Trail of Tears Quarry Rescue


Early the morning of November 15, 1965, I got a call from The Missourian to saddle up my pony and head to the quarry at Trail of Tears State Park to cover a rescue. It must have been too chilly or too early for them to roust Frony out of bed.

I know I saw the negatives from that morning somewhere recently, but I must have misplaced them. I’ll make do with a copy of the front page of that day’s Missourian. Someone other than me drew in the X and apparently “enhanced” the tops of the bluffs. Or, it might just be that the microfilm reproduction makes it look that way.

The Associated Press picked up the photo, probably because of the St. Louis connection. I think it might have been my first Wirephoto. I was excited about it in those days. I was less excited 20 years later when they were still paying a lousy five bucks per photo.

Student spent night trapped on bluff.

You can read the whole story in The Missourian,but you have to work for it. The Google index is messed up, so that link takes you to the November 12 edition. You’ll have to keep scrolling to the right until you get to the front page of the Monday paper. While you’re scrolling, you might want to pause to read the Nov. 13 account of the fire and sinking of the cruise ship Yarmouth Castle. Gordon Lightfoot immortalized it in Ballad of Yarmouth Castle on his Sunday Concert album, arguably his second most famous song after The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Here’s the short version: William A. Erfurth, 22, a SEMO junior from a St. Louis suburb was trying to scale a 300-foot bluff north of Trail of Tears State park on Sunday when his footing gave way. He managed to scramble to a rock about 60 feet from the top of the bluff where he was stuck for about 13-1/2 hours until he was rescued the next morning.

A buddy, Don Powers, 25, of Webster Groves, who didn’t make the climb, built a fire and kept talking to Erfurth though the night. It took longer to get help than it might have because Erfuth’s keys were lost in a comedy of errors. Erfurth had the keys with him up on the bluff. He threw a small rock down so that Powers would have an idea of where to look for the keys. He then wrapped the keys in a handkerchief and threw them down. “They haven’t been found yet,” Erfurth commented. That meant that Powers had to walk out for help.

Rescuers came from Mississippi County

A Mississippi County Rescue Squad eventually made it to a point where they could drop ropes to the stranded youth. The climbers included Joe Lankheit (or Lankhett), Mike Bryant, Dewey Bickford and Ralph Carr. Chief Sam Story said the ascent was made at “considerable hazard” to the four men.

Besides the Sheriff’s Patrol and the Mississippi County unit, members of the Highway Patrol and the Cape Girardeau Auxiliary Police were on scene during the night. Robert Eckelmann, auxiliary chief, said he and Frank Maevers tried to reach the top of the bluff by jeep, but the terrain was too rough. Erfurth was unharmed.

The cliff is located about 1-3/4 north of the end of the Moccasin Springs Road. Most of the rescuers rode to the scene by handcars of the Frisco Railroad. (I don’t remember if I got a ride on a handcar or if I had to hoof it.)

Quarry looks pretty from the air

I asked pilot Ernie Chiles to fly close to Trail of Tears on our way up to Perry County in April to see if I could spot the quarry. It was much bigger than I had imagined. That early morning in 1965 was the first (and last) time I had been there. I’m going to hazard a guess that some of you have been much closer to it than I’ve been.

Fall Day at Houck Stadium

We’ll get the facts out of the way first, then we’ll get on with the story. I don’t know what sporting event was going on at Houck Stadium Saturday afternoon, but you couldn’t have asked for a nicer day to hold it.

Houck Field House, Academic Hall, Kent Library and the high-rise dorms all show up prominently. Parking has replaced some of the homes and businesses along Broadway in front of the Field House. (Click on the photo to make it larger. It has some cool detail.)

I’ll run a photo at the bottom of the page that was shot sometime around 1966 for comparison.

Ernie Chiles was my pilot

I flew my first aerials with Ernie Chiles while I was still in high school, and I’ve written about how one of those flights launched me into photojournalism.

We flew out of the Painton Airport

I asked Ernie if he knew where I could charter a plane to shoot some aerial photos on this trip home. He offered to fly me himself for old times sake. (By the way, we’ve come to an agreement: we refer to each other as “former student” and “former teacher.” Neither of us likes the way “old teacher” and old student” sounds.)

He keeps his plane at the Painton Airport.

If you have to ask where it is, you wouldn’t know where it was if I told you. Its a grass strip, with a short length of paved runway needed to get a crop duster airborne when he’s fully loaded.

It’s flying the way it used to be: park next to your plane, no TSA and no full body scanners. That’s not to say there’s NO security. There were half a dozen guys hanging around who knew who belonged and who didn’t.

