MERAMEC RIVER AMUSEMENTS NEAR THE HIGHLANDS:
ST. LOUIS' PLAYGROUND
1890 TO 1940
In the late 1800s and early 1900s the Meramec River provided one of the most popular spots for St. Louisans to bathe, fish, camp and go boating. Its beauty and secluded spots also brought many couples to its shores for courting. Nothing was more romantic than a moonlight boat ride or sitting beside the river on a log talking with a sweetheart while watching the moonlight shimmer on the water's surface.
Meramec Highlands Canoe Club, 1910
Once Frisco Railroad accommodation trains started running on a regular basis to the Meramec Highlands and Valley Park train stations, Meramec River attractions became popular, but the cost of the train ride still made
access to the river too expensive for the masses. In 1896, an electric railway serving the Meramec Highlands began operation. The St. Louis and Kirkwood Electric Railroad, was immediately swamped with passengers who wanted to ride to the Highlands to enjoy the attractions of the resort and the Meramec River landings. In 1897, the St. Louis and Meramec River Electric Railroad also reached the Highlands. Streetcar fares to the Highlands were only 5 cents and 10 cents from the city, depending on the line and the number of transfers needed.
Traveling on the two electric lines and the Frisco Railroad, thousands of people arrived daily at the Highlands, especially on weekends. Sundays were so popular that the streetcar lines were hard pressed to provide transportation to and from the Highlands to all who wished to board the cars. Because the streetcar lines gave city residents easy and inexpensive access to a beautiful rural spot for picnics and other pleasures on the river, the Meramec Highlands landing and the neighboring beaches on the Meramec River became some of the most patronized attractions in the St. Louis area. Though there were other attractions along the Meramec, they were farther away from the city, so the Meramec Highlands quickly became the most popular resort on the river.
By the time of the resort's grand opening, the Meramec Highlands beach and landing had been in full operation for a couple of summers. A reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the Meramec Highlands river landing as he found it shortly after the grand opening in 1895:
".... the [Meramec] river flows at one's feet. That beautiful body of water was dotted with rowboats and the handsome steam yacht [Columbia] steamed gracefully up the stream well filled with passengers out for a morning cruise. It was a charming sight, idyllic, yet full of life.... In the way of recreation.... [there is] costume bathing in the Meramec River."
The grand opening brochure highlighted entertainment provided at the Highlands' Meramec River landing:
"STEAM YACHT COLUMBIA making hourly trips up and down Meramec River, landing south from [Frisco] station. FIFTY SPLENDID ROWBOATS to be had by hour or day. COSTUME BATHING in river. Costumes for hire at landing. REFRESHMENTS, ICE ETC. can be had at landing."
On April 28, 1895, the announcement of the grand opening of the Meramec Highlands was prominently displayed on the front page of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat as well as in the Post-Dispatch and Republic. In addition to extolling the virtues of ownership in the Highlands, the Globe ad announced: "Highlands Inn Restaurant, Picnic Grounds and Meramec River Amusements will be open for visitors May 15th."
During its early years, the Meramec Highlands Resort was a major St. Louis area attraction for visitors and convention groups. The program for the National Turner Bund held in St. Louis in 1897 featured a, "Picnic and Volksfest," at the Highlands. New river landing attractions located in the, "East Park," were listed as, "floating baths and the Fern Cliff Refreshment House." Floating baths were wooden diving and sunning docks or platforms.
In an area known for its hot and steamy summers, the Meramec River provided a sorely needed place to cool off. Bathers were so desperate for relief that in the hot season of 1894, they plunged into the receding flood waters of the Meramec despite the danger:
"The bath-house was submerged, the dressing rooms were all under water, and the platforms entirely
washed away, but the bathing and swimming went on. Dressing rooms were arranged with shawls in
convenient and accessible bushes."
Over the years various operators ran beach and canoe concessions at the Meramec Highlands landing area. Alton Stites was the last to operate on the former Meramec Highlands beach.
Time caught up with Stites Beach and other near-by landings. People purchased automobiles and were no longer limited to riding streetcar lines to the Highlands. Then in 1932, the streetcar ceased operation in the Osage Hills area. Stites Beach was no longer a profitable operation.
Though Stites Beach closed, Alton Stites remained on his property and dredged the Meramec for sand, stone and gravel until the mid forties. The river-front public beaches near the Highlands area gave way to a string of private club houses.
In 1935, at the beach immediately to the west of Stites Beach and also located in the boundaries of the current Greentree Park, the Kieffer family built a new beach house. It was one of over 30 club houses along that section of the Meramec River. The bottom floor housed a refreshment stand, showers and restrooms. The upper two stories were of wooden frame construction with lockers on the second floor and life guard quarters on the third floor. Swimmers no longer braved the Meramec but used the in ground pool at Kieffer's Beach.
Kieffer's Beach gave way to McConnell's Beach, but by 1970 the beach house had fallen into disrepair. The Meramec River floods of 1982 further damaged the structure. In 1983, the property was purchased by Kirkwood for inclusion into Greentree Park. Despite efforts to save the structure, vandals, time and its vacant condition were too much for it. In 1992, McConnell's Beach House, the last of the public beach houses was put on Kirkwood's list for future demolition because of structural danger. Though it withstood the floods of 1994 and 1995, it remained in dangerous condition. When it was demolished, only the concrete deck and arches were saved by the Kirkwood Parks Department to commemorate the time when the Meramec River at Greentree Park was St. Louis' playground.
Today there is a boat ramp for pleasure boaters and fishers. Swimming is not safe or allowed in that section of the river, but the lure of the river is still strong. As visitors enter quiet Greentree Park, they may want to compare it in their mind's eye to the bustling river playground of the late 1800s and early 1900s when thousands of summer pleasure-seekers crowded the area. Then, just like visitors of 100 years ago, they should relax and enjoy the Meramec River.
For more details see Glimpses of Meramec
Highlands by James Baker.
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