What’s with that strange, solitary, rusted column of steel sticking up from the undergrowth behind SLU Hospital, along 39th Street? I looked at my trusty Sanborn maps, and discovered that this intersection of 39th and Park Avenue was a hotbed of the streetcar industry in St. Louis, and was the location of the offices and shops–and possibly the electrical generators for the streetcars themselves–of the United Railways Company, which bought up and owned all of the streetcar lines in St. Louis by the early Twentieth Century.
In 1990, Afterdays Media explored the streetcar plant before its demolition, and filmed this amazing pair of videos, which you can watch here and here on Youtube. They reported seeing the old generators that are visible in the orange and red building in the upper portion of the map. You also might be confused that it says Vandeventer on the map. Isn’t that to the west nowadays? From the St. Louis Public Library website:
“THIRTY-NINTH STREET (N-S). When named, it marked the beginning of the thirty-ninth block west of the Mississippi River. Much of the street originally was known as South Vandaventer. It received its present designation in 1910. A section of the street between Vista and Chouteau avenues was called Tiffany Street until 1926. The name of Tiffany was derived from Louis and P. D. Tiffany, the owners of a tract of land in that vicinity.”
The building is gone, and for some reason the giant boiler is still standing, which is visible in the video above. I’m not sure why it was not torn down; perhaps it was left as a memorial to the streetcars, or perhaps it is contaminated with heavy metals and has been left because it is too expensive to clean up. I suspect it is the latter, because the second video above shows the exploration of the basement, and if you look at the satellite image again, you will see a large blacktop cap covering the site of the building. I suspect the cover was placed there to seal up the polluted basement. Nevertheless, below you can actually see how the parking lot is actually the old floor of the building next door, and on the right a track is visible.
I managed to find a couple of pictures of streetcars from the United Railways Company, and you can see below a row of streetcars at the 39th Street Depot below. The broad open spaces, still present today, of the western Mill Creek Valley are visible in the background.
I also discovered that there was a large United Railways presence across 39th Street, which were more streetcar maintenance shops and offices. Bizarrely, and according to public records, SLU demolished the entire complex in 1999, leaving only the monumental archways of the office building and the first 8-10 courses of brick up to the old stone window ledges.
You can see the empty lot, along with some rubble from the large buildings here, from Google Maps. It is a truly huge piece of real estate, and I can only imagine how many streetcars could fit in the shops.
The land sits fallow, but if you follow this link, you can see a streetcar in the yard between the buildings; I can only imagine the hustle and bustle in these massive buildings when they were occupied.
The Sanborn map reveals that all sorts of functions in the maintenance, paintings and refitting of streetcars occurred in the large maintenance facility.
If you look closely and compare the map above and image below, you can see that the streetcar below is clearly being moved down the three tracks visible in the Sanborn map. You can even see the markings on the map for the slanted roofs of the workshops.
Imagine, one hundred years ago, hundreds of men streaming into this facility, climbing onboard a streetcar and heading out into the early morning hours of the day to pick up factory workers, businessmen, seamstresses, carpenters, secretaries and school children, all riding next to each other as they began their day living in the city of St. Louis.