Hell at Sea: A Davenport Connection to Maritime Tragedy

                Davenport, Iowa has a lot of iconic landmarks, both historic and otherwise. There are many in the downtown area, where the city has, for several years, been making a tremendous effort in beautifying the area. Largely, they have been successful. The area is now home to several upscale restaurants, businesses, art venues, and museums.

                Nestled among them is a beautiful stone fountain. It stands across the street from the Figge Art Museum, and a very short walk away from the Davenport Skybridge. Its official name is the Dillon Fountain, named after a prominent Davenport citizen from yesteryear by the name of John Forrest Dillon. Dillon had always loved Davenport, and when he died, he left around $21,000 to the city. Some of those funds were used to construct the fountain in his memory.

                Thousands of people pass by the fountain every year, some of them knowing the story and some of them not. But what many people don’t know is that Dillon constructed another monument in Davenport, one that was much more personal to him. To understand that story, you have to know the story of the man himself.

Frontier Lawyer to District Judge

John Dillon

                John Dillon was born in New York at the end of 1831. A few years later they decided to make the move to Davenport, Iowa in 1838. At that time, Davenport was still a small town, and Iowa was still very much on the frontier of the country. The atmosphere that young John grew up in was more akin to a pioneer town rather than the venerable city that Davenport would one day become.

                When he was in his late teens, John decided to study the practice of medicine. He started training under the watchful eye of E.S. Barrows, one of the earliest and most accomplished doctors in the region. John also began to attend medical school. By the time he was twenty-one, he had reached his goal of becoming a doctor. The only problem was is that John hated practicing medicine.

                So, he decided to shift careers from practicing medicine to practicing law. He began studying to become a lawyer, and by 1852, he had become a licensed practitioner of the law. From there, his star began to rise very quickly.

                First, John became the prosecuting attorney for Scott County, Iowa. By the late 1850’s, he was elected a Judge of the Seventh Judicial District of Iowa, which covered four counties in the eastern portion of the state. By 1863, he had been elected to the Iowa Supreme Court. John continued to rise through the ranks of his profession, being made the Circuit Judge for the Eighth Judicial Circuit of the United States, which put seven states under his watchful eye.

                Starting during his time as a district judge in Iowa, Dillon had begun writing books on the law. Eventually, royalties from these would make him a small fortune, especially a best-seller that he wrote in 1872. That same year, he also helped to establish a law journal they named the “Central Law Journal.” Dillon, to help get the journal off the ground, would fill it with a lot of material that he wrote.


                Eventually, he tired of being a federal judge. He retired to New York City, where he became the general consul for the Union Pacific Railroad Company and the Western Union Company.

                But as successful as he became, he was always faithful and proud of his family. He had married Anna Price, a daughter of prominent Davenport politician Hirum Price, in 1853. Together, they would have a son, and two daughters named Susie and Anna.

                John and his family, though they lived in New York City, still loved Davenport, and returned here several times over the years to visit friends and relatives. Anna also loved to visit Europe, and had taken three tours of the continent. But still she could not get enough of it. In 1898, Anna planned her fourth trip and persuaded her mother to come with her.

                They booked passage on French steamer ship named the La Burygogne. When the time came, they excitedly boarded the ship in New York City and set off for the cities of Europe.  It would be the last voyage that they would ever take.

An Ill Wind Blows


                On July 4, the LaBurgogne was travelling in the waters off of Nova Scotia, Canada in heavy, thick fog. At around 5 o’clock in the morning, while moving at a fast speed, the steamer collided with the Cromartyshire, a British ship. The LaBurgogne hit the iron vessel with enough force to tear off her bow. While it was not enough to sink the vessel, the crew of the Cromartyshire immediately went to work on clearing wreckage and repairing damage from the collision.

                The LaBurgogne, however, fared much, much worse. The Cromartyshire had torn a nearly ten foot gash in the starboard side of the steamer. Being such an early hour, most of the passengers were below decks at the time of the crash. Some continued sleeping. Others, awoken by the crash, rushed to the main deck.

