The Island

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The Island Area of East St. Louis

by Erie Belle Wolfer Touchette of Belleville
(East Side 1948)

 

Robert E. Lee was sent to St. Louis in the late 1830s to solve a problem. An island began to form in the middle of the Mississippi River at the St. Louis harbor around 1800. The main channel of the river began to flow between the shore at Illinoistown and the east side of the island. The St. Louis harbor began to fill with silt.

Lee built a long dike from the Illinois shore to the northernmost tip of the island. Careful preparations were made to block that channel and force the river back to the St. Louis side. A number of flat boats - some partially loaded with stones and others, fully loaded according to the depth of the water in which they were to sink, were moored with strong ropes. They were readied so that they could be cast loose at the same time by the stroke of an ax. Each boat also had a scuttle plug and it was arranged that all would be pulled simultaneously. A man stood ready at each line with a hatchet in one hand and a pocketwatch in the other.

The signal to cut loose was the firing of the captain's pistol. At that moment. the plugs were pulled and the ropes were cut. As calculated, each boat swung into position and sank at right angles to the current as intended. Buoys were fixed the next day. The river struck the newly formed dike and slid off around the island. Now all the water flowed into a narrow channel on the other side, washing away the silt in front of St. Louis.

Ashes and fill dirt were brought to the Island and by 1860 it was merely part of the Illinois shoreline. It was difficult to tell that the land had once been located in the middle of the river. It was bounded by Front St. (west), Spring Avenue (north). Trendley Avenue (south), and the approach to the Eads Bridge (east). The railroads bought the land that they needed to build housing for their workers on A and B Streets.. Christy Ave.. Mulliken Ave., Dyke Ave. and Winter and Summer Avenues.

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The Island area was dirty, desolate, treeless and a housekeeper's nightmare. We did have sand. In fact, we even had a sand plant that dredged up river sand for building purposes. Summers were hot and winters were cold. I nearly froze to death walking to Douglas School located only a block away. The wind - no matter what season - blew at gale force most of the time.

When my relatives settled on the Island, it was called Illinoistown and later renamed East St. Louis. They began a wholesale supply business to accommodate riverboats that plied the Mississippi. When the railroads began to dot the landscape they went into the retail grocery business. My great grandfather was instrumental in forming the first volunteer fire department. He was on the Board of Education and served as president of the group for a brief time. He was responsible for making the decision to purchase the property from the Mirrings to build Webster School and the Annex. The Mirrings had decided to move their floral business to Edgemont. He was also on the Board of Directors of Southern Illinois Bank. He married a girl from French Village, Marie Josephine Duval. They had four or five children, one girl; my great aunt Dolly. All of them are buried at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Belleville.

The railroads established roundhouses and freight stations along Front Street. They had both inbound and outbound. They constructed railroad track beds that ran from the freight houses across the sloughs and connected with main tracks of various other lines. They were all just a bunch of initials to me - B&O, CB&Q, L&N, GM&O, IC, etc.

The B&O freight station, two stories high, with offices on the second floor, was located on West Missouri Avenue (Christy Ave.) and B Street, extending to Front Street, two blocks long. It was directly across the street from my father, James J. Wolfer's grocery and meat market. I can remember the cast iron watering trough in front of our store used by the horses that pulled the heavy freight wagons. The wagon wheels were shod in iron and were very strong. The streets, other than Front and Missouri, were just dirt roads. 207-grocery.tif (57872 bytes)

I remember that there were huge stones placed in such a manner that you could walk across B Street when the street was muddy. The stones were placed just far enough apart so that the big wheels of the freight wagons went between them. They eventually phased out the horses and huge chain-driven trucks were used to pull the wagons. The wagons were usually flat-bed bounded by iron with slots on the side. Staves were inserted in the slots and connected with chains. The cargo was protected by a roof which supported a large canvas top that rolled down the sides. These were later replaced by modern trailers and big diesel trucks.

