Monday, March 9, 2015

TRAGEDY of MARCH 1935 - Island Waterfront - Part XI

Island Archives photo showing the car emerging from the Death's door waters.
 A grapple caught the right front wheel, and men on the right - with yet 

more men off-camera - strain on the line. 
 Men in center stand on a boat's cabin top.  
The photographer is unknown, but Mrs. Jacob Johnson of Gills Rock,

who believed she saw the car pass her home early Sunday morning,
and whose husband was later credited with being among the first to locate 
the site of the disaster after following wheel tracks out onto the ice,
was credited for another photo published by the newspaper.  It's 

possible Mrs. Johnson was the photographer here, too.

Washington Island, Wisconsin -

March 10 of this year marks the 80th anniversary of a tragedy in which six young Island men lost their lives when their car plunged through thin ice in Death's Door.

Despite the passing of years, this incident still taps into veins of emotion, because of the details that surround the incident, and because of the number of lives in this community that were changed by the event.   In researching this blog, I've used various newspaper reports, some published only a few days after the event itself, and others that were written years later in retrospective.  These
reports reside in the Washington Island Archives in a file named, appropriately, "Island Tragedies."

The six young men left the Island to play in a basketball game on the peninsula, in Ellison Bay, on Saturday, March 9, 1935.  There were also fans who attended the game.    Collectively, fans and players traveled on to Sturgeon Bay and a hotel Saturday evening.  The general plan was that all parties in their several autos would meet up again in Ellison Bay at a set time on Sunday, and then return across the ice together.  For unknown reasons - impatience to get home, perhaps - and at an exact time still not known for certain, the single car carrying the six basketball players departed Gills Rock for the island and in their route across the Door veered from the prescribed, safe track by heading too far east, only to find ice too thin to support their car.

Others, when they returned later that Sunday, had no idea the players were missing until it was discovered that none of the group had yet reported home.  That was in the early afternoon of Sunday, the 10th.   Searching was initiated.   Car tracks in the snow leading from the Gills Rock shore were followed over the ice, eventually leading searchers to an open hole.  An airplane plane from Escanaba was also alerted, but by the time it arrived over the area, the scene of the car's disappearance with the six players was already known.

What remained was the unpleasant task of retrieving the car and bringing the six bodies to the surface.   For more complete details, the reporting in the Door County News (Thursday, March 14, 1935) serves best.

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                                      SIX YOUNG MEN DROWN IN DEATH'S DOOR

Caption reads, in part:  "This photo was taken
as the body of Ralph Wade was found -
photo by Mr. Jacob Johnson, Ellison Bay"
Accident Occurred Before Noon on Sunday
All Bodies Recovered; Funerals Held This Week
Bulletin:  Calmer Nelson, Door county coroner, made the statement that an investigation into the accident would be conducted next week.  The date for holding the investigation was not announced.
              -           -           -
The worst tragedy in the history of Washington Island occurred some time Sunday forenoon, when an automobile bearing six young men, all prominent in the life of the community, dropped through the ice of Death's Door as they were enroute to their homes from a short trip to Sturgeon Bay, and they lost their lives by drowning in the icy waters.

Those in the group were John (better known as "Bub") Cornell and Ralph Wade, the former 22 and the latter 28, both married; Leroy Einarson, 21; Norman Nelson, 19; Raymond Richter, 21; and Roy Stover, 19.

Wade was the owner of a tavern and dance hall.  Cornell, married last September, was a fisherman, the son of Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Cornell.  Einarson was a son of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Einarson, proprietors of the IdaBo Inn;  Norman Nelson, son of Mr. and Mrs. Nels C. Nelson, assisted his parents on their farm.  Richter, a member of the coast guard at Jackson Park, Chicago, was a son of Mr. and Mrs. Earl Richter.  He was home on a 25-day leave of absence.  Stover was the son of Mrs. James Johnson.