                One woman, a Mrs. LaCasse, was roughly awakened by her panicked husband, who had been on the deck at the time of the collision. The woman, half-asleep, began to move toward the main deck, half pulled by Mr. LaCasse. He was already aware of what she was not – the ship was sinking fast. As quickly as they could, they raced to the main deck and straight into a scene directly from a nightmare.

Chaos on the High Seas

                Men, women, and children rushed to get into lifeboats. Several men rushed forward, brandishing knives, which they used to attack anyone who got in their way. Women and children alike were thrown aside as they desperately tried to get into the lifeboats. Some of the boats had been cut free by the second officer. His actions were some of the only noble ones of the day.

                A lifeboat filled to capacity by nearly forty women was never cut loose, and those on board went beneath the icy waves of the Atlantic with the LaBurgogne as it gave a last, hissing sigh and passed to the depths below. Almost all of the officers, including the captain and brave second officer, perished with her. While their struggle was over, it was far from done for those who were still struggling to survive on the surface.

Hell in the Deep Water

                In the water, people tried to survive any way they could. Some swam, while others clung to makeshift rafts. Some had managed to board lifeboats. There were many who tried to climb into the boats from the frigid water, desperate to survive. To their shock, the ruthless and callous people who were already in the boats threw them back into the water to die.

                One man survived by clinging onto the lifeline of one of the boats. As he held on for his very life, he was forced to watch as his mother, a short distance away, was pushed under the waves with oars by the lifeboat passengers as she tried to climb into their boat. This was far from an isolated incident.

               Men and women alike were assailed with oars and boathooks. Some were bludgeoned to death by iron bars or oars, while others were pushed under the water to drown.

               One man, Charles LIebra, had put his two sons on board a lifeboat before the ship sank.  Liebra himself went into the water with the LaBurgogne, and when he surfaced he could not find his sons. Desperately, he tried to climb into a passing lifeboat, only to be beaten black and blue by those on board. Back into the water he went, staying afloat any way possible for nearly eight hours before he was rescued.

               The Cromartyshire was still busy repairing the damage done to her by the collision. The fog had lifted a bit, and they were able to make out two lifeboats coming toward them. Discovering what had happened, the iron vessel quickly went to where the steamer had sank and began rescuing as many people as they could. To take on even more survivors, the British ship threw a large portion of their cargo into the sea.

                The LaBurgogne had sunk in a little over ten minutes. Out of approximately 725 souls on board the LaBurgogne, only about 163 survived. Mrs. Lacasse was the only woman survivor, rescued by her quick-thinking husband. Many of the atrocities witnessed that day, both on the ship and in the water, were committed by the crew of the LaBurgogne itself. The LaBurgogne would become the largest maritime disaster in history until the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

A Great Man Mourns

                 But back in New York, very little of this mattered to John Dillon. He just wanted to know about his wife and daughter. He wanted to hold them and know that they were safe. And so he waited. Soon enough, he discovered the awful truth, and knew that he had lost them forever. John was devastated. What was even worse is that their bodies were never recovered, claimed forever by the jealous Atlantic.

                John Dillon never forgot his beloved wife and daughter. He commissioned a forty foot tall granite obelisk to be carved, bearing their names. The monument was erected on the family plot in Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa.

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                John Dillon passed away in New York City in 1914. His body was shipped back by train to Davenport, his boyhood home, and interred with the rest of his family, just behind the granite monument. John made sure that their memory and the disaster that claimed their lives would be forever etched in stone. And even though he could not be buried near their earthly remains, he made sure that his memory and theirs would be close to each other for the rest of time.


Downer, Harry E. A History of Davenport and Scott County, Iowa. Volume II. Chicago; S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1910.

Asheville Citizen-Times. 7/6/1898

The Morning Astorian. 7/7/1898

The Observer. 9/25/1898

New York Times. 9/7/1898

Davenport Daily Times. 7/7/1898

Davenport Democrat and Leader. 7/6/1898

Davenport Democrat and Leader. 7/7/1898

Davenport Democrat and Leader. 9/3/1898

Davenport Democrat and Leader. 7/3/1914




Cautionary Tales of the Midwest’s Roadways

               Writing is my passion. I enjoy sharing the stories that I collect along my way with whoever cares to listen, and more than a few that don’t sometimes!

