In January of 1886, The St Louis Post Dispatch reported “crowds of coasters at the northwestern gate of Lafayette Park”. What we call sledding today, on a Saturday evening 132 years ago, attracted “long lines of finely-dressed ladies and gentlemen”. They “shot down the steep incline from the flag pole, went whizzing through the big stone gates, across Park Avenue, and down the long hill (Missouri Avenue) to Chouteau Avenue. The neighborhood resounded with the laughter and raillery of the merry crowds.” Good times by all accounts.
It’s interesting to read through the old papers, as they impassively list the multiple coasters hurt when smacking into the gates, or getting a leg caught in a fence, or running a three-man sled into a horse drawn wagon. All in the sport of it, I suppose.
The same month, a feature story on coasting (“A WINTER PASTIME IN WHICH THE LOCAL JUVENILE WORLD IS INDULGING”) appeared in the paper. The byline went on:
The article maintained that coasting was pretty democratic, available to both rich and poor, and a sport for which hilly St Louis was well-suited. The first three spots cited for their ability to attract numbers of coasters were Lafayette Park, Second Carondelet (now 18th Street) to Chouteau Avenue, and Mississippi Avenue between Park and Chouteau Avenues. It stated that:
“of the above, the Park is by far the most popular resort, on account of the long run which it affords. Starting from the flagpole, there is an even decline down through the footpaths and on the adjoining street of fully 2,000 feet.”
The prerequisites for the sport are simple: “a sleigh, a hill covered with ice or snow, and a boy, who has but one end in life, and that is to reach the bottom of the hill in the shortest possible time. He is not particular as respects the style he does it in, the grace of the position he takes on the sleigh, nor the poetry of the motion with which he descends”.
The paper noted that the democracy of coasting only reached so far, as the girls could only manage to work in one ride to the boys ten. It observed that the boys monopoly had no good reason, as they held “no patent, nor even priority of invention”, but guesses that the “boy’s tyranny lies in the fact that the girl’s sleigh is neat and clean and has ribbons tied on the string.”
“Coasting, like a patent medicine, is a good thing. Taken moderately, it is perfectly harmless. Taken in medium sized doses, it acts on the system gently and easily. It tones up the nerves, develops the muscles, brings a sparkle to the eyes and a glow of health to the cheek.Taken in large doses, it develops the respiratory organs, gives a strong appetite, and produces calm and peaceful sleep”.
An interesting aspect of the heavy use of the steep Lafayette Square roadways was that it turned them to glazed ice, dissuading any wagons from attempting the use of them for transport until warmer temperatures intervened. For a short time, the downhill stretches of Missouri and Mississippi Avenues were the sole province of the coasters.
An article from January 1892 mentioned that the ice in Lafayette Park was too rough for skating, and that those who came out returned home for their sleds. The “more refined lady and gentlemen skaters lingered to watch the sport on the hills as small friends with sleds tried the run from the park to Chouteau Avenue, while their companions who had no sleds amused themselves by pelting them with snowballs.”
By 7 p.m., “at least 500 persons were gathered on both Missouri and Mississippi Avenues. There were sleds of all kinds, from the lengthy bobs to the diminutive “belly-buster”. Most of the bobsleds were fitted out with a gong or bell, and a few even had headlights. The reporter thought it a miracle that with the speed and number of collisions no one was killed. Specific bobsled teams gained names, like ‘Hominy Bob’, who owned a sled with gong and light, capable of carrying twenty persons. It was reported that cheers from the jolly crowd could be heard for blocks, and that it was 11 p.m. before they dispersed.
The Post Dispatch in February of 1902 wrote that it had been many mild winters since the last great opportunity to drag the bobsled from the basement and thunder down the hill. It welcomed a long-delayed return of cold and snow, with the resurgence of coasting that winter. It depicted a day at the hills where thousands of coasters played during the day, followed by night, “the time for the great crowds and the finest fun. Then come the big bobs and the men with the courage to run them”. The thrill of danger was a big part of the allure for riders and crowd alike. “To go coasting and never be thrown would be quite as unromantic as to go duck hunting and not get a boot full of ice water.”
This article also singled out for special commendation the ride from Lafayette Park down to Chouteau Avenue. This became primary when street car tracks were laid along the former course down Mississippi Avenue. The overflow riders now chose the shorter (three block) run on Armstrong (now MacKay Place) Avenue.
Looking down Missouri from Park Avenue, it’s easy to imagine a day when winters had sharper teeth and folks adapted by finding the fun in them. I’ve never seen a renegade on runners coasting toward Chouteau Avenue, but have no doubt it would still be a thrilling ride. Running it on a Lime scooter would put one’s nose too far from the action. You need to be close to the ground to really feel the world whir by. Maybe sometime the City would agree to open it back up, just for an otherwise impassible day, for the sole benefit of those who would want to give it a go. You’d hear my shouts from blocks away, for sure.
Thanks to the St Louis Post Dispatch, Alamy, Victoriana Magazine, American Magazine and BoweryBoysHistory.com for photos and source material.