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Published in the Telegraph-Herald (Sunday, July 5, 2009) | Click HERE for a PDF version.                 


Keeping the Memories Alive:

90 years after a flash flood drowned 5, Union Park buffs propagate the lore of Dubuque's grand amusement center




For years, Cindy Nielsen's family never talked about the events of July 9, 1919. It wasn't until she was 25, more than 60 years after that fateful day, that her grandfather, Zeno Tranel, recalled his experience in the flood of Union Park -- which claimed four of his family member's lives.


The forecast on that warm July day nearly 90 years ago called for small thunderstorms in the afternoon, but Nielsen's family was prepared to endure the light showers to celebrate a family friend's birthday with a picnic lunch. The party included Nielsen's great-aunt, Bertha Wagner, and her three children Gertrude, 7, Blanche, 11, and Edmund, 3, her great-grandmother, Mary Tranel, grandfather, Zeno Tranel, and aunts, Margaret Tranel and Ann Breason.


Mary Tranel's two sisters and six nieces and nephews, including 4-year-old Herbert Ricke, met the group at the park.


When the party members arrived in their "Sunday best" at the trolley loop, they made their way through the valley, passed the Mammoth Theatre, and headed to the children's playground. There they settled on a picnic spot in a covered pavilion -- a structure that would later become known as the "death pavilion."


After lunch, the children went to play in what was arguably the most popular site of Union Park, the playground. Complete with a wading pool, swing sets and a merry-go-round, the children in Nielsen's family were kept occupied until they heard the sound of a thunder clap.


Bertha and Mary gathered the children to take shelter under the pavilion.


As the rain began to fall, Nielsen said Mary looked at Bertha and asked: "What do we do now?"


"Pray the rosary," was Bertha's response.


The glory days

In its heyday, Union Park was a place where tri-state-area residents gathered for cheap and simple family fun. Owned and operated by Union Electric Company, the park was nationally renowned for its diverse -- and cheap -- entertainment. Accessible only by trolley, the ride was 10 cents until the passenger reached 32nd Street and Central Avenue, and then an additional 5 cents to ride down into the valley.


Back when people weren't traveling much by automobiles, Union Park was the most popular place around Dubuque to spend some free time.


"It was really the only entertainment they had. It had everything," said Robert Reding, co-author of Encyclopedia Dubuque, a Web site devoted to Dubuque and its history. "If you weren't working, you were at Union Park."


The land was donated to the city by the Stewart family in 1891 with the idea to create a park devoted to family entertainment. The park went through multiple owners, but it wasn't until Union Electric Company took control in 1900 that the park really took off.


"When Union Electric took over ownership, that's when they developed it into a really fantastic park," said Flo Reding, who used to give tours of the park's remains in the late 1990s. "It was its heyday."


Union Electric Company provided enough funding to pave the dirt trails and build some of the unique features of the park, which was located in a valley known as Horseshoe Hollow. Amenities included a large wooden roller coaster, a bowling alley, a dance hall, the Mammoth Theatre, the Wonder Cave, a rustic band stand, an ice cream shop and plenty of space to picnic and hike.


While Union Park predates the Redings, the history of the park fascinates them, as it does Michael Boge, author of "Union Park: A Place of Memories," and Dubuque residents Steve and Sue Boelk.


For each, the beginning of their interest in the park differs, but it all stems back to one unifying thought: Union Park was a fantasy land in their hometown that tragically ended, to them, much too soon.


"People are going to look back and think 'This was such an awesome place,' but nature has taken its toll," said Sue Boelk, who gives tours of the park to schoolchildren.


'It washed everybody'

As the rains continued to fall in the early afternoon of July 9, the Nielsen family hoped to ride out the storm in the park's pavilion.


As the water rushed down the bluffs and through the valley, the pavilion was ripped off its foundation and sent downstream 50 feet toward the children's wading pool. It smashed into the foundation of the pool and sent the family into the muddy rainwater.


"It washed everybody, body and soul, picnic baskets and everything, right out of the pavilion," Nielsen's grandfather, Zeno Tranel, recalled in a 1993 TH story.


Zeno Tranel conducted a video interview about his experience for members of his family to see. Nielsen said her grandfather was amazed at "the force of the water," creating waves up to 20 feet high.


As the family members were swept into the wave, they struggled to keep hold of each other.


Eleven-year-old Blanche was ripped from the hold of her grandmother, Mary Tranel, and was swept away in the current. Four-year-old Herbert Ricke was pushed into the Mammoth Theatre and trapped under debris.