                However, like many people out there, I work a day job. Like musicians and writers before, I haven’t yet broken into that mystical land where I can make a living through my chosen craft. And so, the daily grind continues.

                One of the perks of my job is that I have a commute. This allows me to get out and see some of the region in which I live, and to appreciate what’s out there in the wider world. But the drive has also given me a greater awareness of the need for safety on the roadways. When you’re going down the highway at seventy miles an hour, you have to have your head in the game!

                A normal day behind the wheel can quickly turn into your last.

                So, for those of you who have to drive to work, I would like to share with you two cautionary tales about the importance of driving safety.

Routine Maneuver Turns Deadly

                In 1957, a father of five by the name of Charles Nicely made a living distributing gasoline. In other words, he drove a fuel truck.

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                That May, Charles was driving his fuel truck on U.S. 30 just east of the town of Wheatland. As he went on his way, he decided to pass a 1954 Chevy sedan. As Charles did so, he accidentally made contact with the smaller vehicle, causing his truck to lose control.

                Before he knew it, Charles’ truck was first tipping over, and then rolling down the highway. As it did so, the fuel truck somehow ignited, causing the vehicle to explode. Charles, still conscious inside the truck cab, quickly realized he was trapped inside the now burning fuel truck.

                When police arrived on scene, they heard Charles’ awful screams.

                “Shoot me! Shoot me!”

                The police tried in vain to rescue the poor man, but the flames were so hot that they couldn’t get close enough the cab to be of any use. With anguish in their hearts, the brave men who wanted nothing more than to save the driver instead had to stand there in the middle of the road, listening to the dying screams of Charles Nicely.

                What had started as a routine driving maneuver had, without warning, become the last move for a man who was just doing his job.

Car vs. Train

                Winter in the Midwest is harsh. Bitterly cold temperatures, gusting winds, and slick, icy roads force drivers to be extra cautious during the winter months.

                On the evening of January 12, 1926, Singleton Gardiner, superintendent of the Prudential Insurance Company in Davenport, was returning from a business trip. His wife, Eva, and the assistant superintendent of Prudential Insurance, Charles Frey, rode with him, as well as his maid, Sophia Inkman. A few years prior, Eva had suffered a nervous breakdown, rendering an invalid. This may explain why Inkman was with them.


               The roads were snowy, and the inside of the car windows had frosted over. As they approached the Poppy Gardens train crossing east of Rock Island, Illinois, Gardiner suddenly lost control of the vehicle. The car began to slide as a passenger train from Burlington, Iowa, began to make its way through the crossing.

                The scene inside the car must have been terrifying. Gardiner trying desperately to stop, all the while his passengers began to panic, their terrified eyes fixed on the train.  

                 The train engineer, O.C. Gordon, saw the car and pulled the whistle to warn them, holding it down with as much strength as he could muster as they started through the intersection. But Gardiner couldn’t stop, and the hapless driver and his passengers were propelled directly into the side of the speeding locomotive. The sedan impacted with a crash, becoming temporarily entangled with the train. The powerful locomotive didn’t bat a proverbial eye at the extra weight and began to drag the car along the tracks with it.



                Without warning, the car broke free and was tossed airborne. Train passengers and crew watched helplessly as the car’s gas tank exploded in midair. The twisted, burning machine landed nearly 30 feet away. Gordon immediately pulled the brake, and the train came screeching to a stop just a short distance down the track. Men ran from the train back toward the wreck.

                It was a gruesome sight that awaited them. Singleton Gardiner himself had died instantly, succumbing to the fire. His wife was in shock, suffering from severe burns to her hands. Inkman and Frey were much worse off. The side of Inkman’s face was crushed and her left eye was missing. Frey was badly burned over most of his body and he had deep wounds on his scalp. As their rescuers approached, one of the injured cried out for help.

