° N, 77.23256° W

A Gettysburg postcard from pre-1930
Author's collection

President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address announced the system of national cemeteries for casualties of federal battles. In Soldiers’ National Cemetery, granite stones marked with the tally of unknown soldiers provide a sobering reminder of the costs of war.

F. Congressional Cemetery
1801 E. Street SE, Washington, D.C.
38.8811° N, 76.9780° W

Originally designed as a graveyard for congressmen who died in office, the Congressional Cemetery became the final resting place for a wide assortment of public servants. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, and march king John Philip Sousa—as well as pioneers in the fights for Native American rights, women’s rights, and gay rights—are all buried here.

2. SOUTH

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Southern cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change
449 Auburn Avenue NE, Atlanta, Georgia
33.7563° N, 84.3734° W

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rests on the grounds of the Center for Nonviolent Social Change, founded in his name by his widow Coretta Scott King in 1968. After her death in 2006, Mrs. King joined him in a matching sarcophagus. The King Center is undergoing renovation in advance of the 50th anniversary of his assassination, so call before you visit.

B. Bonaventure Cemetery
330 Bonaventure Road, Savannah, Georgia
32.0444° N, 81.0467° W

Oaks draped with Spanish moss surround museum-worthy statuary in Bonaventure Cemetery. When John Muir camped there in September 1867, he wrote that the cemetery was "so beautiful that almost any sensible person would choose to dwell here with the dead” [PDF]. More than a century later, the cemetery still makes all the lists of most beautiful graveyards.

C. Tolomato Cemetery
14 Cordova Street, Saint Augustine, Florida
29.8970° N, 81.3151° W

American citizens of Saint Augustine started using this acre of land as a cemetery in 1777, although the Spanish used it as a graveyard even earlier. As such, it may be the oldest European-founded cemetery in the U.S. Although Hurricane Irma did significant damage in September, Tolomato Cemetery remains open to visitors one day a month as its Preservation Society repairs it.

D. St. Louis Cemetery #1
425 Basin Street, New Orleans, Louisiana
29.9608° N, 90.0754° W

A vintage postcard of St. Louis No. 1
Author's collection

New Orleans’s tropical heat and humidity gave rise to the so-called oven tomb, which can reduce a corpse to bones in less than a year. In the back of each of these tombs stands a receptacle called a caveau, which contains the bones of all its occupants mixed together through the generations.

The most famous tomb in the oldest surviving cemetery in New Orleans may belong to Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen. The death date on the tomb is closer to her daughter Marie’s, but since the bones of all the tomb’s occupants lie jumbled together in its central caveau, it’s believed the original Marie rests there as well. After vandalism of the tomb spiraled out of control, the cemetery now opens only to tour groups. Luckily, there are many tours from which to choose.

3. WEST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Western cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. Texas State Cemetery
909 Navasota Street, Austin, Texas
30.15994° N, 97.43553° W

Conceived as a pantheon to the famous sons of Texas, the Texas State Cemetery is the final home of Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, as well as Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who helped impeach Richard Nixon. Also buried here are Governor Ann Richards, Chris Kyle (author of American Sniper), and Stephen Austin himself, all of whom lie beneath remarkable statuary.

B. Apache Prisoners-of-War Cemetery
The East Ridge at Fort Sill, Lawton, Oklahoma
34.6960° N, 98.3710° W

After his capture by the U.S. Cavalry, Apache chief Geronimo remained a prisoner of war at Fort Sill until his death in 1909. His grave remained unmarked for many years, but early in World War II, the 501st Airborne took his name as their motto. With the permission of Geronimo’s descendants, paratroopers built the pyramid of stones that now marks Geronimo’s grave. Around him lie men proud to be remembered as his warriors.

C. Riverside Cemetery
5201 Brighton Boulevard, Denver, Colorado
39.4739° N, 104.5733° W

Dating to 1876, the year Colorado attained statehood, Riverside Cemetery embraced African-American pioneers, the first native New Mexican elected to Congress, and the first doctor to theorize that cholera was contagious. The cemetery has struggled since it was closed to new burials, but the Friends of Historic Riverside Cemetery are working to rescue it.

D. Fort Yellowstone Army Cemetery
Grand Loop Road, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
44.9646° N, 110.7002° W

Before the formation of the National Park Service, the U.S. Army guarded Yellowstone from poachers and souvenir hunters. Their sober little cemetery underlines the dangers lurking in one of the most stunning places in America. As reported in Lee H. Whittlesey’s Death in Yellowstone, causes of death in this cemetery included drowning, avalanche, being struck by lightning, runaway horses, and grizzly bear attack.

E. Custer National Cemetery
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Crow Agency, Montana
45.5714° N, 107.4332° W

When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the federal government demanded access across land it had set aside for the Lakota Sioux. As many as 10,000 Native Americans refused to renegotiate the treaty. In June 1876, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry to attack, only to be wiped out by the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. It took more than a century for the Native warriors to be commemorated here.

