Cincinnati’s Brave (Or Foolish!) Steeplejacks

These were no acrobatic tricks, and they certainly weren’t a bet or a dare. Young men climbed the steeples of churches because it was their job.
William Rouse attracted a huge crowd as he balanced atop the German Evangelical Lutheran Trinity Church on Race Street.

Image Courtesy Illustrated Police News, October 19, 1889 | Digitized by Villanova University Library

Crowds gathered—how could they not?—to watch the young man standing on one foot atop the cross at the pinnacle of the spire crowning the German Evangelical Lutheran Trinity Church on Race Street, just south of Liberty.

The cross was 16 feet high and eight feet wide, made of gilded, galvanized iron and reached 180 feet above its Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. The reckless young man was only 22, but he was a professional. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer [October 3,1889]:

The man stands on one foot, then on the other, waves his hat and as nimble as a cat descends. This was the feat of William Rouse yesterday afternoon at 5 o’clock as witnessed by thousands of people who expected that every minute the fellow would lose his balance and blood-spatter the pavement below with his foolhardy brains. But he did not. He simply came down, stood on the arms and then slid down nimbly as a cat to the gilded globe on which the cross rests. The cross shook and swayed to and fro under the weight of Rouse as he stood upon the ten-inch-square top, and a thrill of horror ran through the spectators as they saw the swaying.

Reportedly, Rouse had imbibed a shot of whiskey at noon, and was provided another gulp once he descended to the sidewalk. As the newspaper said, “He probably needed it.”

This was no acrobatic trick and it wasn’t a bet or a dare. William Rouse climbed the steeple of Trinity Church because it was his job. Rouse was a professional steeplejack, employed by J.C. Barhite, who had installed the cross atop the church. Rouse was charged with adding the final piece, a lightning rod. Mr. Barhite was a lightning rod dealer.

In addition to the local newspapers, Rouse’s exploit was reported throughout the Midwest, and was featured in the nationally distributed Illustrated Police News.

One might say that Rouse was born to this line of work. According to the Enquirer:

Rouse is only 22 years of age and when a mere lad of 6 years, having lost both parents, was picked up, raised and taught the dangerous business of steeple-climbing by the late Weston.

“The late Weston” refers to Joe Weston, who had died just two years before his ward achieved national attention for his demonstration atop the Trinity Church cross. Weston was also in the lightning rod business and his obituary stated that he had climbed all of the tallest steeples in Cincinnati and its environs. Interestingly, Weston was also apprenticed, at an early age, to a lightning rod purveyor. “Weston” was born Rodriguez, but was taken into the household of J.H. Weston soon after his father, among the first Latino residents of Cincinnati, died. Like his apprentice, Weston garnered some headlines for his achievements. According to the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [July 2, 1887]:

Many of his feats will be remembered by our citizens. Among those was the placing of the American flag on the top of the steeple of the First Presbyterian Church on the Centennial Fourth of July [1876]. This is the tallest steeple in the city, being 285 feet from the ground.

Weston first brought out crowds of spectators when, at the age of 12, he installed the lightning rod atop the steeple of St. Peter Cathedral. He returned to that lofty perch at least twice more, to decorate it with bunting for the archbishop’s jubilee and, later, with crape for the archbishop’s funeral.

The German Evangelical Lutheran Trinity Church spire is depicted just right of center in this 1933 drawing by Caroline Williams. Today it is known as Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. On the left side of the drawing is the German Evangelical Protestant St. Paulus Kirche which today houses Taft’s Ale House.

Image Courtesy The Cincinnati Enquirer, December 10, 1933 | Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Weston was only 41 when a brain inflammation proved fatal in 1887. His obituaries recorded a peculiar phobia: Although Weston was positively fearless while climbing the tallest structures in the city, he was deathly afraid of basements and cellars and refused to venture underground.

Weston’s pupil, Rouse, continued to seek ever greater heights after his jig atop Trinity Church, and he continued to appear in the newspaper columns. In 1897, when he would have been about 30 years old, Rouse staged an assault on the flagpole atop the Hauck Brewery. Although the flagpole was only 150 feet tall, Rouse brought out the crowds as he clambered up, attached a block and tackle, then hoisted himself back up as he prepared to paint it.

A few years later, Rose married and fathered a son. The census records and city directors suggest that Louisa Rouse demanded a more earthbound routine for the father of their child. William Rouse’s occupation is listed as “painter,” with the implication that a tall ladder is as far as he climbed from then on.

Rouse was almost 70 years old when heart disease got the better of him. He is buried at Spring Grove Cemetery.

At some point, Trinity Church (now Prince of Peace Lutheran) got a new cross. The current cross atop the steeple is in a style known as a “cross trefly,” but the cross Rouse danced upon was a plain Latin cross, as was the cross as illustrated by Caroline Williams for the Enquirer in 1933.

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