August 4, 1938 – Waiting for the Robert E. Lee

This article written by G. Birkmann, pastor emeritus first appeared in the Giddings Deutsches  Volksblatt on 4 August 1938. It has been translated by Ray Martens.


Those words are the title of a song often heard on the radio. When I first heard the words, “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” which is translated literally “Wartend auf die Robert E. Lee,” and considered what these curious words intended to say, I came to realize that I myself once had waited for the Robert E. Lee, along with many others in St. Louis, that is, for a steamboat with the name which had involved itself in a competitive journey [with wagering involved] from New Orleans with another steamboat, called the Natchez. Both had already traveled six days, and newspapers in St. Louis made known that these two boats would arrive in St. Louis—it was July 4, 1870—and would end their competition. Which would be the first to arrive? Such competitive journeys were back then in the era in which river boat travel was still in its prime, a significant event involving even more people than today’s Kentucky Derby. Thus, the newspapers shared with the St. Louis public already in the morning that boats would arrive around noon or in the afternoon and which of two was in the lead. Already that morning, the Robert E. Lee was reported to be leading. And the name of the great general of the South was indeed so well known and loved that surely most people wanted the ship that bore his name to gain the victory. The crowd of people who had gathered on the bank numbered in the thousands, as far as one could see to the north and to the south, for miles everything was filled with the throng of people. One had to wait patiently for hours until the first boat appeared, and it was the Robert E. Lee. A huge, joyful should went up, and the steamboat horns were sounded.

While we were waiting, however, we could feast our eyes upon the bridge in the process of being built over the Mississippi River. That was a spectacular drama, the fulfillment of the hope of all the residents of the city for years. Before then, they had only ferries which brought passengers and cargo across the river. I was also carried rather often on such ferries which accommodated carriages in great number and even entire trains across the river. The builder of the new bridge was Captain Eads, and he became very famous through this construction and later that of the jetties on the Mississippi at New Orleans. Here in St. Louis he bridged over the mile-wide river, and, there where it goes out into the sea, Eads confined the flood of water becoming always wider with what were called jetties, and in that way made the river into a more navigable stream.

Surely one of the major difficulties with the St. Louis bridge was obtaining solid ground and foundation for the enormous pillars. At the time that they put the pillars in place, I saw large, steel cylinders, into which was built the necessary masonry work piece by piece, and these steel containers were let down into the deep, a hundred feet deep before they reached bedrock. But, as we were waiting for the Robert E. Lee, the pillars of the bridge were finished, and also what the pillars had to hold up, the bridge itself, was half or three-fourths complete, and in that year—1870—the completed bridge was turned over to traffic, if I am not mistaken.

The next day was a Sunday. My uncle and aunt [his mother’s relatives], with whom I was staying in St. Louis, wanted to attend the dedication of a church in Carondelet, to which our St. Louis congregations had been invited. We rode on the Iron Mountain railway [streetcar?] to the part of the city named Carondelet, jokingly also called Bite-Poshe, which means empty pocket. The first residents of the whole area were French. When I was at the seminary in St. Louis later [1873-76], we students often rode to the little community of Carondelet on the streetcar, about seven miles—only a few houses until we arrived in the little community.

Our synod has had a congregation in this place, now called South St. Louis, since 1860, where the first pastor was O. Hanser, soon followed by a Rev. Hamann, but, when the newly constructed church was dedicated, Rev. Sapper was the pastor. It was a beautiful day, and a large crowd had gathered, which in part, naturally, had to participate in the service by looking through the window from the outside and listening to the beautiful dedication sermon by the Rev. M. Eirich. I do not remember who preached in the afternoon, but I remember that I saw a number of pastor and professors, among them, notably, also Prof. Walther. We had brought our lunch with us, and one could get coffee at the place.

The next day, I rode southward on a steamboat on the river for about thirty miles to Harrisonville, Ill., and, since this was my first trip on such a means of transportation, it was interesting enough for me. Then, I spent [the rest of] my vacation with my mother and my step-father, for my dear mother had married a farmer after a number of years of being a widow. He, like her, already had a number of children from his first marriage. I saw and learned a great deal here and also ate much good food, that was obviously not on the menu at the college in Fort Wayne. There was an orchard with apples and peaches, in addition to a garden with rare tomatoes, beyond that, a smokehouse filled with hams and the like. It was harvest time and a time of hard work for the farmer and his boys, but they were also well cared for and fed. Not lacking in the cellar were jugs of cider and other drinks. We had a long way to drive to church, but this is not difficult for young people, in fact, often an advantage, for they know the people along the way, and on Sundays they visited acquaintances after the service.

Sometimes I went this distance with other siblings on foot, in the afternoon or evening in the dry and mild summer weather, shortening the distance by walking along footpaths in the bushes and fields. When I then came to the house of an acquaintance and was greeted happily as a fellow known from his childhood, and when there were stories of my father [pastor there until his death four and a half years earlier] and about earlier times, and when I saw that they hoped the best for me, that made me very happy and gave me courage to pursue farther my embarked upon career.

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