Meramec Highlands was once a bustling terminus for the St. Louis and Kirkwood Railroad, the St. Louis and Meramec River Railroad, and later day electric rail lines such as the United Transit's Kirkwood-Ferguson line. Today the site of the streetcar terminus is marked only by a home built of paving stones on the south side of Big Bend Road a few houses west of Ponca Trail. Its current tranquil state belies the clang of streetcar bells, screeching of brakes and the noise and bustle of the large crowds that flocked for several decades to one of the busiest summer destinations in St. Louis County, the streetcar loop at Meramec Highlands Resort.
"The St. Louis, Kirkwood and Meramec Heights
Electric Railway Now Certain. The Beautiful Suburban Town
[Kirkwood] is Happy." St. Louis County Watchman headlines--May 11, 1894.
The opening of the Saint Louis and Kirkwood Electric
Railroad, commonly known as the Houseman Air Line, was an
event eagerly anticipated by residents of Meramec Highlands, Kirkwood, and Webster Groves. Not only was it expected to
free them from the expensive fares of the Missouri Pacific and St. Louis and San Francisco steam railroads, but it was
expected to boost substantially the property value all along the line.
The request for a franchise to construct and operate an electric road in Kirkwood was presented to Kirkwood trustees by Dr. John Pitman on behalf of the St. Louis and Kirkwood Electric Railroad Company on December 18, 1893. Pitman was both a Kirkwood trustee and the President of the electric railway company. The proposed line was to run southwest from the corner of Forest Park to Kirkwood and then west to the Meramec Highlands Resort and subdivision.
Marcus Bernheimer was also banking on the success of the new road and was anxious for its completion. In 1895, the Meramec Highlands Company advertised the benefits of the electric railway for investors in its real estate and resort development at the Highlands:
that all Electric Roads now projected in St. Louis County toward its western
Meramec Highlands as their objective point, and it is safe to assume that two of these at least will
be built and in running order ere another season is at hand; and when this is accomplished every foot
of ground of Meramec Highlands will be worth three times the amount at which we are now offering it."
The residents were very interested in the progress
of the construction and frequent updates were included in the
Air Line is breaking the record in the matter of rapid railway
construction. Fully two thirds of the road bed is already completed. The large car sheds, water
tank, artesian well and switch track at Brentwood were completed two weeks ago and the immense power
station at the same point will be under roof in a few days. The ties and rails have been delivered
along almost the entire route, and the poles have been set in position over a considerable portion of
"A large gang of men are employed in the laying of track for the Electric Railroad on Clay Avenue. An admiring throng of small boys look on."
"All the grading on the electric road between Kirkwood and the Highlands has been finished, and the contractor has seven teams hauling macadam from the quarry here."
"The top ballast will be put on in a few days, and as soon as one or two bridges and the power house at Brentwood are completed, the road will be open to travel. This it is said will be by the first of the year at the latest."
Even though construction was nearly
on schedule, Mr.Houseman was
impatient for his line to begin operation.
Houseman's line was to be the first
through the area, but the Howard line
(St. Louis and Meramec River Railroad)
would soon be built. He wanted to
capture the electric railroad business
before the competition arrived.
Future patrons and residents were
also anxious for construction to be
completed.Hopes were raised late
in January 1896, when a double
deck streetcar arrived, but residents
were disappointed to findthat it
was only another test.
The electric line was still a hot topic in the
"The electric car still attracts attention in passing to and fro with its load of rejected ties or freight trailer of ballast, and the anxious inquirer is told that it will stop for passengers on the 23rd by some and Feb. 1st by others. The 5 cent fare to city limits will prevail for big and little. No children's half fare rate, which is considered proper by citizens generally. Cheap enough, all exclaim."
The Houseman Air Line was a single set
of tracks with seven side switches so that cars could pass. News quickly
spread that each car was being fitted with a telephone which could be connected to an overhead wire each thousand yards so the conductor could call the office for orders. Before leaving the switches, motormen were to receive orders from telephones installed at them. With the innovation of telephones, Houseman felt that there was no need for a dispatcher.