                Acting quickly, members of the train crew loaded Frey, Inkman, and Eva Gardiner into the baggage car of the train. As the train started back into the city, the porters went through the cars asking for doctors. Unfortunately for them, there weren’t any. The closest that they could find was Dr. J.A. Krichel, a veterinarian who tended to the wounded as best as he could.

Not Out of the Woods Yet

              Meanwhile, other crew personnel ran to a nearby farm where they called the police station in Moline. The police were told what had happened, and ambulances were sent for. They were waiting for Frey and the others when the train arrived, and the injured people were quickly loaded and taken directly to the city hospital.

               On the way, the speeding ambulance carrying the severely injured Charles Frey was struck by another car near Fifth Avenue and Sixteenth Street. Little the worse for wear, the ambulance continued on its way.

                At the hospital, Frey described the incident, including being caught in the explosion. He related that they had seen the train coming, but Gardiner hadn’t been able to stop the car. While his fellow passengers Inkman and Mrs. Gardiner survived the traumatic incident, Frey himself would pass away a short time later.

                If you’ve lived in the Midwest for any length of time, then you will probably have driven through ice and snow at one time or another. And if you drive, you’ve almost certainly passed another car at some point. Both are fairly routine situations that thousands of motorists experience across the nation.

                But next time you’re behind the wheel, pause for a moment and think of Charles Nicely and Singleton Gardiner. They were just taking fairly routine drives, too. They had every confidence in their abilities and their driving prowess, just like many of you. And before they knew what was happening, their lives came to a sudden and tragic end.

                So take your time. Enjoy the drive. Pay attention to the road conditions and to what the other drivers are doing. Make sure that this drive isn’t your last.


Charles Nicely Crash Victim.” The DeWitt Observer, May 9, 1957.

Daily Times, Tuesday, January 12, 1926.

The Davenport Democrat and Leader. Tuesday, January 12, 1926.

Brassard Sr., John  and Brassard Jr., John.  Scott County Cemeteries” Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, 2011.

Central Community Historical Museum. DeWitt, Iowa.





Murder in a Small Town

              The town of Malone was originally a train depot founded in the mid-1860’s. It soon developed a general store, stockyards, and a post office. Like many rural areas, it was quiet and peaceful. Who would have thought that an event would take place there would forever mar that peaceful landscape?

                Edward Crampton was born in nearby Elvira, Iowa, in 1893, one of seven children. In 1911, he married Lillian Henry. They had two children. Unfortunately, Lillian would pass away a few years later.

                 Crampton remarried, this time to Dona Thomas, and had two more children. He worked at the Clinton Corn Syrup Refining Company in Clinton, Iowa, where he was known for being a hard worker.  

                But Edward Crampton was not necessarily good to his wife. He did not treat her well, and it can be assumed that he at least physically abused her for a lengthy period. He didn’t care for his brother-in-law, Robert Vale, either. In 1928, the two had an argument that ended with Crampton striking Vale, leaving a large gash on Vale’s face.

                 After a brutal beating in 1929, Dona finally had enough of Crampton’s abuse and fled to her sister Susie’s home. Dona mustered her courage and filed a petition for divorce from Crampton.

                Crampton himself became surly and unfriendly with everyone around the small community, with the exception of Thomas Mulholland, an older man who ran the local general store. By many accounts, Mulholland was Crampton’s only friend there.

                On the morning of August 7, 1929, Crampton drove to his brother’s house in Low Moor to borrow a shotgun. Edward said that he was going to shoot a dog. He then went and purchased several shotgun shells and drove back to Malone.

                He went home, readied himself, and walked out into the street with his gun. Dona, who had been doing housework, saw her husband and ran out of her in-laws home, pleading with him to put the shotgun down and stop what he was doing. Crampton ignored her and kept walking toward the general store.

                As he approached, Robert Vale came out of the front door of the building. Crampton quickly put the shotgun to his shoulder and fired. The shot missed, so he quickly racked another round into the chamber and fired again. This time, the buckshot found its mark and Vale dropped to the ground.

