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9 Surprising Secrets from Vancouver History

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This temperate and lush port has become one of the wealthiest cities in Canada, but it still maintains an undercurrent of weirdness. Look past the frequent shroud of low-hanging clouds and shiny skyscrapers, and you'll find a city of peculiarities and unusual history.

1. THE CITY MEMORIALIZES A FAMOUSLY TALKATIVE SALOONKEEPER.

Royal BC Museum // Public Domain

Vancouver's oldest neighborhood, Gastown, earned its name from a colorful bar owner, Captain John (Gassy Jack) Deighton. Deighton was born in England in 1830 and spent his early adulthood toiling aboard sailing vessels. At some point in the 1850s, he headed off toward California to strike it rich during the Gold Rush. Like many prospectors of the time, he kept following the gold, and by 1865 he had married a Native American woman, operated a saloon on Vancouver Island, and captained a steamer.

But Deighton entrusted his saloon to a manager for a bit and it quickly fell into debt. Deciding to leave his troubles behind and seek new opportunities, he set off in a canoe with his family, dog, two chickens, two chairs, a large barrel of whisky, and six dollars. He arrived in the Burrard Inlet, on the shores of what is now downtown Vancouver, in an area called Luck Lucky (from a native term meaning grove of sacred trees). Within 24 hours, he had convinced some local mill workers to help him build a makeshift shack that would become his new saloon. In return, the workers got a day's worth of booze and a place to unwind after work. The bar not only became the focal point of the area, but so did Captain Jack. Because he was a lively and talkative fellow, always overflowing with stories, he gained the sobriquet "Gassy," an informal word for a person who liked to blather on. The neighborhood revolved so much around Gassy Jack that it soon became known as Gastown.

Jack died at the young age of 44, but today a bronze statue of him atop a whisky barrel stands in Maple Tree Square, where the famous blowhard opened his historic saloon.

2. EVERY NIGHT ENDS WITH A BANG.

The city of Vancouver has a notable daily ritual that it has executed like clockwork for more than 100 years: the Nine O'Clock Gun. Every night, the tranquility of Stanley Park is shattered by a thunderous explosion when an old cannon is loaded with a pound and a half of gun powder and fired (without a projectile). The tradition began in 1898 for a practical reason—to allow the general populace to accurately set their clocks and provide a way for nearby ships to calibrate their chronometers (time-measuring devices). The cannon replaced a nightly dynamite explosion, which was deemed ineffective.

Even as timepieces became more reliable over the years, Vancouver carried on the tradition. Many people who grew up in the city near Stanley Park said the blast served as their curfew warning—when the Nine O'Clock Gun blasted it was time to scurry home. The cannon was only quiet for an extended period during World War II, when the city thought residents might mistake it for the sounds of a Japanese attack. It also fell silent for a short time in February 1969 when students from the University of British Columbia stole it and held it for ransom until a donation was made to the local children’s hospital. (Local businessmen raised a thousand dollars and the cannon was returned.) The cannon also once caused some damage: In May 1964, some troublemakers managed to toss a rock into the barrel, and when the cannon went off, the stone hurtled out and bashed into a fueling station barge anchored offshore, giving it a minor blemish.

Vancouver is not alone in this practice of marking time with a cannon blast, by the way—Cape Town (South Africa), Zagreb (Croatia), Hong Kong, and Edinburgh (Scotland) all uphold the tradition. And if you desperately need to sync your watch to nine o’clock Vancouver time, the cannon is on Twitter.

3. THE CITY IS HOME TO A REPUTEDLY HAUNTED ISLAND.

Dead Man's Island in the early 20th century. Image credit: Vancouver Archives // Public Domain

Just to the south of picturesque Stanley Park, connected by a narrow causeway, lies Dead Man's Island. The site, which is closed to the public, maintains an eerie aura thanks to a long history linking it with death. Legend has it that the island was once the site of a fierce battle in which one group of natives captured 200 women, children, and seniors. These were exchanged for 200 young warriors from the other group, who were executed immediately.

Much later, when one of Vancouver's earliest white settlers, John Morton, arrived there in 1862, he was astonished by an unusual sight: Tied to the tree tops were hundreds of red cedar coffin-size boxes. The region’s Squamish people often raised their dead high above the ground, lashing them to tree limbs. Morton eventually learned that this island was a "tree-burial" ground for the local natives.

About three decades after Morton's discovery, a smallpox outbreak swept through Vancouver. During the epidemic, Dead Man's Island became a "pest house" (a hospital for people suffering from infectious diseases). Many of those put into quarantine on the island were left there to die. In addition to First Nations people and smallpox victims, a number of sailors, pioneers, squatters, and loggers are buried there.

In 1942 the island became home to a naval station, and since that time many supernatural sightings and eerie phenomena have been reported. Some claim to have heard unexplained clanging, hurried footsteps, otherworldly sobs, and the sound of chains being dragged in the dead of night. A woman stationed on the island once felt a hand on her back, although she was completely alone. Others have witnessed an unearthly glow through the trees that eventually coalesces into a human form. For an island that has had so many troubled souls pass through it, it may come as no surprise that many believe Dead Man's Island is still haunted.

4. MARGARINE WAS ONCE ILLEGAL THERE.

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Margarine has been around longer than you might think. First concocted by a French chemist named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès in 1869, it was being commercially produced as early as the 1870s as a less perishable and cheaper alternative to butter. Although first made from beef fat and sometimes whale oil, vegetable oils eventually replaced those ingredients, and the product was thought to be healthier than butter.

Dairy farmers worried that this non-dairy alternative would cut into their butter business. The dairy industry successfully pushed to have margarine declared illegal across Canada in 1886. The ban would remain (with a brief gap during World War I) until 1948, when Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that such bans were a provincial issue, not a federal issue. Despite an attempt to start making margarine in British Columbia, the region soon banned it. In 1949 the ban was lifted and Vancouver became the first new place to produce margarine in Canada (although while the ban was in place, margarine-hooked Canadians got smuggled product from Newfoundland, which had yet to join the Canadian Confederation). In another law designed to help butter producers, Quebec maintained a ruling that margarine (which was naturally white) could not be colored yellow, in imitation of butter. When this restriction was lifted in 2008, butter-colored margarine spread throughout the entire Great White North.

5. FEET KEEP WASHING UP ON NEARBY SHORES.

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As you walk along some of the beaches near Vancouver, you may find the expected debris of shells, driftwood, and various discarded items, such as sneakers. Normally a running shoe washed ashore wouldn't be a big deal, but for the past ten years, a number of these footwear have contained feet. The first one found, a man's right foot inside an Adidas sneaker, was discovered in August 2007 by a young girl vacationing on Jedidiah Island, about 40 miles from Vancouver in the Strait of Georgia. Six days later, another man's right foot was found on Gabriola Island in the Strait. Over time, there were others, and in February 2016, Charlotte Stevens and her husband encountered a severed foot along a beach in Vancouver Island. This discovery brought the count of detached human feet found along Northwest shores to 16.

This relatively significant number of disconnected feet has caused alarm and speculation about whom they belong to: Theories include victims of murder, plane crashes, or a tsunami far across the Pacific. While not all the owners have been identified, forensic research has revealed that two of the feet were from a woman who committed suicide by jumping off greater Vancouver's Pattullo Bridge. Some suspect that several other shoes were from people who committed suicide in a similar way. Three other victims were said to have died from natural causes. So why are feet, specifically, being found? Some scientists say it has to do with the natural effects that the ocean would have on a corpse: The push and pull of the ocean water would cause feet and hands to fall off first, and rubberized running shoes serve as perfect floatation devices.

6. FIVE-PIN BOWLING REMAINS A UNIQUE PASTIME.

Five-pin bowling is a distinct type of bowling that was invented in Canada around 1909, and many Vancouverites play it to this day. Thomas F. Ryan devised the game specifically for folks who found normal bowling too taxing (mostly kids and the elderly). The game features pins that are about 25% smaller than normal pins and a small ball that fits in the hand without any finger holes (similar to a bocce ball). The alleys are also narrower, and players get three balls per turn rather than the standard two. Two of the older establishments that still offer the game are Commodore Lanes and Billiards (838 Granville Street), which opened in 1930, and Grandview Lanes (2195 Commercial Drive), which opened in 1947. (The game is also popular in other Canadian cities.)

7. IT’S HOME TO THE WORLD’S NARROWEST COMMERCIAL BUILDING.

The Sam Kee Building in 1937. Image credit: City of Vancouver Archives // Public Domain

The Sam Kee Building (sometimes called the Jack Chow Building) on West Pender Street is renowned as the “narrowest commercial building in the world.” Sam Kee (whose birth name was Chang Toy) had bought the land some time prior, but in 1912 the City of Vancouver decided to widen Pender Street, leaving Mr. Kee only a narrow strip of land. Rather than abandon the land or sell it, the determined Kee decided to construct a building on what he had left. The building was renovated in 2010 to include animated storyteller shows featuring neon lights and music.

8. PARTS OF THE WINDOWS IN ONE LOCAL CHURCH ARE FAR OLDER THAN THE CITY.

Some of the stained-glass windows at St. John’s Shaughnessy Anglican Church at Nanton Avenue and Granville Street in Vancouver are made from shattered fragments of 11th century stained glass from England’s Canterbury Cathedral. The cathedral had been bombed during World War II.

9. THE AUTHORITIES HAVE REPEATEDLY CRACKED DOWN ON “INDECENCY.”

Wikimedia // Public Domain

Vancouver seems like a fairly liberal, open-minded place to live. But since officially becoming a city in 1886, the metropolitan hub has had episodes of cracking down on indecency, many of which seem tame by today's standards. In 1914, the mayor of Vancouver banned performances by Marie Lloyd, a hugely popular English music-hall performer and comedian. Why was she so scandalous? At one point in her show, she lifted her floor-length gown two inches off the ground to reveal a watch on her ankle— an act deemed far too shocking for Vancouverites to handle. On June 9, 1933, Vancouver did appear to loosen up a bit, however. On that date, the city council voted to allow men to go topless on city beaches.

Still, the city remained ever vigilant when it came to decency. On January 16, 1953, police raided the Avon Theatre on Hastings Street, where Erskine Caldwell’s play Tobacco Road was being staged. The cast was arrested on charges of presenting an indecent public performance. The crimes: skimpy outfits, blasphemy, and one of the cast members appeared to be peeing in a cornfield! Books weren't beyond reproach either. In October 1961, members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided Vancouver bookstores and the main public library and seized copies of a lewd piece of literature—Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer, which features graphic sexual language. (To be fair, Tropic of Cancer is among the most frequently banned or challenged books in history.)

10 Surprising Secrets From Seattle’s History

From salmon-tossing to being the birthplace of grunge, Seattle has many well-known claims to fame. The area is home to some of America's top corporations—Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks, to name just a few—and it’s known for its cloudy weather (on average, it has 152 days a year with precipitation). But Seattle has its stranger side, too. Here are a few odd items from the history of this booming Northwest metropolis.

1. VASHON ISLAND HAS A BICYCLE-EATING TREE.

Seattle has many islands just a short ferry ride away. A small-town, woodsy atmosphere characterizes nearby Vashon Island, which is about the size of Manhattan. In fact, the bucolic land is so woodsy that trees may be taking over.

Over a small footbridge on an unmarked trail, where Vashon Highway meets Southwest 204th Street, a Douglas fir has eaten an old bicycle. Tourists in the know make the pilgrimage to see the rusted two-wheeler, which has been swallowed by the tree and lifted about seven feet in the air. The bike's middle is lodged deep beneath the bark while its front and back wheels jut out on either side. Local Don Puz lays claim to the bike, saying he left it there around 1954 when he was a kid.

In the past few decades, the bike has become the stuff of local legend. Its fame got a big boost after 1994, when cartoonist Berkeley Breathed published a children's book about the tree, Red Ranger Came Calling. Unfortunately, vandals have stripped the bike of various parts over the years, but locals continue to mend it, replacing the pilfered parts with donations of their own.

2. A COLORFUL CONGRESSMAN WHO LEAPT TO HIS DEATH IS SAID TO HAUNT THE ARCTIC HOTEL

Marion Zioncheck, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1933 until his death in 1936, may have been one of the craziest politicians in U.S. history. A son of Polish immigrants, he began his political career as a fighter for the poor and homeless, and was elected congressman as a fierce champion of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies.

While Zioncheck's heart was in the right place, his head seemed to be going in a different direction. A week after meeting 21-year-old Rubye Louise Nix, a secretary at the Works Progress Administration, Zioncheck married her. Their honeymoon in Puerto Rico was memorable: Zioncheck is said to have joined in a student riot, drove through a rich man's gate, lapped soup up like a dog at a dinner, and reportedly bit a driver's neck. He and his wife also were admonished for throwing coconuts out their hotel window. He told reporters that he invented a new drink while in Puerto Rico: "The Zipper," made from hair tonic and rum.

