The wild life of Happy Hollow

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Cape Girardeau's new federal courthouse will dress up the landscape near city hall, but it won't touch Happy Hollow, a rugged ravine of scraggly trees, underbrush and algae-covered water that was once a city dump that attracted rats, vagrants and drunks.

Its wildness has been tamed somewhat over the years. Much of the ground behind city hall and west of where Merriwether Street becomes a dead end has been filled in past decades, leaving less of a geographic scar than once ran through Cape Girardeau's downtown.

But city officials say it still provides storm drainage throughout the Frederick, Middle, Merriwether and Independence streets area. A chain-link fence erected by the city and posted with a "keep out" sign surrounds a water-filled depression on the west end of the ravine. An old brick tunnel still drains storm water into the Mississippi River a few blocks to the east.

City officials said there are no plans to eliminate Happy Hollow even though it will be in the shadow of the new $49.3 million federal courthouse that will sit on ground northwest of the ravine and west of city hall.

The contractor, PCL Construction of Denver, has started moving dirt on land bordering Frederick and Middle streets. The courthouse project is expected to be completed by January 2006.

City planner Kent Bratton said there's good reason to leave Happy Hollow alone. "Anything you do in here is going to have an impact downstream," he said.

The city still owns part of the ground in Happy Hollow where streets were never extended. The rest of the vacant ground is owned by the heirs of Claude "Nip" Kelley.

To passing motorists on Frederick and Independence streets, Happy Hollow is visible as little more than a line of scraggly trees.

Up close, it looks more like a small jungle of trees, weeds and dirt.

"We have our own little wild area out here," Bratton said.

Coyotes live in the tangle of wilderness. Their howling can be heard at night.

Shawnee and Delaware Indians used to camp in Happy Hollow in the early 1800s.

Alexander Hamilton Willard, a member of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, returned from the westward journey and bought an acre lot in the Happy Hollow area near Frederick Street. Willard, who served as a blacksmith, gunsmith and hunter for the Corps of Discovery, purchased the land from Cape Girardeau founder Don Louis Lorimier.

In 1810, he sold his Happy Hollow lot for $100. The property was located near a spring and included a log house, according to records on file in the Cape Girardeau County Archive Center.

The area had a spring that provided drinking water in the late 1800s to nearby residents whose cisterns went dry, according to newspaper accounts.

Brewery's caveHappy Hollow was home to a brewery. Ferdinand Hanny operated the brewery in the mid- to late-1800s. He died in 1887.

A man-made sandstone block cave believed built as a cooling cellar for the brewery attracted children and vagrants long after the brewery disappeared. It was reported that the cave at one time extended several blocks.

The Southeast Missourian reported in January 1952 that the cave may have been used by bootleggers during Prohibition.

A transient was found dead in the cave in 1939. A coroner's jury said he died of a heart attack.

In January 1952, parents of children attending the nearby Lorimier School -- now city hall -- wanted the cave closed. It was "a menacing playground for children, a cache for thieves and a harbor for human derelicts," the Southeast Missourian said.

The school's parent-teacher group and police officers also pushed to have it closed.

The cave had three vaults, each about 50 feet long, 25 feet wide and 15 feet deep at the center of an arched ceiling. The compartments were connected by small arched passageways.

The Southeast Missourian reported that the floors may have been paved at one time, but "now are covered with mud slime."

The newspaper reported, "Water drips continuously from ceilings in all compartments. Refuse, mostly empty wine bottles, litters the floors."

In May 1952, the Missouri Pacific Railroad, which owned the ground where the cave was located, tore out the three-chambered structure with a dragline.

"I remember the cave being there," said former Cape Girardeau city manager J. Ronald Fischer. "We didn't play around down there that much. It was always kind of a rough area."

Mark Seyer, now in his 80s, remembers visiting the cave with friends as a boy but never venturing past the first chamber. "It was dark," he said.

The area was used as a city dump for a long time. Old tires remain buried in the loose soil.

John Boos, who lives above a tavern at Independence and Frederick across the street from where the new courthouse will be built, said his father grew up near Happy Hollow.

Boos' father and his father's friends considered Happy Hollow their playground.

"They used to shoot rats off the garbage," he said.

Happy Hollow used to be a much larger ravine, he said.

"In the last 25 years, there has been a lot of filling done over there," he said. "I can definitely see it is getting better."

Fires were common when it was a city dump, Boos said.

In 1943, a city commissioner told the Southeast Missourian that Happy Hollow could hold the city's rubbish for "many years." But in 1945, neighborhood residents objected to the dump, which was plagued by repeated fires, noxious odors and an open sewer that ran through the area.

In 1946, the city banned dumping in the ravine.

Happy Hollow continued to be an informal dumping ground well into the 1960s. In September 1966, a trash fire at Happy Hollow sent flames soaring 60 feet into the air, the newspaper reported. Firefighters brought the fire under control, and later more than 200 loads of dirt were brought in to smother the fire.

In the same month, the Southeast Missourian ran a reporter's observations on the rat-and garbage-littered area, noting that "Happy Hollow also breeds a superior brand of chiggers."

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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