Tragedy Struck the Chautauqua
On July 4, 1919
"World War I, the war to end all wars, was over November 11, 1918 ; the flue bug was gone. This was a beautiful, warm day, big crowds at Lake Madison Chautauqua grounds. With basked after basket of food, many families decided to celebrate the Fourth of July at Lake Madison." J. Ervin Boyd.
This was the mode of the day that promised happiness and ended in tears and sorrow; mourning and loss. This was the 4th of July, 1919.
According to the Madison Daily Leader, July 5, 1919 ...
As a fatal ending to one of the greatest Fourth of July celebrations ever held at Lake Madison, at which between ten and twelve thousand people from this section of the state and also from Iowa and Minnesota, were in attendance, an appalling disaster with a large list of dead resulted when a launch owned by J. A. Erickson went down with thirty-two people on board, shortly after eleven o'clock last night.
There were two gasoline launches plying the lake all day carrying excursionists on pleasure trips. One of these is a new boat and put on the water by parties from Chester and it was this one that struck out for the scene of disaster immediately after coming in to the pier with its last load of sightseers. The other craft, also gasoline propelled, and known as "The Reliance," was the hapless victim of a tragic fate. With her load of Thirty-two people, among whom were a dozen or more children and several young folks whose ages ranged around 14 to 17 years, the Reliance left the pier shortly after the pyrotechnic display began on the lake between the hotel and the house devoted to the use of bathers. All was gaiety and joy on the ill-fated boat and no mind had any other thought than of keen enjoyment in the anticipated trip. An ideal evening, placid waters and the festive scene of celebration, all contributed to the great delight on the part of those who had not taken a ride on Lake Madison in years.
Onward the Reliance went, headed directly across the lake and towards a point of land a mile or so to the southeast. Skirting along the shore with its human freight, the boat encountered a sunken tree that lay directly in its path and 80 to 100 feet from land, creating panic and consternation among the passengers. Ben Olson, the engineer, and Mr. Erickson, the boats owner, perceived at once the terrible predicament they were in and did their best to keep the engine in operation.
The July 5, 1919 Sentinel newspaper reported...
People on shore had heard screams from the craft, which was not lighted, and thought that the passengers were just having a good time. The boat was equipped with a headlight but it was not being used because it had the tendency to blur the water. The engineer was steering the gas engine-powered boat toward Chautauqua Park. The phonograph as playing and passengers were singing. As they neared the park, the pilot, Ben Olson, directed the path out of the regular course so the passengers had a better view of the fireworks.
The Reliance cut the waters, not far off the southwest shore, between what is now Best's Point and Hilde's Sand and Gravel firm. The passenger's view of the fireworks was excellent and they were all looking up at the display.
The Chautauqua crowd was alerted when a young boy, Jay Phillips of Winfred , South Dakota, a passenger on the boat, swam to the southwest shore and ran to the County Poor Farm. A call was made to the Grandview Hotel. The dance was stopped, the accident reported and swarms of people ran to the shoreline. The report spread rapidly and boat of all kind took off on their rescue missions. Cars lined the shores of the lake and directed their car lights toward the scene of for guidance of the rescue boats.
All told, nine young people lost their lives that fateful 4th of July at the Lake Madison Chautauqua. The Lake County Coroner's Jury met in Madison and they returned a verdict of Death by Accidental Drowning and they did not seek responsibility.
"We heard them yelling and hollering...we thought they were cheering the fireworks. Later we realized it was a scream for help." Melvin Pickard. Melvin and his mother and father were standing on the shore. His sister, Ruth, had made it on board, but there hadn't been room for Melvin and his parents. Two hours later, Melvin and his parents saw the body of Ruth being brought into shore. Melvin explained later that toward dawn he had to go home to milk 21 cows and do chores. His parents stayed to wait for authorities and make funeral arrangements. During the long night, Melvin, his family and others were headquartered at the Red Cross tent that had been set up for the July 4th emergencies.
Across the lake, Martin Greenberg was a houseguest of Oscar Nebel who lived on the west end of the lake. He had taken his sister on his boat for a better view of the fireworks. His was the closest boat to the wreckage and he began ferrying exhausted survivors to the south side shore. He is credited with saving nine people.
A group of Boy Scouts, who had been passengers on the Reliance, had swum to the shore and busily built a bonfire to warm survivors brought in. They had stripped to their underwear; remembering their Boy Scout training, they shed their heavier clothing after being tossed into the water. Scouts and other survivors gathered driftwood for the fire. A man tore black checks from a checkbook whose inside pages were still dry to use as kindling.
Mrs. J. O. Lee (Gladys) of Colman , South Dakota, said she was with a group of young people from the Wellman community, northeast of Rutland (pictured on the left). "A man next to me handed me a life belt, and I asked him how to put it on, and he helped me." We all went down together, I reached out and grabbed someone's wrist, but I let go, thinking I would hold them under water and they would drown. I hit something with my heel, and then got out of the water...I was rescued..."
Mrs. Merle George of Madison was one of the lucky ones. "I was 21 at the time of the accident and couldn't swim a stroke. My sister was lucky enough to get a life jacket which we hung onto until help arrived from the Chautauqua grounds.
J. Ervin Boyd, a native of Lake County, recalled, "Soon the water was deep enough to start covering the seats where we were sitting. I had on a new pair of shoes and wasn't about to get them wet. I started to climb up the top over us; my weight started the boat to tip, in seconds it turned over, spilling everyone in the lake. It was dark now. The lake was choppy; the water wasn't very cold. The boat, like a barrel, made two or three complete turns over. I lost hold of the boat and went down 15 to 20 feet. A young lady got hold of my necktie; we both went to the bottom. I got her hand loose and floated to the surface. I had swallowed quite a bit of water, but got to the boat. It began rolling again. Finally, it stopped turning and we got on top of the over-turned boat. It must have been two hours when a boat came. They took us to the hotel, got us in dry clothes (they put women's stocking on me.) In an hour or so, we were on our way home."
Read Edythe Lee Billman's account of the accident.
Ben Olson, the engineer, had returned from army duty shortly before the accident. When his body was recovered, the ticket and silver coins were still in his jacket pocket.
Earl Winkelplex and his sisters, Elsie and Pearlwere on the boat. Earl had just returned from military service. Friends recalled that earlier in the day, the girls were awed at the size of Lake Madison. Early told them about the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean he had crossed for army duty. Earl was the only son of the Winkelplex. Elsie survived the accident, but Earl and Pearlboth drowned.
Mary Werner and Elizabeth Roche, from Salem , South Dakota, also perished in the lake. They were one week from their double wedding.
A soldier from Howard , South Dakota, was en route home from World War I army duty in Europe on July 4, 1919 . When his ship docked in New York, he picked up a newspaper and found the story of the disaster. The list of dead included Ester and Susie Holmes, sisters of the soldier.
The information for this article came from a talk by Ardyce Habeger Samp, titled "The Lake Madison Tragedy", the personal reminiscences of J. Ervin Boyd in his autobiography "From Old Maude and Topsy to the Jet Plane" and Mrs. Edythe Billman, the Madison Daily Leader and the Sentinel. The pictures of the lake and boats are from the Chautauqua archives at the Smith Zimmerman Museum. They are not from July 4, 1919.