4. WEST COAST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a West Coast cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. Lake View Cemetery
1554 15th Avenue E, Seattle, Washington
47.6341° N, 122.3153° W

High on a hill overlooking the city, Lake View's most famous residents are Bruce Lee and his son Brandon. Also buried here are Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Sealth (who gave his name to Seattle), as well as madams, lumber barons, and politicians—a who’s who of Seattle’s historical figures.

B. Lone Fir Cemetery
SE 26th Avenue, Portland, Oregon
45.5173° N, 122.6446° W

Portland’s pioneer cemetery is glorious in springtime, when its rhododendrons bloom. Full of pioneers, prostitutes, shanghai captains, mayors, and governors, the cemetery also features some unusual modern grave monuments. Vandalism and the weather have been hard on Lone Fir, but its Friends group offers tours to raise money for repair.

C. Fort Ross State Historic Park
19005 Coast Highway 1, Jenner, California
38.5143° N, 123.2485° W

A vintage postcard from Fort Ross cemetery
Author's collection

In 1812, Russia invaded Northern California. Russian pioneers built a fort, married local women, and hunted sea otters along the coast. By 1839, they no longer needed to provision Russian settlements in Alaska, so the fort was abandoned, leaving behind a little graveyard. The California Historical Landmarks Committee took control of it in 1906.

D. Hollywood Forever
6000 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, California
34.0904° N, 118.3206° W

Once the swankest cemetery in Old Hollywood, Hollywood Forever is now the final resting place of Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, Mel Blanc, Darren McGavin, Rozz Williams, John Huston, Cecil B. DeMille, and many more. Judy Garland joined them earlier this year.

E. Manzanar Cemetery
Manzanar National Historic Site, Inyo County, California
36.7255° N, 118.1626° W

The Manzanar War Relocation Center was the first American concentration camp to open during World War II. At its height, Manzanar imprisoned 10,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent, most of whom were American citizens. Although the bulk of the camp was demolished, the cemetery’s Soul Consoling Tower continues to mark the graves of people who died while interned there.

F. Silver Terrace Cemeteries
381 Cemetery Road, Virginia City, Nevada
39.3165° N, 119.6451° W

A vintage postcard from the Silver Terrace cemetery in Virginia City
Author's collection

After the 1859 discovery of one of the richest lodes of gold in history, Virginia City became the largest town between Denver and San Francisco. Of course, this necessitated the largest cemetery district as well. The 22 adjacent graveyards making up Virginia City’s Silver Terrace Cemeteries are now part of one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the country.

5. MIDWEST

A stylized map of the United States showing a route map for a Midwest cemetery road trip
Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

A. Lakewood Cemetery
3600 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota
44.5659° N, 93.1734° W

Modeled on Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, Lakewood’s Mortuary Chapel is a spectacular example of Byzantine Revival architecture. Mosaic tiles, some as small as a fingernail, adorn its interior. At Lakewood, politicians with modernist monuments are buried beside names familiar from the grocery store: Charles Pillsbury and Franklin Mars, who founded the candy company that bears his name.

B. Oakland Cemetery
1000 Brown Street, Iowa City, Iowa
41.6697° N, 91.5222° W

Urban legends surround the Black Angel of Oakland Cemetery: if you kiss the statue, you’ll be struck dead; if a pregnant woman crosses its shadow, she will miscarry; if ever a virgin is kissed in front of the statue, it will resume its normal bronze color and the curse will be broken. Strangely enough, this is not the only black angel in Iowa—and the other has legends swirling around it as well. Daniel Chester French’s monument to spiritualist Ruth Ann Dodge stands in the Fairview Cemetery in Council Bluffs.

C. Graceland Cemetery
4001 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois
41.9548° N, 87.6619° W

Known as the Cemetery of the Architects, Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery holds the Carrie Eliza Getty mausoleum, considered one of the first examples of modern architecture. Graceland Cemetery also contains a wealth of magnificent statuary, including Lorado Taft’s Eternal Silence and Daniel Chester French’s Memory.

D. Elmwood Cemetery
1200 Elmwood Avenue, Detroit, Michigan
42.3466° N, 83.0179° W

A vintage postcard from Elmwood cemetery
Author's collection

Practically in the shadow of Detroit’s Renaissance Center, this dramatic garden cemetery stands on ground fought over during the French and Indian War. Elmwood Cemetery is the final resting place of Canadian Club whiskey founder Hiram Walker, guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5, and Detroit’s legendary mayor Coleman Young, who was a Tuskegee Airman.

Cemeteries are lenses, revealing what their local communities choose to celebrate alongside things that must not be forgotten. This list merely skims the surface—go see what you can discover.

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