It started 115 years ago today: A history of sledding on Art Hill

It started 115 years ago today: A history of sledding on Art Hill

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Sledding Art Hill, 1904-05

Sledders take to Art Hill in Forest Park sometime after the World's Fair ended on Dec. 1, 1904. News reporting of an icy snowstorm beginning Jan. 8, 1905, refers to sledders on the hill. Employees from the fair's administrative office used folding chairs with some success, as the photo indicates. Ever since, the hill has been a popular gathering place for winter fun. Photograph by Jessie Tarbox Beals, courtesy Missouri History Museum 

ST. LOUIS • Snow and sleet were followed by rain, then bitter cold. Streetcars stalled on icy rails. Power lines fell and telephones, still a luxury, rang mysteriously. Horse-drawn fire engine No. 12 skidded during a turn at Second and Mallinckrodt streets and smashed into a building.

The storm that began Jan. 8, 1905, was more unpleasant than historic. But the hardened accumulation made for a great slide, if that was one’s intent. In Forest Park, where the 1904 World’s Fair had ended only six weeks before, some of the fair’s remaining office employees grabbed anything flat and scooted down what we now call Art Hill. Even folding chairs did the job.

A venerable tradition was born.

Or so it appears. There was no headline proclaiming an official inaugural run down the newly unused slope. The Globe-Democrat noted that the World’s Fair employees were having “jolly times” doing a new thing. It said they tried to get their boss, former mayor and governor David Francis, “to try his luck and have his photograph taken, but he reluctantly declined.”

Sledders had been finding fun in Forest Park since it opened in 1876. Two decades later, the Post-Dispatch noted the popularity of winter sports there. A short article in December 1904 describes automobiles pulling sleds along the park drives but mentions nothing about Art Hill.

Before the fair, it was part of the park’s forest “wilderness” and wasn’t cleared of trees until 1902, during preparation for what formally was known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The hill was landscaped with wide lawns, staircases and water cascades. Crowning it was the round, ornate Festival Hall. Nearby was the Palace of Fine Art, now the Art Museum, the only structure from the fair built for permanent use.

After removal of the last stairs and former cascades by winter 1905-06, the widened hill became the unobstructed winter playground it remains today. It slopes downward at 8 degrees for a run of 430 feet to the basin’s edge. Ripples in the hillside make for hearty downhill bumps.

A standard sled could be had at a downtown department store for $1.50 in 1905 (about $38 today). Installation one year later of the big statue of St. Louis, a 13th century king of France and the city’s namesake, on the former site of Festival Hall, created an easy landmark for meeting friends. Bonfires provided relief.

Whenever enough snow falls for winter sport, Art Hill attracts the adventurous with sleds, toboggans, skis, saucers, even box board and pieces of plastic. Little has changed over the decades, other than the names of the sledders.

The city parks department maintains bonfires on the top of Art Hill. Rows of straw bales serve as a last-chance barrier to the basin.

Only on the rarest of times is sledding prohibited. In January 1991, when a deep and hard coating of frozen sleet covered the region, city parks director Evelyn Rice declared it unsafe. Her reluctant announcement paid homage to tradition: “I am not doing this with a glad heart. I know St. Louis loves sledding on Art Hill.”

It still does, 115 years and running — downhill.

 

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