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Curious Louisville: Who Were The Caldwell Sisters?

On a sunny Thursday morning, I followed Michael Higgs, the manager of the Cave Hill Heritage Foundation, through the grounds of the massive cemetery. We passed the pond and chapel, then eventually round into section 13, past hundreds of white marble tombstones and several massive mausoleums.

We parked at the base of a massive sculpture crafted from stone. Two women in flowing Grecian-style tunics are depicted holding hands. Higgs said this is the grave of Louisville’s Caldwell sisters.

“Both Mary Elizabeth and Mary Gwendolyn are entombed in the floor of the monument,” Higgs said. “It is both a mausoleum and a monument.”

Mary Elizabeth and Mary Gwendolyn Caldwell are the topic of our latest Curious Louisville question from Chuck Rogalinski — which wasn’t so much a question, but a suggestion.

Rogalinski wrote us: “Will you tell the story of the two sisters who weren’t born in Louisville, owned property in the city, married into European aristocracy and are buried in Cave Hill?”

Rogalinski, who is the president of the Shelby Park Neighborhood Association, was already pretty familiar with their story. He came across their name initially when filing for the neighborhood’s first historic marker.

“[It] was on the Shelby Park neighborhood, at the park and the old library,” he said. “And the names of the sisters were on the deed, and Mayor Paul Barth purchased the land from them.”

According to Jim Holmberg, the chief curator at the Filson Historical Society, the sisters were descendants of the Breckinridges, a prominent Louisville family.

“Their mother Mary Eliza Breckinridge was the daughter of James D. Breckinridge, and a good bit of St. Matthews used to belong to the family,” Holmberg said.

Their father, who was named William Shakespeare Caldwell, was born in Virginia (and my favorite detail of this story is that he was a failed actor before joining the family business).

“He and his father had made millions of dollars in the gasworks — putting gasworks in during the Antebellum mid-19th century period,” Holmberg said.

According to Holmberg, the sisters, who were born in 1863 and 1865 in Cincinnati, were left orphaned but wealthy at a young age. They went to a boarding school in New York, lived abroad, and eventually married into European aristocracy.

“This is a good time period where your short-on-money European royalty was looking for rich American heiresses,” Holmberg said. “Both girls fit that mold. Mary Gwendolyn married a French marquis and Mary Elizabeth married a German baron.”

Both women maintained ties to Louisville. Thanks to their parents, the sisters inherited land across the city — including the land that eventually became Bowman Field.

The Caldwell sisters died relatively young. Mary Gwendolyn was 46; Mary Elizabeth was 45. One died on a yachting trip, the other in Switzerland.

As part of their last wishes, both had their bodies transported back to Louisville so they could be buried together in Cave Hill Cemetery.

Question asker Chuck Rogalinski is hoping to receive approval for a historic marker that talks about the Caldwell Sisters in the Shelby Park neighborhood where they owned land.

But historic plaque or not, the sisters have already left their mark on the neighborhood. Next time you’re driving through Shelby Park, keep an eye out for Caldwell Street.

Listen to the story here:

Why does Louisville have so many fish fries?

(Can't listen? Here's a transcript!)

You can ask your own Curious Louisville question in the form below or atcuriouslouisville.org

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