Back

Creve Coeur Line

by Wayne Brasler

 

  The traces are still there if you know where to look.

  You can drive most of the route because after the tracks were pulled up, sometimes almost immediately, sometimes years later, road was built on the right of way.

  It was a streetcar line, but “street” really is a misnomer. When the line was built basically there were no streets where it traveled. Mostly there was a lot of woodland punctuated by small villages.  The streets were built later alongside the line.

  It was a lifeline.  For Maryland Heights, that is.  Because in the pre-automobile era it represented the only practical way to get quickly from place to place, westward to the playground at Creve Coeur Park.  Eastward to shopping in Overland, and the amusement park of Delmar Gardens and after that disappeared the festive dining and shopping and theatre strip of the Delmar Loop.  And one transfer there to the Delmar streetcar line took you quickly all the way to downtown St. Louis and the Riverfront.

  “It” was the Creve Coeur Lake streetcar line.

  Creve Coeur Park had been a popular excursion destination since 1881 when the Missouri Pacific opened a steam rail line there (mostly abandoned in 1964; the right-of-way is still evident heading northwest in the Clayton Road-Lindbergh Road vicinity).    The Lake, once part of the Missouri River, provided a nice beach and the bluffs above provided hiking and picnicking.

  But the place was seedy, with gambling joints, drinking joints and, um, easily available professional ladies.

  That all changed as the 1904 World’s Fair neared.  City and county officials cooperated in cleaning up the lake area and what emerged was a pleasant, clean, family environment.  The streetcar had reached the Lake by 1901, and its inexpensive, clean, fast transportation with frequent service made it the choice of travel there.  Families would come in droves on Sundays to enjoy the beach, boating, fishing and dining and up on the bluff where the streetcar looped emerged an amusement area known as Electric Park with a 250-foot tall observation tower and alongside the challenging winding staircases up and down the bluffside a gravity-run scenic railway.  The concrete footings are still there.

  A merry-go-round, a ferris wheel and a dance pavilion proved popular attractions.

  The DeForrest Wireless Tower had been assembled in Niagra Falls, then shipped to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair antenna for demonstration of wireless communication.

  Eventually the tower was torn down and a second metal tower was erected; it was scrapped in 1941 as part of a World War II scrap drive.

  The Creve Coeur Lake streetcar loop on the bluff included at its west end an inner loop track and an outer loop track.  The tower stood between the loop tracks.

  In the 1930s the Lake area began losing popularity and regained some of its unsavory characteristics. Prohibition brought gamblers and gangsters back and clubhouses, roadhouses and the notorious Creve Coeur Hotel provided havens for crime.  The amusement park was closed in 1934 and the Park began fading from the St. Louis consciousness.  The hotel building burned in 1966.

  The beautiful Creve Coeur Lake Park of today didn’t even exist until several decades after the streetcar rails were pulled up.  With no rail transportation to the Park, television and air conditioning providing new entertainment and creature comforts, the Park was forgotten for many decades.  In the 1960s it was all but a ghost town.           Then, as county officials recognized its potential for serving a new and affluent suburban population, a major restoration was planned and completed with new recreational opportunities, landscaping and picnic areas.

  The Park now offers the Lake, restored to 230 acres; boating; 12 picnic sites with barbecue pits;

reservable picnic shelters; an archery range; numerous playgrounds; tennis courts; a Frisbee disc court; a polo field; the popular Dripping Springs wedding site (scene of a legendary leap by a romantically heartbroken Native American maiden, which along with the split heart shape of the ox bow lake yielded the name “Creve Coeur”); and abundant wildlife and nature and fishing.  Few of today’s Parkgoers have any knowledge that a streetcar line once looped on the bluff.

  Many schemes for building an electric trolley line to Creve Coeur Park had preceded its construction, most involving using Olive Street Road westward as part of the route.  There was even one plan for a a cable car line out to the Lake.

