When Jenny Lind, a famous soprano known as the “Swedish Nightingale," sang in Cincinnati in early Spring 1851, sitting in the audience was a successful young liquor dealer named Samuel N. Pike. Struck to the core by her singing, Pike, shown right, vowed to use his wealth to build an opera house. He ended up building three and had the following verse written in his praise by the 19th Century American poet, T. Buchanan Read:
“Who builds a noble temple unto art
And rears sit grandly from his head and heart
Hath done a sacred service, and his name
Shall live upon the gold roll of fame.”
Sam Pike’s past is somewhat shrouded in mystery. On Federal census forms his birthplace was given as New York. In 1866, in applying for a passport, Pike swore he was a native-born American citizen. Yet in his biography of Pike, Ohio Historian Henry Howe claimed Sam was born in 1822 in Heidelberg, Germany, and brought to the United States with his family at the age of five. Moreover, Howe asserts, the family name originally was “Hecht,” a word in Yiddish that means the pike fish, and later changed to Pike.
The circumstance of his family and his upbringing are murky but in 1844 at the age of 22, Pike came to Cincinnati and engaged in the liquor trade. Several years later Pike married Ellen Miller, the daughter of a Cincinnati judge. Ellen was several years younger than Sam and likely in her late teens when they wed. As recorded by the federal census in 1850 their household included a three year old son, Lawrence; Ellen’s very wealthy mother, and several servants. Sam’s occupation was listed as “liquor merchant.”
Then Jenny Lind came to Cincinnati and Sam Pike would never be the same again. With the famed impresario P. T. Barnum orchestrating her tour, the songstress gave concerts throughout the U.S. spanning 1850 to 1852. At the time Cincinnati had no opera house so her venue would have been one of the several large theaters downtown. Although her voice was never recorded, Lind’s singing was singularly impressive to hearers and a revelation to Pike. He made a personal pledge to build an opera hall for Cincinnati.
After eight years of selling whiskey, Sam finally had the wealth to make his dream a reality. Pike’s Opera House opened in 1859 with a Grand Italian Opera Company performing. Shown right in a cameo view, it was hailed as an ornament to Cincinnati. Featuring a grand stairway and 2,000 seats for patrons, the opera house was the first of its kind west of the Appalachians. Said one observer: “At that time, there was nothing out West that could compare to it.”
Meanwhile, the people of Cincinnati began to know who Sam Pike was. Of medium height and slender, as shown above, he wore a heavy mustache, and though dark complexioned, was noted for piercing steel-gray eyes and a short, abrupt way of speaking. Noted one observer: “He always dressed in the height of fashion, wore a silk hat, and used perfume. As he saunter up town of a morning from his residence on West Fourth Street, smoking his cigar, he looked like an elegant man of leisure, rather than one of Cincinnati wealthiest and most active citizens.”
Pike likely was walking to his liquor house, shown above at 18-20 Sycamore. The building was five stories, giving him ample space to operate. Although from time to time he referred to himself as a distiller, he was a “rectifier,” buying product from nearby Kentucky distilleries across the Ohio River and blending it achieve taste and color. His flagship brand was “Magnolia.” a name he trademarked in 1849.
In 1866 Pike’s fancy opera house burned to the ground. A story is told of Sam’s standing calmly on the roof of a nearby hotel watching the conflagration: “…He saw the structure of his pride and ambition vanishing in the flames. He quietly smoked his cigar as unruffled as the most indifferent spectator…” While he stood there impassive, according to the story, a pickpocket relieved him of a very expensive pocket watch.
As an example of what onlookers called his “colossal wealth,” Pike lost no time in rebuilding. Just a year later a new Pike’s Opera House rose from the ashes. Just as ornate as the earlier building, this one was larger, filling a half block on Cincinnati’s Fourth Street. This gesture earned Pike the dedication of a piece of music called “The Opera March” with a picture of his new opera house on the cover.
By this time, Pike was growing increasingly restless in Cincinnati. Known as being good to his employees, about 1863 he took as partners two of his clerks, Joseph Tilney and George W. Kidd. While continuing to own S.N. Pike & Co., Sam branched out to New York City, launching a liquor house there. In 1868, Pike moved totally to New York, selling his building in Cincinnati together with the all apparatus for blending whiskey. The buyer was Mills, Johnson & Co., local wholesalers and rectifiers.
In his move to The Big Apple, Pike took with him his family and his partners, doing business at 78 Broadway and listed in city directories as a liquor dealer and rectifier. The family lived at 613 Fifth Avenue. By this time, in addition to his wife and son, there were three daughters, Nettie, Hester and Alice. Indications are that Pike’s move to New York was occasioned at least in part by the desire to join the wealthy social elite that included the Astors and Vanderbilts.
He succeeded, in part because he immediately began to build a third Grand Opera House. Shown here, the building cost him $1,000,000 (equiv. to $25 million today.) The first performance, on January 9, 1868, was Il trovatore, after which seven operettas by Jacques Offenbach were presented during the next four months.
Successful selling whiskey on Broadway, Sam grew ever richer and expanded into real estate. He engaged in a major speculation that involved draining New Jersey marshes near New York. With inventor Spencer Driggs the partners reclaimed 3,000 acres using iron plates as a core for the dikes and sold the land to farmers for corn production. This venture is said to have brought “immense profits” making Pike a millionaire many times over. He was quoted saying he “…could not see why he should make money — he never fretted himself — he couldn’t help it.”
Nonetheless, he was able to raise his family in luxury and move among New York’s richest. After a romance with the famed explorer-journalist, Henry Morton Stanley, his daughter Alice married Albert Barney, an heir to E. E. Barney, the railroad car magnet.
In 1872, at the relatively young age of 50, Sam Pike died and was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery, New York. His gravestone is shown here. For a time his Manhattan liquor house continued to be operated under his name by his surviving partners. They subsequently formed a new corporation under the name George W. Kidd & Co. That business subsequently was dissolved and the liquor house closed.
Son-in-law Albert Barney was put in charge of Pike’s financial interests in Ohio and the family moved back to Cincinnati for the next ten years. S. N. Pike’s Magnolia Whiskey became a brand of the Fleischmann distillers of Cincinnati, the bottle shown above.
Aided by his wealth, Pike had kept his personal vow to Jenny Lind by building no fewer than three opera houses to the memory of her voice. They would prove to be fleeting tributes. After watching his first theater burn, Pike was no longer alive when in February 1903, his second Cincinnati opera house was destroyed by a fire described at the time as historically the city’s largest. The responding twenty-seven engines companies could not save the structure. A year after opening his New York opera house Pike had sold it to financiers James “Diamond Jim” Fisk Jr. and Jay Gould. Never financially viable, that building later was converted to a movie theater and torn down in 1960 for a housing development.