                Looking over, Crampton saw his friend, Thomas Mullholland, sitting just inside the screen door. Racking the pump-action shotgun again, he took aim and fired again, hitting the old man square in the face. Even with such a grievous wound, Mullholland rose slowly to his feet. Crampton coldly fired once more, ending his life. No one knew why he killed his only friend.

                Through the entire event, Crampton never said a word, carrying out his foul deeds coldly and seemingly without hesitation or remorse. Silently, he walked back to his home. Once inside, he put the shotgun on a table, pointing it at himself. With the help of a stick, Crampton pulled trigger one last time, ending his life. He was only thirty-six years old.

                Vale was only wounded and was rushed to a Clinton hospital, where doctors thought that he would survive his wounds. But things took a turn for the worse, and his condition quickly deteriorated. Vale succumbed a few days later.

                Malone is still there, just off U.S. 30, marked by a yawning hippo. But even though it may have reduced in size, the events of that August in 1929 still stain the memory of the quiet town.



Why Bad Events Can Lead to Good Things

. Hello, all.

            I wanted to write something really cool about the end of the year. Something all meaningful that will make you look back on 2016 and say, “Wow! I feel really good about life. I’m going to go out and wave the preservationist banner and save some stuff!” Unfortunately for me, 2016 kinda sucked.

            I mean come on! How many celebrities did we lose? 15? 56? 946? Famous people were dropping like flies in a bug zapper. So many famous personalities died that I actually forgot a few. For example, I was looking at some advertisement recently that was talking about the people we lost in 2016. Prince was on the cover, and I realized that I had totally forgotten that he died! How could I forget about the Purple One?

            But just when I was about to break out some old albums, grab a box of tissues, and cry my heart out listening to “Raspberry Beret,” something happened. I realized that out of tragedy, triumph had emerged, because sometimes remembering bad times helps us to appreciate our history that much more. Let me give you an example.

            At the time of this writing, Ms. Debbie Reynolds, an actress who had a wonderful and long-lived career, just passed away at the age of 84. Out of her many roles, perhaps my favorite was her part in the musical “Singing in the Rain” opposite Gene Kelly.

            Now Gene Kelly is one of the greatest tap dancers that the United States has ever produced. An amazingly talented dancer, he was also a perfectionist. When she was cast in the film, Reynolds had no tap dancing experience. When Kelly was told, he said that he could teach everything she needed to know.

            Almost daily, Kelly would reduce the young Debbie Reynolds to tears as he demanded she practice her routines continuously, even to the point where her feet bled. As a matter of fact, she had to wear flesh-colored bandages under her stockings during the “Good Morning” number.

            But, Reynolds persevered. She made the film, learned some incredibly complicated dance routines, and was able to keep up with her professional dancing co-stars. And make it look good, which was not easy. Although she never worked with Gene Kelly again, Reynolds would give him rich praise later in her life, giving him credit with teaching her things that enabled her to have a career that lasted over fifty years.

            Now all of that’s over. Her life and talent are gone. But the stories remain. People asked her about these things over the course of her career, and she wrote about them in her biography. So, even though we don’t have her anymore, Reynolds has gifted us with wonderful stories that touch on her personal history, those of her co-stars, and film history itself.

            But we have to keep in mind, Debbie Reynolds was a film star, and people wanted to know all about her. So where does that leave Joe Average, the normal working stiffs that we pass in the supermarket every day? That leaves them with you.

            You see, we have to take up the slack for all of the average people and places out there in the world. We have to write down the stories that our grandparents and uncles and whoever told us when we were growing up. We have to step up and champion the preservation of historical places and buildings in our respective regions, because if you don’t, no one else may ever tell that story.

            So as we enter a new (and hopefully more celebrity-friendly) year, make that resolution to learn your family’s story. Reach out and learn about that cool old building down on Main Street. Donate a little money to your favorite preservation effort. Let’s go forward boldly into these coming months and forge a new future for our past.

            Have a happy and safe new year, kids. Catch you on the flip side.