  But when the line finally was built it was wisely linked to the Delmar line (which then was the Olive line) which looped at Kingsland and Delmar (actually at Enright) in University City at what originally was Delmar Gardens amusement park.  The Creve Coeur Lake line never looped the loop; the cars arriving from the west to the loop would stop on Kingsland, then back into the northern track of the loop on Enright to await their trip back west.

  Actually, the tracks originally were constructed from the end of the Midland streetcar line, which ran from the Kirkwood-Ferguson tracks at what now is Skinker Parkway and Page, west on Page on the north side of the road, to just beyond Hanley Road.

  Originally, Creve Coeur Lake cars ran on the Midland line and on out to the Lake.

  But shortly after the line opened, new trackage was constructed taking the line southeast to meet with the Cross County line at Vernon Avenue and Ferguson Avenue in University City (the short-lived Cross Country ran up the north side of Ferguson to meet the St. Louis, St. Charles and Western interurban at St. Charles Rock Road) and to continue on tracks up Kingland to the Delmar Loop.

  The line originally was single tracked but, as often happened with single tracked trolley lines, a disastrous head-on crash between cars headed in different directions occurred (on June 7, 1908) and a second track was added as quickly as possible, an enormous expense and enormous engineering job but necessary.

  In the first year of complete operation, Creve Coeur cars left from the Delmar car barn and powerhouse at Delmar and DeBaliviere.  Then the start of the line was moved to the Loop.  From the Delmar Loop to the Creve Coeur Lake Loop  the trip comprised 13-1/2 miles, with a running time of 45 minutes.  Cars ran every 45 minutes (figure it out).

  As traffic grew on the line, some rush-hour cars ran from downtown St. Louis out to the Lake, a 20-mile run of safe, clean, enjoyable and economical public transit.

  Because of its mostly rural nature, the Creve Coeur Lake line was not a standard-issue country line. It was constructed to high standards with heavy rail, strong ties and ballast and considerable grading, construction of fills, excavations of deep passages, building of numerous culverts to take creeks beneath the right of way, handsome poles and, marking off the rural portions, cement posts in rows at both edges of the right-of-way.   Photos through the line’s history show the railway immaculately maintained.

  The cars also went beyond standard trolley issue. Large, spacious, window-lined and light-drenched, they were one-ended cars, with the back on many of them large, rounded picture windows.  They carried high beam headlamps to pierce the wooded right-of-way at night and a loud air whistle to supplement the usual streetcar clanger.

  From the Delmar Loop the double-tracked line headed north up Kingsland.  Originally the track was located in an irregular line; later it was relocated to a landscaped median.

  At what became Vernon Avenue the track turned west. 

  When a subdivision was planned for Vernon Avenue (eventually that took the form of a row of white bungalows which are still there) the streetcar tracks were relocated to the back of the houses between Kingsland and as Pennsylvania Avenue and that right of way is still there.

  Vernon ended at Pennsylvania and the tracks continued on right-of-way to what is now Midland Avenue, where they turned northwesterly.  Midland was built after the tracks, with the streetcar in a median strip.  Midland ran from Vernon up past Olive Street Road to Canton, where the line again entered private right of way, headed northwesterly to cross Hanley Boulevard headed for Page.  Decades after the streetcar line was abandoned, this right-of-way got paved as Midland Boulevard, now a major county thoroughfare.

  The streetcar accounts for the winding route of Midland, which begins as a north-south street, becomes a northwest-southwest wide speedway, changes to an east-west street and, as it nears and passes Lindbergh Boulevard, moves in wide arcs.

  Midland evidently was the name of the street in University City because at Page Avenue the Creve Coeur line met the Midland line.

 Where the lines met the neighborhood was called the Junction District and an area of businesses grew up.  Some of the buildings remain.

  The single Midland line track joined up with westbound Creve Coeur track where the lines met, and just north of that junction a crossover track existed, so it was possible for special events such as school picnics to take streetcars over the Midland line and then out to Creve Coeur Park and back.

  Midland eventually became the name of every street constructed around the Creve Coeur line from University City to Maryland Heights, including a stretch west of Fee Fee Road in Maryland Heights that still remains.

  Maryland Heights in fact lies on a ridge overlooking the Midland Valley to its south, still a beautiful sight at night with a thousand lights glowing below looking down from Dorsett Avenue  on the summit west of Lindbergh Avenue in the area of Fee Fee Road.

  The “Heights” part of the name figured into a major weather event in January 1967 when a long-track but very narrow F-4 tornado moved in from the valley and struck the intersection of Fee Fee and Dorsett because it stood so high over the surrounding land.  A tornado siren now graces the site, ready for the next funnel cloud if it ever comes.  The tornado crossed the Creve Coeur right-of-way but by then the cars hadn’t run nearly 20 years.

  From Page Avenue just west of Hanley on right-of-way reached from adjacent streets by staircases, still there, the line ran northwest up to North and South Road. Decades after the streetcar was removed the right-of-way was paved as, what else, Midland Boulevard.

  No cross street had been built across the railway tracks, which were there first, which is why Midland moving northwest between Hanley and North and South is a straight shot for drivers.

 Just before North and South the streetcar line turned west, and from there Midland Boulevard (unconnected to the Midland Boulevard which stretched from Vernon to Canton in University City)  grew on either side of the tracks through Vinita Park, Wheaton, Sycamore Hills and numerous other communities, many of them long forgotten.  Though the street today follows the streetcar line totally between Hanley Road north of Canton right out to near Lindbergh, originally the tracks entered stretches of private right of way several times before emerging at Midland Boulevard at its intersection with Lackland and again traveling a center median strip.

  A much-filmed spot was Midland at Brown Road, which few people today know is Ritenour Hill.  It was located on the Ritenour farm and Mr. Ritenour contributed land for the first school in the area.

  A bustling stop was Overland Station, at Woodson Road, where people from east and west came for shopping, dining and entertainment.

  Heading westward, the line regained private right of way at Ashby Road, where Midland Avenue ended.  After the streetcar line was pulled up (the final day saw dozens of filmmakers and photographers on the hill at Ashby shooting the cars as they came and went--I know, I was there), Midland Boulevard was extended westward to Lindbergh, but the Ashby overpass above the tracks remained intact for decades until it was rebuilt and broadened several years ago.

  Just east of Bruno Avenue on the south side of the tracks stood Crow’s Nest, a loop at which many Creve Coeur Lake cars turned back.  In later years, the line ended there and a shuttle provided rides out to the Lake.

  Crow’s Nest had a constant hum to it because of a portable substation car there.  And the land in back of the loop was used for dismantling and burning old streetcars.

  Many riders remember westbound cars terminating at Crow’s Nest backing into the east end track of the loop and then heading out eastward again.  Track maps don’t show any rail which would permit such a movement, and photos of streetcars at Crow’s Nest doesn’t show any such rail either, but a track enabling cars to back up into the east end of the loop may have been put in later in the line’s life.

  Some of the ground of Crow’s Nest remains, though houses eventually were built on the spot.

  The line’s crossing at Lindbergh was plainly evident decades afterward until Midland was extended over Lindbergh to connect with a new version of Dorsett Road.

  But, amazingly, the right of way west of Lindbergh is still fairly much intact.

  That’s because when the line was constructed farmers contributed or leased land for the right of way with the agreement that when the streetcar stopped running the land would revert to the original owners.

  But that abandonment took place more than a half century later and by then little paperwork remained, land had changed hands, the streetcar line ownership had changed hands, and housing developers considered streetcar rights of way potential trouble.

   So today, despite what was miles of farmland now being miles of cul de sacs, the Creve Coeur Lake line, sans tracks, still winds its way almost uninterrupted out to the Lake.  You have to know where to look as it scoots between this subdivision and that subdivision but it’s there, flat as a pancake.

  For years, in fact, anyone driving north on Fee Fee from Dorsett would encounter the right-of-way coming across the highway unmistakable with its broad flat path surrounded on both sides by trees and many poles still in place, many streetcar company posts marking off the land in place, and some ties still present.