It appears that the young men formed part of a group to come from the island to witness and participate in a basketball game played at Ellison Bay Saturday evening.  Following the game they decided not to risk the trip across the ice of Death's Door after dark and came to Sturgeon Bay to spend the night.  They left Sturgeon Bay about 9 a.m. Sunday and it is reported that the car, driven by Cornell, was seen going onto the ice at Gills Rock about 11 o'clock.  When they did not reach home by noon, searching parties of island people were formed, and late in the afternoon an airplane from Escanaba, Mich., was chartered in an effort to determine whether they had become lost in the fog or had met with misfortune.  It was too late that evening for the plane to do anything, but early Monday morning searching parties located the spot where the car disappeared through the ice, only a mile and a half or two miles from Gills Rock.

The spot where the car plunged to its watery grave was located by Wally Arneson, Escanaba, in an airplane and Jake Johnson, of Gills Rock, and the bodies of Cornell and Wade were recovered.  The car had gone down in 120 feet of water and it is thought the two men, who were in the front seat, were able to get out and attempt to reach safety by crawling on the ice.  However, the water was so cold that they were unable to stand it, and apparently sank after putting up a stubborn fight.  Their bodies were removed Monday forenoon by coast guardsmen.

(The search was then called off until the next day due to weather, and it resumed on Tuesday, March 12.)

The intensity of the search effort can be seen in the face
of the man at left above the taut grapple line.
The Coast Guard's boat "Bull" appears to be
the vessel shown in the background.
(Island Archives photo)

At about noon Tuesday the body of Norman Nelson was removed from the water by coast guardsmen and volunteer workers, who remained constantly at the spot endeavoring to get a grappling hook on the car.  

The stubborn fight which John Cornell put up to escape death was shown when searchers came to the hole in the ice Monday.  Thrown up on the slush ice were his cap and mittens and a package of cigarets which he apparently had in his hand when the car plunged to the bottom. Mute testimony of his desperate struggle was also shown by the way the thin ice had been broken away as he attempted to get to solid ice and crawl out.  his chest was also severely bruised as he apparently tried to cling to the ice until help might arrive.  Just how long he struggled in the icy water will never be known.

The bodies of Cornell and Wade were removed to the Casperson Funeral Home at Sister Bay immediately after they were recovered, where they were prepared for burial.  Funeral services for both men were held Wednesday afternoon, with every resident of the Island who could possibly attend being present.

Mr. Cornell is survived by his bride of six months, the former Varian Hanson, his parents, and four brothers and four sisters.

Mr. Wade leaves his wife and two sisters.

At 4 o'clock Tuesday arrangements had not yet been made public as to funeral services for Norman Nelson.  In addition to his parents, he is survived by one brother and two sisters.

Leroy Einarson was the adopted son of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Einarson.

In addition to his parents, Raymond Richter leaves one brother and two sisters.

Those left by Roy Stover are his widowed mother, Mrs. James Johnson, and two sisters.

Even in sorrow, residents of the Island breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday afternoon when coast guardsmen and other workers were able to bring the car to the surface and with it the bodies of the three remaining victims of the tragedy, Leroy Einarson, Raymond Richter and Roy Stover.  The bodies of the three men were in the rear seat of the car.

As in the case of the Cornell and Wade funerals held Wednesday, it is expected that practically every resident of the Island will attend the funeral for Norman Nelson today (Thursday), and the rites for the other three men on Friday.  In addition to Island residents, many friends from distant points and people of Door county made the trip to the Island to be present for the last rites.

Ice floes handicapped workers in attempting to grapple for the car Tuesday, and the fish tugs Clara C., Velox and Dawn, and coast guard boats broke through the slush ice and by maneuvering back and forth it was possible to clear a space large enough to permit grappling hooks to be manned and when a substantial hold was secured on the car it was hauled out on solid ice.  

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During the days the recovery search continued and funeral services were planned - and likely for days and weeks afterward -  this understandably was the major island news, reaching everyone.   Imagine, for a moment, those family members who traveled to the island to attend one of the six funerals, and taking a similar route over the ice, perhaps questioning their own safety with the incident still so strong in their minds.  They would retrace their travels over the ice once more on their way home.

There were no portrait photos published of the young men, probably because there was no time to obtain them before going to press.  In order to make the news account more personal the names of off-island visitors and pall bearers were listed for each of the victims.

As noted in the Door County News story, there was fog on Sunday, a somewhat unusual but not unheard of circumstance in winter.  Such fog is often worse in the early morning hours, with visibility improving as the day goes on.  If fog had been encountered, this would help explain why the six, returning from the mainland earlier than the others, might have veered from the prescribed, safe route.  Autos with fans who returned later in the day, toward early afternoon, apparently met no difficulty in finding their way safely home.

