Cycling has always been a popular activity in St. Louis. Countless enthusiasts enjoy large community rides like the Moonlight Ramble and Trailnet’s Bicycle Fun Club events. Others race in places like Carondelet Park and the recently renovated Penrose Park Velodrome (see here).
Our area also features miles and miles of terrific recreational riding trails thanks to organizations like Great Rivers Greenway and Madison County Transit. There’s something for everyone, even the funky frolic found in outings like the full-moon Ghost Ride or the annual World Naked Bike Ride.
This strong passion for the sport goes way back, tracking to the time of cycling’s heyday in the early 1900s. Cycling clubs were hugely popular across the country, and locally that led to the prominence of the St. Louis Cycling Club, which organized rides that started at the club’s headquarters downtown at the Lindell Hotel on Washington Avenue and then radiated out into the countryside.
Beginning in 1919, the club began marking its most popular routes with permanent monuments that served as both destinations and memorials. Resembling large tombstones, they were made from Montella red granite and stood 4 feet high, 2 feet wide, and 10 inches thick. Additionally, each carried text commemorating special individuals or events associated with the club. In total, four of these markers were erected between 1919 and 1924.
This would all be just an interesting look back in time, dusty as an old textbook, if it weren’t for the fact that the stone markers can still be found today — 100 years after being set in place. A history-loving cyclist or someone who simply wants to experience a classic St. Louis ride can still take a spin and go see them all.
That wasn’t always the case, though. Two of the four monuments vanished over the years, seemingly lost to time. But some keen sleuthing and recent hard work by a handful of dedicated volunteers are putting the two missing markers back in place. Soon, the set will be complete once again so that you, my brothers and sisters of the bike, can hop on your steed and ride to these time-honored tributes just like our cycling brethren did a century ago.
Here’s a look at each of the St. Louis Cycling Club markers and where to find them:
Frisco Hill (1919)
This marker, the first to be installed, was located at the intersection of Frisco Hill Road and Old Lemay Ferry. Placed along a notoriously rough and scenic 40-mile route from downtown St. Louis to Desoto, the stone sat at the top of Frisco Hill, infamous as the most difficult section of the ride. A full round-trip usually required an overnight stay, and the route was considered a supreme challenge for any cyclist. (Remember, of course, that road conditions and bicycle technology were vastly different in the early 1900s.)
While the original marker has been missing for years, members of the Jefferson County Heritage & Historical Society are working to create and install a replica based on photos and description of the first stone. A September event will mark the unveiling and placement of the replica marker at its original location (see the “Frisco Hill Challenge” sidebar).
According to an unattributed newspaper clipping in the St. Louis Cycling Club archives, “The spot was dedicated to the Frisco Cycling Club…whose members ‘discovered’ the hill for the cycling fraternity. The view from the top affords a magnificent panorama of the foothills of the Ozarks in two directions, the road at this point being on a ridge dividing two broad valleys. There is never a run on this road but what club members call a halt to feast on the expansive view, which unfolds below them as they stand beside the marker.”
Smiths Hill (1921)
The second marker was erected on what is today Old Manchester Road at the St. Louis County/Franklin County Line. It honors Victor Smith, whose family farm hosted cyclists that came out to conquer the route. The Smiths even kept a logbook for riders to record their names, and it became a competition of sorts to be the first person to sign on January 1 every year.
Local cyclist Ted MacRae went out hunting for the Smiths Hill stone while riding through the area last summer.
“Coming down Old Manchester, I remembered that the marker was located somewhere along there. I’d looked for it the last time I went up the climb but didn’t find it, so I figured at downhill speed I had even less chance of success,” he recalled.
Nevertheless, as MacRae sped down the hill, he saw the monument peeking through a hole in the foliage. He hit the brakes and did a quick U-turn, clambering up the slippery slope to take a photo of the stone on its rocky base.
“Seeing and touching the almost 100-year-old memorial immediately connected me with that distant past,” he said. “It made the effort all worthwhile.”
The Smiths Hill marker is located about 200 feet southwest of the intersection of Old Manchester Road and Rem Lane, on the north side of Old Manchester Road.
“It’s very easy to miss,” said Rob Anderson, a cyclist from Webster Groves who has been out to see it. “I was with people who knew where it was. Otherwise, I would’ve ridden right by it.”
A third stone was installed a year later at the site of Henry Hoch’s General Store & Tavern on Olive Street Road where it connected with Schoettler at the time. Known as the Hilltown (Bellefontaine) stone, the monument marked the endpoint of the St. Louis Cycling Club’s annual race, and local historians believe it was located at the site of the current Hilltown Village Shopping Center.
This monument, too, was “lost” for a time, but thanks to some determined local cyclists, its whereabouts were rediscovered — on a farm in Elsberry, Missouri, some 50 miles from its original location.
Two St. Louis cyclists, Steve Schaefering and Rob Bathgate, had started to uncover the story of the cycling monuments over the past couple years. In doing so, they began piecing together clues on their locations from website discussions, references in old newspaper articles, and research at the Missouri Historical Society.
Their interest in the markers grew, particularly the two missing ones: Frisco Hill and Hilltown.
