When Buddy Shari and I tried to visit Wittenberg June 27, we encountered a sign that read “Road Closed.”
“Only one lane is closed,” I assured her as I dodged around the sign.
When we hit a sign that warned, “Road under water 500 feet,” I said, “We don’t have to worry for 499 feet.”
When we got to where the photo was taken, I said, “Looks like it’s only a couple of feet deep. We should be able to make it.”
“Let me out here,” she said.
“See, that’s the difference between you and my mother. Mother would say, ‘back up about a hundred feet and get a run at it.”
Muddy and dusty today
The road was passable today. I went down to Frog Town (once a Wittenberg suburb) where the old train depot was. The gravel road was a little wet in some spots and would kick up dust in others. There’s a general coating of dried mud over everything.
Broadway floodgate open
The river’s still high enough that the Themis floodgate is closed. The Broadway gate, which is on higher ground, was open July 13 and lots of people were taking advantage of it. What’s really nice is that folks become friendlier as soon as they step onto the riverfront. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with perfect strangers. Even the dog gave me a welcome slurp when I held out my hand.
I used to dislike the floodwall because it blocked the view of the river. I’ve grown to appreciate it because, on the other hand, it also blocks out the noise and bustle of the city, creating a quiet space where you can listen to the water going by or have a pleasant conversation.
I’m working on a big project on Wittenberg, a once thriving German community in Perry County that couldn’t stand up to the 1973 and 1993 floods. When I was there before this year’s flood, it was down to two buildings and three residents.
Here are photos I took of the Tower Rock Ferry shortly after it started operating in October of 1966. That’s my 1959 Buick LaSabre station wagon in the photo. (I point that out because there’s a group of folks who collect them and search out every picture they can find of them.)
Ferries have served since 1870s
Mary Beth Mueller Dillon’s book on Wittenberg says that The Wittenberg Ferry & Reality, a large ferry, operated between Grand Tower and Wittenberg, a “favorite crossing place for covered wagons.”
Ferry stories in The Missourian
Mar. 2, 1927 – The Wittenberg Ferry is now running again for the season. Your business is appreciated. Otto Lungwitz, Owner.
Mar. 17, 1932 – The Wittenberg ferry has not been in operation because of ice. Drivers of several cars have been disappointed. The ferry will start service again as soon as the ice is gone.
Mar. 23, 1932 – The Wittenberg ferry was busy Sunday, with no ice in the river. Ray Murry has bought a 1911 model Buick, said to the oldest car in good running condition in Perry County.
Mar. 31, 1932 – The Wittenberg ferry is busy transporting corn trucks, as large supplies are coming from Illinois to Missouri.
Inmans start Grand Tower Ferry
A newspaper story Oct. 7, 1966, said that dual ribbon cutting ceremonies in Missouri and Illinois will mark the start of ferry service between Wittenberg and Grand Tower, Ill. Mrs. Charles Inman, who with her husband, will officially christen the pusher boat, Miss June. The barge and push boat, which can haul six cars at a time, was built in St. Louis.
The Miss June will succeed Miss Bertha, which served from Oct. 1922, to May 1942, under the management of Otto L. “Nick” Lungwitz. The ferry was discontinued when it became too small to accommodate modern vehicles. The journey will take motorists under the 2,150-foot Texas-Illinois pipeline bridge, the longest such bridge in the world.
The Miss June was attached to the middle of the barge with a hinge. When the ferry reached the far shore, the push boat would pivot on the hinge to set up for the return trip.
“Floating section of a highway”
Someone described ferries as being a “floating section of a highway.”
This “floating highway” saved drivers a 70-mile round trip drive to Chester, Ill., or Cape to take a bridge across the Mississippi River. When the service started, fare for a car was $1.50, later raised to $2.50. A tractor trailer cost $3.50.
I don’t have the exact date when the ferry ceased running. The Dillon book said that the Inmans ran it from 1966 to 1976.
I’m not exactly sure what draws me back to Wittenberg on almost every trip to Cape. There’s not much to see. There are only two buildings and three people left in the town. David Holley is one of them. I knocked on his door to get permission to go into what was called the Wittenberg Bomb Shelter when I photographed it in 1966. I’ll have more photos and stories about the German community in the future.
The last train robbery
While he was catching me up on what he knew about Wittenberg, he told me that what some folks call the last train robbery in the state – if not the whole country – took place just up the tracks from his house. Watch the video to hear his version of the story in his own words.
Last of the Jesse James Gang
History’s a slippery thing. David has the general story straight, but some other accounts have the names and some minor details a little different. (He admits that he takes things he hears with a grain of salt.)
In October, 1922 the St. Louis – San Francisco train was robbed two miles north of Wittenberg. Over $100,000 was taken before the robbers were shot at the little bridge in Wittenberg. One of the Robbers turned out to be Jack Kennedy, also known as “Quail Hunter” Kennedy, the last of the Jesse James gang.
Jack Kennedy had become a member of the James gang at 17. Although frequently incarcerated over the years, he was never convicted of murder and always managed to win parole. He went weeks before the train robbery roaming the Frohna area, where he lived in the woods and plied a trade of knife and scissor sharpening. He knew that each fall money was sent from St. Louis banks to Memphis, Tennessee.
After determining the best location for a bank robbery would be between Seventy-Six and Wittenberg, he and his two accomplices board the train and put their plan into action. While on gunman held the passengers captive, another searched the mail bags and located the packages earmarked for a certain bank in Memphis. The train was then disconnected from the locomotive and a baggage car while Kennedy, with a young dark-haired accomplice, got on the locomotive and took off into the night.
Bad choice of accomplice
About 100 yards south of the Wittenberg bridge, the robbers, each carrying a mail bag, left the train after opening the engine throttle and sending the locomotive and baggage car onward. Unfortunately, Jack Kennedy made a judgment error in choosing his third accomplice. This accomplice, chosen by Jack Kennedy because he had a car – essential to the getaway plan, was to wait for Jack Kennedy and his on-board accomplice to complete the robbery. What Jack Kennedy didn’t know was the accomplice he had so carefully selected was a Federal Marshall.
On that October night, the conductor, engineer, and the firemen on the train were aware of the planned robbery. Expecting Kennedy to release the locomotive, they made sure the fire was burned down when the robbery occurred. Quickly running out of steam, the locomotive stopped just seven miles down the track. The bank robbers, thinking they had successfully gotten away with the robbery, were surprised after leaping from the train to hear voices shouting “Halt!” Jack Kennedy didn’t halt. Instead, he pulled his six-shooter out, and he and his young accomplice were shot dead. Their bodies were taken to Mr. P.J. Lueder’s studio, where they were propped up and photographed while onlookers gazed at the gory sight.
The young accomplice turned out to be Robert Ford, an Oklahoman who had idolized Jesse James and, in an effort to imitate him, couldn’t resist joining with Jack Kennedy when a chance meeting put them together.
It had an account of the robbery that said the young accomplice was Lawrence Logsdon of Memphis. When his parents came to claim his body, which had already been buried, they said he had never been away from home until three weeks prior to the shooting. He had a clean record before meeting up with Quail Hunter Kennedy.