Jake Ellefson, a retired Island commercial fisherman who was but 10 years old at the time, reflected on this incident, noting how disarming fog can be, generally thicker over water than land, and the boys may have committed themselves to continuing their crossing once out on the ice and beyond the peninsula, already partway home.  Jake's older brother, Steve, then a high school student of 17 or 18 and also a basketball player, also traveled to the mainland for that game.  However, Steve had received strict instructions from their dad that if he wanted to go, he would ride with Fred Mann, and he followed that advice, Jake said.  Noting the tight interior of the model of Wade's car, and given the fact the players were known to be quite tall, it was doubtful there would have been room for another in that car, anyway.  Such a tight, two-door car was a "coffin car" for ice travel, Jake noted.

Weather had been reported as being warm during the period leading up to the weekend game, and Jake surmised that snow mounded to support small trees or boughs that marked the safe route could have softened, with boughs easily toppled over, adding to uncertainty about the safest route that morning.

At the J. W. Cornell home that afternoon, Mary Cornell and her friend, Arni Richter, had returned from across the Door and were awaiting her brother, John Cornell, puzzled when he had not yet returned.  J. W. and Bub's older brothers would take part in the search, using their fish tug Clara C.   Upon the first body retrieved reaching the surface of the water, the newspaper reported that J. W. exclaimed, "That's my Bub!"

Arni Richter had been John's best man at his wedding, and Mary was maid of honor for her friend Varian Hanson.  In time, Varian would marry Don Olson, and they would raise their two children, Mary and Jim, in their Sturgeon Bay home.    Arni Richter and Mary Cornell married in November 1936, and four years after that, in April 1940, Carl and Arni took over ferry services from William Jepson. 

Roland Koyen, Bub and Harvey Cornell,
taken in 1930 when the Island ball team
traveled to Baileys Harbor for a game.
(from Mary (Cornell) Richter photo album)

Close friends Mary Cornell, Sis Hansen and
Varian Hanson (from Mary's photo album,
around 1930.)

             *     *     *

A Door County News editorial underscored the desperate need for safe winter travel for Islanders:

The people of Washington Island should have a safer and better mode of travel during the winter months than is provided by either automobile or boat, over the ice during the fall, winter months.  

While establishment of an airplane route between Washington Island and the mainland would be an expensive proposition, if it prevented another such catastrophe as occurred last week it would be well worth whatever the cost might be.  The Island people have gone further in development of air transportation than any other section of Door county, and have a landing field the has been frequently used, and which has placed Washington Island in closer touch with Escanaba, which has an airport, than it has with the Door county peninsula.

With a good airport within the near proximity of Sturgeon Bay it is possible that a mail route which would also take care of a certain amount of passenger business, might in time be established between Washington Island and this city.   The people of Washington Island are entitled to the full co-operation of all the people of Door county in any proposition that might better their transportation facilities, whether it be in the air or on the water.

Air service was out of the question as being too expensive, and the wooden-hulled ferries used in the 1930s, even when sheeted over with light iron, could not stand up to the punishment of ice service.  The dilemma of how to provide winter ferry transportation after 1940 fell on the shoulders of the Richters as the owners and operators of the Island ferry service.  But it wasn't until 1946, when WWII had ended and steel and motor parts and other needed materials were once again available for commercial shipbuilding, that the steel-hulled ferry Griffin was constructed and began Island service.  From 1946 onward, the former necessity of crossing over fields of ice in the Door in questionable conditions would be greatly diminished, with a few exceptions now and then.  Every so often, there would still be the need to take to the ice in order to transport mail, freight, and the occasional passenger, to and from Washington Island when the ferry couldn't get through.

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Added note:

In the hand-poured slab in the garage behind the J. W. Cornell home on Main Road (where our own family had the privilege of living for some 36 years, and where our daughter and her family live now) initials were scratched in the cement in October 1916,  Bub's (age 4 or 5) and those of his older brother, Claude (age 20).   In 1933, Claude Cornell became owner of a Stinson Jr., the Island's first plane.

-  Dick Purinton

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