“We knew about the other two stones,” said Bathgate. “But with the missing ones, it was just a general sense of curiosity, a desire to find out what had happened to them. It was a bit of a treasure hunt, really.”
Here’s what happened at Hilltown: In the early 1980s, St. Louis Cycling Club members were concerned. The area was developing rapidly. Plus, the stone had been knocked from its cement base, and they feared further damage. For safekeeping, it was relocated to the farm of then-club president, Chester Nelsen, Sr., who had competed as a cyclist in the 1928 Olympic games. But after Nelsen’s death, and the passing of nearly 40 years, only a handful of people still knew of the marker’s location in Elsberry.
The key that unlocked this mystery came via a simple Facebook inquiry Bathgate posted to the STL Bikelife page. By chance, one of the few remaining people who knew about the stone being moved decades earlier saw the post and responded. Through that, Bathgate was able to connect with the Nelsen family, and the effort culminated in a bike ride that took Bathgate, Schaefering, and MacRae out to see the stone, which sat in the front yard of the farmhouse just steps from Highway W.
“The moment I saw the stone from the road, it was like history was being made,” said MacRae. “It was like we had brought the stone back to life and saved it from being lost in the fading memories of time.”
Efforts are underway to bring the Hilltown marker back from Elsberry. If all goes as planned, soon it will be placed in Faust Park in Chesterfield, near enough to its original location to be both historically credible and quite accessible to those who wish to ride out to see it.
Of the four stones, the Pond marker is the most visible and well-known to St. Louis area cyclists. The monument is easy to find, sitting on the south side of Manchester Road approximately 0.2 miles east of the Big Chief Roadhouse in Glencoe, Missouri, just west of the intersection with Pond Road.
The Pond stone is dedicated to the memory of club member William Butler, “one of the oldest, most ardent members of the club, who passed away suddenly in 1923,” said the newspaper clipping from the St. Louis Cycling Club archive. “This marker stands beside the highway, 25 miles west of St. Louis on the Manchester Road, directly in front of Miss Essen’s hotel at Pond, Mr. Butler’s favorite stopping place on his weekend cycle rambles across the country.”
“What more lasting tribute,” the article concluded, “could be found to perpetuate the St. Louis Cycling Club and all it represents, than a granite marker which time itself cannot destroy?”
The book “Chesterfield Missouri: From Untamed Wilderness to Thriving Municipality” published by the Chesterfield Historical Commission and, in particular, Dan Rothwell’s section on the St. Louis Cycling Club was a terrific resource for this article.
Frisco Hill Challenge
On Saturday, September 14, a bike ride fundraiser supporting the replacement of the Frisco Hill marker will be hosted by the Jefferson County Heritage & Historical Museum Society (JCHHS).
“This all got started after I received an inquiry from Rob Bathgate and Steve Schaefering regarding the missing Frisco Hill monument,” said Kay Clerc, secretary of the JCHHS and organizer of the event. “I looked into the history and was immediately hooked.”
JCHHS has partnered with Trailnet to provide routes including 50-, 75-, and 100-mile scenic rides passing by the four historical St. Louis Cycling Club markers. All routes will end at the new replica Frisco Hill monument in Imperial, Missouri, with a post-ride celebration including food, beverages, vendors, and live music.
“People have started calling me ‘The Mad Scientist of the Frisco Hill Challenge,’” said Clerc. “Not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but after 10 months of intense planning, there seems to be some truth to it.”
Join the Club
The St. Louis Cycling Club is recognized as the oldest continuously running bicycle club in the U.S. and is still active today.
“The original mantra of the club was that it was not just a bike race team. They wanted to be involved in all facets of cycling, from touring to advocacy to community building,” said Dirk Sprogoe, club president and co-owner of Billy Goat Bicycle Co. “We are looking for members across every ability, every category, and every facet of the sport, to help us grow in numbers and continue to provide guidance and mentor new riders.”
The St. Louis Cycling Club can trace its beginnings to June 1887 and was organized around the pursuit of friendship and togetherness through the sport of cycling. It hosted well-attended social events and rides into the surrounding counties each weekend.
Except for the St. Louis Cycling Club, all other area clubs disbanded between 1889 and 1906 from lack of interest and financial problems. During those years, a few of the more dedicated members abandoned the expensive clubhouse at the Lindell Hotel to take up “Headquarters in the Saddle”, which became the club slogan. The club’s symbol, a white Maltese cross on a blue background, dates from its earliest years.
Past and present members have distinguished themselves in many areas of cycling. The club has produced 10 Olympians, an Olympic team coach and team manager, as well as a Junior Women’s National Road Champion, a Senior Men’s National Road Champion, and many State Champions. Two members have held major offices in the U.S. Cycling Federation, the governing body of U.S. amateur competitive cycling. The club’s triathletes and distance riders have participated in local, national, and international competitions.
For more information on joining the St. Louis Cycling Club, see billygoat.bike/teams or contact Sprogoe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: David Fielder is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Featured Image: Ted McRae, Steve Schaefering, and Rob Bathgate with the Hilltown stone by Ted McRae.