How Two Distant Cousins Got Their Mines Together

Tom Haller and Mike Gittins

Several theories of how the area in St. Louis known as "Dogtown" received its name have floated around for generations.

They range from the colorful, but questionable version of how Philippine natives, the Igorots, went on clandestine missions from the 1904 World's Fair to capture dogs for food, to the more mundane conclusion that there were many dogs in Dogtown, thus the name.

Another theory concluded that squatters were evicted from what became Forest Park and forced into Dogtown in 1876 to make room for park construction. These squatters were among the poor Irish of the 1800s and thus were thought to have been "working like a dog" or slandered as "those poor dogs"

But two distant cousins whose paths crossed on the Dogtown Historical Society (DHS) Web site have made different conclusion. They feel their research on the subject has the most validity and credibility on how Dogtown earned its name.

Michael Gittins currently lives in France and Tom Haller recently moved back to Dogtown where he was born and raised. Thanks to the Dogtown Historical Society (DHS) Web site, they ran across each other in 2006, despite being an ocean apart. They began periodic e-mail exchanges, which helped cement their families' histories and mutual interests in Dogtown history.

Both had miners from the early 1800's in their genealogies and that's where family histories began to cross.

Michael's great-great-great-grandfather, William Gittins, came from Wales, where he was a miner. William moved his family and all their worldly possessions by oxcart from a Mississippi riverboat in the 1830's to where today the World's Fair birdcage is in Forest Park. He and his offspring became successful entrepreneurs and they eventually owned a hotel, grocery, saloon, livery and coal and clay mines in and around Dogtown.

Tom Haller's maternal great-great-grandfather, Stephan Volz, came over from Baden, Germany; via Pennsylvania and Indiana, finally residing in Dogtown in 1856 to work in the mines.The cousins believe that eventually he worked for William Gittins.

Stephan had several offspring, including Benjamin and Louise, called Lucy. Stephan Volz worked his way up in the mines (no pun intended), and eventually earned a supervisory/management position. His sons also worked in the mines, as did many hard working laborers who moved to Dogtown in the mid-to-late 1800s.

Gittins and Haller are not certain which mining company the Volzes worked for, but they believe that Stephan and his sons worked in the Gittins' mines for several reasons. First, Stephan Volz's daughter, Lucy, married one of William Gittins' offspring, Edward. Here the Gittins and Volz families merge.

Remember Ben and Lucy Volz were siblings. After Ben Volz's divorce in the early 1900s, Edward and Lucy (Volz) Gittins helped raise their niece, Ben's only child, Luella "Babe" Volz. Many years later, some of the Gittins' mine property, depleted of its mining value, was sold to Ben Volz's only daughter, Luella (Volz) and her husband, Charlie Meyer. These family dynamics ignited both Mike Gittins' and Tom Haller's interest in the rich history of Dogtown and, consequently, the naming of Dogtown.

Gittins and Haller shared a sense that the prevailing Igorot version of Dogtown's naming was without substance. This suspicion set them on a quest to find a more supportable explanation of the name. Coming from different angles on their quest, their minds merged. Or, should we say, their 'mines' merged?

In late February 2007, Bob Corbett noted on the DHS Web site that Fr. O'Conner writing in 1937 stated he had actually talked to men who had been evicted from Forest Park in 1876 and moved to the area that people began calling Dogtown.

Bob Corbett wrote: "Father O'Conner did publish a book in 1937 about the history of the area. In that book he allows that he had spoken to the ACTUAL MEN (those still alive in 1937) who were among the Irish miners who were kicked out of the newly declared Forest Park in 1876. They claimed to Father O'Conner that after their eviction, the area where they 'squatted' was called Dogtown (an area sort of between Manchester and Wade, from about Gregg to Sproule -- though most of those streets didn't exist then)."

This lit a fuse with both men. Haller reiterated on the DHS web site his belief that the World's Fair map he had seen at a Missouri Historical Society exhibit at Jefferson Memorial around 2001, had the area listed on the south margins of Forest Park as "Dogtown." He believed this was not a recent map, but one printed around the time of the fair. This appeared to rule out the Igorot theory and made him lean more in the direction of having something to do with the 19th century miners.

Gittins responded to the Web site from his home in France: "I missed the previous posts, but the one by Tom Haller I caught is very interesting. The original coal miners in the area were small timers, not the larger scale, more professional miners that arrived later with proper equipment, etc. Individual miners simply started digging small holes (adits) in the ground with nothing more than shovels and their shoulders, and they literally dragged the coal out of the ground to the surface. This activity left a whole lot of little holes everywhere, which looked a lot like the types of holes that a dog would dig. I was told that's where the name Dogtown comes from."

That was all it took. Gittins and Haller were off and running. Haller e-mailed his Gittins cousin back and pointed out that with Mike's extensive family mining history in Dogtown, his information had more validity than most. He asked if Gittins could be more specific with the names and dates of birth of the relatives who gave him this information.

Gittins came back with the following:

"I really never gave the Dogtown name a thought for almost 30 years, but when my Dad, Grandfather and my uncles (and their) wives would get together, the stories would fly, and I had no real knowledge of the territory of Dogtown, except for seeing the Highlands, the TV tower and my older brother and I ran through a stop sign and hit another car (there).

"They'd talk about the really old days when great-great-great grandfather William Gittins and his family lived in what is Forest Park today, and they had a home where today's birdcage is located. Whether it was a home or a shanty, I don't know...but Welsh coal miners weren't exactly high class back then.

