Monday, June 30, 2008

Thomas McNeary's Obituary

Thomas McNeary, for years the proprietor of Uhrig's Cave, a popular place of amusement in St. Louis, died yesterday, aged fifty-one years. He suffered from a complication of diseases, including paralysis and heart trouble. He first became known as manager of the Red Stocking Base Ball club. He leaves an estate worth $200,000.
-The New York Times, September 23, 1893

So McNeary died on September 22, 1893.

Al Spink wrote in The National Game that after McNeary died his brothers, John and Frank McNeary, continued operating both the Compton Avenue Park and the Reds. Therefore, according to Spink, the Reds, whose founding he places in the 1860's, were still playing baseball in the 1890's. I'm not sure if I accept this. Spink's date for the founding of the Reds conflicts with E.H. Tobias who wrote that the Reds began playing in 1873. Joan Thomas, in St. Louis' Big League Ballparks, wrote that the Compton Avenue Park was built in 1874. I always assumed that McNeary built the park and established the team around the same time and have no sources that show the Reds playing games before the 1870's so I'm inclined to accept Tobias' date for the founding of the club. As to the Reds playing after the passing of McNeary, I have no sources for their playing games after 1889. The best evidence to date has the Reds playing baseball from 1873 to 1889. Spink's 1860's to 1890's date range is an outlier that can't be accepted at face value.

Uhrig's Cave, mentioned in McNeary's obituary, was one of several limestone caves that exist in St. Louis. These caves were used as a means of cool storage especially by brewers. Uhrig's Cave, located at what is now the corner of Washington and Jefferson, was first used in the 1850's by the Camp Springs Brewery (which later changed its name to the Uhrig Brewery). According to Lost Caves of St. Louis, "(in) those days, when the city and its population clustered on the levee, Uhrig's was the site of a handsome grove and was only a short buggy ride from the center of town. Uhrig's became a popular spot, and many St. Louisans enjoyed a cool glass of beer there. the success of the business gave rise to the use of caves for entertaining guests, and tables were placed in one of the larger rooms of the caverns." Concerts and picnics were also held at the cave and a beer garden was established there shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War.

In 1884, the Uhrig brothers sold their site to Thomas McNeary, a saloonkeeper. McNeary and his brothers became impresarios as well as salonkeepers, and ushered in the period of Uhrig's Cave's greatest glory. Uhrig's was the first entertainment spot in St. Louis to use electric lights. At its peak, Uhrig's Cave held an audience of three thousand, with weeknight admission prices of fifty to seventy-five cents, and a Sunday rate of twenty-five cents...

But this period of glory was short-lived. In 1888, the McNearys lost their liquor license and the cave was abandoned for a time. In 1900, the family turned the former beer garden into an enclosed theatre, which did not succeed. From 1903 to 1908, the cave was successively the site of a roller-skating rink, a bowling alley, and a mushroom farm. A shifting population and the introduction of streetcars drew theatregoers and beer drinkers to the west, and the McNeary's finally abandoned all attempts to keep Uhrig's Cave open.

In 1908, the McNeary's gave a ninety-nine year lease to a syndicate of businessmen. The group erected a mammoth auditorium, which covered not only the cave, but the beer garden, the theatre and a great deal of the surrounding area as well. The cornerstone was laid on August 22, 1908, and the building was called the "Coliseum." The businessmen planned to create a multipurpose facility to host sporting events, theatrical performances and various exhibitions.
-Lost Caves of St. Louis

I find it rather interesting that the best evidence has the Reds ceasing baseball operations in 1889 which is just after McNeary loses his liquor license and his business fortunes take a turn for the worse. It's certainly not much of a stretch to imagine that with his primary business suffering McNeary saw the operation of a minor professional baseball team as an extravagance and decided to shut it down in order to focus on saving his salon business.

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