In the spring of 1991 Bonnie Raitt released a song titled “Something to Talk About” with the memorable refrain “Let’s give them something to talk about.” Later that year we unconsciously adopted this as our mantra when we opened The Schlafly Tap Room and did indeed give everyone something to talk about. People who knew better said there was no way anyone would ever dream of starting a brewery in the shadow of the behemoth on Pestalozzi Street that was American-owned at the time; that no one with any sense would ever start a business of any kind in the run-down neighborhood just west of Downtown St. Louis; and especially in a burned out shell of a building that had been vacant for over 20 years. We gave people lots of things to talk about; and talk they did…usually in very skeptical and mocking tones. Twenty-eight years later the skeptics are muted and we’re still here.
Whatever challenges we faced as an upstart brewery in St. Louis in 1991 paled in comparison with those faced by Birch Oliver Mahaffey 90 years earlier. As some alert readers (ARs) may recall, Birch was my maternal grandfather. In 1901, after being unfairly expelled from West Point, he along with four other expelled cadets traveled to Ecuador, where they found work building the railroad from Guayaquil to Quito. The project was being promoted by Ecuadorian President Eloy Alfaro, whose son had been one of their classmates at West Point.
This construction project was hailed as one of the greatest engineering feats of its time. The tracks went from sea level in Guayaquil to an elevation of 9,350 feet in Quito, in the Andes. Along the way they had to cross raging rivers, steep ravines, dense forests and slopes prone to rockslides. More than 2,000 workers died during the project, with lives lost not only to rockslides, but also to tropical diseases and poisonous snakes and insects.
The biggest obstacle in the entire route was a formation called The Devil’s Nose (El Nariz Del Diablo) near Alausi, where the tracks go up a vertical rise of 1,700 feet in seven and half miles. This is where Birch and his colleagues spent the bulk of their time, finally solving the problem with a series of switchbacks.
Birch Mahaffey left Ecuador in 1904 and returned to the United States to clear his name. He was eventually vindicated and, thanks to an act of Congress, commissioned in the Army in 1907. His classmates, who were outraged by the injustice perpetrated against him, unanimously elected him president of their class for life, a position he held until his death in 1958. He married my grandmother in 1913 and soon thereafter left the Army with the rank of captain and settled down to raise a family in St. Louis.
Two years ago, thanks to the Internet, I found out there was another chapter to the story of Birch’s years in Ecuador. A woman named Sara Alexandra Acosta had posted on Genealogy.com in 2011 that there was a Mahaffey family living in Quito, Ecuador. Their grandfather was Birch Oliver Mahaffey. Say what! Caramba! Birch Oliver Mahaffey was my grandfather. I didn’t know I had cousins in Ecuador. It would appear that Birch had built more than a railroad when he was down there.
I eventually established email contact with Sara Alexandra and was able to put together some pieces of the puzzle. When not working on the railroad trying to conquer The Devil’s Nose, Birch apparently found comfort in the arms of Eugenia Gonzalez, whose family owned a hotel in Esmeraldas, on the northern coast of Ecuador. What could have brought Birch to Esmeraldas is not at all clear. What is clear is that Eugenia gave birth to a daughter named Sara America, presumably after Birch’s mother and his homeland. Sara America had a daughter named Manuela, who in turn had a daughter named Sara Alexandra, whose post on Genealogy.com awakened me to the existence of my relatives in Ecuador.
Shortly after Thanksgiving of 2018 my wife and I were talking about whether we would celebrate Christmas with family. At one point Ulrike said, “Of course we should spend Christmas with family…in Ecuador.” So, that’s exactly what we did. We were warmly welcomed by my first cousins Sara and Pepe, my first cousin once removed Sara Alexandra (who gets credit for bringing us all together), Sara Alexandra’s children Estefany and Steven, my first cousins twice removed Marden and Jean and various others. We all joyfully thanked Birch and Eugenia for giving us so much to talk about more than a century later.
Chairman – The Saint Louis Brewery