Webster-Kirkwood Times, Feb. 23, 1996
'Glimpses of the Meramec Highlands'
Author Pens Book on Kirkwood Resort
Story by Don Corrigan
Photo by Ursula Ruhl
When Kirkwood's Jim Baker got involved with his son's history project on the Meramec Highlands a few years ago, he had no idea it would snowball into a book.
"Danny was looking for a project, and his teacher at Robinson School suggested he write about our home on Barberry, which was once the grocery for the Highlands, " explained Baker. "We started researching together, and that really got me into it."
"I learned that the gangster Pretty Boy Floyd actually stayed in our house," continued Baker. "The storekeeper got involved with him in the big Kroger headquarters bakroll robbery, which the Post-Dispatch wrote about in 1925. It was a $12,000 robbery -- pretty big for the time."
The grocery store and its history make up one of 17 chapters in Baker's book, which debuts this week, with the title of "Glimpses of the Meramec Highlands: St. Louis' Only Exclusive Health and Pleasure Resort."
Baker has coordinated the release of the book with the centennial of the introduction of streetcar service to Meramec Highlands, Kirkwood, Oakland, Webster Groves and Brentwood.
"The Highlands really had its heyday from 1895 to the mid 1920s. During that period, everybody in St. Louis knew what it was. It was a great recreational area and a place to have fun. It's not well known now. It's a lost piece of history."
The site of the old Meramec Highlands is situated roughly in an area west of !-270 and south of Big Bend Road. It trails down from a high point along Big Bend all the way to the shores of the Meramec River as far west as Kirkwood's Greentree Park.
The sprawling Meramec Highlands Hotel and its cottages were the centerpiece of the recreation spot. There were baths and spas with regenerative waters in the hotel area, while boating, bathing and swimming was available along a sandy shore of the Meramec River.
"In the beginning, it was a refuge for the wealthy and refined, who enjoyed the health spa atmosphere," said Baker. "They would relax, bathe, play cards or croquet. But when the streetcars came, it started to become a working man's kind of place.
"That brought dance halls and booze and some financial problems," explained Baker. "It shut down right after the World's Fair in 1904. A man named Jim Ryan refurbished the hotel and reopened it in 1908. But by the 1920s it was empty and it burned down in 1926."
The 17 chapters in Baker's book focus on such topics as the Meramec Highlands Company, the post office, the curative waters and bath house, the cottages, the chapel, the Meramec school district, the rail tunnel and station.
Baker includes a chapter on the St. Louis and Kirkwood Railroad, better known as the Houseman Air Line. It had a brief and eventful history with a disastrous train wreck between Kirkwood and Meramec Highlands after only 22 days of operation.
The rail station for the Meramec Highlands sits boarded up and in disrepair at the end of Barberry Lane where Baker resides. He said he and his neighbors have been hoping for restoration of the old station for years.
"It's been vacant for 20 years and will probably remain so," said Baker. "With the recent talk about reviving commuter rail through here, there's been discussion about re-opening the station. But it's really too small. And I know my neighbors would oppose the traffic and loss of privacy that reviving it as a station would bring. I hope something can be done with it."
In the process of editing his book for publication, Baker said many vignettes and local interest pieces were deleted. He said he already has enough material for a sequel. But as a father of five and an educator in the Special School District, Baker said he's not sure he has the time and energy to write volume two.
"There's so much to write about: the big card games, the hot air balloon events, the lore about the tunnel and trains, the swimming and boating accidents along the Meramec," noted Baker. "There's a swift current in the bend in the Meramec that was responsible for a lot of drownings.
"One of my favorite anectdotes is about a chambermaid who was cleaning the cottages," said Baker. "She came upon a tramp in one of the cottages and he attacked her with a knife. She clobbered him with her wash bucket and he ran off.
"She didn't report it until after whe was done cleaning the cottages, continued Baker. "Then there was a massive manhunt organized along the Meramec, but the fellow was never found."
Baker noted that anumber of the homes along Ponca Trail, in what is now Kirkwood, were once cottages for the Meramec Highlands. He said the remains of the hotel fountain can be found nearby.
"I never intended to write a book about all this," said Baker. "At first, I was just going to write a couple of articles and it got out of hand. It became kind of a passion."
To address that passion, Baker began lookin for financial support for the book in 1994. He turned to the Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia and its Richard S. Brownlee Fund.
The fund provides grants to assist authors of local history works in order to preserve knowledge that might otherwise be lost due to lack of interest or commercial viability. Baker received a $900 dollar award, which will help cover some of the first printing of 100 copies.
Under the grant, copies will be available at Kirkwood Public Schools, Kirkwood Library, St. Louis County Library, Kirkwood Historical Society, Missouri Historical Society, National Museum of Transport and the Historical Society of Missouri.