Ernie’s seeing eye dog had the cutest parachute

Since he’s advancing in age, I tried as delicately as possible to see if Ernie was up to the task. He said that he’s finally mastered takeoffs; landings are handled by the Law of  Gravity, which hasn’t failed to bring every flight of his to the ground.

He DID suggest that I bring an extra milk bone or two for his seeing eye dog. It sits right behind him in the cockpit and presses down on the appropriate shoulder to indicate a left or right turn. It has the cutest little parachute.

I thought for a second that we had attracted a wingman just before touchdown. Turned out it was just our shadow.

Jet on strafing run

While Ernie was refueling and putting his airplane to bed, I looked up to see a jet making a low-altitude strafing run at a long freight train loaded with Canadian crude oil. It took a moment to realize that it was a radio-controlled model operated by one of Ernie’s buddies. Things are not always as they appear at the Painton Airport.

I really DID shoot some serious photos, but it’s going to take some time to wade through the 563 frames to pull out the best ones. I’ll scatter them out to keep you from overdosing on aerial photos.

Houck Stadium circa 1966

As promised, here’s what the Houck Stadium area looked like around 1966.

I asked Ernie if he knew where I could charter a plane to shoot some aerial photos on this trip home. He offered to fly me himself for old times sake. (By the way, we’ve come to an agreement: we refer to each other as “former student” and “former teacher.” Neither of us likes the way “old teacher” and old student” sounds.)

Ernie Chiles and the Rock of the Month Club

Cape Girardeau Central High School teacher Ernie Chiles with his ham radio equipment Oct. 1963

Ernie Chiles was a student teacher in my freshman biology class. He was a quiet guy who didn’t make much of an impression at the time.

Next year, though, he had been hired to teach Earth Science, which was generally considered a Mickey Mouse class that anybody could pass.

By the luck of the draw, Jim Stone, George Cauble and I ended up in his class and achieved some kind of critical mass. We started an informal competition with Ernie. Our goal was to ace every one of his tests and his was to create tests that nobody could ace.

THAT played havoc with the grading curve

Ernie Chiles - Ken Steinhoff - Jim Stone Oct 1963The three of us would meet at my house the night before the tests and we’d practically memorize the text book and class notes. Ernie, for his part, would dig into obscure points to try to trip us up. If we missed a question, we’d do even more research to prove that we were right. At the 20th Reunion, I was still disputing a question that Ernie had marked wrong.

Ernie was a pilot and a ham

Ernie, who wasn’t more than a handful of years older than us, was a ham radio operator and a pilot. Before long we were hanging out at his house, going flying and doing stuff that teachers today would be afraid to do with their students.

He was Mr. Chiles in class and around other students, but he was “Ernie” when we were together. He was the first teacher I knew who had a first name and the first one I connected with as as a person, not just someone who taught a class.

I became a newspaperman because of him

First Missourian picture 04-18-63One of our flying expeditions turned out to be a life-changer for me. You can read about how I became a newspaper photographer because of it.

Pam T can comment on one of her flights with Ernie after this is published. He laughs about it today, saying, “I can just see the headline you would have written if the icing on the wings had gotten any worse, “Teacher, Students Die in Crash.”

I corrected him. I’d have written “CHS Teacher Kills Students.”

Ernie Taught me how to drive

Of course,  I crashed in the first 150 yards. Here’s the whole, sad, story.

Rock of the Month Club

When Jim Stone and I came back for the 20th Reunion, we stopped by to see Ernie. After all the business of catching up was over, Ernie looked at us and said, “OK, guys the statute of limitations has surely run out by now. Fess up.”

Jim and I looked at each other and asked, “Fess up to what?”

“Come on, you guys. I figured someone would leak it by now, but you’ve done a good job of keeping a secret. Just confess it was you who did it.”

Not a clue

“We don’t have a clue what you’re talking about,” I said.

Bulldozer in Mexico MO 1942“One night I woke up to hear a loud noise outside my house. The next morning, there was this huge boulder in my front yard with a sign, ‘Welcome to the Rock of the Month Club.’ I knew Ken’s dad was in the construction business and he’d have access to heavy equipment, so you two HAD to have been involved.”

I looked at Jim. He looked at me. “We’d be proud to admit to it, but this is the first we’ve ever heard of the story. We’re innocent.”

Somewhere there’s a Central High School student who is great at keeping a secret.

Anybody want to step up?

Ernie’s getting up in age and I’m sure he’d love to know the whole story before he “goes West,” as pilots call it.

Tomorrow we’ll show you what Ernie looks like today. He and I took a bike ride around Horseshoe Lake on Tuesday.

I drove.

He tightened his seat belt.

He remembers that first driving lesson.

UPDATE: Ernie and I still fly together.