"After a few generations, though, the Gittinses had some property and businesses in Dogtown (hotel, mine, grocery, bar, livery, etc.). My grandfather (Sam Gittins) was born around 1875 (actually 1884) in Dogtown. I have to say, they didn't like it called Dogtown. But remember talking about it, and Grandpa always seemed to repeat the same stories, but I remember asking a typical childish question: Were there so many dogs there? And they all laughed. Probably the 1000th time the question was asked.

"But my Uncle Will said that it was like "the moon" over there. There were miners digging up coal and clay (some of the best in the world they said) and there were holes and paths criss-crossing the hills. In the rain it was a real mess. On top of that, you can imagine the tailing from the mines and the shanties scattered around (for) the workers there. There were no streets, no sewers, no lighting, no nothing. It looked like what a thousand dogs would do if they inhabited the area, hence the name. These early miners, they didn't have reinforced ceilings and rails to haul the materials out. Just a small hole in the ground was, I suppose, safer than a larger one requiring support. Later on, of course, with the new railroad, brick making became a huge business and modern mining techniques were used."

From this information Haller and Gittins, with a bit of help from another Dogtowner, Bart McLellan, determined that the name Dogtown was based upon this area being a small mining town and by the turn of the century, a much larger one. Gittins has documented below more details on the mining terms: dogholes, doghole mines, doghouse and dogtown.

As Haller and Gittins speculated, early on there were mining communities in several places in the United States named "Dogtown." These "Dogtowns" were small mining communities such as St. Louis' early Dogtown and were christened "dogtowns" at about the same time, the mid-to-late 19th century.

The name "Dogtown might have been frowned upon early on but today's Dogtowners have grown to love and respect it. We are proud of the neighborhood's name, origin, character, traditions and historical identity, including the mines and hardworking coal and clay miners who once inhabited the area.

Gittins comments here on his and Haller's research. He has included documentation below to lend credence to their theory.

"My cousin Tom Haller triggered a renewed forensic investigation into the origin of the Dogtown name after noting that a MHS map indicated that "Dogtown" existed prior to the 1904 World's Fair. We've been on a search for the 'holy grail' ever since.

". . . None of us ever really bought into the Igorot explanation for the Dogtown name. Plus, DHS archives indicate that the name Dogtown existed before the Igorots ever arrived in St. Louis. According to the DHS Web site, Dogtown picked-up its name in the mid-1800s, which was predominately the early, small-time mining era. . . ". . . Some of the first names around Cheltenham that can still be heard around Dogtown today are O'Gorman, Dolan, Lehman, Scullin, Dillenberger and Gittins. It was in the mid 1800s when Cheltenham was baptized 'Dog town.' Or; at least, that is what some historians believe..."

"Also, we don't think there was much basis to believe that Dogtown's dog population was exceptional, one way or the other. Do we have any record of breeders, kennels or people with dog eccentricities?

"We know there was a high concentration of small-time mines during this early period (mid to late 1800s), and we know that it really wasn't just some holes in the ground, but a town that revolved around numerous little mines and their miners.

"Now, we've found the term 'dog' pop-up all over the place in official mining terminology (dogholes, doghouse, dogtowns, dogmines, etc.), and it's quite easy to find places all over the U.S. that are called "dogtown" (whose whole existence was due to mining). When I combine these facts with how my grandpa Sam Gittins (born 1875 in Dogtown) and his brothers (my uncles Will and Ed Gittins) used to describe Dogtown, frankly, I can't believe I didn't put 2 + 2 together before."

One place Gittins searched was the The Mining, Mineral and Related Terms dictionary: http://xmlwords.infomine.com/xmlwords.htm?term=dog&action.x=12&action.y=9 where he entered the term 'Dog.' Responses included:

  1. Definition: doghole--A small opening from one place in a coal mine to another; smaller than a breakthrough;
  2. Definition: doghole--Name applied to small coal mines that employ fewer than 15 miners. The so-called dogholes are most numerous in Kentucky, but there are many in Virginia and West Virginia;
  3. Definition: doghouse--A special building at a mine where workers may wash themselves or change from street to work clothes and vice versa.
"These are widely accepted terms," Gittins wrote "In other words, if you went to a mining town, and asked, 'What's a dog hole or a dog mine?' They could tell you on their first try. When we know for a fact that small-time coal and clay mining was virtually all there was in 'dog town' at the beginning (mid to late 1800s), plus the look of a denuded landscape, holes and tailings, we can see why the shorthand term "dog-town" could stick."

Other references include:

Wikipedia: DOGTOWN: Mining jargon for a group of ad-hoc huts or other shelters, typically near a mineral deposit.

Dogtown, Marin County, California http://extras.marinij.com/special/landmarks/landmarks8.html

Dogtown, Paradise, California http://www.paradisedirect.com/paradise/magalia.html

Bootleg Coal Mining: http://www.personal.psu.edu/jcd5031/bootleg_mining.html

Dog Holes: http://www.dmtcalaska.org/course_dev/intromining/07openpit/notes07.html

Dog Holes: http://www.gemandmineral.com/miningterms.html

Digging in a Dog Hole http://www.hsp.org/default.aspx?id=508 Dogtown U.S.A.
By Ron Tamburello

This article is the first in a series celebrating the various towns, mining camps and other settlements that were once named Dogtown. http://www.californiahistory.com/93.html#anchor146 Attachment: Dog Holes: Document clearly illustrates 'dogholes' in a photograph


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu