IAGenWeb Project - Allamakee co. Li'l Bits
updated 11/01/2014

Mississippi River Tragedy


Clarence Sanderson (top)
Norval Roe (bottom)

Car in this view has been pulled nearly to shore by use of cable attached at rear. Broken rear right window of car is shown, also heads of drowned persons on back seat. The window of the tudor coach on the opposite side also had been broken out.

Preparations were made for removing bodies from the car after it had been towed to shore. Identification of the drowning victims were made at a mortuary in Prairie du Chien. The submerged car was located in the river shortly after 7 a.m. about 50 feet from shore in 10 feet of water. It required two hours to drag it to shore and remove the seven bodies in it. All the bodies were huddled together in the rear seat of the small two-door car.

>>>This view shows the Prairie du Chien, Wis., toll bridge which the party of Waukon young people missed by not turning far enough to the left at the toll house. The toll house sits in the middle of the roadway approach on the Wisconsin side. Car is shown in river in square after being pulled part way to shore. Rowboat is at side of car. Ice had to be removed to provide passage way to the shore.



~Waukon Republican & Standard, February 26, 1941
~contributed by Errin Wilker


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Tragedy Strikes Farm Homes of Seven or Possibly Eight Families.
One of Party Still Missing, River Being Dragged, Sorrowing Friends Attend Rites

Seven homes in Allamakee County, located east and southeast of Waukon, were plunged into the deepest of mourning by one of the worst catastrophies ever to occur here in which seven unfortunate young folks lost their lives by drowning in the Mississippi River at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin at about 2 o'clock a.m. Sunday morning February 23, 1941. They were returning home from that city when the terrible accident happened. A special news item appearing in the Des Moines Register of Monday morning gives a quite true picture of the story and is as follows:

Seven Iowa young people – possibly eight-- drowned early Sunday morning when their automobile plunged into the icy waters of the treacherous Mississippi River. The victims, four boys and three girls, had visited a Prairie du Chien tavern and a cafe and were on their way home when the tragedy occurred.

For some unaccountable and mysterious reason the driver inadvertently turned to the right of the approach of the bridge and followed the road leading directly to the river, a distance of about three and one-half blocks. It seems that crossing three railroad tracks should have been ample warning that they were not traveling on the smooth surface of the roadway over the bridge. One factor might enter into this that perhaps the windows of the car were covered with steam and the only vision possible was through the windshield and that was probably clouded with heat that would arise from the warmth of the number crowded in the car because the night was quite frosty. This part of the accident will always remain a mystery.

The dead are:
LaVerne Bakkum, age 19, owner of the car and probably the driver, who is the son of Mr. and Mrs. E. H. Bakkum of Center Township, farmers near Waterville, Iowa. (obituary & photo)
Vernon Swenson, age 21, residing with his grandmother on the farm in Paint Creek Township, is the son of Jacob Swenson of Postville, Iowa. (obituary & photo)
Helmer Bakke, age 19, son of Mr. and Mrs. Julius Bakke, of Center Township, farmers living near Waukon, Iowa. (obituary & photo)
Norval Roe, age 20, son of Mr. and Mrs. Alert H. Roe, of Makee Township, farmers living near Waukon, Iowa. (obituary & photo)
Helen O'Brien, age 15, daughter of Mrs. Ruth O'Brien, of Paint Creek Township, and the late Frank O'Brien, who passed away several years ago. (obituary & photo)
Valeria Canoe, age 16, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Ross Canoe, of Rossville, Iowa. (obituary & photo)
Marguerite McMillan, age 17, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William McMillan, farmers living east of Rossville, Iowa. (obituary & photo)

As this is being written, it is feared that Clarence Sanderson, age 25, son of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Sanderson, of Waukon, may have been one of the party. Sanderson, according to Prairie du Chien officials, was a member of the party which attended a tavern and a lunchroom early Sunday morning prior to starting home. It was believed he managed to escape from the car after it broke through the ice, but that he was unable to reach shore.

In Tuesday's Des Moines Register appeared the following:
While grief-stricken parents of the other young people – four boys and three girls – made funeral plans, Sanderson's father stood on the river bank here watching the search for his son's body. “I know he's in the river,” the father, Carl Sanderson, a Waukon farmer said sadly. “If he were alive, he would have let us know. He was that kind of boy. I have told them if they find him I will pay. It will be nice to have him in the home cemetery.”

Believing that young Sanderson's body might have been washed under the ice, searchers were chopping away systematically the Mississippi's frozen surface at the scene of the tragedy, directly beneath the toll bridge. Sanderson had been seen with the others, according to Waukon officers. His auto was found on a Waukon street. Five men's hats were recovered from the river, and clerks at the B &B clothing store said they believed one was a hat they sold to Sanderson.

The tollkeeper reported, however, that only seven tolls were paid, but the river was being dragged Sunday night at the scene of the tragedy without any success. Carl Schaub, the tollkeeper became alarmed when the youths failed to return after driving down the side road leading to the river. He was the first to notify officers, calling Prairie du Chien police about 5 a.m. Schaub said he had been talking to a hitchhiker when the car drove up. The driver, believed to have been Bakkum, showed a return ticket. Schaub was given 60 cents as toll for the others, and turned to deposit the money in the cash register. As he did so, the car drove off, taking the side road instead of the bridge approach.

Wondering if the youths had not made a mistake, Schaub waited for them to return, then gave the alarm. Officers found tracks showing that the car had missed a turn in the side road at the river bank and driven onto the ice. The tracks ended about 50 feet from the bank at a point where the ice had been broken. Authorities procured grappling hooks, and the bodies and car were removed from the river about 9 a.m. According to Undersheriff Duke Ziel, examination of the car, a 1936 Ford, showed that the trapped victims had attempted to escape. The two rear windows were broken, and the window was lowered on the driver's side. The bodies of all the young people were huddled in the rear seat with the exception of Bakkum, who was at the wheel. The bodies were taken to a mortuary and the identification of the victims was not completed until 1 p.m. Bakkum was the only one on whom identification papers were found.

Investigators learned that the party had left Waukon about 9 p.m. They motored to Prairie du Chien, going to “Slippery Geisler's Tavern”, where the youths danced from about 10 p.m. until shortly after midnight. From there they went to Red's lunchroom and ate before starting back. During the evening, the youths also had visited the Savery Cafe it was reported.

Coroner Rider said that in driving down the sideroad, the young people had crossed three railway tracks. A 4 foot gap in the car's wheel tracks, where it had bounced at the tracks, showed that the machine was traveling quite fast, the coroner said. The sideroad, known as Blackhawk Avenue, turns north at the river edge. Schaub, the tollkeeper, told officers he had thought that perhaps the youths might have driven down the road intentionally, therefore he hesitated in turning in the alarm. “There is a steep incline at the edge of the river, but no precipice”, Coroner Rider said. He also said the ice at the edge of the river was six inches thick. Where the car plunged through, the ice was only about two inches thick.

The first word received at Waukon of the tragedy was a call to Sheriff Bulman about 7:30 a.m. that a car with an Allamakee County, Iowa license had plunged into the river and that the bodies had been found. A few minutes later, Sheriff Bulman was notified that the car belonged to the Bakkum boy. The names of the others were learned later when the anxious parents communicated with the Iowa officers. The boys' bodies were returned to Waukon and the girls' bodies were taken to a Monona mortuary.


Crawford County and Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin police officials and volunteer rescue workers are still continuing their efforts to locate the body of Clarence Sanderson, age 25, Allamakee County farm youth, who is believed to have drowned with other young persons when the car in which they were riding plummeted through the ice into the Mississippi River early Sunday morning, February 23, 1941.

The only son among four children, Sanderson, who manages the farm of his father, Carl, near Waukon, may be the eighth victim in the worst tragedy here in a decade. A hat identified by Ben Antonoff of the B & B clothing store in Waukon, as that which had been sold to young Sanderson and the apprehension of the parents of the lad, led officials to search for yet another body claimed by the Mississippi in a record-breaking winter of fatalities.

“Where is my Clarence?” Mrs. Sanderson said as she looked a the bodies of the seven persons at the Lake Brothers Funeral parlors where the inquest was heard Sunday. Failure to locate the youth and the discovery that his car was left on a Waukon street led his parents to believe that he was drowned with the others. The boy is described as being heavy set and weighing over 200 pounds. “Oh my boy is in there all right” the elder Sanderson said, pointing to the river. According to testimony at the inquest, the driver parked his car on the right side of the West Blackhawk Avenue across from the tollhouse at about 2 o'clock. Schaub said that he told the driver to move over farther in order to cross the bridge. While registering the toll, the car drove off without the tollkeeper seeing it.

Schaub became suspicious later and called officer Glenn Rosencrans at about 5 o'clock. Rosencranz investigated and discovered tire tracks on the embankment leading from the foot of West Blackhawk Avenue to the river. The tracks led to the river and broken ice gave mute evidence that a car had broken through the ice. Rosencranz immediately called city and county police officials, Fire chief C. H. Mellinger, and Game Warden Eric Moir, who had a boat to be used to aid in locating the car.
A wrecker was called and efforts were made to locate the car. At about 8:30 a.m. The car was dragged from its watery grave to the shore where officials and rescue workers removed the bodies. It was towed by attaching a cable hook to the rear bumper of the car. Side windows on the left side of the car were smashed and there is the possibility that Sanderson may have escaped through it. The car with its occupants was found about 50 feet from shore in about nine or ten feet of water.

Undertakers removed the bodies to the Lake Brothers Funeral Home where Coroner William J. Rider ordered an inquest. The coroner's jury rendered the verdict that the deaths were due to accidental drowning.