Returning to Washington, D.C. after the honeymoon, he and his bride made headlines after a drunken frolic in a local fountain. In an earlier escapade, the Seattle statesman had taken a crazed 70-mile-per-hour drive up Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., finally parking his car on the White House lawn. He also sent President Roosevelt a gift of a package of empty beer bottles and mothballs. J. Edgar Hoover, meanwhile, received a truckload of manure.

With his sanity in question, Zioncheck was sent to a sanitarium for a short time. In 1936, with most of his political support gone, he launched an independent reelection campaign. His prospects of winning were dwindling, and on August 7, a discouraged Zioncheck wrote a farewell note and threw himself out of the window of his fifth-floor office in downtown Seattle’s Arctic Building. He hit the sidewalk on Third Avenue, just outside the car where his wife was waiting. The Arctic Building is now a DoubleTree hotel, and several visitors have reported that his ghost haunts the fifth floor, occasionally riding the elevator and pushing random buttons.

3. BATMAN IS FROM THE EMERALD CITY.

Seattle has been home to several figures who have left their indelible mark on the world. One who looms large in the pop culture consciousness is Adam West, who became famous for his campy portrayal of Batman on TV in the late 1960s. West's caped crusader fought an array of flamboyant villains—all while coaching youthful viewers in good behaviors such as doing homework, drinking milk, and wearing safety belts.

After his parents divorced at age 15, West moved with his mother from Walla Walla, Washington to Seattle, where he attended Lakeside School. (Lakeside has had other successful alumni, most notably Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the founders of Microsoft.) Other notable celebrities with ties to Seattle include actors Rainn Wilson, Joel McHale, Jean Smart, Dyan Cannon, Rose McGowan, and John Ratzenberger (Cheers), as well as singer Judy Collins, choreographer Mark Morris, and cartoonist Gary Larson (The Far Side).

4. RUDYARD KIPLING ONCE CALLED IT A “GREAT BLACK SMUDGE."

The aftermath of Seattle's great fire. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On June 6, 1889, a fire started in a shop downtown, and within a few hours the central business district was destroyed. At the time, most of the buildings were wooden—the sidewalks were made of wood, and even potholes in the road were filled with sawdust. The fire not only engulfed buildings, it spread quickly to the wharves as well (which were also made of wood). To make matters worse, the system of hydrants and plumbing was inadequate, and the water pressure very low. Firefighters struggled to contain the quickly spreading blaze, and in the end, 120 acres were destroyed, with thousands of homes and jobs lost.

Soon after the fire, the author Rudyard Kipling visited the city, calling it "a horrible black smudge, as though a Hand had come down and rubbed the place smooth. I know now what being wiped out means."

After the blaze, the citizens of Seattle got to work rebuilding. A new building ordinance required buildings to be less vulnerable to fire, and within a year, hundreds of new buildings had risen from the ashes. Much of the new city was built on top of the remnants of the old. Today, remaining structures from before the fire form an underground city that is a popular attraction for tourists.

5. IT WAS HOME TO THE WINDSHIELD DAMAGE HYSTERIA OF 1954.

In the spring of 1954, windshields on cars in Seattle, Bellingham, and other nearby towns suffered a wave of damage. People began reporting that pits, dings, and holes were mysteriously appearing on their car glass. Within a couple of weeks, close to 3000 residents in the Puget Sound area had claimed their windshields were damaged. Even police cars were not immune.

Concern about the cause hit feverish levels, and locals spun plenty of potential theories. One sheriff speculated that the scarred glass was a result of nuclear fallout from tests conducted in the South Pacific, thousands of miles from Seattle. Others blamed radio waves, cosmic rays, and atmospheric conditions. Some even suspected that sand-flea eggs were somehow being laid in the car glass and then hatching.

Scientists at the University of Washington who looked into the matter concluded that all the damage was most likely the result of normal driving practices. Drivers just hadn't noticed the dings before, and now they were all under the influence of some sort of mass delusion. The rumors of windshield damage seemed to feed on themselves. Since then, some have labeled it a textbook case of a collective delusion.

6. IT’S HOME TO A MAN WHO MORTGAGED HIS HOUSE FOR LENIN.

Seattle is made up of a series of distinctive neighborhoods. Fremont is one that prides itself on its eccentricity: it’s the self-declared Center of the Universe, and host to an annual summer solstice parade featuring legions of nude bicyclists. Two massive statues also distinguish the community—one is a towering troll residing beneath the Aurora Bridge, and the other is a large bronze of Vladimir Lenin, striding forth in his signature cap and goatee.

