Sledding is an amazing part of winter, and every year plenty of people head out to buy a sled or a tube, and go on over to Art Hill. What many people do not know though, is the history of Art Hill, and how it started 115 years ago to provide the fun that families for generations have continued to enjoy.
Before the fair, it was part of the park’s forest “wilderness” and wasn’t cleared of trees until 1902, during preparation for what formally was known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The hill was landscaped with wide lawns, staircases and water cascades. Crowning it was the round, ornate Festival Hall. Nearby was the Palace of Fine Art, now the Art Museum, the only structure from the fair built for permanent use.
After removal of the last stairs and former cascades by winter 1905-06, the widened hill became the unobstructed winter playground it remains today. It slopes downward at 8 degrees for a run of 430 feet to the basin’s edge. Ripples in the hillside make for hearty downhill bumps.
A standard sled could be had at a downtown department store for $1.50 in 1905 (about $38 today). Installation one year later of the big statue of St. Louis, a 13th century king of France and the city’s namesake, on the former site of Festival Hall, created an easy landmark for meeting friends. Bonfires provided relief.
Whenever enough snow falls for winter sport, Art Hill attracts the adventurous with sleds, toboggans, skis, saucers, even box board and pieces of plastic. Little has changed over the decades, other than the names of the sledders.
The city parks department maintains bonfires on the top of Art Hill. Rows of straw bales serve as a last-chance barrier to the basin.