208-freight-house.tif (86974 bytes) The massive steam engines brought empty cars to be loaded from outbound platforms and loaded freight box cars to be placed at inbound platforms. Supplies were loaded on the big trailers as they bumped the boxcars into place along the tracks. There was a huge stop barrier at the end of each set of tracks. Sometimes a rookie engineer would bump the cars too hard and the cars would go past the barrier, through a large fence, and out to Front Street. The screeching and BOOM, BOOM, BOOM of each car being bumped was deafening, but residents quickly became accustomed to such noises.

My country cousins and aunts and uncles used to visit us on occasion and in the middle of the night all of the noise would begin. They bolted from their beds and thought it was either an earthquake or a war. Likewise, my city father would visit our country relatives in Shawneetown, Illinois, and complain about the nightly noise made by the insects. Because of the railroad activity, all of the ceilings in our house were made of tongue and groove car siding because anything else would have come crashing down.

Our little community on the Island was surrounded by railroad tracks on all sides. West Missouri Avenue was paved with cobblestones and ran between two sloughs, the B&O and the Vandalia. The railroads elevated and filled in their roadbeds between the dikes that had been built to connect the island area to the Illinois shore, but left the low lying sloughs that filled with water. We used to swim in the "Van" slough in the summer and ice skate on it in the winter. East St. Louis was flooded often but the Island remained relatively free of flooding due to the dikes. West Missouri ran from Front Street and over the bridge at Cahokia Creek to First Street at the Relay Depot. The depot was a station where passengers could board or deboard trains. It was very nice and had tunnels so passengers could safely go under the tracks to catch trains on various other tracks. The place was full of ticket counters, luggage stations, restrooms, lockers and waiting rooms with benches.

Along West Missouri Avenue, after the slough and before the creek, was a huge boarding house; Victorian architecture with many rooms and a long front porch. It was called the Mystery Boarding House and it was frequented by railroad people. Its proprietress was a lady called Daisy Hall. I remember her very well. She traded with my father and when he delivered her groceries, he took me with him because Daisy liked to see her "little blonde girlfriend.'' She always gave me candy or something pretty. She wore a dust cap of white with ruffles to cover her hair and she always wore long sleeves and lots of face powder. It wasn't until a time I visited her when she was near death that I discovered her secret. She was of African descent. She hid her race from everyone. I kissed her and told her that I loved her and that skin color didn't matter to me. After her death my father discovered that he had been named the executor of her will. She left a little teapot to me which I have treasured to this day.

The railroad crossings which surrounded us proved to be very frustrating. Sometimes the "drags" as we called them would just sit there and block traffic. I became very adept at climbing over the couplings between the cars or dodging underneath. between the wheels. This was very dangerous and had my parents caught me I would have been severely reprimanded.

Numerous trucks delivered merchandise to our store. We had a very early delivery of bread by the Colonial Co. One day the delivery man had finished with our store and was headed down B Street towards Broadway (Dyke Street). He had to drive up an incline to cross over the tracks. He apparently didn't see the train coming. There were no gates or flashing signals, only tile white railroad crossing sign with black letters. Daddy went to the scene and said they had to pry his fingers from the steering wheel. Dad cried at the loss of a friend. That accident cured me. I didn't climb over or under anymore.

During the terrible race riot, I was told by Daddy that some Negroes, who were friends of the family. came and begged my parents to hide them. Our store had a trap door and stairs in the butcher shop that led to a dirt floor cellar. My family hid the refugees and provided them with food and beds. When things calmed down, they secreted them to St. Louis in our delivery wagon. They never came back to live there but they sometimes visited the city. Only two black families lived on the Island. One man. Frank Marcano, was a good friend of my dad.. The other was a woman named Vista. and she and her daughter lived in a small house. Dad helped move Vista from a shack with a dirt floor and no running water into one of his small houses. She worked as a maid for one of my teachers at Webster School.

