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Tragedy at New Madrid

Tragedy at New Madrid, Missouri

The following men, most or all of whom were WPA workers, died on January 30, 1937.

(hometowns appear in parenthesis)

Clyde Scott (Wardell)                                                      Charles Woodfin (Advance)

Jeff Baker (Catron)                                                          Loman Lafe (Advance)

Frank Dunlap (Matthews)                                                Bob Matthews (Wardell)

William Dawson (New Madrid)                                       W.S. Tyler (Wardell)

M.L. Masters (Kennett)                                                    Don Pruitt (Bloomfield)

Frank Dean (Catron)                                                       Harry Sanders (Bloomfield)

Charles Williams (Wardell)                                             Frank Lambert (Catron)

C.J. Barker (Wardell)                                                      Albert Neal (Bloomfield)

Earl Ballard (Wardell)                                                      William Smith (Wardell)

Luther Swinford (Bell City)                                              Buck Smith (Ardeola)

Orville Hindman (Bell City)                                              James Ruffin (Portageville)

Steve Gibbs (Ardeola)                                                     J.E. Wilson (Puxico)

Jake Schlossen (Bell City)                                              Robert McFadden (Wardell)

    

     In January 1937, New Madrid, Missouri faced the rising waters of the Mississippi River.  Levee walls were threatened and the WPA and CCC were called in to help protect life and property from a potentially disastrous flood.  On the night of Saturday, January 30th--after adding sand bags to the top of a levee--WPA workers, and perhaps some non-WPA workers too, boarded a barge to go home.  For some reason (human error and/or the elements) the barge partially sank and sent over one hundred men into the cold waters of the Mississippi.  At least 26 died and, as of February 12, 1937, four more were unaccounted for (William Faulkes, Crawford Shannon, Eugene Tyler, and James Tyler).  From what I understand, no memorial to these men exists.  I list their names above, in the hope that they will be remembered and someday given at least a small memorial for their sacrifice.

     On February 5th, 1937, it was reported that "With the river at a probable predicted crest of 48 feet at New Madrid and all levees protecting the city holding well, citizens are becoming much more hopeful that New Madrid will not be flooded...All agencies connected with the situation at New Madrid, government engineers, WPA, CCC, Red Cross, and local agencies, should be highly commended on the work that was done at New Madrid."  (See "Flood Danger in New Madrid..." in source list below)

     On February 12, 1937, a coroner's inquest was held to determine the cause of the accident.  It was concluded that one of the deceased was "contributarily negligent, excusable under the circumstances, in crowding upon the barge when he should have known it was being overloaded and after someone on the boat had warned of overloading."  The inquest dealt with one individual and was called a "test case."  Further, the "verdict would hold on each of the other victims in the disaster."  From this, the jury "blamed no one, although it stated that both the government officials and the workers themselves had been at some fault."  (See "Inquest Into Barge..." in source list below)

     Though one would have to examine the transcripts of the inquest to make a thorough analysis, the verdict seems unfair.  First, even if some of the workers did not heed warnings of the barge being overloaded, it does not mean that all on board were aware of the danger.  And there was testimony that workers were not informed as to how many people could get on the barge.  A second problem with the verdict was the jury's seeming disregard of the fact the barge had earlier struck a tree.  Might this collision have compromised the structural integrity of the barge?  Finally, to make a test case of one individual, and apply the findings to all the others, indicates an unwillingness to perform a thorough investigation.  A blanket finding--especially when the subjects are not alive to defend themselves--is not in harmony with the concepts of fairness and due process that underlie American legal philosophy.

     In any event, this story begs for more investigation, and would make an excellent subject for a historical documentary or book.  And, in my opinion, even if the workers were partly responsible for their deaths, it does not take away from the fact that they were putting themselves in harm's way by working on the New Madrid levee while icy, rising waters were threatening to burst through and flood the area.  One mistake or accident in such conditions could (and did) send people to their deaths.  Who amongst us would have perfect judgment in such circumstances?        

Sources:

Email correspondence with the National Archives, 2011.

Nick Taylor, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR Put The Nation To Work, New York: Bantam Books, 2008 (paperback edition), p. 326.   

"Flood Danger In New Madrid Area Now Considered Over," The Weekly Record, February 5, 1937. 

"23 Bodies Recovered In Spillway Accident," The Weekly Record, February 5, 1937.

"Inquest Into Barge Accident Held Mon.," The Weekly Record, February 12, 1937.

"Three More Bodies Recovered From Spillway," The Weekly Record, February 12, 1937.

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