On the day the line was to be turned over to General Manager J. D. Houseman, he disagreed with the contractor about the completeness of the work and would not allow payment until grading and ballasting of tracks and streets through Kirkwood and on Shady Avenue in Webster Groves was completed to his satisfaction. Until he was paid, the contractor refused to turn over the line and remained in control of the line and the powerhouse.
While the owner and the contractor were at a stand-off, the "Varsity" railroad, which was an extension of the Lindell line, opened for service. It was the all-important city connection for Houseman's Air Line, running along the south side of Forest Park and joining Houseman's line at the southwest corner of the park.
The Air Line had been practically complete for a month, but the dispute prevented it from being operated. On February 15th, Houseman and two company officers took forcible possession of the electric road and put it in operation. Over 1000 passengers were transported to Meramec Highlands on the first full day of operation.
For more information see "Glimpses of Meramec Highlands" and "King Trolley & the Suburban Queens."
Kirkwood Streetcar Overview
from Kirkwood: A Pictoral History
Two electric railroads received approval to bring service to Kirkwood in the 1890s. Kirkwood eagerly awaited their arrival. The St. Louis & Kirkwood and the St. Louis & Meramec River Railroads raced to arrive first. The former, a single-track line known as the Houseman Air Line, connected Kirkwood with St. Loius lines at Forest Park. Fares were cheap and cars were scheduled frequently. The line quickly filled to capacity, especially on warm weekends with thousands riding between St. Loius, Kirkwood, and the Meramec Highlands resort. Shortly after opening, the Air Line was badly hurt by lawsuits resulting from a fatal head-on collision between two cars filled to overflowing. Public wariness of a one-track system reduced the Air Line's ridership once the St. Louis & Meramec River Railroad appeared in 1897. It soon became the pre-eminent mode of travel due to its two-track system and its direct access to downtown St. Louis via Manchester Road. Consequently, steam rail companies suffered, quickly cutting back on commuter trains.
After surviving a streetcar strike in 1900, the Suburban had a banner year in 1904, carrying passengers to and from the Worlds Fair. Two years later it was taken over by United Railways. The streetcar lines were in constant financial difficulty resulting in receiverships and turnover among its operators. In 1927 the St. Louis Public Service Company was the last public transit company to run streetcars in Kirkwood. Under the Public Service, the Kirkwood lines became known as the Osage Hills (closed in 1932), Manchester 56, and the Kirkwood-Ferguson 01. Kirkwood youth saved their allowance to go joy riding on the 01 from Kirkwood to Ferguson and back. Often a breezy streetcar ride was the closest thing to air conditioning.
Back to Main PageService to Kirkwood on the Manchester 56 line was retooled with the introduction of modern PCC cars in 1942. Service was cut back to Adams Avenue because the Public Service Company insisted that the PCC cars were too heavy for the Clay Avenue overpass. The town objected and service was reinstated. The Kirkwood-Ferguson continued using old Peter Witt cars, never receiving any modern cars. It traversed three loops in Kirkwood: Meramec Highlands/Osage Hills (until 1932), Magnolia (1916-1949), and Washington/Clay and Adams (until 1950). High maintenance costs, fixed routes, the advent of flexible bus service, ompetition for space on public roads, politics, and the staggering rise in automobile ownership spelled the doom of streetcar service to Kirkwood. The Manchester 56 line closed in 1949. The last Kirkwood-University streetcar left town in 1950. Streetcars literally left their tracks behind, buried under asphalt. Despite the removal of its remnants, older residents have fond memories of streetcar travel through Kirkwood. Bus service eventually replaced streetcar service, but it can never supplant the spot in Kirkwood's history reserved for the original electric railroad.
Mail car of the Suburban Railroad, ca. 1898.