Frank Marcano was a hod carrier and his nickname was "Toadfrog." I called him "Uncle Toad." When he separated from his wife, or if he had money troubles, he would come down to live with us. Dad would give him a job and help him as much as he could. Dad told me that Toad's family helped his Grandmother and Great Aunt and Uncle John when they had diphtheria during an epidemic. They were quarantined and no one would come near except for the Marcanos. Toad's father was from Puerto Rico. Dad and Toad were once in St. Mary's Hospital together. Dad had contracted pneumonia and was placed in an oxygen tent. Toad was hospitalized with the same sickness. It was winter and Toad got sick from digging graves. Toad was in a different part of the hospital due to segregation. Dad tried to get them to move Toad to his room but the authorities said no. Toad died in the hospital. Dad was too ill to go to the funeral but I attended. Toad was like Dad's brother. Toad called Dad "Brother Buff' and Mom "Sister Buff."

My mother, Wilma Kinder Wolfer, was educated in Shawneetown, Illinois. My father attended St. Henry's on Broadway until he was forced to speak German for half the day. This was during World War I and he didn't think it was right so he switched to St. Patrick's, even though it was much further away. In Collinsville, anti-German sentiment ran so high, a man named Robert Prager was hanged by an angry mob in 1918 for making disparaging remarks about President Wilson.

I attended Stephen Douglas School on the Island., a block from our home. It was a very substantial building with eight large rooms. Two stories high. it had a large basement which contained a large coal burning furnace. A brick wall with wrought iron gates surrounded the school. The window wells at ground level were so large, I sometimes huddled inside them for warmth when we had recess outside on a blustery wintry day. There were about sixteen children who attended the school since there were only about thirteen families who still lived on the Island. We used one room for instruction and another next to it as a play and music room. One of the cloak rooms was turned into a library. Half of the basement was converted to living quarters for the janitress named Hester McFarland. Our teacher was Virginia Scull. Only four grades were taught there. Both Miss Scull and Hester were epileptics. I suppose the superintendent, Mr. Barman, thought that was good enough for Island kids. Virginia was an excellent teacher who taught us tolerance, respect for others, manners and the "3 Rs."

There were lavatories for washing our hands but our toilet was a large outhouse in back of the school. Boys used one side and girls used the other. The teacher called us inside the school with a large hand-rung bell. When we played outside we would wave at the engineers. firemen and switchmen on the trains that went by. In the summer, before we Were out of school. the boys Would jump on top of the slow moving cars that had perishables, open the hatches and throw down ice to the rest of us. We had visiting teachers who came around once a week. Miss Sawyer taught us Palmer Method penmanship; Miss Menestrina taught physical education. and Miss Fletcher instructed art and music.

209-boxcar.tif (47134 bytes) When the superintendent closed the Douglas School and forced us to go to Webster, we had a problem. The bus stop was at the foot of Eads Bridge and was too great a distance for the smaller children to walk. Besides, the cost of bus fare was beyond the reach for most of these poor children's families. My father attended a board meeting and angrily told them that if they failed to provide transportation. then the kids simply would not go to school. The leadership relented and sent a city bus to pick us up.

My great, great grandfather (Christian John Wolfer) and great grandfather (Anton) came down the river from Wisconsin about 1860 and bought a two-story house at 139 North B Street. They opened a supply store on the Island for riverboats. When more railroads arrived they switched to the retail grocery business. My great grandfather married Marie Josephine Duvall of French Village. They had two sons and a daughter. John was the oldest, then Peter James, and Dolly. Peter James was my grandfather. My great uncle John never married. The railroads were building freight yards and buying up the land and they built additional dwellings to house their workers, mostly Irish Catholics. With the influx of new families, the Wolfer business changed from wholesale to retail.

My grandfather, known as P. J., went to work for the Terminal Railroad and became foreman of the wrecking crew. During one of his trips to a wreck site, he met my grandmother, Erie Belle Stailey from Fairfield, Illinois. They were married and lived in a house behind the store. They had three children, Loretta, Jim and Ruth. Uncle John died in 1930, the year in which I was born. My father bought the business from the estate. Dad bought a house on the comer of B Street and West Missouri, directly across from the B&O freight station. My sister, Darlene, was born there in 1932. All of my immediate family are deceased. Dad died in 1966 and my mother died in 1967; my sister died in 1992. There are no more Wolfers on the Island but my husband and I own several houses and a business there.

 

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