It is believed that the five boys had left Waukon about 9:30 to 10 o'clock Saturday night and that they drove to Rossville where they were joined by the three girls. They continued to Prairie du Chien where they stopped at Geisler's Tavern on the highway at about 11 o'clock, Mrs. Loretta Geisler testified. Some time later they were seen at Red's Lunchroom on West Blackhawk Avenue. “I thought they were rather young and asked them to show their registration cards, but they told me they didn't care to have any drinks anyway,” Mrs. Geisler said. “They ordered hamburgers and fried ham sandwiches.” Truman Hill, also of Prairie du Chien, said that he saw the party at Geisler's “Dancing and having a good time. It didn't seem to me as if they had been drinking. At Red's, where I saw several of them, they were talking of the good time at Geisler's.”

On Monday, however, Sheriff Ulysses Day disclosed that a pint bottle of whiskey, half full, was found in the back seat of the car.

............the article continued on page 8, however, that page was not in the diary.

~newspaper clippings, Waukon Democrat, Thursday morning, February 27, 1941, Number 9; and the Monona, Iowa newspaper, February 27, 1941
~contributed by Connie (Kelly) Ellis
~contributors note: The newspaper clipping was in the diary of my Grandfather Creston C. Kelly who was a first cousin to Ruth (Kelly) O'Brien, the mother of one of the victims. My Grandfather was called to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin to identify the body of Helen O'Brien. The diary entry for that day reads: "February 23, 1941 – Helen, Valeria, Marquerite and 4 boys drowned at Prairie. Enough said."

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PRAIRIE DU CHIEN, WIS. - The body of the eighth victim riding in a car that plunged through the Mississippi river ice here a week ago was recovered Sunday March 2, 1941. The bodies of the others, four boys and three girls, had been found when the car was raised.

Russell Scheckler, a woolen mill worker, found the body of Clarence Sanderson, age 25, Waukon, Iowa farm youth, who had been missing since the tragedy. The body was about three blocks downstream from where the car, filled with the young Iowans, drove onto the ice, apparently after missing the approach to the toll bridge. The body was about 100 feet from shore. Scheckler had to break the ice to recover it. He had been helping drag the river when he sighted it.

A gash on Sanderson's right arm led officers to theorize that he had been able to break a car window and escape from the submerged machine, but that he had come up under the ice, instead of in the open water. At an inquest conducted in the afternoon by Coroner William J. Reider, a verdict of accidental drowning was returned. The body was taken to Waukon.

~Des Moines Register, Iowa News Service March 2, 1941
~contributed by Connie Ellis
~Clarence Sanderson's Obituary

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Claims Totaling $15,000 Filed By Parents of Prairie River Victims
Action Taken as Result of Worst Tragedy in Decade on Mississippi

Prairie Du Chien, Wis. - Claims totaling $15,000 were filed against the city of Prairie du Chien as a result of the worst river tragedy here in a decade, City Clerk Cyril A. Plihal revealed yesterday. They were filed by Mrs. Thomas O'Brien, Rossville, Ia.; Mr. and Mrs. Ross Canoe, Rossville, Ia.; and Jake Swenson Waukon, Ia., in behalf of Helen O'Brien, 15; Valeria Canoe, 18, and Vernon Swenson, 19; all of whom perished Feb. 23, 1941, when the car in which they were occupants plunged into the river.

The three claims, each of $5,000 are based on the contention that insufficient markings, warnings, barriers, fences, or railings on East Blackhawk avenue marked the water's edge where the accident occurred. It is also claimed that snow on the street made it look continuous.

Others who drowned in the same tragedy were Lavern Bakkum, 19, owner of the car, son of Mr. and Mrs. E.H. Bakkum, farmers living near Waukon; Norval Roe, 20, son of Mr. and Mrs. Alert H. Roe, farmers living near Waukon; and Margaret McMullen, 18, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William McMullin, farmers living near Rossville; Helmer Bakke, 18, son of Mr. and Mrs. Julius Bakke, farmers living near Waukon, and Clarence Sanderson, son of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Sanderson of Waukon, Ia.

The bodies of the victims were found huddled together in a 1936 model Ford V-8 coach after it had been dragged out of the river in eight or nine feet of water 50 feet from shore. A pint bottle of whiskey, half full, was found in the rear seat of the car, according to testimony at the inquest.

City Clerk Cyril Plihal said a fourth claim is expected. At its next regular meeting Monday the claims committee of the city council will act on the claims. If they are rejected, a suit will have to be filed to recover damages. J. Henry Bennet of Viroqua is attorney for all three claimants. Damages will also be asked of the Prairie du Chien-Marquette Bridge company, the Milwaukee railroad and the insurance company with whom Laverne Bakkum was insured.

~LaCrosse Tribune and Leader Press, October 3, 1941
~contributed by S. Ferrall

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