I’ve returned from Minnesota with a pile of scans and documents that’ll take me months to pore through. Before I get started with that, I want to satisfy a request my uncle made a couple of months ago—to learn more about the death of his father’s mother. Dan, this one’s for you.
The drowning death of my great-grandmother, Rosa “Rose” Cecilia (Gores) Prettyman, in 1945 on the St. Croix River is an event that has been shrouded in mystery in my family for decades. In the absence of specifics, stories have arisen. As with other family stories obscured by time and the lack of retelling of first-hand accounts (see these earlier posts), imagined details have evolved to fill the vacuum of understanding. I have heard at least three versions of the story of Rose’s death:
- Rose was at the railing of a boat that her husband, Charles Austin (“C.A.”) Prettyman was piloting. He was at the helm and tried to change the speed and/or direction of the vessel. The gears stripped at that very moment, which resulted in his wife falling overboard. She was caught in a whirlpool and could not save herself. C.A. did not dive in to save her, but an Olympic swimmer who happened to be on board jumped into the river to try to save Rose. She failed to save Rose and ended up drowning as well.
- Rose and C.A. had a friend who had a fancy restaurant close to the St. Croix River in St. Paul. This friend also had a fancy boat, and he and Rose and some friends decided to go out on an afternoon cruise. In this version of the story, C.A. Prettyman was not on board the boat. Everyone on board was drunk. Rosa didn’t know how to swim very well. Something hit the front end of the boat, causing the boat to tip over. Rosa and two others fell in the water and drowned, because there no one on board was a good enough swimmer to save them.
- Rose and C.A. were having difficulty in their marriage, and C.A. wanted out of the marriage. Being Catholic, this was not an option. C.A. managed to talk Rose into going out on a cruise with him, but Rose wasn’t interested. He finally managed to convince her to go out on the boat with him. While they were out on the river alone, she slipped on the railing and fell in the water and was caught in a whirlpool. C.A. did not jump in to save her, probably because he was afraid of drowning himself. Rose drowned alone in the river.
While in Minnesota this past week on my family history research trip, I finally found a few contemporary accounts of Rose’s death that provide a measure of clarity to the the tragic circumstances of that day 67 years ago. What follows are the verbatim transcriptions of the three accounts I’ve found so far.
Wadena Pioneer Journal, September 6, 1945
MRS. C. A. PRETTYMAN AND G. R. LEE DROWN IN ST. CROIX
A holiday boating party on the St. Croix ended tragically and resulted in the drowning of Mrs. C. A. Prettyman, 95 N. Cretin avenue, St. Paul, and Gary R. Lee, operatory of Lee’s Broiler, St. Paul, and White Pine Inn at Bayport, Wis., both former well known and respected residents of Wadena county. Mrs. T. C. Chaney, a member of the party, was the third victim in the drowning while a group of friends were guests of Mr. and Mrs. Lee on their cabin cruiser.
Reports of the shocking accident as carried by the daily papers state that the party was cruising on Mr. Lee’s boat Monday night and as Mrs. Prettyman was on her way to the sun deck of the boat, the handrail broke as she grasped it, causing her to lose her balance and fall from the boat into the swift current of the river. People on board attempted to reach Mrs. Prettyman from the boat, but were balked by choppy water. Mr. Lee jumped into the river to go to her assistance and owing to the rough water he too encountered trouble and was unable to help rescue Mrs. Prettyman. Then Mrs. Chaney, an expert swimmer, leaped into the river to attempt a rescue, despite Lee’s warnings to the others not to attempt to rescue them. Persons remaining on the boat threw a rope to the trio, but in the excitement had not fastened the other end of the rope to the boat. Then an attempt was made to back the cabin cruiser up to the three struggling in the water, but being unfamiliar with the engine, stripped the gears and the boat drifted down stream with the persons on board powerless to aid the victims who sank in some 70 feet of water.
Also on the cabin cruiser at the time were the husbands of Mrs. Chaney and Mrs. Prettyman, Mrs. Lee and Mr. and Mrs. William Sullivan, 89 N. Cretin avenue, St. Paul. The tragedy occurred shortly after the group had begun a cruise Monday evening.
The bodies were recovered Tuesday forenoon after Father Thomas Coleman, pastor of St. Francis of Assissi Church at St. Croix Beach, located them from his plane. They were in nearly 70 feet of water and the St. Croix at that spot is nearly two miles wide, forming what is commonly known as St. Croix Lake, but is a part of the river.
WELL KNOWN HERE
Mrs. C. A. Prettyman, one of the victims, was the former Miss Rose Gores, daughter of the late Judge and Mrs. F. E. Gores, pioneer Wadena residents, and she was born and grew to womanhood in Wadena, living here until the family moved to St. Paul a few years ago to reside. She is survived by her husband, three sons, Bill, Bob, and Dick in the armed service of their country, and one daughter, Joan. Mrs. Prettyman was one of Wadena’s most respected and popular residents as she was a woman of cheerful and friendly disposition and made and held friends by her loyalty to them.
Mr. Lee was equally as well known in Wadena county as he was cashier of the First National Bank of Menahga for a number of years before moving to St. Paul some years ago and took a leading part in the advancement of Menahga and northern Wadena county. Mr. Lee was always ready to render his aid and valuable leadership and the distressing accident which claimed two of Wadena county’s former residents was learned with profound sorrow and expressions of heartfelt regret by their friends.
MRS. PRETTYMAN FUNERAL SATURDAY
Funeral services for Mrs. Prettyman will be held at St. Mark’s Catholic church in St. Paul Saturday morning at 9:00 o’clock. Until then the body will be at the Willwerscherd Mortuary at 1167 Grand Avenue. Interment of both Mrs. Prettyman and Mr. Lee will be in St. Paul.
Chicago Daily Tribune, September 5, 1945
3 DROWNED IN MINNESOTA AS BOAT RAILING GIVES WAY
Stillwater, Minn., Sept. 4 (AP)— Three persons, two of them women, drowned in the St. Croix river near here last night when the handrail of a boat on which they were cruising gave way. Victims were Gary Lee and Mrs. C. A. Prettyman, 54, of St. Paul, and Mrs. T. C. Cheney, 60, of Green Bay, Wis. Mrs. Prettyman fell into the river when the handrail broke. The others died trying to save her.
The Milwaukee Journal, September 4, 1945
GREEN BAY WOMAN, TWO OTHERS DROWN IN ST. CROIX MISHAP
Stillwater, Minn.–(U.P.)—The bodies of three persons were recovered Tuesday from the St. Croix river where they drowned Monday night after one fell from a cabin cruiser and the two others attempted a rescue. One of the victims was of Green Bay, Wis.
Those drowned were Gerald R. Lee, 54, and Mrs. C. A. Prettyman, 53, of St. Paul, and Mrs. T. C. Chaney, 56, Green Bay.
The drowning occurred after Mrs. Prettyman fell into the water as a handrail gave way. Lee, who owned the craft, went to her rescue and those aboard the boat threw a rope. Lee apparently was unable to reach Mrs. Prettyman, and Mrs. Chaney, a good swimmer, jumped into the river also. She reached Mrs. Prettyman, but those aboard lost control of the craft, which only Lee knew how to operate.
The cruiser, caught in the current, drifted away from the three in the water and later was taken in tow by another craft. Among the five left aboard was the husband of Mrs. Chaney.
As might have been predicted, there were grains of truth in all versions of the family stories of the event, but those stories, like the cabin cruiser in the newspapers’ versions of the story, have drifted slowly away from the reality of the tragic events.