Nielsen's great-aunt Bertha and her son, Edmund, were washed under the theater seats, which Nielsen compared to those found at a baseball field. The Mammoth Theatre was built from one bluff of the valley to the other, which ultimately created a dam for the floodwaters.


Accounts heard by Robert and Flo Reding told of women and children climbing up the bluffs to find flat land. They also heard reports of women crawling onto tree limbs to escape the rising waters. Margaret Tranel climbed on-to a sign and stayed there until the rains stopped.


The storm dumped 3.87 inches of rain in less than two hours, according to Boge's research.


Many park-goers were saved, including Zeno Tranel, thanks to the help of park officials who were able to grab hold of those rushing past in the whirlpools. Robert Reding's uncle, Reinhardt Rusch, was one of the rescuers. Like Nielsen's grandfather, Rusch never spoke to Reding about the events of that day.


'7 Dead; City Mourns'

News of the floods traveled quickly. It was such a blow to the Dubuque community, Robert Reding said, news of President Woodrow Wilson's peace treaty was pushed to the corner of the front page.


The TH front page from July 10, 1919, shows six articles on the storm and the damage left in its aftermath. According to one article, the storm that hit was the worst in 40 years, leaving two others in the community dead. A 26-year-old woman, Mrs. George Kenniker, and her 7-year-old niece, Ruth Bernice Brose, drowned in the Bee Branch sewer when they were swept into a flooded ditch near their home at Lemon Street and Millville Road.


The funerals for the Wagner family and Herbert Ricke were announced in the edition. The body of the fifth flood victim, 5-year-old Sarah Sezer, was taken to Chicago for burial.


As the city mourned the losses, the streets of Dubuque were left in shambles. Mayor James Saul issued a proclamation that called on citizens to help with the cleanup.


"The loss to the city is tremendous and I confidently hope that the people will turn out in force tonight so we can take some definite step in straightening out conditions in some districts where streets are in such shape that it will require weeks to repair," Saul said.


The aftermath

The damage to Union Park was extensive. The TH reported huge portions of the sidewalks ripped from the ground, the Mammoth Theatre was almost ruined, pieces of the children's playground were found several hundred yards outside of the park and the wooden roller coaster was demolished.


The park reopened a week later. Although the visual aftermath of the flood was wiped clean, the memory of the deadly day remained, and many would not return.


"The flood kind of took the heyday out of the park," said Flo Reding. "It just wasn't as popular anymore."


Nielsen said her family never stepped foot in Union Park again. The memory of seeing four of their family members die was just too painful, she said.


"Everyone always thinks about the flood and that it closed after that," said Sue Boelk. "But the park was open 15 years longer."


Union Electric Company tried to rebuild the park to be even grander. The Mammoth Theatre was rebuilt parallel to the valley, so if flooding were to occur, water would rush around it, instead of pile on top of it.


A 50-foot-by-150-foot Olympic-sized swimming pool, said to hold 2,000 bathers, was built with the hopes of attracting more customers.


Ultimately, however, Union Park lost its flair, and it closed in 1934.


Sue Boelk attributes the opening of Eagle Point Park, the cost to keep something of such a grand size open and the rise in popularity of the automobile to the demise of Union Park.


Since people were driving cars, there was a newfound freedom that allowed people to drive to any destination they pleased.


Union Park was not on their list.


The legend lives on

Today the park is owned by the YMCA camp. The laughter of children still is heard in what remains of the children's playground. The Y camp has placed a merry-go-round in the middle of the ruins, where campers can be seen spinning on a more modern version of what stood there 90 years ago.


The park grounds have turned into what can be considered a large playground for Y campers. Counselors present the history of the park to campers before they are allowed to play on the grounds. Activities such as "capture the flag" are a regular occurrence, stretching across the grounds from the original trolley loop to the swimming pool.


Steve and Sue Boelk live on the top of the bluff, right above where the bowling alley stood. Sue is involved in a postcard club that meets to exchange postcards members have found on pieces of Dubuque history. Her husband refers to Sue as the "mayor of Union Park" because of her extensive knowledge.


Cindy Nielsen is gathering information in order to write a book about the floods from her grandfather's perspective. She said she hopes to have it completed by the 100th anniversary of the flood.


Flo and Robert Reding are collectors of antiques related to Dubuque history. They are aficionados of Union Park and believe, because of its popularity, the story should continue to be told.


"There was nothing like Union Park," Robert Reding said. "It was the greatest thing of its time."