Edwin Teale’s quotation, “All things seem possible in May” could not be more apropos for St. Louis, for the most dramatic events in our history have occurred in May. Spring alternates between summer and winter, her capricious storms and wildly swinging temperatures resulting in twisters and floods. Yet resplendent with roses and iris, Maytime in The Lou is filled with commencements and weddings (tho’ June brides can be more certain of fair weather).
The first and only attack upon St. Louis occurred in late May of 1780, L’Annee du Grand Coup/The Year of the Great Battle, when close to a thousand Indians from the area of the Great Lakes attacked the village under British command, “killing or wounding twenty-eight and capturing twenty-five”.* Although greatly outnumbered, St. Louisans held fast, foiling a British plot to capture the Mississippi River Valley from the rear and winning the final battle of the Revolutionary War on the western front. The courage of the settlers and the militia, and the foresight of Spanish Commander, Fernando de Leyba, prevented St. Louis from becoming part of the British Empire.
The turmoil which had been brewing in the city since March of 1861 came to a rolling boil on May 10th when shots were fired and a riot ensued, in and around Peter Lindell’s grove (today the eastern part of the Frost Campus of St. Louis University) where the Missouri Militia drilled and trained. Alternately known as “The Camp Jackson Affair” and “The Massacre at Lindell’s Grove” the incident reflected a city as hotly divided as any in the nation. And when the numbers were totaled – one hundred wounded and over twenty-eight men, women and children dead – it was clear that the Civil War had begun in St. Louis by May of 1861.
An officers’ agreement between Capt. Nathaniel Lyon of the U.S. Army and General Daniel Frost of the Missouri Militia would have avoided violence had not crossfire, ignited by a civilian with a pistol, the throwing of bricks and rocks at federal troops and retaliation by the military, culminated in disaster. The Camp Jackson Affair, sensationalized by the press, would incite thousands of Missourians to enlist in the Army of the Confederacy to even the score.
On May 18, 1849, even as the worst cholera epidemic in St. Louis history decimated the population, the city’s most devastating fire broke out aboard the steamer White Cloud moored at the foot of Cherry Street. Before the volunteer fire brigade could put it out, boats and barges on the Mississippi River at the Port of St. Louis burned to the water line along with tons of cargo sitting on the levee. Almost the entire central business district (including much of what remained of the colonial village) was lost. Photographer Thomas Easterly recorded for posterity the enormity of the disaster in this daguerreotype. Note the steeple of the Old Cathedral (which survived because explosives set along Church Street/today Second Street finally halted the fire) and St. Louis around it in rubble.
After St. Louisans chipped away the first natural limestone bluff that fronted the Mississippi here to create a proper levee, flooding became common. But on May 21, 1844 the Mississippi reached the most dramatic level in the city’s history.** That record would be surpassed in the coming years; none more stunning than the summer of 1993, which geologists categorized as a five hundred year flood.
But the greatest natural disaster in St. Louis history struck late in the afternoon of May 27, 1896 when a monster of a tornado, spawned by a series of lesser ones throughout the mid-section of the United States, touched down at the highest point in the city (near Sublette & Arsenal Streets) and cork-screwed its way horizontally through the northern swath of south St. Louis. It took the Lafayette Square Neighborhood decades to recover, some areas never would.
Liggett & Meyers (L&M) were in the process of constructing the largest tobacco factory in the world when the Great Cyclone of 1896 mangled the steel girders of its framework and dropped them to the ground like sticks. Ground zero lay at the intersection of Seventh Boulevard and Rutger Streets *** where the largest number of people in any one area were crushed to death.
Crossing the Mississippi River the tornado demolished river craft and took three hundred feet off the east rampart of The Eads Bridge, laying waste to East St. Louis. Within a mere twenty minutes it had taken over 300 lives, flattening 311 buildings on this side of the river alone. Another 7,200 buildings were heavily damaged along with thousands of telephone poles and hundreds of miles of electrical wires.
Twisters can erupt in St. Louis anytime (the last of 2010 struck on New Year’s Eve) but they are far more common in May. On a beautiful May day like today St. Louisans flock to Forest Park to visit the zoo and take boats out to the Grand Basin. Thousands more fill Henry Shaw’s Missouri Botanical Garden, where presently a series of whimsical tree-houses lie in wait for the adventurous, where Carl Milles’ winged fairies perch permanently above lily ponds filled with Chihuly glass sculptures, and where St. Louis is its most stunning in the lush and lovely month of May. As Memorial Day approaches we breathe a collective sigh of hope that spring’s worst is now behind us.
*Under Three Flags – Maureen Hoessle, Virginia Publishing, St. Louis, MO, 2005; **St. Louis Day by Day – Frances Hurd, The Patrice Press, St. Louis, MO, 1989.***Tim O’Neil for The St. Louis Post Dispatch, May 26, 1996.
Photo Credits: “Attack on the Village of St. Louis 1780” – mural in the Capitol Building in Jefferson City, MO painted by Oscar E. Beminghaus – in the public domain at wikipedia.com; “St. Louis Riot, May 10, 1861” – in the public domain at wikipedia.com; “Nathanial Lyon” and “General Daniel Frost” – in the public domain at wikipedia .com; “Great Fire in St. Louis, May 18, 1849” daguerreotype by Thomas Easterly – in the public domain at wikipedia.com; “Tornado Damage at Jefferson & Allen,” St. Louis, May 27, 1896 photograph by Strauss – in the public domain at wikipedia .com; “Lafayette & Missouri Avenues” photographed by Strauss/ Archival Photograph by Mr. Steve Niklas, NOS, NGS – in the public domain at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Congress; “Eads Bridge” photographed by Strauss/Archival Photograph by Mr. Steve Niklas, NOS, NGS – in the public domain at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Congress; “Wedding Photograph of Jennifer Kavanaugh and Bridesmaids in the Missouri Botanical Garden” – photographed by Chuck Dresner; all other photos by Maureen Kavanaugh, the author of this blog.