Of Canaries and Coal Mines

20, April 2010

Almost 165 years ago, my great-great-great-grandfather's home was located precisely where the Flight Cage (aviary) in the Saint Louis Zoo is today.

The 1904 World's Fair Flight Cage. Courtesy of Saint Louis Zoo.

At the time, most of this area was held by way of Spanish land grants, most notably to Charles Gratiot and Auguste Chouteau. The Gratiots maintained their country villa nearby, not far from the natural sulphur spring baths at Saint Louis's Hi-Pointe area. The lands of today’s Forest Park were forested in oak and almost idyllic, with the River Des Peres coursing through the farms and clusters of houses located there. In 1845, my family's American patriarch, William G. Gittins, his wife Elizabeth, and their Welsh children Samuel (18), Edward (13), Hannah (8), and Catherine (5), en route from Liverpool via New Orleans, obtained an oxcart on the Mississippi riverfront, loaded up their worldly possessions, and set out for an area about two miles west of what were then the old city limits...about a 40-minute carriage ride from the riverfront. An article from the discontinued newspaper Men and Merchants of Today noted that: “The Gittins came from Wales in the early 1850s [actually 1845] by sailing vessel, the trip taking 93 days. After landing in Florida, they proceeded up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, and from there by oxcart to Forest Park, where William established a coalmine and eventually owned three."

The Gittins Hotel, ca. 1860s. Balcony (L-R): Patriarch William Gittins, great-grandfather Edward (wearing blacksmith's leather apron) and his sister Elizabeth Gittins, great-great-grandmother Mary Ellis Gittins. Street level: saloon proprietor and great-great-uncle George W. Gittins (center), great-great-grandfather Edward Gittins (sixth from left).

A hotel building came later (with prosperity) and was located to the south of the original homestead [on Manchester Road]. It was the Gittins Hotel, but the family also lived there. Their original home was built in the 1840s of wood, and located where the Flight Cage is today; the coal mines were also at the Flight Cage location. There was also a saloon, blacksmith, etc., at the hotel. The saloon was run by my great-great-uncle George Gittins . . . and from what I've heard it was beyond rowdy.

—Michael Gittins, Magagnosc, France

Editor’s note: In 1904, in preparation for the St. Louis World’s Fair, the Smithsonian Institution commissioned the Flight Cage, planning to later move it to the National Zoo in Washington, DC. The City of St. Louis bought it and soon developed the Saint Louis Zoo, which celebrates its centennial this year. To read more about the beginnings of the Zoo, click here.