The Temple of Hard Times

Phil Thornton, whose travel itinerary seems to parallel his great-great-grandfather’s perambulations around the country more than a century ago, recently stayed at the historic St. Louis Union Station, which looks like a shrine to the Gilded Age.  The Romanesque Revival depot crowned an era of relentless railroad-building in America.  Construction of the new St. Louis station was also a watershed moment in Thomas Lovewell’s story, even though it’s possible that the Kansas pioneer never laid eyes on it.  

St. Louis Union Station

Wikipedia tells us that when the depot opened in September of 1894 it was the largest and busiest train station in the world.  Therefore, it wasn’t yet ready for business when 66-year-old Thomas Lovewell came to St. Louis to rescue his eldest daughter and her six children, an event for which we have no concrete timeline, although indirect evidence suggests that it took place in the fall of 1893.  

According to Lovewell family legend, it may have been the rush to complete the enormous construction project in that same year which set the reunion in motion.  Julia McCaul’s husband Edward, a railroad carpenter, is said to have plummeted from the roof of the depot to his death, leaving his family to scrape by somehow without a breadwinner.  His widow, known in the familiar version of the story by her childhood name, “Julaney,” supposedly penned a desperate letter to the postmaster of a little Kansas town she had been told about, where there were hints that her father, long presumed dead, might still be living.

The postmaster gave the letter to Tom.  He boarded the train immediately and found her there in St. Louis - a widow, ill and with six children to care for.  He brought the family back to Lovewell, gave them a home in the new town, and saw to it that the children were well cared for until they were grown.  Julaney re-married later to a man named Robinson.  She died with tuberculosis on May 17, 1894.

The vagueness of the account may be deliberate, because every time some new detail comes to light, so do  awkward complications.  For instance, there is the inconvenient fact that half of the six children in Julia McCaul’s care in St. Louis were not her husband’s.  Three were the daughters of John Robinson, the man Julia is supposed to have married “later.”  Two of the girls had been born in the early 1880’s to Robinson’s first wife, Susan Turnbull, who happened to be Julia’s stepsister.  The third and youngest Robinson child was Lillie, a daughter born to Julia McCaul and John Robinson in 1887 when the pair were living together in Portland.  

Thomas evidently did provide a cottage for his daughter in the cozy village of Lovewell, where Julia lived out her waning days looking after her children with John Robinson at her side until cancer, not tuberculosis, claimed her the following year.  Perhaps even before Julia’s death, however, two of the Robinson girls, the ones born to Susan Turnbull (See “The Other Half”), had been shuffled off to a Catholic orphanage thirty miles up the tracks in Concordia, Kansas.  They were teenagers by then, perhaps a little wild, more than a dying woman could manage.

Even the fate of Edward McCaul is not so simple as the family tale suggests.  Death records show that he succumbed to pneumonia in the Missouri Pacific Railroad Hospital at St. Louis in the spring of 1894, scant weeks before Julia died in far-off Lovewell, Kansas.  So far, no one has uncovered a speck of evidence that Edward McCaul ever fell off the new St. Louis Depot, the old St. Louis Depot, or any other depot.  It’s possible that, since the fall did not kill him immediately, the story did not pack sufficient punch to earn anything beyond a brief, generic mention in Edward’s neighborhood paper, which may lie undiscovered in the archives of a St. Louis library. 

While family histories have omitted details or rearranged them in order to produce a sweet, sunny tale of  reunion and rescue, the broad strokes of the “Julaney” story have been verified by one photograph and two affidavits.  Thomas Lovewell sat for a portrait with his newly-rediscovered daughter at his side in 1893, although in most reproductions made since then, the young lady has been cropped out of the picture.  Pension documents containing the testimony of Julia McCaul’s half-sister Alice, as well as Thomas Lovewell’s wife Orel Jane, confirm the fact that Thomas Lovewell arrived in St. Louis to collect his daughter and her children, and that John Robinson lived with Julia at Lovewell until her death.

Construction of the new train station in St. Louis got underway in April 1893 at a site about a mile from the old depot.  If Thomas reached St. Louis in October and spied the grand edifice going up on Market Street, he probably had mixed feelings about its significance.  Railroad overbuilding had led to the financial panic that was now spreading like typhoid.  Nearby banks at Courtland and Jamestown had locked their doors that summer, and were being investigated for imbezzlement.  His own retirement nest egg had been swallowed up, along with savings accounts for his two teenaged sons, his local church, and several neighbors.  At the very moment when Kansas farm mortgages were coming due at the rate of 200 a day, with little chance of renewal, the price paid for Kansas wheat dropped by 20%.  

The era ushered in by the Panic of 1893 brought other troubles which I’ve been blogging about for the past couple of years.  With money tight, jobs scarce, and farmers caught in a squeeze, young Kansans seemed primed for larceny, or at least the young Kansans I’ve been following.  The husband of Thomas’s daugther Adaline was  arrested for embezzlement and served a year in Lansing.  Two future sons-in-law stood trial in connection with a string of local cattle thefts.  One was acquitted, while the other was sentenced to 18 months.  Despite his criminal past, ex-con James Manning quietly married Thomas Lovewell’s youngest daughter Diantha, attempted to murder one of his former associates, and spent the rest of his life dodging the law.

The village of Lovewell may have been a rough little town, but its citizens were not exceptionally lawless.  The Chapman Project, a recent effort to chart crime in Kansas between 1890 and 1930, came to the following conclusion: 

...the crime data creates a pyramid with high numbers of violent crime, theft, and civil crimes being reported in newspapers. The timeline indicates that this is a period of unrest for the U.S. with the Spanish American War, financial crisis (the Panic of 1893 and resulting devastating de- pression), a presidential assassination (McKinley), rapid technological development driving social change (the automobile), and also in the 1890s, a severe drought. Chapman interns and researchers concluded that these factors aggregated to form high social stress driving crime increase.

The closer we look at the economic climate at the end of the 19th century, the clearer it becomes that Thomas Lovewell’s nine journeys west between 1900 and 1908 were less a quest for riches than a last chance to bask in a frontier that threatened to recede beyond his grasp.

If you ever roll through St. Louis and spy a structure that seems oddly out of place, something that could be a cast-off bit of an ivy league school or a hotel designed by one of the architects of Disneyland, it might be an old depot intended as a grand monument to the country’s railroading heritage.  But it’s also a reminder of an era when America went off the rails. 

© Dale Switzer 2023