Published On: Fri, Apr 4th, 2014

A lion named ‘French’

Dear Editor:

Many may have noticed that Alderson has enacted new procedures to control the loose dog problem. Memory recalls that they could have an even larger problem, had it not been prompt action by the local citizens of years ago. Certainly, there is no one better to tell the story than Thomas W. Dixon, Jr., a long time resident of Alderson, designated as the official Town Historian and author of the book The Rise & Fall of Alderson, West Virginia. Mr. Dixon now resides in Clifton Forge, VA. Being very active in the C&O Railroad Historical Association as a founding officer, who continues writing articles about passenger and freight trains of the main and connecting lines. He is acknowledged as an expert in all of his chosen endeavors and is often cited tor his dedicated efforts to record the beginnings of our nation, the small town and its peoples. This writer, perhaps looking for his youth, walking the deserted streets of his hometown can still know what used to be by leafing through the pages of The Rise & Fall of Alderson, West Virginia, and he is richer for the memories.

The Story of the Alderson Lion

“It all began on Oct. 3, 1890, when an Alderson resident, Mrs. Susan Bebout, noticed an employee of the locally appearing ‘French’s Great Railway Circus’ walking down the street carrying a basket that appeared to contain several kittens. Curious by nature, she inquired of the man what he was doing and was told that the circus lion had given birth to three cubs and lion cubs were not known to survive in captivity. He had been instructed to take them to the river and drown them. Being a woman of a gentle nature, she implored him to hand them over to her and she would care for them as long as they lived. As Mr. Dixon continues, “As told, two of the three cubs did die but one, who had thrived, now had a name: ‘French,’ in consideration of his origin. ‘French’ was known to leave his yard and wander the neighborhood, a well known sight, no harm ever meant or intended, even in the face of a newly enacted regulation requiring he be kept behind a fence. He would jump over.

“Now, in the early 1900’s, the railroads did not havedining cars and it was the custom for the trains to stop and allow the passengers a chance to have quick meal before continuing. This was the practice at Alderson, until one particular day, a salesman who was said had a drink or two before the train paused for lunch, was getting out of the passenger car when who should he see but ‘French’ sitting by the track, giving him the eye. With a loud scream he yelled, ‘I’m not getting off here, there are lions in the streets!’ That day was a brief stop day.

“The town fathers made a decision that if local business was to survive, ‘French’ would have to go. So arrangements were made to relocate him to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, where he lived for many years reportedly longer than any other lion in captivity.”

At this point, the Dixon story concludes, but this writer recalls an item appearing in the Washington Times-Herald of advice given to the staff at the Zoo, that every spring they might hear the screams from visitors, who at the sight of a little old lady who had made her way past the protective fence, approaching the lion in his enclosure whose roar would change to a loud purring as a hand reached between the bars and patted him on the head.

That would be Mrs. Susan Bebout, from Alderson, saying hello to her old friend, “French.”

Jack D. Ballard

Lewisburg