When I first came across twenty-two-year-old Rose (Steimel) Mosenthein in my research, she and about fifty others were being evicted by police and waterfront developers from a section of St. Louis’s humble shantyboat community of “Little Oklahoma” in June 1895. An expert rower, all-around aquatic sports athlete, and the reigning American women’s national sculling champion, she was a charming, popular figure on the city’s north riverfront. Local reporters routinely referred to her as the “belle of Little Oklahoma.” Upon eviction, Mosenthein moved her houseboat up the Mississippi River a few miles from the foot of Angelrodt Street to Willow Bar (or Goose) Island, which by now commonly bore the name of Mosenthein Island.
About six years earlier, Rose’s mother, Mary Mosenthein, a Swiss immigrant, had moved her houseboat, The Baby Mine, from the foot of Buchanan Street to the fertile island with her six children after separating from her third husband, Charles Mosenthein. Mary and her children farmed the island as squatters. As its only occupants, they endured countless floods, perils, and hardships to transform it. On June 24, 1898, the Edwardsville (Illinois) Intelligencer praised the “wonderful perseverance on her part in an endeavor to provide for her family. She took the island a wilderness and transformed it into a productive field, and has remained there constantly, surmounting innumerable obstacles.” Nevertheless, the island’s economic potential and growing size due to changes in the river channel attracted powerful speculative interests whose lawsuits and pressures soon forced Mary’s removal.
Rose Mosenthein was a pioneer in women’s competitive rowing and aquatic sports at a time when rowing clubs denied membership to women. Nurtured, nevertheless, by male scullers in St. Louis who took note of her rowing skills on the Mississippi in a skiff, she mastered the technique of competitive sculling in a long, narrow racing shell with a sliding seat and specially designed oars. Much like the history of shantyboat communities, however, her story (along with her mother’s) was soon buried and forgotten after her death from tuberculosis at age 39 in 1913. Her road to the women’s world sculling championship is the subject of my article published in this month’s spring 2022 edition of Gateway: The Magazine of the Missouri Historical Society.
Imagine my excitement when at last after seemingly endless searching, I found a picture of Rose in Leslie’s Weekly taken when she won an international regatta in November 1895 in Austin, Texas. Unfortunately, the photo didn’t have the high resolution I needed to include it in Gateway, but my wife, artist, and fellow historian Vikki Bynum, came to the rescue. Working from the 1895 photo, she did an artist’s sketch that is featured in high resolution in the published article and this blog. I have included the original photo below to illustrate the amazing likeness of the two. In my new book, Shantyboats and Roustabouts: The River Poor of St. Louis, 1875-1930, to be published by Louisiana State University Press in fall 2022, I devote a chapter and more to Rose Mosenthein and her family’s role in St. Louis’s riverfront history.
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