  The right-of-way provided a treasured secret for hikers, a lovely and serene path deep into the woods, with the sound of children laughing and dogs barking in the distance and wildlife indifferent to human visitors wandering at close range.  Now Vago Park is located at Fee Fee and the tracks.

  At Fee Fee the line continued westward on the north side of what became, yep, another Midland.  That Midland had been platted as a divided roadway with the streetcar running in a median between westbound and eastbound lanes but it never grew beyond a single little country road.

  Fee Fee Gardens, an entertainment mecca with a beautiful big house, stood at the northwest corner of Fee Fee and Midland, and just up the road the Barth Estates.

  It was the crossing at Fee Fee which brought the streetcar lines the closest to the Maryland Heights schools and offered an enjoyable, affordable, efficient, nearly round-the-clock connection to the outside world for students of almost all ages.

  Streetcar travel was safe and easy and, as many St. Louis historians have a pointed out, children basically had the run of the city thanks to public transportation. Streetcar lines ran literally everywhere.   Going downtown for a movie, or to Grand Avenue for a ball game at Sportsman’s Park or just about anywhere anytime was simple and moms and dads weren’t needed as chauffeurs (most didn’t own cars anyway).  Crimes against children in public, much less kidnapping, was rare and some youngsters remember going on errands for their families or visiting relatives unaccompanied by streetcar with no problem.

  Midland Avenue west of Fee Fee now continues nearly west to where the streetcar line on a high trestle crossed Fee Fee Creek and the Rock Island railroad (the concrete footings are still there).   West of I-270 the right-of-way picks up adjacent on the south side of Ameling Avenue.  At Ameling and Bennington the right of way, on a fill crossing over another creek, rises clearly, heading southwest.

  The right-of-way is nearly intact as it heads into the Park and where the tracks broke through from the woods into its loop atop the bluff the land remains and the brick substation. In the substation hummed two 500 KW rotary converters, with room for a third even though the line never even needed two converters.

   For many years the legend was a streetcar had been left at the loop in the substation after the line was pulled up but it was never true.

   What was true was the loop had an extra track

inside it where streetcars in trouble could be left if necessary.

  The loop at the park was notable because there was only the tiniest of waiting shelters and, unlike the rest of the high-quality right of way, the most simple of trackage.  In photos of the loop ties aren’t even visible; the tracks look sunk right into the earth, though ties surely were there.

  Many people who stayed too long at the Lake, having lost time while fishing, would climb up up up the concrete stairs from the beach to the loop not certain if another streetcar would be coming along or they’d be spending a long, dark, chilly night huddled with no shelter until the first car came in the morning.

  But they needn’t have worried.  The cars were not frequent late at night, but they ran past midnight, and few people likely ever got stuck on that bluff.

  In Maryland Heights, the Creve Coeur line stations were as follows, from the east:

  Adie Road (the Harris station); Harlem (in “Harlem Heights,” east of Fee Fee); Fee Fee Church Road (on the east side); Shumate Road (a flag stop where riders had to flag down the cars; at night that was accomplished by lighting a match to a rolled-up newspaper); Smiley Road (another flag stop); Penmar; Eldon; Schmidt Road (the Baumgarth station); what is now Ameling at Bennington (the Shroeder stop); Holden, Rankin and Rule avenues; Fellhauer; and then just before the loop the Marine Avenue stop; and then the loop.

  That Marine Avenue was not the Marine Avenue at the bottom of the bluff along the lake, which remains today, but a planned road in which the westbound tracks of the loop were to travel.  Such a road doesn’t appear in any photos of the loop though eventually a dirt road was laid inside the loop so service trucks could access the substation.