The latter statue stood for a very short time in 1988 in Poprad, Slovakia, but after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, the seven-ton, 16-foot-tall Lenin wound up face-down in the a local dump. When Issaquah teacher, construction worker, and Vietnam veteran Lewis Carpenter came across the statue, he decided to save this piece of history from being melted down. To cover his costs (about $40,000 by some estimates), including shipping, Carpenter had to mortgage his home. After getting the funds together, he cut the statue in three pieces and brought it to a new home in Issaquah, outside Seattle.

Unfortunately, Carpenter died in a car accident in 1994. Sculptor Peter Bevis, the founder of the Fremont Fine Arts Foundry, came to Lenin's rescue. He worked out an arrangement with the Fremont Chamber of Commerce and Carpenter's family whereby Fremont will hold the statue in a trust until a buyer is found (estimated price: $250,000). Of course, Lenin is a controversial figure whose policies led to mass terror and the deaths of millions, so feelings about the statue are justifiably mixed—often his hands get painted red as a symbol of the bloodshed and death attributed to his policies.

7. IT’S HAD MORE THAN ITS FAIR SHARE OF SERIAL KILLERS.

Maybe it's something in the water. Seattle seems like a peaceful place on the surface, but the town has had an unusual number of serial killers. The infamous Ted Bundy attended the University of Washington and served as the assistant director of the Seattle Crime Prevention Advisory Commission. Gary Ridgway, a.k.a. the Green River Killer, confessed to killing more than 70 women in the Seattle area. John Allen Muhammad—who along with his accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo terrorized citizens in the Washington, D.C. area in 2002—was a resident of nearby Tacoma and regularly attended a mosque in Seattle. Kenneth Bianchi, the famed Hillside Strangler of San Francisco, committed his final two murders in Bellingham, just north of Seattle, before getting caught.

8. IT HAS SOME SURPRISING CONNECTIONS TO NEW YORK CITY.

When settlers first came to the area in 1851, they established a town at what's now Alki Point that they first called New York-Alki. The settlers chose the name with the hope that the area would grow to the size and importance of New York City. Today, a tiny replica of the Statue of Liberty stands in Alki overlooking the bay, a reminder of the area's original New York name. While Frederick Law Olmsted designed New York's Central Park, his sons, the Olmsted Brothers, designed many of Seattle's parks—including Colman, Frink, Green Lake, Interlaken, Jefferson, Mt. Baker, Seward, Volunteer, Washington Park Arboretum, and Woodland parks.

The Pacific Science Center was designed by Seattle-born Minoru Yamasaki for the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle. Yamasaki would later go on to design the World Trade Center in New York City. His signature look of narrow pointed arches appeared in both structures.

9. YOU CAN SEE MUMMIES ON THE WATERFRONT.

You expect to see a mummy in a museum, but Seattle has two on display in a gift shop along its well-touristed piers. Not far from the new ferris wheel and Ivar's Fish Bar, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop houses two mummies—a female named Sylvia and a male named Sylvester. Many visitors think the figures are fake, but researchers from the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University in New Haven, Connecticut conducted CT and MRI scans in 2001 and 2005 and confirmed that they are the real deal. In fact, they declared Sylvester to be one of the best-preserved mummies they have ever seen.

According to legend, two cowboys found Sylvester's dried-out body in Arizona's Gila Bend Desert in 1895. Some say he was killed in a saloon shootout and has what appears to be a gunshot wound in the stomach. Sylvia is more deteriorated, but evidence shows that she is a European female who died at about the age of 30 from tuberculosis and lost her teeth while still alive.

Ye Olde Curiosity Shop itself is an underappreciated Seattle treasure—its origins date back to 1899 when Joseph Edward Standley set up his curio and souvenir shop on the waterfront. Over five generations, the Standley family has enlarged its collection of oddities, bringing in shrunken heads, taxidermy treasures, and natural and artificial wonders from all over the world.

10. WANT TO GET AROUND DOWNTOWN? JUST REMEMBER THIS PHRASE.

Locals know this handy mnemonic device—the phrase “Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest”—as a way to remember the street names downtown. Starting from the south and heading north, the street names are Jefferson and then James ("Jesus"), Cherry and Columbia (“Christ”), Marion and Madison (“Made”), Spring and Seneca (“Seattle”), University and Union (“Under”), and finally, Pike and Pine (“Protest”). Note, however, that some townsfolk use the word "Pressure" instead of "Protest."

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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.

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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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