  A fond Creve Coeur line memory is the so-called moonlight cars, open trolleys with canvas tops which could be rolled down on the sides when rain fell.  There were several designs to the moonlight cars, all involving seating on open benches. The snazziest had white canvas roofs with red stripes, held in place by pipe supports, red headlights and red taillights mounted on red roofing and had 17 long benches for seating.  Their maximum speed was 35 miles, the fastest most riders had ever traveled. The ride on high summer nights through the cool, fragrant breezes of the Midland Valley provided a major attraction for heated city dwellers.

 

 

 

The moonlight cars evolved into traveling parties, with a great deal of drunk merrymaking on board, and at the University City the police often met particularly loud cars of singing (and sometime fighting) merrymakers.

  Popular as they were, the moonlighters were discontinued in 1929 as safety standards rose.  The open cars may have been fine for slow city lines but not for a racing-through-the-night long rural route.

Concerns grew about people falling off the cars and the general rowdiness which grew on them.

  The moonlighters, too, were rolling ducks for hoodlums who liked to wait at night in the dark of the woods to pelt riders with eggs and other obnoxious missiles. 

  Halloween night could prove especially vexing for the line, with greased rails, trolley poles tugged from the wires and objects placed on the tracks make the riding a nightmare for motormen.

   Most St. Louis rail historians believe the Creve Coeur Lake line never made a profit during its entire life.  Most riding occurred on summer Sundays.  Traffic on those days was heavy but by the 1930s the line was lucky to get even 20 riders on Sundays.

  The Public Service Company, which had inherited the line from United Railways in 1927 (and gave it the route number of “05”), by the 1940s couldn’t wait to get rid of it, along with the right-of-way that had to be maintained, the portions of public roads the company was responsible for maintaining where tracks ran, the lines and poles that had to be renewed and the electricity that had to be generated at substations which had to be maintained.

  Buses, which involved none of those costs, and which could go anywhere and go around any obstacle, became preferred for public transport.

  The shuttle which ran between Crow’s Nest and the Lake in later years did not come in response to light traffic but was in fact instituted to discourage ridership and add to the reasons to replace the trolley cars with buses.  The shuttle ran infrequently and photos survive of unhappy riders disembarked at Crow’s Nest and walking down to the tracks to get to their destinations.

  The line’s last day came on a steamy July 25, 1950, with big ridership and people waving along the right-of-way.  At Crow’s Nest everyone was ordered off each car so it could make its loop and they could get back on and pay a new fair for the trip back home.  Public Service, obviously, held no affection or nostalgia for the big red cars.

  The irony, of course, is that the very land Public Service abandoned from the Creve Coeur Lake line, along with its two Kirkwood lines, the Brentwood line, the Clayton line, the Ferguson line and Berkeley line barely two decades later became highly-developed suburban communities just perfect for rail transit.  Imagine today a high-speed line on private right of way running from downtown to the Lake right through the centers of population.

  Public Service and some other companies tried replacing the Creve Coeur Lake streetcar with bus service using roads near the right-of-way, but that service didn’t cover the whole route in one piece and the public never took to the buses.

  Riding a bus down Lackland was not the same as bustling along on a ding-dong trolley car in the woods.

  The trolley line gained new fame 30 years after being abandoned in the 1979  play by Tennessee Williams, “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur.”  He had grown up in the city and then University City and knew the Delmar Loop and the line well.

  And today many people fondly remember the route because it took a magic carpet ride over streets (mostly on its own midde ground), into the woods, on long long runs through what seemed the middle of nowhere and an enchanted wilderness to a fun destination.  Surviving film shows trolley cars of laughing, chatting people in jolly socializing as trees and dirt or gravel country cross roads whiz by.

  Twas a different world, a much more rural world, a much slower, safer and predictable world.  And Maryland Heights was part of it.

  (Wayne Brasler is journalism director and student publications adviser at University of Chicago High School.  A St. Louis native, he graduated from Normandy High School and serves as editor of the Normandy High Alumni Courier newspaper published by the Normandy High Alumni Association.  His father drove the Creve Coeur Lake Line as a Public Service Company motorman in the 1940s.  Copyright 2007 Wayne Brasler.)

 

 Back